On Wednesday morning, currencies in emerging markets across Asia started to rise: The Chinese yuan and the Thai bhat hit two-month highs, while Taiwan’s dollar reached a three-month peak, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, the value of the U.S. dollar had dropped 1.3 percent on Tuesday, to its lowest point in a month.
Those searching for an explanation didn’t have to look very hard. Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump delivered some remarks to The Wall Street Journal that took many by surprise. In response to a question about trade with China, Trump declared that the U.S. dollar is “too strong.” He added, “Our companies can’t compete with [China] now because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us.”
Trump’s comments, were notable for a few reasons. The first is that U.S. presidents (and presidents-in-wait) have traditionally made an effort to refrain from talking about the value of the American dollar in order to avoid shaking up global markets. “We've worked long and hard to get to a protocol where heads of state, finance ministers, and central banks don't target and specifically mention levels of their currency,” one financial analyst told Bloomberg. “He [Trump] just blew that.” Speaking in Davos on Wednesday, Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, called Trump’s remarks “unusual” and added that they had left “the market confused.”
While an instance of Trump verbally breaking conventions (and causing some upheaval) is hardly groundbreaking, this particular instance is consequential because it represents a break with longstanding thinking that assumes that a very strong U.S. dollar to be a good thing. A strong dollar, the theory goes, keeps inflation and interest rates in check and helps American consumers flex better buying power abroad. “This is the first time we have a president-elect say the dollar has gone too far,” Marc Chandler, a Brown Brothers Harriman strategist, told CNBC. “He's saying things and doing things that no president has ever done before."
Part of what guides Trump’s remarks is the fear that the might of the U.S. dollar—which has been steadily rising since 2014—will make American exports less attractive in foreign markets, particularly as other currencies remain relatively weak. Of course, Trump’s comments also reflect a logical extension of his campaign-trail rhetoric in which Trump portrayed China as a currency manipulator that kept its currency value to make its exports more popular. “We need to be careful about the rising currency, not just because of what is going on internationally but it will have an impact internally to the United States as well," said Trump advisor Anthony Scaramucci at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, echoing the president-elect’s comments.
Regardless of Trump’s comments, the conventional wisdom among financial analysts is that the dollar will continue to get stronger for the foreseeable future. As one executive at HSBC inelegantly told Bloomberg, “The dollar is the tallest pygmy.” For now, the president-elect’s comments still have the power to sway the markets. And they could also influence his nominee for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who will almost certainly be asked to defend or reject the president-elect’s stance during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.