Cause For Concern

This week all investors will learn
Not only how much yield they’ll earn
But also they’ll hear
If later this year
A fourth hike is cause for concern

FX markets are opening the week in a subdued fashion, with the dollar under mild pressure, but the same cannot be said for equity markets, which have seen a clear trend lower. Japanese markets led the way down in Asia while in Europe; it is the UK falling the most. US equity futures are also pointing lower, most notably on the NASDAQ, where there seems to be growing concern that the FANG group might be running into trouble. But ultimately, this week is going to be about policy discussions with the key being Wednesday’s FOMC meeting and the ensuing press conference. However, we also have the G20 meeting today and tomorrow in Buenos Aires, a BOE meeting on Thursday and the EU meeting to discuss the next steps in Brexit on Friday. In many ways, it is a positive that there is virtually no data of note to be released, as it would almost certainly be overshadowed anyway.

Generally speaking, the G20 is likely to be ignored by most market participants as the reality with any of the G# meetings are that nothing ever gets resolved. However, in this case, given the Trump administration’s tariff proposals, there is some possibility that we could hear negative news from the gathering. I am certain every other member of the group is weighing in with the reasons that tariffs make no sense and should be avoided, but it seems unlikely to me that this particular group will have much impact on the eventual decisions. Headline risk, however, remains real, especially if the US sounds more aggressive in its stance.

But the real treat this week is the Fed. It is virtually certain that they will raise the Fed Funds rate by 25bps to 1.50%-1.75% with the market completely priced for that outcome. The question of note is will they signal that there will be four rate hikes this year rather than the three that they indicated back in December. Certainly, the last rhetoric we heard from any speakers, Powell’s Humphrey-Hawkins testimony and a following speech by Governor Lael Brainerd, indicated that the hawks were in command now. In fact, there are a number of Wall Street analysts who believe that the latest dot plot will show that the median expectation for this year will be four rate hikes, up from three in the previous several iterations. The latest futures data shows that there is currently a 35% probability of a fourth rate hike priced in which means that there is certainly opportunity for the market to adjust further if the dot plot shifts.

Of course, the idea of four rate hikes is not without controversy, as there are many who believe that inflation will remain subdued and that the yield curve will invert if the Fed follows through. After all, though 10-year yields rallied sharply through February, they have basically stagnated since then and remain well below 3.0% (currently 2.86%), never having even touched that level during the peak of inflationary concern. And an inverted yield curve has been a harbinger of a recession for the past fifty years.

Here’s the problem: with rates still so low on a historical basis, the Fed also realizes that they need to have a more normalized rate structure (read, higher rates) in order to have enough ammunition to fight the next downturn, whenever it comes. The fact is that during the past eight cyclical downturns, the Fed has cut rates, on average, by 500 bps. However, in the current situation, even if they raise rates four times this year, Fed funds will not yet be 3.00% when they are done. If a recession appears by the end of this year, something that is currently seen as highly unlikely, but certainly not impossible, what are they going to do? In that situation, are negative rates likely? QE4? Something else? Remember that we are already in the midst of a significant fiscal expansion, so if things slow down despite that, it seems policymakers may find themselves with few appealing options. I’m not forecasting this is the situation; I’m merely pointing out the risks that the Fed needs to consider as they make policy. In a terrible metaphor I would ask, will reloading the policy gun cause it to be fired? At any rate, this is why the FOMC meeting on Wednesday is so critical. With some luck, Chairman Powell will be able to give us some guidance. We’ll see.

Turning back to FX the question is, what will all this do to the dollar? At this point, the dollar remains largely unloved. Certainly positioning indicates that we are approaching the largest short dollar positions seen in the past ten years. Analysts hate the buck, pointing to the idea that markets have yet to price in sufficient policy tightness from other central banks and have already done so for the Fed. They also point to the growing twin deficits and massive increase in bond issuance as rationales for the dollar to decline further. After all, to attract investors, the dollar needs to be weaker so that it can eventually appreciate. At least that is the theory. I have not changed my view that the dollar will rebound this year, as I continue to look for the Fed to be more hawkish than anticipated, but I remain in the minority.

As to the overnight session, the pound has been the biggest winner, rising 0.65% on what seems to be hope that there will be progress on the Brexit situation and that trade talks between the UK and the EU will begin soon. Personally, my take is that they have not adequately addressed the Ireland border issue and that all the so-called progress to date has been smoke and mirrors with nothing substantive yet agreed. And while the market is showing a great deal of confidence that the BOE is going to raise rates in May, I disagree. It seems far more likely to me that the Brexit talks show little progress by then and the BOE reconsiders that move. But for now, traders are getting bullish the pound and we are back above the 1.40 level. My view is it is a great sale. But away from the pound, the rest of the G10 has done very little overnight, wiggling just a few basis points from Friday’s closing levels.

In the EMG bloc, the story has actually been one of more general dollar strength. In fact, the biggest moves have been MXN (-0.7%), ZAR (-0.75%) and KRW (-0.5%), with the rest trailing along mostly little changed. The Korea story has to do with an investigation into some Kia and Hyundai airbags and a potential recall. Both companies’ stocks were lower as was the Kospi, and the currency. South Africa has suffered due to concerns that Moody’s is about to cut their credit rating to junk thus forcing them out of key emerging market bond indices and likely leading to liquidation of as much as $6 billion of local bonds by international investors. Finally, the peso seems to be under the gun from the trade situation with no help yet coming from the G20.

As to data this week, as I said before it is light:

Wednesday Existing Home Sales 5.41M
  FOMC Rate Decision 1.50% – 1.75%
Thursday Initial Claims 225K
  Leading Indicators 1.0%
Friday Durable Goods 1.7%
  -ex transport 0.6%
  New Home Sales 622K

We also hear from a few Fed speakers after the meeting, but it is hard to believe that they will have changed any views in the interim, so are likely to be mostly ignored. My gut tells me that Powell is committed to turning the Fed ship toward a more hawkish view, and that we are going to see that reflected in Wednesday’s activities. In the end, I like the dollar to finish the week a bit stronger than it is starting it.

Good luck