‘A vicious circle now seems to be in place again, where a lower dollar inspires raw material prices to rally, which in turn increases worries about inflation’. This was how strategists at BNP Paribas summed up the US Fed Chairman’s two days of testimony to Congress last week.
For the last 20 years, every Chairman and US Treasury Secretary has paid at least lip service to the concept of ‘the strong dollar’. Hank Paulson repeated the mantra on Thursday. But Bernanke did not once mention the phrase to Congress. Currency and commodity traders were quick to take the hint. The $ dived to new lows against both the euro and yen. Oil prices also jumped to new record highs.
A 2nd stage of the financial crisis that began last August now seems to threaten. The 1st stage was the discovery that US houses (and those in several other western countries) were no longer worth the price that had been paid for them. This led to a collapse in house-building, and a general tightening of global credit markets.
Now, the Fed sems to be encouraging the $ to fall, with Bernanke commenting that this would have ‘the benefit of stimulating exports’. But as Barrons, the influential US investment magazine noted, this policy carries the risk of creating an ‘inflationary maelstrom’. Just as in 1973, they added, oil producers may get ‘tired of parting with their precious petroleum for depreciated dollars’.
The combination of lower economic growth, tighter credit conditions, and commodity/feedstock price inflation is potentially a toxic cocktail. Some companies selling into buoyant agchem markets will have no problem overcoming it. But others face a more uncertain future.