Coronavirus has started a race into cash for all types of market participants. That has fueled rallies in reserve currencies—especially the dollar.
The U.S. dollar is approaching its highest level on record against other leading global currencies, according to the Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index. The index was up 1.1% in early trading Wednesday, and has climbed 6.5% in the past nine days. And derivatives markets indicate that even investors and banks in countries with their own major reserve currencies want to secure dollars.
Banks, companies, and investors have many good reasons to rush to secure dollar liquidity. Many businesses are facing the prospect of a steep decline in revenue as federal and local governments ask their constituents to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
That means businesses could struggle to keep paying leases, wages, and other costs. Workers (especially hourly workers) could struggle to pay their own living expenses. And banks could be met with withdrawal requests and surging demand for credit denominated in dollars.
“[The economic] front line in the crisis is the damage the pandemic is wreaking on companies in exposed sectors and on the economy more widely as the crisis spreads,” wrote Kit Juckes, a strategist at Société Générale. “So while market participants scramble [to] deleverage, the banks need money to lend to companies whose cash flow situation has changed almost overnight.”
The cash grab is echoing through markets in some striking ways. Even the lowest-risk markets—Treasuries and municipal bonds for example—have seen steep losses as investors move into cash. Benchmark 10-year and 30-year bond yields posted their steepest single-session jump since 1982 on Tuesday.
“This matters on a day-to-day basis for the [currency] market because liquidity stress, and a rush to get hold of dollar liquidity in particular, sends the dollar higher against everything,” Juckes wrote.
The widespread bid for liquidity has shown up in fund-flows data as well. Mutual funds in nearly every sector of markets lost billions of dollars in investor funds over the week ended March 11, the latest data reported by Refinitiv Lipper.
Taxable bond funds saw outflows of $11 billion that week, while equity funds lost $3.2 billion of cash and municipal (tax-exempt) bond funds lost $1.7 billion.
Money-market funds, on the other hand, brought in piles of cash. Investors put a net $87 billion into the sector as a whole over the week ended March 11, according to Refinitiv, the biggest inflow on record.
Within that category, even prime funds, or the money-market funds that buy short-term corporate debt, lost money over the week ended March 11, according to data from ICI.
Government money-market funds pulled in $97 billion, their second-biggest inflow on record, Refinitiv data show. The biggest week was in Sept. 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.
The results for the week ended March 18 won’t be out until Thursday. But if the steep declines in stocks, longer-term Treasuries, and corporate bonds are any indication, investors are still racing for the exits.
“That need for funds to flow into the economy isn’t going away any time soon,” Juckes wrote. “The result is that while direct financial effects of this crisis might be less acute than in ‘08, they will continue being felt for a long time.”