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Will bitcoin end the dollar’s reign?

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The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘Ten Rules of Successful Nations’

When the pandemic hit, the US dollar was as mighty as ever. Despite talk of faltering American supremacy, the dollar ruled as the medium of international trade, the anchor against which other nations value their currencies, and the “reserve currency” most central banks hold as savings.

Before the US, only five powers had enjoyed the coveted “reserve currency” status, going back to the mid-1400s: Portugal, then Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain. Those reigns lasted 94 years on average. At the start of 2020, the dollar’s run had endured 100 years. That would have been reason to question how much longer it could continue, but for one caveat: the lack of a successor. 

There are contenders. Europe had hopes for the euro, introduced in 1999. But the currency has failed to gain the world’s trust, owing to doubts about the effectiveness of the eurozone’s multi-state government. China’s aspirations for the renminbi have been stymied for the opposite reason: concern about the arbitrariness of a one-party state.

US officials were thus confident that, in response to the Covid-19 lockdowns, they could print the dollar in limitless quantities without undermining its reserve currency status, allowing the country to keep running large deficits without apparent consequences. But a new class of contenders is emerging: cryptocurrencies. Operating on peer-to-peer networks ungoverned by any state, cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are being pitched by their champions as decentralised, democratic alternatives.

The pandemic has made those crypto-pitches sound less like pure digital hype. Fearful that central banks led by the US Federal Reserve are debasing the value of their currencies, many people have bought bitcoin in bulk. Its price has more than quadrupled since March, making it one of the hottest investments of 2020. 

From its launch in 2009, bitcoin’s builders have aspired to establish it as “digital gold,” a trusted store of value that offers a safe haven in tumultuous times. But doubters find it hard to feel safe investing in an asset that is so volatile: the last bitcoin bubble popped less than three years ago, and its daily price swings are still four times larger than gold.

The sceptics are particularly well represented among those who did not grow up with digital technology. They tend to prefer gold, which has been purchased as protection against the decline of standard currencies for hundreds of years. In a recent survey, only 3 per cent of baby boomers said they own a cryptocurrency, compared with 27 per cent of millennials. Still, those numbers are rising, and there are reasons to think this bitcoin rush has deeper roots.

It comes at a turning point for the dollar. Last year, after mounting for decades, US debts to the rest of the world surpassed 50 per cent of its economic output — a threshold that often signals a coming crisis. Since then, with the government borrowing heavily under lockdown, those liabilities have spiked to 67 per cent of output, deep in the warning zone. The dollar’s reign is likely to end when the rest of the world starts losing confidence that the US can keep paying its bills. That is how dominant currencies fell in the past.

Moreover, the US and other major governments show little enthusiasm for reining in the mounting deficits. Money printing is likely to continue, even when the pandemic passes. Trusted or not, bitcoin will gain from widening distrust in the traditional alternatives. 

Bitcoin is also starting to make progress on its ambition to replace the dollar as a medium of exchange. Today, most bitcoins are held as an investment, not used to pay bills, but that is changing. Smaller businesses are starting to use bitcoin in international trade, particularly in countries where dollars can be hard to come by (such as Nigeria) or the local currency is unstable (Argentina). And in recent weeks PayPal and its Venmo subsidiary have started storing bitcoin with an eye towards accepting it as payment next year.

Bitcoin’s surge may still prove to be a bubble, but even if it pops, this year’s rush to cryptocurrencies should serve as a warning to government money printers everywhere, particularly in the US. Do not assume that your traditional currencies are the only stores of value, or mediums of exchange, that people will ever trust. Tech-savvy people are not likely to stop looking for alternatives, until they find or invent one. And stepping in to regulate the digital currency boom, as some governments are already considering, may only accelerate this populist revolt.



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European stocks stabilise ahead of US inflation data

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European equities stabilised on Wednesday after a US central banker soothed concerns about inflation and an eventual tightening of monetary policy that had driven global stock markets lower in the previous session.

The Stoxx 600 index gained 0.4 per cent and the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 0.6 per cent. Asian bourses mostly dropped, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 and South Korea’s Kospi 200 each losing more than 1.5 per cent for the second consecutive session.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which has dropped in price this year as traders anticipated higher inflation that erodes the returns from the fixed interest securities, added 0.01 percentage points to 1.613 per cent.

Global markets had ended Tuesday in the red as concerns mounted that US inflation data released later on Wednesday could pressure the Federal Reserve to start reducing its $120bn of monthly bond purchases that have boosted asset prices throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Analysts expect headline consumer prices in the US to have risen 3.6 per cent in April over the same month last year, which would be the biggest increase since 2011. Core CPI is expected to advance 2.3 per cent. Data on Tuesday also showed Chinese factory gate prices rose at their strongest level in three years last month.

Late on Tuesday, however, Fed governor Lael Brainard stepped in to urge a “patient” approach that looks through price rises as economies emerge from lockdown restrictions.

The world’s most powerful central bank has regularly repeated that it will wait for several months or more of persistent inflation before withdrawing its monetary support programmes, which have been followed by most other major global rate setters since last March. Investors are increasingly speculating about when the Fed will step on the brake pedal.

“Markets are intensely focused on inflation because if it really does accelerate into this time near year, that will force central banks into removing accommodation,” said David Stubbs, global head of market strategy at JPMorgan Private Bank.

Stubbs added that investors should look more closely at the month-by-month inflation figure instead of the comparison with April last year, which was “distorted” by pandemic effects such as the price of international oil benchmark Brent crude falling briefly below zero. Brent on Wednesday gained 0.5 per cent to $69.06 a barrel.

“If you get two or three back-to-back inflation reports that are very high and above expectations” that would show “we are later into the economic recovery cycle,” said Emiel van den Heiligenberg, head of asset allocation at Legal & General Investment Management.

He added that the pandemic had sped up deflationary forces that would moderate cost pressures over time, such as the growth of online shopping that economists believe constrains retailers’ abilities to raise prices. Widespread working from home would also encourage more parents and carers into full-time work, he said, “increasing the labour supply” and keeping a lid on wage growth.

In currency markets on Wednesday, sterling was flat against the dollar, purchasing $1.141. The euro was also steady at $1.214. The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a group of trading partners’ currencies, dipped 0.1 per cent to stay around its lowest since late February.



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Potash/grains: prices out of sync with fundamentals

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The rising tide of commodity prices is lifting the ricketiest of boats. High prices for fertiliser mean that heavily indebted potash producer K+S was able to report an unusually strong first quarter on Tuesday. Some €60m has been added to the German group’s full year ebitda expectations to reach €600m. Its share price has gone back above pre-pandemic levels.

Demand for agricultural commodities has pushed prices for corn and soyabeans from decade lows to near decade highs in less than a year. Chinese grain consumption is at a record as the country rebuilds its pork herd. Meanwhile, the slowest Brazilian soyabean harvest in a decade, according to S&P Global, has led to supply disruptions. Fertiliser prices have risen sharply as a result.

But commodity traders have positioned themselves for the rally to continue for some time to come. Record speculative positions in agricultural commodities appear out of sync even with a bullish supply and demand outlook. US commodity traders have not held so much corn since at least 1994. There are $48bn worth of net speculative long positions in agricultural commodities, according to Saxo Bank.

Agricultural suppliers may continue to benefit in the short term but fundamentals for fertiliser producers suggest high product prices cannot last long. The debt overhang at K+S, almost eight times forward ebitda, has swelled in recent years after hefty capacity additions in 2017. Meanwhile, utilisation rates for potash producers are expected to fall towards 75 per cent over the next five years as new supply arrives, partly from Russia. 

Yet K+S’s debt swollen enterprise value is still nine times the most bullish analyst’s ebitda estimate, and 12 times consensus, this year. Both are a substantial premium to its North American rivals Mosaic and Nutrien, and OCI of the Netherlands, even after their own share prices have rallied.

Any further price rises in agricultural commodities will depend on the success of harvests being planted in the US and Europe. Beyond restocking there is little that supports sustained demand.

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Amazon sets records in $18.5bn bond issue

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Amazon set a record in the corporate bond market on Monday, getting closer to the level of interest paid by the US government than any US company has previously managed in a fundraising. 

The ecommerce group raised $18.5bn of debt across bonds of eight different maturities, ranging from two to 40 years, according to people familiar with the deal. On its $1bn two-year bond, it paid just 0.1 percentage points more than the yield on equivalent US Treasury debt, a record according to data from Refinitiv.

The additional yield above Treasuries paid by companies, or spread, is an indication of investors’ perception of the risk of lending to a company versus the supposedly risk-free rate on US government debt.

Amazon, one of the pandemic’s runaway winners, last week posted its second consecutive quarter of $100bn-plus revenue and said its net income tripled in the first quarter from the same period a year ago, to $8.1bn.

The company had $33.8bn in cash and cash equivalents on hand at the end of March, according to a recent filing, a high for the period.

“They don’t need the cash but money is cheap,” said Monica Erickson, head of the investment-grade corporate team at DoubleLine Capital in Los Angeles.

Spreads have fallen dramatically since the Federal Reserve stepped in to shore up the corporate bond market in the face of a severe sell-off caused by the pandemic, and now average levels below those from before coronavirus struck.

That means it is a very attractive time for companies to borrow cash from investors, even if they do not have an urgent need to.

Amazon also set a record for the lowest spread on a 20-year corporate bond, 0.7 percentage points, breaking through Alphabet’s borrowing cost record from last year, according to Refinitiv data. It also matched the 0.2 percentage point spread first paid by Apple for a three-year bond in 2013 and fell just shy of the 0.47 percentage points paid by Procter & Gamble for a 10-year bond last year.

Investor orders for Amazon’s fundraising fell just short of $50bn, according to the people, in a sign of the rampant demand from investors for US corporate debt, even as rising interest rates have eroded the value of higher-quality fixed-rate bonds.

Highly rated US corporate bonds still offer interest rates above much of the rest of the world.

Amazon’s two-year bond also carried a sustainability label that has become increasingly attractive to investors. The company said the money would be used to fund projects in five areas, including renewable energy, clean transport and sustainable housing. 

It listed a number of other potential uses for the rest of the debt including buying back stock, acquisitions and capital expenditure. 

In a recent investor call, Brian Olsavsky, chief financial officer, said the company would be “investing heavily” in the “middle mile” of delivery, which includes air cargo and road haulage, on top of expanding its “last mile” network of vans and home delivery drivers.



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