The US dollar is at a crossroads
Wall Street investors are reaching for their neck braces in preparation for yet another volatile swing in stock markets: A surging US dollar.
The greenback — which is not just the dominant global currency but also “the key variable affecting global economic conditions,” according to the New York Federal Reserve — reached a 20-year high last year after the Fed turned hawkish with its aggressive rate hikes.
Since then, inflation seemed to have softened, pushing the dollar down. But in recent weeks, as a slew of economic data has shown the Fed’s inflation battle is far from over, the currency soared by about 4% from its recent lows, and now sits near a seven-week high.
Investors are stressing about this sudden rebound, since a stronger dollar means American-made products become more expensive for foreign buyers, overseas revenue decreases in value and global trade weakens.
Multinational companies, naturally, aren’t thrilled about any of this. And around 30% of all S&P 500 companies’ revenue is earned in markets outside the US, said Quincy Krosby, chief global strategist for LPL Financial.
What’s happening: The US dollar “finds itself at a significant crossroads yet again,” said Krosby. “While the Fed remains steadfastly data dependent, the dollar’s course as well remains focused on inflation and the Fed’s monetary response.”
“The strong US dollar has been a headwind for international earnings and stock performance (for US investors),” wrote Wells Fargo analysts in a recent note.
February was a rough month for markets: The Dow ended February down 4.19%, the S&P 500 fell 2.6% and the Nasdaq lost just over 1%.
What’s next: Investors are clearly focused on the next Fed policy meeting, which is still three weeks away, for signals about the direction of rates. But until then, investors may gain some insight Tuesday when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell speaks before the Senate Banking Committee.
They’ll also be watching next Friday’s jobs report for any softening in the labor market that could temper the Fed’s hawkish mood.
Don’t forget the debt ceiling: Another significant threat to the dollar is looming in Congress — the ongoing debt ceiling fight. The United States could start to default on its financial obligations over the summer or in the early fall if lawmakers don’t agree to raise the debt limit — its self-imposed borrowing limit — before then, according to a new analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
That could potentially lead to a disastrous downgrade to America’s credit rating and could send the dollar spiraling as investors start to sell off their US assets and move their money to safer currencies.
“It would certainly undermine the role of the dollar as a reserve currency that is used in transactions all over the world. And Americans — many people — would lose their jobs and certainly their borrowing costs would rise,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN in January.
Pay gaps, jobless claims and earnings: What investors are watching today
▸ A lot has changed in the last twenty years. The gender pay gap hasn’t.
In 2022, US women on average earned about 82 cents for every dollar a man earned, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers.
That’s a big leap from the 65 cents that women were earning in 1982. But it has barely moved from the 80 cents they were earning in 2002.
“Higher education, a shift to higher-paying occupations and more labor market experience have helped women narrow the gender pay gap since 1982,” the Pew analysis noted. “But even as women have continued to outpace men in educational attainment, the pay gap has been stuck in a holding pattern since 2002, ranging from 80 to 85 cents to the dollar.”
▸ Initial jobless claims, which measures the number of people who filed for unemployment insurance for the first time last week, are due out at 8:30 a.m. ET on Thursday.
This will be the last official jobs data investors see before February’s heavily anticipated unemployment report next Friday.
Economists are expecting 195,000 Americans to have filed for unemployment, which is higher than the seasonally adjusted 192,000 who applied two weeks ago.
Initial claims have come in lower than expected in recent weeks and remain well below their pre-pandemic levels.
The white-hot labor market in the US added more than 500,000 jobs in January, blowing analysts’ expectations out of the water and bringing the unemployment rate to its lowest level since May of 1969.
That’s bad news for the Federal Reserve where policymakers have been attempting to tame inflation by cooling the economy through painful interest rate hikes.
▸ It’s a big day for groceries. Kroger (KR), Costco (COST) and Anheuser-Busch (BUD) all report earnings on Thursday.
Investors will be watching closely for clues about consumer sentiment during an uncertain retail earnings season. On Tuesday, Kohl’s reported that it had a rough holiday season and executives at the company put the blame on inflation. The company said higher prices squeezed sales and forced it to mark down some products to entice shoppers — which hurt its profit margin.
Those comments echoed those of other big box retailers like Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT), who have said consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation.
Still, Target and Walmart’s bottom lines were bolstered by food sales even as consumers pulled back on discretionary purchases.
US Senate delivers blow to ESG investing
The US Senate voted on Wednesday to overturn a Biden administration retirement investment rule that allows managers of retirement funds to consider the impact of climate change and other ESG factors when picking investments.
As my CNN colleagues Ali Zaslav, Clare Foran and Ted Barrett write: The rule is not mandated – it allows, but does not require, the consideration of environmental, social and governance factors in investment selection.
Republicans complained that the rule is a “woke” policy that pushes a liberal agenda on Americans and will hurt retirees’ bottom lines.
“This rule isn’t about saying the left or the right take on a given environmental, social, or governance issue is ‘correct,’” countered Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) on the Senate floor Wednesday. “It’s about acknowledging these factors are reasonable for asset managers to consider.”
The measure will next go to President Joe Biden’s desk as it was passed by the House on Tuesday. The administration, however, has issued a veto threat. As a result, passage of the resolution could pave the way for Biden to issue the first veto of his presidency.
A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here. You can listen to an audio version of the newsletter by clicking the same link.