How a stronger US dollar and higher crude prices are a recipe for trouble in oil-importing Asian nations

Neal Kimberley says US sanctions on Iran are driving up oil prices for Asian countries with weaker currencies. China and Hong Kong should be able to cope, but India and Indonesia are already suffering

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 10:37pm

Higher oil prices and tighter American monetary conditions are an unwelcome combination for energy importers in Asia. China and Hong Kong may be better placed than others to cope but for many in Asia it will prove a distinctly uncomfortable economic experience with consequences that may even affect local politics. 

The mechanics of the situation are quite straightforward. To the extent that tighter monetary policy settings in the United States lend themselves to a stronger US dollar, other currencies will weaken against the greenback. As oil is priced in US dollars, even if the price of a barrel of crude remains unchanged in greenbacks, it increases in local currency terms as the US currency rises on the foreign exchange market. If the oil price also rises in US dollar terms, the problem is compounded.

In Hong Kong’s case, the dollar peg limits how far the local currency can fall versus the US dollar. In the current scenario, if the exchange rate is 7.82 per US dollar and oil is US$80 a barrel, the cost of a barrel in local currency terms is HK$625.60. But at 7.84, with an unchanged crude price, the cost would rise to HK$627.20.

Oil’s up, dollar’s up, interest rates are up. Asia’s heading down?

And if the price of a barrel of oil rises in US dollar terms while the greenback makes gains on the currency markets, the impact in local currency terms is amplified. If the oil price rises to US$85 a barrel while the exchange rate moves to 7.84, then the cost of a barrel in local currency terms surges to HK$666.40.

Parts of Asia, notably India and Indonesia, are already feeling the effects of the double whammy of higher US dollar-denominated energy prices and a weaker local currency.

Indonesia’s rupiah has fallen to more than 15,000 to the US dollar from 13,500 at the start of 2018, even as the rising oil price has pushed up Indonesia’s oil import costs in rupiah terms.

As for India, a falling rupee and rising oil price are igniting a farm crisis. This year, Indian farmers have seen an increase of over 25 per cent in the price of the diesel that fuels their tractors. It adds to the burden on a sector that is already struggling with higher fertiliser prices and strong harvests that are lowering crop prices.

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With about half of India’s population engaged in agriculture, and a national election coming up by May 2019, squeezed rural incomes could prove to be a liability to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election bid.

It might seem odd that tighter US monetary conditions are being accompanied by higher oil prices. The former might be expected to dampen economic activity and by extension energy demand. Additionally, a greenback that is outperforming on the currency markets might be expected to hold its own against crude.

But that scenario doesn’t factor in a major driver behind rising oil prices: the market is adjusting to the US’ decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran. The US is also showing a willingness to penalise foreign countries and companies that continue to trade with Tehran.

Trump aims for Iran … Hong Kong bank customers get hit

The latest US financial sanctions on Iran began on August 6, with sanctions on Iran’s petroleum industry coming into force on November 4. If the US sanctions mean that Iranian oil becomes off-limits, energy importers, including China and Hong Kong, must compete for other supplies.

Nor will China’s yuan be totally immune to US dollar strength on the currency markets, as US monetary policy is tightened through Federal Reserve rate increases and decreases in access to easy money.

Despite the Fed being well into its cycle of tightening interest rates, chairman Jerome Powell said last week: “Interest rates are still accommodative, but we’re gradually moving to a place where they will be neutral. We may go past neutral, but we’re a long way from neutral at this point, probably.”

US dollar funding costs are again on the rise. That should support the US dollar on the foreign exchanges.

Admittedly, China can exercise some influence over the US dollar-yuan market. Any impact that rising US dollar-denominated energy costs make on China’s economy is likely to be softened by a precipitate slide in the yuan’s value.

Nevertheless, for some in Asia, a stronger US dollar and a higher oil price might be the stuff of nightmares.

Neal Kimberley is a commentator on macroeconomics and financial markets