Dollar’s surge raises fears of global ‘liquidity shock’

Coronavirus disruption is adding to alarm at the state of the dollar market. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2020

Dollar’s surge raises fears of global ‘liquidity shock’

  • Spike in greenback narrows central banks’ options amid coronavirus fallout

LONDON: If the 2008 financial crisis is any guide, world markets — which have barely had time to recover from the dollar’s 9 percent surge in mid-March — may be set for another damaging bout of strength in the greenback.

In the 10 days from March 9, the dollar leapt against almost every other currency as companies and banks bought it to pay their creditors, trade partners and suppliers. Money market funding rates jumped and share prices plunged as those desperate for the US currency liquidated investments.

Such a spike in the dollar — the currency of choice in global commerce and investment, used in up to 90 percent of all FX transactions — is bad news, as it rapidly tightens financial conditions, exacerbating the very problems that policymakers are striving to prevent.

Since March 23, the surge has faded, as the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates again, injected trillions of dollars into the financial system and opened swap lines with other central banks to ease dollar strains overseas. Currency swap rates have calmed down and equities are rallying again.

But what if this is just a pause rather than a halt to the dollar’s upward path?

Brown Brothers Harriman strategist Ilan Solot, who worked at the Fed in 2008 as a currency trader, is among those expecting another bout of dollar strength.

“Policymakers understand the funding shortage problem well from the previous crisis and they have rushed to solve that, but this crisis could very well see a real economy shock,” he said.

Central bankers have repeated the stimulus playbook of 2008, but “this is a liquidity shock to the real economy, and we don’t know how that will play out,” Solot added.

Like many analysts, he suggests looking at the 2008 crisis.

Through all of 2007 and well into 2008, the dollar index fell steadily as hedge funds ramped up short positions despite growing unease over US subprime mortgages and the collapse of Bear Sterns. But from March to November 2008, the dollar rocketed 24 percent thanks to overseas demand.

And much like recently, money market rates soared.

Then Federal Reserve rate cuts and Washington’s $700 billion bank bailout bill kicked in; as the money market logjam eased, the dollar retreated and troughed on Dec. 18, 2008.

The respite was brief, however. The currency took off again, and rose another 15 percent before peaking in March 2009. That allowed equities and emerging markets to bottom out.

The uncertainty this time is that the twin demand and supply shocks caused by the virus could last indefinitely as millions more are sickened across the world. Companies and individuals trying to stay afloat are likely to hoard cash dollars.

A move higher now would also fit with the so-called Dollar Smile theory. Put forward by former Morgan Stanley strategist Stephen Jen, it holds that the greenback strengthens in tough times as investors rush for safe, liquid assets.

It then falls as US growth flags, forcing Fed rate cuts — the bottom of the smile — before rising again as the US economy leads the global growth rebound.

Jen, who now runs hedge fund and advisory firm Eurizon SLJ Capital, expects the US economy to stage a full recovery by the end of the year, while Europe will reclaim end-2019 levels only toward the end of next year.

“We were on the left side of the dollar smile, but for much of the second half of 2020 and in 2021,
I expect us to move to the right of the dollar smile,” he added.

And even after large rate cuts, dollar assets offer higher yields — the interest rate gap between three-month US and German bills offers a 1 percent return on an annualized basis.

Meanwhile, despite its retreat, the dollar is near the highest since 2002 against trade partners’ currencies, reviving speculation of Treasury intervention to rein it in. But the turbulent times make that unlikely.

“The historic rally is not quite over,” Goldman Sachs said, adding that in a further equity drawdown, there could be another 3 percent-
5 percent upside to the trade-weighted dollar from recent highs.

The coronavirus disruption also comes amid an increasingly fragile demand/supply balance in dollar markets.

For years tighter regulations have constrained US banks’ ability to lend dollars. But the currency’s role in international transactions hasn’t lessened, and that has led to a dollar funding gap — the difference between non-US banks’ dollar assets and their liabilities.

This imbalance may amount to $1.5 trillion a year, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.

Parts of the swap market reflect the unease — three-month dollar-yen swaps are at an elevated 44 bps versus an average 20 bps in 2019.

The FRA-OIS gauge of bank funding costs is at levels not seen since the financial crisis. Market players say that rather than interbank problems, its surge suggests unprecedented demand from companies that are drawing down credit lines and seeking to borrow more from banks.

Ariel Bezalel and Harry Richards, fund managers at Jupiter Asset Management, reckon the global economy is about to enter a period of persistent dollar shortages.

“There are simply not enough dollars going to the outside world at this critical juncture,” they wrote.

Sure, the Fed’s asset-buying, multi-trillion dollar cash injections and swaplines with foreign central banks will help. But it may be running to standstill.

The dollar was involved in
90 percent of currency transactions globally in a $6.6 trillion daily market, BofA noted, adding: “The reality is that the Fed is incapable of equilibrating supply/demand mismatches ... if there is a rush to hold US dollars.”

They predict the dollar index will rise eventually to 120 from the current 102, although they gave no time frame.


INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

Updated 07 June 2020

INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

  • Head of TVM Capital on the challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, of the COVID-19 crisis

Helmut Schuehsler has had what you might call a pretty challenging time of late — and it is by no means over.

He runs the health-care investment firm TVM Capital Healthcare from Dubai, at a time when the reputation of the medical business is being called into question due to the scandal over NMC Healthcare. The UAE’s biggest provider has gone bust with more than $4 billion in unaccounted debt.

Schuehsler operates in the private equity investment sphere, which itself is facing bigger issues than ever before, especially in health care and more so in Dubai, after the 2018 collapse of Abraaj Group, once the private equity flagship in emerging markets.

And there is the small issue of the most significant health challenge humanity has faced in over a century — the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the economic fundamentals of the medical industry beyond recognition in the space of a few months.

“Things are coming apart,” Schuehsler told Arab News on a Zoom call from his house on the Palm, Jumeirah, where he has been self-isolating for the past three months, apart from a couple of visits to the doctor.

He was referring to the global medical infrastructure and specifically to the problems with the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than the TVM business, for which he still sees big opportunities in South East Asia and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

As a professional investor with more than 30 years’ experience in health care, he holds firm views on the way the international community has responded to the pandemic crisis.

“Humanity is not handling this very well. We should have had a strengthening of the WHO. It is irrational to destroy international cooperation in the face of an international challenge. We’re doing things in a very myopic way,” he said.

He uses the term “titration” to describe the policy response of lockdown followed by reopening and, sometimes, reimposition of curfews and travel bans. Titration is a chemical process in which two compounds are mixed together in varying quantities until they neutralize each other.

“It is a case of titrating openness against social distancing. In the beginning, it was all about not overwhelming the capacity of intensive care units to ensure people had access to beds. Now, we are managing better. The public and private sector have made room for that. The first phase of the response — providing critical health care and devices — is coming together,” Schuehsler said.

“Now you’ll see a gradual reopening and closing, again and again. The danger of an exponential growth in infection rates does not go away. If people stop social distancing and we have demonstrations and concerts with thousands of people, it will go exponential tomorrow,” he explained.

He sees some cause for optimism in the work of the pharmaceutical industry — in which TVM has been a big investor over decades — to first develop effective therapeutics and, finally, a vaccine.


BIO

BORN: Vienna, 1959

EDUCATION: PhD in social and economic sciences, business administration, Vienna University of Economic and Business

CAREER

  • Investment manager, Horizonte Venture Management, Vienna
  • Managing partner, TVM Capital, Munich, Germany

  • Chairman and CEO, TVM Capital Healthcare, Dubai


“I think that by the end of this year there will be between two and five drugs that will gain emergency approvals for marketing in Western Europe. That does not mean they will be available worldwide, but availability will be just around the corner, depending on manufacturing times and how long it takes to set up distribution systems. These will prevent people from becoming so sick that they have to go to hospital,” he said.

On the possibility of a vaccine, Schuehsler believes there could be something available by the end of next year. He does not like talk of a “silver bullet” to take out the virus, however, partly due to the long development and processes of testing and approval necessary for vaccines, and partly because of a growing sentiment worldwide against vaccines.

“It’s only a silver bullet if people are actually using it, and we all know there is a growing resistance movement against vaccines, which is unfounded and which endangers people, especially children. If we want to see our children dying again from polio or measles or chicken pox, we should stop vaccinating them,” he said.

The overall response by regional authorities in UAE and Saudi Arabia has been “OK,” he said, especially considering the distraction caused by the volatility in global oil markets.

“The confluence of those two elements — oil and the virus — has caused a difficult situation for governments. They have to spend a tremendous amount in terms of getting their pandemic response up and running,” he said.

Schuehsler was a pioneer of the biotech investment business in Germany, with a network of investors in Europe and the US, before looking at the growing health-care market in the Middle East in 2009.

Now, TVM is also expanding in South East Asia, a region Schuehsler sees as having great potential in the post-pandemic world.

The pandemic will change the way he does business. In the UAE, with its sizeable expatriate populations, some medical services will change as people leave; others have already gone through a period of contraction during the most intense phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fertility treatment, for example, via the Bourn Hall clinic in Dubai, saw a sharp decline in business in April, Schuehsler said, though that has recovered “a bit” last month.

About four years ago, he began to look at Saudi Arabia, the biggest health market in the Middle East. The growth there has been patient and deliberate.

“Saudi Arabia is a much larger market, with different economics and setups, but we consider it to be a very attractive area. The country is the focus point of the Middle East.

“You need to believe certain things when it comes to Saudi Arabia. For example, that the Vision 2030, the opening up and diversification of the economy, will still happen even despite the COVID-19 and oil crises. You have to believe that they will stay the course and that things have been simply delayed and not indefinitely postponed. But we are making that assumption,” he added.

TVM does not invest in hospital chains, but rather in more specialist medical businesses: Long-term acute care, home care and disease management, ventilated care, fertility and reproductive treatment, and the manufacture of medical devices via an Egyptian subsidiary.

Schuehsler has expanded from the UAE to the Kingdom via the Manzil Healthcare Services brand in Riyadh and the Cambridge Medical business in Dhahran. The medical devices business recently signed a partnership deal with the well-known Olayan Group to expand distribution in the Kingdom.

He believes there are still opportunities to invest despite the crisis but warns that the investment outlook has changed.

“Deal making is less clear to me. For an investor, this is not a particularly great time because none of us can predict the future. If you look at a company that has lost half its business and you think you can do great deal, then maybe,” he said.

Timing of investment decisions takes on critical importance, he added.

There is also potential in introducing investors from the US and Germany to Saudi partners. 

“There are a lot of German companies that have good connections in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis appreciate German technology and products. There have been many contacts made with the Saudi government and health-care industry. We can help investors from Germany because we have excellent relationships in the Kingdom,” he said.

During his career, Schuehsler has raised more than $1 billion in committed capital from global investors, overseen 120 investments in the health industry, and been involved in more than 80 major transactions over the years, including the lucrative sale of his ProVita International business to NMC in 2015.

He understands the concerns of investors, employees and patients in the health business and how to avoid the pitfalls that have bedeviled health care and private equity recently in the Middle East.

“TVM has all the transparency and governance you could want. We run our business in the Middle East in the exactly same way we would have run it if we’d been in Boston or Munich,” he said.

“I think people look at private equity and health care with suspicion because so many bad things have happened. We get caught in this, but we are the most internationally minded player in the way we build partnerships, the way we compensate people, the way we run our board meetings in portfolio companies.

“That’s what I’m trying to put in place: Openness, transparency and compliance in the markets we invest in. That’s our contribution to broader society,” he added.