Easy Money May Mean Tough Times Ahead

08/04/2011 12:30 pm EST

Focus: GLOBAL

Axel Merk

President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments, LLC

While the US has maintained a loose fiscal and monetary policy, other nations have tightened their belts and are looking more attractive as time passes, writes Axel Merk of Merk Insights.

One of the US economy’s greatest attributes has been its flexibility, in large part a result of the allowance of free-market forces. While massive monetary and fiscal efforts in the US and globally may have compromised these free-market forces, we believe they will play out over the long-term.

In our opinion, the US dollar is a natural valve to allow the US economy to adapt to global market dynamics. We consider both free-market forces and the unintended consequences of monetary and fiscal policies may push the US dollar lower over the long-term.

The recent financial crisis has in many ways exacerbated the global imbalances that concerned us leading into the crisis. Of grave concern is the unsustainable federal budget deficit, which may have morphed out of control.

More worrying still is that, despite a lot of political grandstanding and rhetoric, we have yet to see any evidence of government restraint from either political party. Contrast this with the stance taken by many other governments around the world, which have enacted stringent austerity measures.

With a sluggish economy likely to hamper tax revenues, we are unlikely to see any marked improvement in public finances over the near-term. The notion of a balanced budget seems a very distant thought when overlaying the near-term outlook with the budget implications of long-term obligations such as Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare.

Put simply, the fiscal position of the US has deteriorated significantly, and we consider the outlook remains challenging. We believe this situation is likely to wear away at the safe-haven status the US has held for so long. As alluded to above, many other countries have been more fiscally prudent and now find themselves in much healthier fiscal positions relative to the US.

The US current account (trade) deficit remains at unsustainable levels, despite recent improvements. The current account balance is what the US earns from other countries (exports, services, investments abroad) less what the US pays to other countries (imports, services, loans).

The balance on trade (the difference between exports and imports of goods and services) is the largest driver of the US current account deficit. In our assessment, the narrowing of the deficit in 2009 was attributed to a weak US economy and consumer, rather than the strength of the US export sector—in fact, the economic downturn caused both exports and imports to fall, it’s just that the rate of decline was more pronounced for imports given the weakness of the US consumer.

To put the present current account deficit into perspective, the net shortfall between what the US earned and what the US paid in 2010 was $470.9 billion. Another way to look at this number is that foreigners had to purchase nearly $2 billion worth of US denominated assets (such as US Treasuries) every single business day just to keep the US dollar from falling.

Additionally, we believe the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) actions will likely result in continued devaluation of the US dollar. When a central bank substantially increases the money supply, all else held equal, the central bank causes inflation, a devaluation of the currency’s purchasing power.

The Fed has been one of the more prolific money printing central banks around the world, increasing its balance sheet more than threefold since the beginning of the global credit crisis (in simple terms, a central bank’s balance sheet can be thought of as money that has been printed).

In our opinion, there is a significant divergence in monetary policies around the world, with the majority of other central banks following much tighter monetary policies relative to the Fed. In contrast to the Fed, other central banks have increased interest rates and reduced the overall size of their balance sheets.

Moreover, the composition of the Fed’s balance sheet gives us cause for concern: in our view, the massive amount of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) the Fed has purchased will create extreme levels of inflexibility should inflation break out, reducing the Fed’s ability to counteract such an occurrence.

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While we see considerable risks domestically, we believe there are attractive international investment opportunities.

On a long-term view, we anticipate that Asia may outpace most Western economies, including the US, attracting global investment and putting upward pressure on the value of many Asian currencies. Many Asian nations have substantial surpluses and much healthier fiscal positions than the US

Moreover, most countries in the region have focused on growing their domestic economies, spending on the likes of infrastructure, growing the middle class and urbanizing the workforce. A likely side effect of such rapid domestic growth may be increased inflationary pressures.

In our view, allowing these currencies to appreciate may be an effective way to address and mitigate domestic inflationary concerns. As such, inflationary pressures may force the hand of Asian countries following pegged exchange-rate policies, such as China, to allow their currencies to appreciate.

Strong, ongoing Asian economic growth will likely sustain the demand for commodities and natural resources. Countries rich in such resources may fare well, and ongoing Asian demand will likely benefit from the currencies of such nations over the long-term.

We consider that countries whose governments display greater fiscal restraint and responsibility will increasingly be viewed as sought-after sources of stability. Over time, such countries may supplant the US as safe-haven investments.

Additionally, in our assessment, the monetary policies pursued by central banks globally will have a marked impact on currency valuations over the long-term. Relative to the Fed, we believe many international central banks are more effectively fostering an environment of price stability, and as such, the currencies of such nations may retain significant value relative to the US dollar.

Consequently, on a long-term view, we favor the currencies of nations that are well placed to benefit from ongoing Asian economic growth, display fiscal restraint, and whose central banks’ pursue prudent monetary policies.

Read more commentary from Axel Merk at the Merk Funds Web site here…

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