RBC Market Update - Week of December 7-11, 2020

December 11, 2020 | Eric Janitis


Health Canada has approved the first COVID vaccine. 15,000 people will get their first shot next week. Why has the Canadian dollar appreciated against the USD?

Global equity markets were relatively quiet this week. Investors look to be digesting the broad-based gains made over the last few months while evaluating the near-term headwinds that the virus continues to present. A number of countries, including Canada, approved the emergency use of a vaccine over the past week and the first inoculations have already begun in the United Kingdom. In a week that was short of meaningful developments, we discuss the Canadian dollar, which has been strong of late.

Coronavirus & vaccines

Canada’s rate of new infection growth moderated over the past week. The country’s 7-day moving average of new daily infections is approximately 6,500, versus the 6000 from the prior week. The East Coast was relatively stable despite some new infections in Prince Edward Island. Meanwhile, Manitoba saw another week of declines, while Saskatchewan’s growth rate was flat. Ontario witnessed an increase, but it was modest compared to Quebec and Alberta which experienced a meaningful jump in the rate of growth in new infections. The country continues to grapple with a virus that is spreading but there is a vaccine on its way. Health Canada approved the first one for Canadians and provinces are laying out their plans to begin vaccinations to as many as 15,000 people over the next week. High risk groups will be prioritized, including health care professionals and the elderly.

Elsewhere, Europe continues to see a slowing in the spread of the virus, though countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have not seen the same degree of progress as others. Meanwhile, countries ranging from South Africa to Japan continue to face an accelerating second wave. Trends will become clear in the United States in the days to come as the two-week incubation period following the Thanksgiving Day holiday is set to expire. New daily infection figures are elevated in the country, but the most important factor, in our view, is the change in trend, and we expect more visibility soon.

The Canadian dollar

Most investors have been focused on the strength of global equity markets in recent months. It is understandable given the magnitude of the rally off the lows from March. But, other asset classes have rallied too. The Canadian dollar in particular has been noteworthy. It has moved in tandem with Canadian equities this year. But, unlike the stock market, which has yet to reach a new peak this year, the loonie now sits at a high that has not been seen since 2018.

There are likely two factors responsible for the Canadian dollar’s move. The first is oil. Earlier this year, oil prices collapsed, driven by a standoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and then by the onset of the global pandemic. While demand remains relatively weak, it has improved, and the behaviour of two of the world’s largest oil producers has become more rational. As a result, oil prices have recouped most of their losses from earlier in the year.

There is a second factor also at play. It has less to do with Canada, and more to do with the U.S. dollar itself. The latter is often regarded as a “safe haven” in times of market duress. Unsurprisingly, it benefitted at the expense of most other currencies earlier this year when investors first grew concerned about the virus. Those fears have since abated. As a result, the U.S. dollar has weakened meaningfully against most major currencies. In fact, while the Canadian dollar has been strong relative to the U.S. dollar since the beginning of the summer, it has underperformed most other developed market currencies.  This suggests the loonie’s move has had more to do with U.S. dollar weakness than it has with Canadian dollar strength. Nevertheless, we think the backdrop remains supportive in the year ahead. More specifically, a sustainable recovery in the global economy in the second half of 2021 should drive a further recovery in the demand for oil and other commodities, and lead to a higher level of industrial activity. This kind of environment would support more cyclical currencies like the Canadian dollar.

We welcome a stronger Canadian dollar as it is a sign of more optimism with respect to global growth. While it does present a headwind when converting the returns of our U.S. denominated investments, it is a cost we are often willing to incur because of the importance of maintaining a well-diversified portfolio.

Should you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out.