The stock prices of mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) have cratered. The bottom of the worst housing slump since the Great Depression hasn't been reached. Fears of inflation are mounting.
Yet the dollar is rallying against foreign currencies. Despite recent gyrations, the U.S. Dollar Index, a futures contract reflecting the dollar's value against six major currencies, is up 9% since reaching a recent low on July 15. The turnaround is a major factor behind the stock market's 4% gain over the same period, along with the decline in oil prices.
What does the possibility of a stable-to-stronger dollar mean for the international stocks in your portfolio? Is it time to bail? A lot is at stake: Since 2003, some $490 billion in net new cash poured into international stock funds, vs. a net $208 billion for domestic stock funds, according to the Washington (D.C.)-based Investment Company Institute. And how about foreign bonds? Thanks to the weak dollar, U.S. investors in foreign bonds have enjoyed a currency-translation boost to their yields in recent years.
Thinking through the impact of the dollar's moves used to be simpler. The old maxim was that when the dollar was strong you should flee international securities, and when it was weak you should send money overseas. But hewing to simplistic truisms is hazardous in today's quicksilver global capital markets. Profiting from any turn in the dollar's fortunes requires a more nuanced strategy now—and patience.
First of all, market veterans call for a reality check on this rally. Few expect the dollar to retrace years of losses anytime soon, and a 9% gain is tiny compared with the greenback's 50% slide against the euro and 30% tumble against the British pound over the past six years. Still, the global economic cycle may favor America's currency. While the U.S. slid into a downturn or even a recession about a year ago, only recently has growth faltered among other major industrial nations, especially in Europe. "We are picking up and they are slowing," says James W. Paulsen, chief investment strategist of Wells Capital Management (WFC).
The global business cycle should affect the gap between interest rates set by the world's central banks. There is a growing expectation that the difference in yields will narrow, especially between the U.S. and Europe. The Federal Reserve Board's benchmark rate is 2% while that of the European Central Bank (ECB) is 4.25%, and Europe could become a less attractive parking place for yield-hungry investors as the ECB combats economic weakness. "The dollar rally we have seen has been especially against the euro," says Bob Doll, vice-chairman and global chief investment officer of equities at investment management firm BlackRock (BLK). "The ECB's next move will be to lower rates, and I'm talking in months rather than years."
Yet even as the outlook for the dollar improves compared with the euro and currencies of other major developed nations, it could continue to depreciate against currencies of major emerging markets. That's an idea investors seem to be testing. The CurrencyShares Euro Trust (FXE) is down 5.7% over the past three months, for example, while the WisdomTree Dreyfus Brazilian Real (BFZ) is up 4% and the CurrencyShares Mexican Peso Trust (FXM) gained 4.1%. "Even if the decline against the euro is over, there may well be other non-European currencies that will appreciate against the dollar," says Burton G. Malkiel, an economics professor at Princeton University and author of the investing classic, A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
Why? Emerging-market growth rates dwarf those of the developed world. Their interest rates are higher, too. Over time a number of the countries will rely less on exports and more on consumers for growth. Take China: A mere 40% of its economy is driven by consumers, vs. 70% in the U.S. The move from an export-led economy to a consumer-driven one will encourage developing nations to lessen control over currency fluctuations and haltingly embrace floating exchange rates, which will allow their currencies to appreciate against the dollar.
By this calculus, investors should comb through their developed world and emerging market securities and treat them differently, at least when it comes to the expected impact of currency on asset values. Long-term investors with fortitude should maintain exposure to fast-growing "frontier market" economies. But when it comes to Europe and Japan, portfolio tweaking could pay off.
Dollar strength would favor the U.S. stock market over foreign bourses. Multinationals, however, might find it tougher to outperform their smaller, more U.S.-focused brethren. The profits of U.S.-based global giants are by definition more exposed to foreign revenues. "The tailwind is morphing into a headwind," says Alec Young, international equity strategist at Standard & Poor's (MHP). But big-cap exposure to overseas economies varies greatly. Tech companies in the S&P 500-stock index get about 55% of revenues from abroad. It's 32% for large-cap financials. Even less exposed: railroads, retail food chains, and utilities.
A stronger dollar would have a bigger effect on foreign bonds. Simply put, dollar gains cut the value of interest and principal payments of foreign bonds when converted into dollars. That prospect spurred Ross Levin, head of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn., to shift client money early this year from an unhedged foreign bond portfolio into a Pimco (PFVIX) dollar-hedged mutual fund. "We wanted to stay in foreign bonds, but take out currency risk," he says. A beefier greenback also adds to the pressure on commodity prices, which are being hurt by slowing global growth. But, cautions Peng Chen, president of Ibbotson Associates, "long-term, the fundamentals of strong demand are still there, especially given demand from emerging countries."