How to be smart when betting on a declining dollar.
Many investors anticipate that the U.S. dollar will continue to weaken. Critically, the Federal Reserve is holding short-term real interest rates below inflation. The interest rate can be thought of as the cost of money; low rates make dollars less valuable. Some emerging-markets countries, notably China, are artificially depressing their currencies in order to boost exports. Pursuing this mercantilist policy has stoked inflation in their economies. There will come a point at which the inflation becomes unbearably costly, and some market observers already see signs of inflationary stress. A sure way these countries can ease inflationary pressures is to allow their currencies to appreciate, which would further weaken the dollar.
A currency is essentially a short-term IOU, and to the extent that foreign governments hold them in reserve indefinitely, those are debts that the United States issued and for which it received goods that it never has to pay back. That free ride may be coming to an end. As pointed out by fund manager Axel Merk, China has been shedding its massive U.S. Treasury holdings. The country, which is slowly opening up its currency to foreign markets, has even called to replace the dollar as the reserve currency with a super-sovereign currency similar to the Special Drawing Right issued by the International Monetary Fund. John Lipsky, acting Managing Director of the IMF, suggested in a recent speech that the yuan will become a candidate for inclusion in the SDR basket. If the U.S. doesn't get its fiscal house in order, the death of the dollar's reserve-currency status may come to pass, which would further push down the dollar.
Despite widespread expectations for a weakening dollar in the long term, we don't think dramatic portfolio shifts or direct foreign-currency holdings are called for. It's devilishly hard to time currency movements. Compound the difficulty of timing the market is its zero-sum nature: The only way to make money in currencies is to take money from someone on the opposite side of one's trades. Currencies also have very weak long-term returns; they're still cash and over the long term will most likely struggle to keep up with inflation. For these reasons, we don't recommend long-term allocations in currency exchange-traded funds such as PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bearish
WisdomTree Emerging Markets Local Debt
Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF
SPDR DB Intl Govt Infl-Protected Bond
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend
IShares S&P Global Materials
We caution that markets tend to price in information that everyone knows. There's also well-reasoned disagreement over the future direction of the dollar. Richard Bernstein, the former investment strategist at Merrill Lynch, is making the opposite call. He has predicted that in 2011, the U.S. dollar will strengthen and U.S. small caps will outperform. But given the market forces bearing down on the dollar, we think diversifying away from the dollar is a good insurance policy.