There once was a long stretch of time
When markets were truly sublime
But six weeks ago
A sudden outflow
Of funds caused a new paradigm
Volatility continues to be the watchword in markets these days, especially in the equity space. The last three sessions have seen a rout, a boom and then another rout with each move pushing 2% or more. This is proof positive, if it wasn’t already obvious, that the days of somnolence and steady gains that we experienced in 2017 are well and truly over. It is actually quite difficult to keep up with all the stories that are whipsawing sentiment as they come fast and furious each day. Trade wars, a renewal of the cold war, increased regulatory scrutiny on the tech sector, higher inflation, softening economic data and political turmoil are just some of the factors that have been blamed for the recent price action. And while I am sure that each one of those factors had some impact at some point in time, I would ultimately point to a single overriding issue that has changed things, the removal of central bank support from markets continues apace.
For nearly ten years the major central banks around the world printed and injected $21 Trillion (with a T) into global markets in their efforts to support economic growth. This was a hyper-Keynesian play that all their models told them would prevent further damage. But this was essentially an enormous experiment in monetary policy with no certain outcome. And while it seems that the central banks may have stopped a sharp decline in economic activity back then, the unintended consequences of their actions are starting to be felt. Now as the Fed leads the way in removing that support, markets are having a difficult time coping with the change. Remember, even though the Fed is reducing its balance sheet, the ECB and BOJ continue to add to theirs, so right now, it seems there as a fragile equilibrium in total central bank balance sheet size. But there is every indication that the latter two are preparing to reduce theirs as well which, as I have written time and again, is part and parcel of the current market narrative and a key rationale behind expectations of a weaker dollar going forward.
But something else occurred during this period as well; we saw a significant increase in computer-led, automated trading including AI processes. And all of those models were built based on the most recent market data, which happened to include the unprecedented stimulus of the world’s central banks. However, it is becoming abundantly clear that this fact was not seen as a variable, rather simply as part of the initial conditions. The upshot is not only do we have an entire generation of traders who have never seen a down market, but we have an entire industry segment of computer trading models that never assumed it was part of the equation. Having been involved in markets for a pretty long time, I can tell you that volatility is the norm, not the exception. And while there may be a specific catalyst to any given move, the underlying market paradigm has very clearly shifted to one where price movement going forward is going to be fast and uncertain rather than last year’s remarkable slow and steady in one direction.
While equity markets get the most press, this phenomenon has been the reality across every market and that means each one is going to seem increasingly unstable compared to what we got used to seeing last year. So be prepared, this is going to be the state of play for quite a while.
Now, with all that said, the overnight session was actually pretty tame. While yesterday’s US equity market rout saw some follow through in Asia, with both Chinese and Japanese markets falling sharply, as well as a significant Treasury rally taking the 10-year yield down to 2.76%, breaking both the bottom of its trading range and the 50-day moving average (a key technical indicator), European markets have been soft but not excessively so, and the FX market has shown a muted response. In fact, surprisingly, the dollar is slightly stronger against most currencies, with the biggest surprises being the yen and Swiss franc, the two best-known havens. In a market like this I would have expected both those currencies to rally, and yet both are lower as I type, with the CHF (-0.4%) actually the weakest of the G10 bloc. As there was no data released in either nation, these moves are clearly not data related but rather seem to be of a piece with the broad dollar trend today.
And what, you may ask, is driving the dollar higher? That is the $64,000 question, but one with no obvious answer. Scanning the broad markets, my sense is one thing supporting the dollar these days is the ongoing rise in short dated US rates, notably LIBOR, which continues to power ahead and has reached its highest point since 2008 at 2.30%. While most analysts continue to highlight the technical reasons driving the rise, the rate has clearly become an attractive carry target. In addition, given the last time that the LIBOR-OIS spread had widened this much the market was in the midst of the Eurozone bond crisis, and this spread has historically been a harbinger of systemic credit concerns, there are clearly some investors who are simply more comfortable in dollars than other currencies. Consider that prior to QE, the dollar was the ultimate safe haven currency. If the central banks are heading back toward that status again, doesn’t it make sense for the dollar to reacquire that mantle of the safest currency around? Once again I will point out that as the paradigm shifts in central banks and monetary policy, the impacts are going to be felt throughout markets in some unexpected ways.
With all that in mind, let’s discuss what to expect today. Yesterday’s data showed us that Housing prices are still rising and consumer confidence may well have peaked. This morning we await the final look at Q4 US GDP (exp 2.7%) along with an advanced Trade report (goods only expected at -$74.0B). Since the former is so backward looking, it would take quite a revision to move markets. However, given the current focus on trade, it is very possible that a larger than expected number in the trade report could have some knock-on effects, especially if we hear commentary from the White House, as it could reignite trade war fears. Yesterday we also heard from the Atlanta Fed’s Rafael Bostic who said he is comfortable with the current rate path at this time although he and his fellow FOMC members were closely watching the data to see if things change. He speaks again today and it would be remarkable if he changed his tune.
Speaking of the Fed, one thing that I believe has already changed under Chair Powell is that the idea the Fed will step in to allay concerns if equity markets tumble, the so-called Fed put, has been significantly devalued in the new Fed. If it still exists, I would at the very least that the strike price has been moved far out of the money. In other words, a stock market decline would need to be so large and so fast that the Fed believes it would destabilize the economy itself, and that is a much higher bar than markets had gotten used to from the previous three Fed Chairs. This, too, is part of the new paradigm. Taking everything into account, my sense is that the dollar will continue to hold onto its modest gains today, but that large movements will need to await further data. Remember, tomorrow we have PCE data released, and any surprise to the high side will simply reinforce the idea that the Fed is not going to be deterred in raising rates. But that is not today’s concern.