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The reason a strong dollar is hurting stocks right now

It’s a drag on earnings, but there’s more to it

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Flexing its muscle.

The U.S. dollar’s strong rise is getting a lot of the blame for the stock market’s recent weakness, but there’s more to it than a simple inverse relationship between the U.S. currency and equities.

The chart below shows that stocks and the dollar can move in the same direction or opposite each other for long stretches, including since the beginning of the dollar bull market in April 2011:

At the same time, this chart from Jones Trading shows that, on a monthly basis, the dollar and equities have tended to move in opposite directions since 2000:

The ICE dollar index DXY, -0.02% , a measure of the U.S. currency against six major rivals, is up 4.4% since the beginning of the January, reaching its highest level in more than 11 years. The S&P 500 SPX, -1.35% has slipped around 1.3% over the same period but remains not far from an all-time high.

While a surging dollar is an ever bigger potential headwind the more a company depends on overseas revenue, that’s far from the whole story when it comes to overall equity performance. It really depends on the reason the dollar is rising.

If it’s because the U.S. economy is going gangbusters (think the 1990s), stocks can gain, but if the greenback is rising due to a flight to safety, then, naturally, stocks suffer. 

One problem is that, right now, the dollar’s strength isn’t merely about the relative strength of the U.S. economy.