- The Chinese yuan continues to weaken against the dollar and is testing a key psychological and technical level that strategists say could give way to more weakness if broken.
- Strategists say the dollar has made such big moves against some currencies, but its move against the yuan is the one that many speculate could draw comments from President Donald Trump.
- There's speculation that the U.S. could intervene in the currency market if the dollar strengthens too much, but tweets or 'verbal' intervention were seen as more likely.
The dollar has been strengthening so much that some market pros are wondering when the White House will start tweeting about it.
The dollar index was flattish Wednesday but trading near its highest level in more than year, as various currencies, like the South African rand and Mexican peso, were pummeled. But the currency that might get the most attention in Washington is the Chinese yuan, which was weakening on China's softer economic reports and fears about the economic effects of its trade battle with the U.S.
Dollar/yuan was at 6.93 Wednesday, and it is edging closer to the 7 level that strategists say is technically and psychologically important in the market. It was last at that level in May 2008, and stirred up speculation that the People's Bank of China could step in to stem its decline by dipping into the offshore market.
President Donald Trump has taken issue with the weakening yuan and has said he doesn't like a strong dollar. The yuan is also near the 6.96 level it was at when he criticized it in the weeks before his inauguration in early 2017. Last month, he complained about the weak yuan and euro in an interview with CNBC and on Twitter, when he also complained about Fed rate hiking policy.
"The market is watchful and waiting to see if the U.S. administration says anything to protest dollar strength," said Alan Ruskin, global head of G-10 currency strategy at Deutsche Bank.
Treasury Secretary Steven "Mnuchin and Trump tried to talk down the dollar. Given the dollar's strength, it wouldn't surprise me to see some comments, " said Marc Chandler, head of foreign exchange strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.
Chandler said the 7 level is important for dollar/yuan. "Some Chinese officials put a line in the sand there, which is also waving of the flag for [dollar] bulls," he said.
There was also some market chatter about a real U.S. intervention in the foreign exchange market which would be highly unusual and seemed less likely, for now. Ruskin said it could not be ruled out, but the dollar would have to make a much bigger move. The dollar index is still well below its cycle high of 103.82, reached in January 2017. It was at 96.68 Wednesday.
As for the move in the Chinese currency, he does not expect a big downdraft for now if it hits 7. "There is some sensitivity to big round numbers, so I'm assuming it's not going to soar right through there," he said.
In a recent note, J. P. Morgan chief economist Michael Feroli discussed a U.S. intervention but was skeptical it would happen or that it would work if it was carried out.
"While not our base case scenario, we cannot rule out a turn toward a more interventionist currency policy, particularly since the current Administration has, at times, hinted at a preference for dollar weakness or objected to perceived Chinese currency manipulation. If that were to happen, we believe the Fed would fall in line and play their usual role of following Treasury's lead on dollar policy," he wrote.
Currency strategists say China does not want a currency war and has not tried to drive the yuan lower — but it is also not stepping in to prevent the decline as it normally would.
China's central bank sets a daily exchange rate for the yuan based on recent prices, and allows trading against the dollar in a band that could be as much as 2 percent above or below that level. A number of strategists say China is moving its band with the market and attempting to prevent a more rapid fall, so as to avoid capital flight. The offshore yuan was at 6.9467 per dollar Wednesday.
Strategists said for now, emerging markets are not seeing contagion from Turkey but facing their own individual woes as the dollar rises, supported by Fed rate hikes, and commodities fall. The dollar is expected to continue to firm and emerging markets could continue to feel the pain.
The Turkish lira was higher Wednesday, as a Turkish regulator said it was limiting banks' currency swap transactions and on reports Qatar would invest in Turkey.
Ruskin said a resolution of trade conflicts between China and the U.S. would go along way to help emerging markets, as would a calming down of the drop in the yuan against the dollar.
"There's a stronger dollar story that relates to U.S. interest rates. There's a China slowing down, liquidity story. Those are the biggest drivers in EM," he said. "The U.S. rate story is not going to budge that easily, and the problem with the China story is one of the easier ways for China to ease is let their currency weaken."