A Torch Song

As summer meanders along
Two stories are still going strong
In China the yuan
Is just hanging on
While Brexit’s become a torch song

Last night was yet another session of modest activity in foreign exchange as market participants’ focused on the same two stories that have been hogging the headlines for months; Brexit and its fallout on the pound; and China and the deteriorating trade situation. In fact, there is one other story that gets some press, the collapsing Turkish lira, but given the fact that TRY is a relatively inconsequential currency in the broad scheme of things, it is sufficient to know that the problems there are unlikely to get better soon, but also unlikely to have a wider impact on markets.

Let’s start with China today. Last night’s trade data showed that their surplus shrank substantially, to $28B, as imports surged more than 27% while export growth was a more modest 12%. At the same time, their surplus with the US fell only slightly, from $28.9B to $28.1B. It is the latter data that has been driving the current US trade policy, and the modest improvement seems unlikely to change anything. Already, tariffs on the next $16B are set to be put in place in two weeks’ time, and the list of products for the following grouping of $200B is being finalized and tariffs could be imposed as soon as September 6th. The Chinese have not yet blinked, but by all accounts, the situation in the Chinese economy is starting to get a bit more concerning.

The PBOC has flooded the market there with liquidity as evidenced by the fact that Chinese interest rates across the curve have fallen to the lowest levels seen in more than three years. (If you recall three years ago was when the PBOC instituted their ‘mini-devaluation’ in the yuan, which led to massive capital outflows and forced them to spend in excess of $1 trillion of reserves defending the yuan.) Regardless of the fact that those capital controls remain in place, it is pretty clear that money is flowing out of China right now. The question is, will those flows increase to a more troubling level forcing more aggressive PBOC action? Interestingly, a recent survey of traders and economists showed a strong belief that the PBOC will be able to contain CNY weakness and there is limited expectation for the currency to weaken beyond 7.00. Adding to this view, last night the PBOC called the major banks into a meeting and ‘encouraged’ them to insure their clients don’t become caught up in the “herd behavior” of selling yuan. This verbal suasion is in addition to their recent re-imposition of excess capital requirements for short CNY forward positions as well as the PBOC’s significantly increased activity in the FX swaps market, where they have sold so many dollars forward that the points have fallen to a discount, despite the fact that a pure interest rate calculation would put them at a substantial premium. As powerful as the PBOC is, and as much control as they exert over the currency, the market is still bigger than they are. If the Chinese population fears that the yuan is going to weaken further, they will find ways to get their money out of China, and it will be a self-fulfilling event. The benefit for hedgers is that with one-year USDCNY forwards at a discount, hedging assets and receivables is now very cost effective.

Turning to the UK and the ongoing Brexit story, there actually seems to have been little new in the way of news overnight. However, just before NY walked in, the pound extended its losses and is now down more than 0.5% on the day and trading at one year lows. The problem for the pound is that as the timeline leading to Brexit shrinks, no news is no longer good news. The lack of activity is an indication that the probability of a no-deal Brexit is growing, and as I have written several times recently, if there is no deal, the pound is likely to fall sharply. In fact, at this point in time, there is probably a short-term risk that the pound can move sharply higher in response to something positive in this process. For example, if the EU were to soften its stance, or make a serious accommodation, the pound could easily rise a few percent on the news. However, that doesn’t seem very likely, at least based on anything that has been reported in the past several weeks.

Beyond those stories, though, there is precious little to discuss. Yesterday, as expected, the JOLTs report showed that there are many jobs available in the US, 6.66M to be exact, which is simply in line with the strong employment situation that we all know exists. Today, however, there is no new data to absorb, and really, until Friday’s CPI, the FX market will be looking elsewhere for catalysts. My sense is that the trade story will remain the single biggest driver, and that it still points to a stronger dollar for now. Keep that in mind as you look ahead.

Good luck