The RBA must act on the dollar

The Aussie dollar is so popular it can no longer protect the economy from an offshore downturn, without intercession from the Reserve Bank. So what to do, exactly?

The Reserve Bank has no choice but to join the currency debasement contest that’s now going on around the world, and to cut rates by another 1 per cent in the coming 12 months – including 0.5 per cent by the end of the year.

The Australian dollar is in a 'no lose' situation: when western central banks launch asset buying programs, as the central banks of the US, Europe, UK and Japan have all done lately, the 'risk on' environment sees the Aussie rise as a result of fund buying; but Australia’s AAA status and relatively high yield makes it a preferred safe haven as well, especially for other central banks.

Last week the RBA published a list of 16 global central banks that have been buying Australian dollars as part of their diversification strategy, including Russia, Brazil, Korea and Switzerland. On Thursday the Philippines was added to the list.

The result is that as the Chinese economy slows, commodity prices fall and with them Australia’s terms of trade, while the exchange rate has remained stubbornly above 104 US cents.

In other words, the dollar’s unique status as risk asset for hedge funds and safe haven for central banks means that it is no longer doing its usual job of buffering the Australian economy from an Asian or global downturn, as it did in 2001 and 2008.

This morning it is trading at 104.5, having slipped from its post QE3 high of 106.26.

What to do? Well, in March, when the dollar touched 108, the RBA started to sell more dollars than usual and talked the currency down.

Then on May 1, with the dollar still above 104, it shocked the market with a bigger than expected cut of 50 basis points and followed up with another 25 points in June. The dollar instantly fell to 103.3 on May 1 and then kept falling, bottoming at just below 97 a month later before climbing to 106 in August on the back of speculation about European and US QE programs.

Since then the risk-on trade, the interest differential and central bank diversification has kept it above 104.

The RBA must cut again in October, and possibly by another 50 basis points to shock the markets once more. It also needs to do a bit more Australian dollar selling than usual, although not enough to trigger suggestions that it’s 'intervening' in the currency (can’t have that!).

Certainly the cash rate needs to be significantly lower than it is now by this time next year.

In essence it seems that the world’s central banks are working hard to debase their currencies as an alternative to a trade war. That may not be the primary intention of their QE and zero interest rate strategies, but it’s definitely an intended consequence.

The US, Europe, UK and Japan are all desperately keen to prop up, and if possible grow, net exports because of weak domestic employment. Some central banks are intervening directly in their currencies, others are settling for printing money to reduce its value.

For years now, the RBA has been talking about the inevitable "painful structural adjustment” as a result of the high terms of trade and currency.

But what if the terms of trade go back down and the currency doesn’t?

The fact that hedge funds and other central banks like the Aussie anyway should not be allowed to continue the painful structural adjustment for Australia’s export industries even as their export prices and volumes fall as well.

The result would not be structural adjustment, but disaster.

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