Loan Growth is Uncertain for U.S. Banks

Many U.S. banks reported relative strength in consumer lending in fourth quarter earnings, while corporate lending growth was below expectations, according to Fitch Ratings‘ latest “U.S. Banking Quarterly Comment: 4Q17.”

The industry reported around 3% loan growth for the full-year, well below historical averages. With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), it’s unclear if there will be an uptick in lending with fewer incentives for U.S. corporates to borrow.

“Loan growth is expected to remain muted next year as many banks publicly disclosed they are targeting between low- and mid-single digit loan growth for the year,” said Julie Solar, Senior Director, Fitch Ratings.

Tax reform had a significant impact on fourth quarter earnings, but outside of one-time tax charges and gains, most banks reported improving spread income from interest rate increases, still benign credit costs, strong investment banking results and well-controlled core expenses. During earnings calls, many banks disclosed new earnings targets with improved returns. The large regional banks continue to report relatively stronger earnings than the universal banks, though not all banks included in the comment publicly disclosed new targets.

“The TCJA created a lot of noise in the quarter, but going forward most banks will likely report a boost to earnings,” added Solar.

Costs of credit continue to fall well below long-term average with net charge-offs at historically low levels across many asset classes, averaging 44bps during the quarter. This is well below the industry historical average since 1984 of nearly 80bps (which excludes financial crisis era losses between 2008-2010).

The five U.S. Global Trading and Universal Banks (GTUBs) reported strong investment banking and weak trading results during the fourth quarter of 2017 (4Q17), a trend that is unlikely to reverse anytime soon, according to Fitch Ratings’ “U.S. Capital Markets Quarterly: 4Q17“. Growth in debt underwriting from a strong leveraged finance market, an increase in equity underwriting, and growth in advisory drove investment banking (IB) results higher. However, total capital markets revenues in 4Q17 were $22.12 billion; a decline of 10.97% year over year due to weakness in fixed income, currencies and commodities (FICC) net revenue as client engagement levels fell across multiple products.

“Low volatility is problematic for trading, but it does allow corporates to plan for M&A activity which boosts investment banking results,” said Justin Fuller, Senior Director, Fitch Ratings. “Though, the correlation between guidance during earnings calls and future revenue is weak as economic and political variables can often delay deal execution.”

Overall 4Q17 IB revenues were the best fourth- quarter performance in the past five years, with total IB revenues of $8.1 billion, up 19.2% year over year. Overall 4Q17 FICC revenues for all of the U.S. GTUBS declined 30.7% from the prior year to $8.2 billion as continued low volatility drove low levels of client activity.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) retained its leading market share position with 23.2% of overall capital markets revenues in 4Q17; however, its overall share declined by 150 basis points year over year, while Bank of America (BAC) achieved year over year share gains of 190 basis points. As a result, the shares of Morgan Stanley (MS), BAC and Citigroup (C) converged at just less than 19% of total capital market fees in 4Q17.

In 4Q17, capital markets revenue as a percentage of total revenue decreased for each firm on a year over year basis. The average contribution to overall revenues of the five U.S. GTUBs was 22.1% in 4Q17, down from 24.9% in the prior year quarter. However, the contribution from capital markets revenue in 4Q17 is only slightly below the five-year average of fourth-quarter capital markets revenue of 22.5%. The five U.S. GTUBs all had significantly higher net interest income this quarter due to higher year over year short-term interest rates as well as incrementally higher wealth/asset management revenues amid higher global equity markets. Fitch believes the strength of these other sources of revenue helps to demonstrate the diversity of the business models of some of the larger banks.

Global House Prices Will Rise, but Ideal Conditions to End – Fitch

Globally, national house prices are forecast to rise this year in 19 of 22 markets highlighted by Fitch Ratings in a new report, but growth is expected to slow in most markets and risks are growing as the prospect of gradually rising mortgage rates comes into view this year. Their data on Australia makes interesting reading.

Home Prices: Growth Decelerates

Combined capital city home prices showed yoy growth of 6.6% in the year to November 2017, down from 10.9% over the year to December 2016. The increase was driven by Hobart (+12.7%), Melbourne (+11.0%) and Sydney (+7.7%). Melbourne and Sydney experienced slower growth while Hobart experienced faster growth than a year earlier. Continued record low interest rates have supported price growth while gross rental yields slipped to a record low of 3.6% as of October 2017. Tighter lending standards and foreign ownership restrictions have dampened price growth however.

Fitch expects Sydney and Melbourne HPI to stabilise in 2018, due to low interest rates, falling rental yields, increasing supply, limited investment alternatives and growing dwelling completions, partially offset by high population growth.

Affordability: First-Home Buyers Back in the Market FTBs increased to 17.4% of owner-occupied lending in September 2017 from 13.1% in September 2016, after FTB grants were introduced in New South Wales and Victoria in July 2017. The state governments of Australia’s two most populous states have introduced new FTB support, such as abolished stamp duty for properties up to AUD650,000, reduced stamp duty for properties up to AUD800,000, and grants of up to AUD20,000 for the building of new homes.

Although FTB activity has increased since the announcement of the FTB changes, affordability is still a key issue for FTB. This is particularly true in major cities, as wage growth falls behind HPI.

Fitch expects the increase in FTB to be temporary; low income growth, tighter underwriting and rising living costs will maintain pressure on affordability for FTB. As mortgage rates are currently low, any material rate rise will weigh further on mortgage affordability and serviceability.

Mortgage Performance: Low Arrears to Continue

Mortgage arrears remained broadly stable in 1H17. This is despite lenders increasing mortgage rates, particularly for investment and interest-only loans, while the RBA has made no change to the cash rate. As at 3Q17, 30+ days arrears for prime RMBS were 1.02% according to our Dinkum RMBS index, compared with 1.09% at end-2016. The level of under-employment in Australia stabilised at 9.1% of employed persons in 3Q17 (9.2% in 3Q16), and this may be affecting the disposable income and servicing capacity for some borrowers.

Fitch expects mortgage performance to remain stable in 2018, as interest rates stay low. Fitch believes the adoption of APRA-prescribed serviceability practices by lenders in 2016 has improved borrower ability to service mortgage loans originated since then. However, the rising cost of living and sluggish wage growth are likely to increase pressure on recent borrowers who have little disposable income.

Mortgage Lending: Slower Growth. New mortgage lending growth has slowed in 2017 compared to end-2016, against a background of modest economic growth and reduced investment lending. Home sale transactions decreased in the year to October 2017 by 4.7% nationally (as per CoreLogic); combined capital city sales were 6.0% lower and combined regional market sales were down 2.2%. Lower investor demand, increasing transaction costs, higher capital requirements for banks, further prudential measures restricting lending to investors and stricter serviceability parameters, have restricted access to mortgages for some borrowers.

Fitch expects mortgage lending growth to slow to around 4% in 2018, based on continued record low interest rates and stable unemployment. This will once again be offset by continued underemployment, reduced investor demand and tougher lending practices.

Regulatory Environment: New Measures Introduced

In March 2017, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) announced additional supervisory measures to moderate investment lending in Australia. The APRA expects authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADI) to limit new interest-only lending to 30% of originations; limit growth in investment lending to 10% per year; ensure that serviceability metrics are set at “appropriate levels for current conditions”; and to continue to restrain lending growth in high-risk segments such as high loan-to-income loans, high LVR loans, and long tenure loans. The recently introduced measures relating to interest only lending have already been adopted by lenders and, along with the other restrictions brought in over the past two years, are reflected in the increased pricing of interest only and investment loans.

In July 2017, ownership restrictions were applied in New South Wales and Victoria; a 50% cap on foreign, non-resident ownership in new developments; a levy on foreign, non-resident investors whose properties are vacant for at least six months in a calendar year; increasing the capital gains tax (CGT) withholding rate to 12.5% from 10.0% and increasing the threshold for CGT to AUD2 million from AUD750,000. On 17 July 2017, the Treasury released draft legislation proposing that APRA extend its remit to regulate lending activities of non-ADIs.

Fitch expects the additional regulatory supervision measures to reduce the supply of lending to investors and moderate the house price growth in Sydney and Melbourne in 2018.


They say tighter mortgage regulation, record low rental yields, and increasing supply will slow Australian price growth. FTBs in Sydney and Melbourne received government support in 2017, but the impact is expected to be temporary, considering affordability pressure. Australia and New Zealand will post small rises in arrears as home prices in big cities stabilise.

Australia and the US have had nominal home price growth rates since 2010 of 41% and 32%, respectively, that have been substantially higher than rental growth rates. This has occurred despite a high rental growth of 19% in both countries over this period. Australia’s rental growth rate has flattened since 2016, while the rental growth for the US has been accelerating since then.

Australian housing completions have again been the highest of the countries covered. This has put downward pressure on prices in several cities and regions outside of Sydney and Melbourne, although immigration has kept the ratio per 1000 citizens more stable. In Sydney and Melbourne, much of the excess supply had been taken by non-residents, which will be dampened by limitations put in place in 2017.

Australia’s household debt as a proportion of GDP is now the highest across all tracked countries. It overtook the Danish household debt ratio, which has been deleveraging gradually since the peak of the housing market in 2009, helped last year by stable debt and an increase in GDP. Fitch’s mortgage market and macro outlooks are stable for Australia in 2018, but the high ratio increases reliance on a strong economy.

Here is their global summary.

“Arrears are at very low levels in most markets. They will only move in one direction as mortgage rates rise slowly due to higher policy rates and more expensive bank funding from the gradual unwinding of quantitative easing. Floating-rate loans and borrowers refinancing to new rates will be first affected,” said Suzanne Albers, Senior Director, Structured Finance, Fitch Ratings.

Long-term fixed-rate loans are less exposed to increasing rates, but fewer re-financings mean lower lending volumes, so lenders may face pressure to relax their origination standards, subject to regulatory limits.

Norway, Greece and the UK are the only countries not expected to see price rises this year, but Fitch notes that national trends can mask large performance variations within countries with some regions continuing to see unsustainable price rises while others stagnate or even fall.

“We expect home prices to stabilise in Sydney and Melbourne and show modest declines in Oslo, Toronto and London. However, if corrections are only limited after several years of very high growth, the risk of large price declines in future downturns remains,” added Ms. Albers.

Despite these challenges, six of the 22 housing markets covered by the report have seen upward revisions to their outlooks over the past 12 months compared with three being revised down, leaving just three, the UK, Canada and Norway, in Stable/Negative territory.

Fitch has a positive or stable/positive market outlook for seven of the nine eurozone countries in this report due to expectations for strong economic growth and continued quantitative easing (QE) in 2018. As the unwinding of QE and normalisation of interest rates is only expected in the medium-term, so the highlighted challenges are likely to materialise later than in other regions.

Fitch believes that in 2018 a combination of factors will be needed to constrain house price rises that have gone beyond market fundamentals and are primarily due to buyers’ expectations for further growth. Overheated markets slowed in 2017 when a combination of factors pressured prices, including lending limitations along with more local factors such as heightened supply and falling immigration in Oslo, multi-layered regulatory controls on home purchases and mortgage lending in China and for London, Brexit uncertainty plus the impact of buy-to-let (BTL) changes including lower tax deductibility of rental income.

Non-bank lenders (NBL) in the US, which tend to have more flexible credit standards, are six of the top 10 lenders by volume. In the UK, NBL have focussed on BTL lending where they have not yet been bound by stricter Prudential Regulation Authority guidelines that apply to deposit-taking institutions. NBL (especially government agencies) could also increase competition in Mexico as they move from index-linked lending to peso loans, the traditional market for banks.

Weaker UK Growth Forecasts Highlight Debt Challenge

Ensuring the medium- to long-term sustainability of the UK’s public finances appears more challenging following the November Budget and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) reduction to its economic growth forecasts, Fitch Ratings says.

The OBR now expects real GDP growth to average 1.4% over the four years to 2020, down from 1.8% in its March forecasts, before picking up slightly to 1.5% in 2021. This would leave the level of real GDP in 2021 around 2% lower than forecast in March. The revision is largely due to a weaker productivity assumption, which also means the OBR’s assumptions for potential growth have come down significantly (now averaging 1.4% to 2021). Weaker growth makes reducing public sector indebtedness more challenging.

We expect the UK economy to expand by 1.3% next year, but are more optimistic than the OBR for 2019. Nevertheless, as we said when we affirmed the UK’s ‘AA’/Negative sovereign rating last month, our projections for 2019 are unusually uncertain, as macroeconomic developments will be related to the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

The outcome of the June general election suggested that ‘austerity fatigue’ is a meaningful factor in British politics and the Budget included discretionary fiscal measures that will translate to a fiscal policy loosening of GBP16 billion in the next two financial years (around 0.3% of GDP in FY18/19 and 0.5% the following year).

The main changes on the tax side are the abolition of stamp duty for first-time home buyers for the first GBP300,000 on a purchase up to GBP500,000, and the freezing of fuel and alcohol duties. The main spending change is extra current and capital spending on the National Health Service of around GBP5 billion over the next three financial years.

The OBR still expects the public sector deficit to fall, but probably not fast enough to meet the government’s target of a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade. The structural deficit would still fall below the government’s 2% of GDP target of in FY20/21, but with a smaller safety margin than forecast six months ago.

The OBR now expects the public debt ratio to decline only slightly over the next three financial years. This underlines the scale of the challenge of putting the UK public debt ratio on a firm downward path.

Our deficit projections from our October rating review, which do not incorporate the latest policy announcements, imply general government debt declining gradually as a share of GDP from a peak of 88.3% of GDP in 2016 to 85.7% of GDP by 2019. This would still leave the UK with one of the highest public debt ratios among highly rated sovereigns. If we mechanically feed the discretionary policy changes in the Budget into our October public finance projections, this also suggests slightly worse public debt dynamics over the next few years.

LIBOR Transition Creates Uncertainty for SF Market

Replacing LIBOR presents challenges for the structured finance (SF) market that are likely to be addressed in the context of industry-wide initiatives, Fitch Ratings says.

The long lead time and a desire to avoid disruption to floating-rate bond markets such as SF should support the transition to standard benchmarks as successor reference rates. The impact on SF will depend on which rates are adopted, how consensual the process is across all market participants, and how they deal with technical and administrative challenges.

LIBOR is the reference rate for SF bonds and related derivatives contracts in several large SF markets. Almost all of the USD450 billion of US CLO notes outstanding reference LIBOR, as do USD186 billion of US sub-prime/Alt-A RMBS and USD24 billion of US prime RMBS. US student loan ABS commonly reference LIBOR. Elsewhere, nearly all UK RMBS reference Libor. Some underlying loans, such as leveraged loans, US hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages, US student loans, and auto loans, reference LIBOR.

Panel banks will maintain LIBOR until end-2021. This gives capital markets four-and-a-half years to agree a successor regime for the bulk of bonds currently linked to LIBOR, enabling a coordinated transition to as few benchmarks as needed. This would avoid costly ad hoc negotiations and potentially complicated bespoke transaction amendments. Loan markets may follow suit, although the risk of fragmentation geographically and by asset class could create SF basis risk in respect of existing loans, or alter the level of credit-enhancing excess spread.

There are practical challenges in co-ordinating transition. Voting rights in SF transactions, in some cases requiring majority consent of all classes of notes, may complicate any amendment process and even increase the scope for inter-creditor disputes. Trustees will also have an important role in determining what conditions are placed on transaction parties. These challenges will require effective use of the long lead time available.

To preserve liquidity, we think bond markets will generally follow initiatives in the derivatives market, where funding is hedged and discount rates determined. The International Swaps and Derivatives Association is examining fall-back provisions in LIBOR swap contracts, and working groups in some jurisdictions have recommended alternative near-risk free reference rates for the derivatives market, including the Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) in the UK and the Broad Treasuries Repo Financing Rate in the US.

But it remains unclear whether the eventual successors to LIBOR will be overnight rate benchmarks or forward rate benchmarks, how far this will vary from country to country, and whether loan markets will adopt the same reference rates at the same time (reducing basis risk). At the heart of these questions is the effect on the value of currently contracted interest payments.

Any move to replace LIBOR with a benchmark that increased interest costs, particularly for retail borrowers, would face political objections. But a reduction in interest earned could also face opposition. Balancing these interests may prompt efforts to adjust margins to leave loan and bond coupons unchanged. Challenges coordinating the transition for assets and liabilities could leave SF transactions with basis risk, or change the level of excess spread. Possible consequences for ratings would also depend on the weighted average life remaining after 2021.

Commercial borrower behaviour may contribute to these risks. For example, some commercial real estate and leveraged loans include fall-back provisions aimed at managing temporary disruptions in LIBOR determination (such as polling a small panel of banks). These could make it harder to co-ordinate the transition for underlying loans and SF bonds, particularly in the leveraged loan market.

Unlike floating-rate commercial mortgages, leveraged loans are typically not hedged against interest rate risk, and may have more latitude in diverging from standardised successor benchmarks emerging from the derivatives market. If leveraged loan borrowers felt it was in their commercial interests to argue that fall-back provisions apply, basis risk would arise if CLOs moved to more liquid successor benchmarks.

China’s Cooling Housing Market Set to Weigh on Economy

China’s housing market is likely to continue to cool in response to stronger restrictions on home purchases across many cities and tighter credit conditions, say Fitch Ratings. Housing is the key cyclical sector in the Chinese economy, and will weigh on growth in the second half of the year and into 2018.

There is already evidence that the housing market is slowing. Growth in new residential property sales decelerated to 24.0% yoy (on a trailing 12-month basis) in May 2017, down for the fifth straight month from the 36.2% peak in December 2016. Price gains have also moderated. Secondary home prices in Tier 1 cities rose by 28.7% in 2016, but increased by just 3.6% in the first five months of 2017, and fell for the first time since September 2014 in May.

The downturn has been policy driven, with the authorities stepping in to prevent excessive froth in the market. Tightened rules on home purchases and mortgages are curbing buying by speculators and upgraders. Some first-time buyers might also be postponing purchases in the expectation that prices may fall. Meanwhile, the increased focus of the authorities on controlling leverage and limiting financial risks has led to a significant rise in money-market interest rates since last December, and some banks have recently increased mortgage rates.

The near-term outlook for China’s housing market is closely linked to the domestic credit cycle. As the chart below shows, housing sales move broadly in line with the “credit impulse” – or the change in the flow of new credit (including local government bonds) as a share of GDP. A weaker credit impulse, along with the tightening of home purchase restrictions, is likely to drag down home sales growth further in 2H17.

That said, the government will want to avoid causing significant volatility in the market. Home sales dropped by 9% yoy in early 2015, following the last tightening of restrictions, which contributed to a strong release of pent-up demand when policies were subsequently relaxed. We expect a more cautious approach this time, which is likely to result in home sales stalling, but not falling, in 2H17.

House prices are likely to decline slightly in 2H17, as demand weakens. We expect prices in Tier 1 cities to hold up better than in lower-tier cities. Prices in Tier 1 cities have risen by almost 90% in the last four years, compared with increases of 10%-25% in lower-tier cities. However, demand in Tier 1 cities remains strong and land supply is tight, which gives the authorities more scope to support the market if the downturn is sharper than expected. In lower-tier cites, demand is weaker and developers’ housing inventories are higher.

A likely weakening in the housing market is one of the main reasons behind our forecast that GDP growth will slow in 2H17. Investment in housing alone accounts for around 10% of GDP, and most estimates place its contribution to GDP much higher once supporting industries are included. There tends to be a six- to eight-month lag from sales to housing investment growth, which means that the economic impact of the housing market slowdown will continue well into 2018, when we expect GDP growth to slip slightly below 6%.

Medium Term Growth Potential Still Below 2% in Advanced Economies

Recent improvements in the near-term growth outlook for the advanced economies are not expected to be sustained over the medium-term, says Fitch Ratings in a new report.

“While we have become more optimistic about advanced country growth prospects in 2017 and 2018, our latest assessment of medium-term growth potential suggests that this year and next could be more or less as good as it gets,” said Brian Coulton, Chief Economist at Fitch.

New projections of supply-side potential GDP growth for the advanced economies covered in Fitch’s Global Economic Outlook (GEO) suggest underlying growth performance over the next five years will lie in the 1.25% to 1.75% range for most of the 10 advanced GEO countries. The demographic outlook is set to deteriorate further and we do not see a major turnaround in productivity performance after the slowdown witnessed over the last decade or so.

Nevertheless rising labour force participation rates – as more women enter the labour force and more “over 65s” stay in jobs or return to work – give some grounds for encouragement from recent supply-side performance. Furthermore, Germany’s success in reducing structural unemployment since the mid-2000’s shows the benefits to potential GDP that can accrue from labour market reforms.

US potential growth is projected at 1.8% p.a. This compares with long-run historical average growth of just below 3%, with the deterioration primarily reflecting demographics. UK potential growth is estimated at 1.7% relative to long-term average GDP growth of 2.2%. A structural slowdown in UK productivity over the last decade is only expected to be partially reversed. Potential growth for Germany and France is similar at around 1.2% but the mix differs markedly with a better outlook for productivity in Germany offsetting significantly worse demographics. Spain’s potential growth is in a similar range even though it has recently seen significantly faster actual growth.

Australia is expected to see the best supply-side performance over the next five years with potential growth of 2.4%, reflecting strong population growth and healthy labour productivity. At the other end of the scale, potential growth in Japan and Italy is projected at just 0.7% and 0.4%, respectively. Demographics weigh very heavily in Japan although this is partially offset by surprisingly robust productivity. Italy has, however, seen persistently falling productivity levels over the last 10 years.

The scope for growth to exceed supply-side potential rates over the medium-term as economic slack is absorbed is also limited. Output gaps – ie the shortfall in the level of actual GDP from potential GDP – are estimated to have been modest in 2016 for most advanced countries and with 2017 growth generally forecast to be faster than potential, they are narrowing. Only in Spain and Italy is the current negative output gap judged to be large enough to expect actual growth over the next five years to materially exceed its estimated supply-side potential rate.

Fed Heading for Faster-than-Expected Normalisation

The Federal Reserve hiked its benchmark rate hike this week. Judging by their associated comments, Fitch Ratings says this reinforces the view that U.S. interest rates will normalise faster than financial markets expect.

The Fed on Wednesday raised the fed funds target rate for the third time in seven months, to 1.00%-1.25%. The Fed also announced that it expects to start phasing out full balance sheet reinvestment in 2017 and provided details on the modalities of doing so.

The rate increase and accompanying comments bolster our view that the fed funds rate is likely to normalise at 3.5% by 2020, and U.S. 10-year bond yields will rise back above 4%. These developments would mark a significant shift in the global interest rate environment.

Fitch believes the Fed is increasingly comfortable with its normalisation process and less data-dependent following recent inflation readings that have been slightly lower than consensus expectations (although they remain close to target). The interest rate hike showed the Fed was prepared to look through weak first quarter consumption and GDP and underlines Fed concerns about unemployment falling too far below its equilibrium rate. .

Our fed funds rate forecasts also reflect scepticism regarding the idea that the equilibrium (or “natural”) U.S. real interest rate has fallen close to zero. We think the fall in actual real rates is explained by the slowdown in potential GDP growth driven by demographics and weaker productivity growth, and by an elongated credit and monetary policy cycle. As this extended credit cycle comes to an end, Fitch believes the Fed will set rates according to its view of the U.S.’s long-term potential growth rate and its inflation target. This suggests the equilibrium nominal fed funds rate would be 3.5%-4% if real rates normalise in line with our estimate of U.S. potential growth at slightly below 2%.

The impact on bond yields will also be determined by how far the term premium rises from the current historically low level partly caused by the Fed’s Quantitative Easing (QE) programme. The Fed’s approach to balance sheet normalisation sees reinvestment only to the extent that maturities exceed pre-set caps. The caps will initially be set at low levels but will rise to maximum levels of USD30bn per month for Treasuries and USD20bn per month for agency debt and mortgage-backed securities. A return to a positive term premium of 50bp-100bp as the QE programme is unwound would see long-term U.S. bond yields normalise at 4%-5% given our estimates of the equilibrium Fed Funds rate.

Biggest Threats to Dollar’s Global Supremacy are at Home

From FitchRatings.

The US dollar will almost certainly remain the world’s most important reserve currency for the foreseeable future, as no other offers the same set of advantages to money managers, including central banks, or is as deeply embedded in the global financial system. The primary cost to the US is surrendered competitiveness due to dollar appreciation, but lower interest rates and unrivalled government access to funding bestow considerable benefits, ultimately supporting the sovereign’s ‘AAA’ rating.


The dollar dominates global bond markets, central bank foreign reserve holdings, international trade invoicing and cross-border lending. It is the standard currency used for commodity and other prices, and is the preeminent safe-haven asset and preferred store of value in times of financial turmoil. Crucially, the dollar is underpinned by the fact that the US Treasury market is the world’s largest and most liquid for risk-free assets, and the Federal Reserve operates independently of government with respect to the market, and in implementing policy more broadly.

The dollar’s role is so widespread that its supremacy is self-reinforcing. The additional costs and/or inconvenience of switching to another currency for transactions normally conducted in dollars create a high degree of inertia, making it difficult for other currencies to gain traction.

Calls for the dollar’s displacement were relatively infrequent — though not entirely absent — when US monetary policy was exceptionally accommodative in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. That changed in mid-2013 when the Federal Reserve announced it would begin to slow its asset purchases, causing considerable turmoil in emerging markets (the “taper tantrum”) and appeals to the Fed for greater consideration to be given to the international implications of its policy decisions.

The Fed now appears poised not only to continue with policy interest rate hikes that began in December 2015, but also to consider the pace and magnitude of eventual balance-sheet reductions. Dollar funding is already costlier in markets outside the US, and has been for several years, as reflected in elevated cross-currency basis spreads for several currencies versus the dollar. If they rise further, as they may when Fed balance-sheet reduction draws nearer, there will again be concerns about global stresses associated with Fed tightening and inevitable suggestions that the dollar’s hegemony be somehow curtailed.

Realistic, immediately available alternatives to the dollar are limited. It is important to note, however, that the dollar is not alone either as a reserve currency or in many of its other global roles; it is just the biggest player. Other recognised reserve currencies (tracked by IMF data) are the euro, Japanese yen, pound sterling, Swiss franc, Australian and Canadian dollars
and Chinese renminbi.

In most instances, financial markets in countries that have reserve currencies are far too small to pose a threat to the dominance of the dollar. The most obvious candidate to replace the dollar is the euro, given the size and depth of euro-denominated capital markets as well as the credible focus of the European Central Bank on controlling inflation. However, for at least as long as the currency zone is plagued by lingering existential risks amid questions over possible member withdrawals, it will not be in a position to overtake the dollar. The renminbi is growing rapidly in trade settlement, but neither it nor the yen offer truly risk-free assets given their sovereign ratings, and China seems some distance from having an open capital account and fully internationalised currency even if it were rated higher.

The lack of a ready substitute, however, does not mean the dollar’s current position is entirely assured. Perhaps the most plausible scenario for the dollar being meaningfully displaced does not begin with the emergence of a viable alternative, but rather it being undermined at home.

Two pieces of legislation currently working their way through Congress are the Federal Reserve Transparency Act (FRTA) and the Financial Choice Act (FCA). The first would allow the Government Accountability Office to audit the monetary policy decisions of the Fed and make subsequent recommendations for administrative or legislative actions. The second would restrict the Fed’s ability to provide financial sector support to avert or address a crisis, and empower a commission to review and recommend changes to the Fed’s operations, as well as to consider a rules-based rather than discretionary monetary policy framework.

It is the unambiguous intention of these legislative initiatives to curtail the independence of the Fed and allow for greater congressional oversight of monetary policy as well as the Fed’s regulatory decisions and interventions related to financial stability. If implemented, the proposals would diminish the appeal of the dollar as a reserve currency over time. Investors
considering dollar assets and other dollar exposures would weigh the risk of political interference in monetary policy decisions and the possibility of the Fed’s remit being broadened to include congressional priorities such as indirect funding of infrastructure investment. There may also be concerns about episodes of financial sector stress being deeper and more prolonged if the Fed’s policy response options were explicitly limited.

Parties in favour of the FRTA and FCA might argue that the risks identified by those concerned about the Fed’s independence — and, incidentally, the dollar’s global role — are, in fact, the purpose of the proposed legislation, and that the overall economic interests of the US would be better served by their implementation. The debate is unlikely to end soon no matter the fate of the FRTA and FCA. Either way, the dollar is set to remain the world’s most important reserve currency, a position it is likely to hold for some time.

U.S. Bank Deregulation Advances, But Hurdles Remain

The momentum for U.S. bank deregulation continues to grow, but it is becoming more likely that it will take the form of multiple smaller bills targeting relief for specific segments of the financial sector as opposed to a single, comprehensive bill, says Fitch Ratings.

The Financial Choice Act (FCA) remains the benchmark for the full deregulation agenda given the upcoming House vote on a revised version that was passed by the House Financial Services committee earlier this month. The updated version (FCA 2.0) is mostly in line with the original bill from 2016 and still calls for the full repeal of the Volcker Rule, the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) and the Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule.

Broad and deep deregulation is generally viewed by Fitch as likely to have a negative impact from a bank credit risk perspective; however, the ultimate form of regulatory change and its application by individual banks will determine the ratings implication.

A repeal of Volcker is unlikely to result in banks’ returning to full-scale proprietary trading, but it could carry negative rating implications depending on banks’ response. The elimination of OLA could expose the banking sector to significant systemic risk in the event of a crisis, though resolution planning could be a mitigating factor to large bank failures. While eliminating the DOL Fiduciary Rule would likely benefit banks’ wealth management businesses and asset managers’ profitability, reputational and litigation risks would remain.

Key differences between FCA 2.0 and the original bill include simplifying the threshold for banks to opt out of most regulations, changing operational risk weights for global systemically important banks (G-SIBs), replacing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and relaxing some components of stress-testing.

Fitch does not believe proposed changes to the CFPB would directly affect most banks’ and non-bank financial institutions’ credit profiles, though they could reduce the regulatory burden and associated costs. Further revision to bank stress testing as proposed under FCA 2.0 is likely to be ratings neutral.

Global Growth Recovery on Track

The pick-up in global growth remains on track, with disappointing first-quarter US GDP data offset by better-than-expected numbers in China, and sustained growth in the eurozone and Japan, says Fitch Ratings in its Global Economic Update report.

“Weaker 1Q US growth was explained by consumption and looks to have been affected by temporary factors. Falling unemployment, wealth gains, improved consumer confidence and the prospect of income tax cuts should support a recovery in consumption from 2Q17. In China, the impact of earlier policy stimulus on activity has proved more powerful than anticipated and the slowdown in the housing market has taken longer to materialise than expected,” said Brian Coulton, Fitch’s Chief Economist.

The resilience and breadth of the eurozone recovery continues, with the region posting its eighth consecutive quarter of steady growth at an annual pace of 1.5%-2%.

“Rising bank credit to the private sector and strengthening housing markets suggest accommodative monetary policies are gaining traction in the eurozone, while a mild easing of fiscal policy since 2015 and strong job growth have also helped,” added Coulton.

Fitch expects world growth to rise to 2.9% in 2017 from 2.5% in 2016 and has slightly revised up its 2018 forecast to 3.1% from 3.0% in March. The US growth forecast for 2017 has been revised down slightly but this has been offset by a better outlook for China and Japan.