No Progress Was Made

In Washington, talks about trade
Twixt us and the Chinese decayed
Both sides pitched their views
But couldn’t enthuse
The other. No progress was made

Today, though, the Fed Chairman Jay
Will speak and might seek to convey
How high rates may rise
Or how he’ll devise
A plan to keep prices at bay

Two key themes dominate the FX markets this morning, yesterday’s failure of low-level trade talks between the US and China to make any progress and the beginning of the Kansas City Fed’s Jackson Hole conference.

Starting with trade, last evening, the talks ended with no progress of note. Both sides explained that they had expressed their views, but there was no indication that there was movement on either side toward a compromise. Obviously, politics will play a huge role in this process, and so it becomes extremely difficult to forecast how things will evolve. However, as the day progressed yesterday, it seemed increasingly likely that nothing beneficial would occur, and so the dollar regained its footing. In fact, it had its best day (+0.6%) since it reached its recent peak early last week and reversed course lower. Interestingly, this morning the dollar has given back some of that ground, but net remains higher than when I wrote yesterday morning. It has become clearer to me that the market presumption is more trade angst will lead to a firmer dollar, which is simply an additional catalyst for dollar strength in the near and medium term. But we will need to watch the trade situation carefully, as any indication that progress is being made is likely to result in a dollar retreat.

But that was yesterday’s story, and at this point is virtually ancient history. Today is all about the Fed symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, specifically about Chairman Powell’s speech at 10:00am EDT. Analysts and traders are waiting to hear his latest thoughts on monetary policy and how he sees it evolving. Yesterday we heard from two regional Fed presidents, Dallas’s Richard Kaplan and KC’s Esther George, both of whom said that the committee was entirely focused on its Congressional mandates of price stability and maximum employment, and that they would not be swayed by comments from the President. And incidentally, both said they see at least four more rate hikes between now and the end of next year. In fact Ms George is in the camp leaning toward six more over that time frame. Of course, this is all dependent on the evolution of the US economy. As long as it continues to grow in the current manner, it seems there will be no dissuading the Fed from removing accommodation. That said, Mr. Powell’s speech this morning is seen as critical in helping define exactly how much tightening is on the way. The funny thing about those expectations is that Powell is probably the last person who is likely to set expectations in that manner. He is all about pragmatism and reacting to the data as it evolves. Certainly, if the US economy continues to grow quickly, he will be leading the charge for higher rates. But if cracks start to show, or the trade situation causes deterioration in the economic data, I expect he will be perfectly happy to pause.

Speaking of cracks in the data, yesterday brought us New Home Sales, which disappointed by rising only 627K in July, down 1.7% from June’s level and back to the lowest since last October. This followed softer than expected Existing Home Sales data on Wednesday and seems to indicate that the housing market may have peaked for now. Given its importance to the overall economy, that is a somewhat worrying sign, especially given the state of employment here. If the best employment data in decades cannot help perk up housing, it may well be ripe for a more substantial correction. Following that line of reasoning further, it is an open question as to whether we have seen the peak in US growth and just how rapidly the situation here might change. Food for thought, but it is still early days for this idea.

A quick survey of FX market movement overnight shows that the dollar’s decline is pretty uniform. The G10 leader higher is AUD (+0.8%), which has shown a positive reaction to the changing of PM’s there, with Malcolm Turnbull out and Scott Morrison, the previous Treasurer, now the PM. But the euro and pound are both firmer by about 0.4% despite lackluster UK mortgage data and Eurozone data that merely met expectations. As I said, today’s dollar weakness appears more a response to the trade story than data.

In the EMG bloc, ZAR is firmer by 1.1% as traders decided that comments by President Trump regarding South African land reform were actually not that relevant and would not impact policy. But we have also seen CNY rocket higher by nearly 1.0%, (post trade talk reaction?), RUB jump 1.0% on the back of higher oil prices and even TRY has found its footing, at least temporarily, rising 0.4%.

But in the end, it would be surprising to see much market movement between now and Powell’s speech. Rather, I expect that the market will absorb the Durable Goods data (exp -0.5%, +0.5% ex Transport) with aplomb and be right here when he starts. After that it is dependent on what he says. If pressed, I expect that he will subtly reaffirm the Fed’s independence, talk up the economy, and indicate monetary policy is on the right trajectory for now, in other words, US rates have plenty further to rise this year and next, at least. And as rates rise, so goes the dollar.

Good luck