Features

Trump wants a weaker US dollar – so what can he do about it?

Donald Trump is a big fan of a weaker currency for America. John Stepek explains why, how he could target the US dollar, and what that would mean for investors.

Donald Trump © Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Trump: keen to see a weaker US dollar

A quick one before I start this morning how confident are you that you'll have enough money during your retirement years? If you'd like to learn more about how to build a wealth plan that you can have confidence in, then you should head along to our evening event (in association with The Week and Netwealth) on 9 October. You can find out more about it here, but hurry the tickets for these tend to sell out fast.

There has been "no change" to the US government's policy towards the US dollar, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday.

We all know that you should never believe anything until it's been officially denied.

And Mnuchin qualified his answer with "as of now", which we also know means that it could change "as of the next ten minutes".

But that raises a few questions what is the current US dollar policy anyway, how might it change, and what would that mean for us as investors?

Why Trump wants a weaker dollar

In recent history, the US has favoured a "strong dollar policy". In practice, that doesn't mean anything. When you say you want a strong dollar, then it protects you from a lot of arguments.

If the dollar is weak and other countries complain, you shrug and say: "Hey, we want a strong dollar. But we also respect free markets."

And if other countries (allies like Japan or the eurozone) are trying to bail out their economies by weakening their currencies, then that's fine too. "We don't mind, we have a strong dollar policy anyway."

So it's a useful fig leaf. Like so many things in politics, it's about plausible deniability. It's about being able to say one thing, and do another, without anyone losing too much face.

Since Donald Trump took over, the politically inexperienced Mnuchin has occasionally made the mistake of saying what he actually thinks about the US dollar, which is effectively that it should find whatever level makes sense. So not strong, nor weak, just whatever the market says.

Meanwhile, Trump, who is not a massive fan of fig leafs or diplomacy, but does rather like rising stockmarkets and low interest rates, has been loudly and regularly proclaiming that what he really, really wants is a weak dollar.

Why does he want a weak dollar? Mainly because a weak dollar tends to mean the stockmarket goes up. There are a few reasons for that.

Firstly, a weak US dollar means looser global monetary policy. Almost everyone on the planet needs dollars, so when they're cheap, monetary conditions are easier for everyone.

Secondly, a weak US dollar boosts earnings for companies selling goods and services overseas. Given the the S&P 500 earns a great deal of money outside the US, that's good for US stocks.

Thirdly, a weak US dollar should spur inflation in the US. Inflation eats away at debt. And the US has quite a lot of that (although it's hardly unique in that state of affairs).

But mostly, Trump cares about the rising stockmarket, and he has a rough idea of what button you need to press to make that more likely.

So the big question is: can he do anything about this, beyond ranting?

How the US could target the dollar

The answer is "yes". The Federal Reserve, America's central bank, has already made it pretty clear that it will cut interest rates however strong the economic data at the end of this month. And yet the dollar has remained stubbornly strong it's certainly eased off a bit since early June, but it's by no means weak.

But if the president genuinely wants to whack the dollar, he does have the tools with which to do it. And as Steven Englander of Standard Chartered tells the FT, now that Mnuchin has spoken, "the door is somewhat more wide open than ever before for intervention."

So how would that work? In short, the US Treasury Department would just sell dollars. It's that simple. It doesn't need the co-operation of the Fed (indeed, in the late 1980s, the Fed and the Treasury clashed over the latter's interventions in the currency market, notes the FT), but it would probably get it, for the sake of keeping the peace if nothing else.

Would it succeed? It really depends on how other countries respond. Most pundits reckon it wouldn't, because you'd get tit-for-tat responses. But then where would we go from there? If the European Central Bank intervenes, do you get tariffs on German cars? If China intervenes, what happens then?

So it could get messy. At the same time, I can't see Trump giving up. So what's the most likely option?

I'm not sure, but I do think that a weaker dollar is on the cards. And it strikes me that the easiest way to get it is for the Fed to be even more dovish than anyone expects. That's quite tricky at the moment, but it would boil down to a half-point cut, rather than a quarter-point, at the end of this month.

I think that would be hard for the market to ignore, and it would also side-step the tricky question of currency manipulation.

But if that doesn't happen, then I don't think Trump will shut up, particularly if it looks as though a strong dollar might jeopardise the stockmarket run. Instead, I'd expect him to go down the messier route, to see where it leads.

We wrote about the forces quietly undermining the dollar a couple of months ago. But in all, I'm not surprised that gold is doing well right now.

Recommended

The currencies to bet on this year
Currencies

The currencies to bet on this year

The US dollar could be set to weaken this year, while the euro, Canadian dollar and the Swiss franc could be good bets for optimistic traders.
17 Jan 2020
How long can the good times roll?
Economy

How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019
Trump’s economic legacy
US election

Trump’s economic legacy

If the polls are right, Donald Trump will not be president of the United States for much longer. But right or not, what did he manage to achieve in th…
29 Oct 2020

Most Popular

The Bank of England should create a "Bitpound" digital currency and take the world by storm
Bitcoin

The Bank of England should create a "Bitpound" digital currency and take the world by storm

The Bank of England could win the race to create a respectable digital currency if it moves quickly, says Matthew Lynn.
18 Oct 2020
Don’t miss this bus: take a bet on National Express
Trading

Don’t miss this bus: take a bet on National Express

Bus operator National Express is cheap, robust and ideally placed to ride the recovery. Matthew Partridge explains how traders can play it.
19 Oct 2020
Three stocks that can cope with Covid-19
Share tips

Three stocks that can cope with Covid-19

Professional investor Zehrid Osmani of the Martin Currie Global Portfolio Trust, picks three stocks that he thinks should be able to weather the coron…
12 Oct 2020