Much to all Free Traders’ chagrin
More tariffs are set to begin
But markets appear
To have little fear
This madness will cause a tailspin
As NY walks in this morning, there has been very limited movement in the dollar overall. While yesterday saw a modicum of dollar weakness, at least against the G10 currencies, we remain range bound with no immediate prospects for a breakout. It does appear that US data is turning more mixed than clearly bullish, as evidenced by yesterday’s Empire Manufacturing Survey data, which printed at 19, still solid but down from last month’s reading of 25.6 as well as below expectations of 23.0. A quick look at the recent history of this indicator shows that it appears to be rolling over from its recent high levels, perhaps signaling that peak growth is behind us.
At this point, it is fair to question what is causing this change in tone. During the summer, US data was unambiguously strong, with most releases beating expectations, but lately that dynamic has changed. The most obvious catalyst is the ongoing trade situation, which if anything worsened yesterday when President Trump announced that the US would be imposing 10% tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese imports. In addition, these are set to rise to 25% in January if there is no further progress in the trade negotiations. As well, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on an additional $267 billion of goods, meaning that everything imported from China would be impacted. As we have heard from several Fed speakers, this process has grown to be the largest source of uncertainty for the US economy, and by extension for financial markets.
Yet financial markets seem to be quite complacent with regard to the potential damage that the trade war can inflict on the economy and growth. As evidence I point to the modest declines in US equities yesterday, but more importantly, to the rally in Asian equities overnight. While it is fair to say that the impact of this tariff war will not be directly felt in earnings results for at least another quarter or two, it is still surprising that the market is not pricing the potential negative consequences more severely. This implies one of two things; either the market has already priced in this scenario and the risks are seen as minimal, or that the rise in passive investing, which has exploded to nearly 45% of equity market activity, has reduced the stock market’s historic role as a leading indicator of economic activity. If it is the former, my concern is that actual results will underperform current expectations and drive market declines later. However, I fear the latter situation is closer to the truth, which implies that one of the long-time functions of the equity market, anticipating and discounting future economic activity, is changing. The risk here is that policymakers will lose an important signal as to expectations, weakening their collective hands further. And let’s face it, they need all the help they can get!
Turning back to the dollar, not only has the G10 has been dull, but EMG currencies are generally benign as well. In fact, the only substantive movement has come from everybody’s favorite whipping boy, TRY. This morning it is back under pressure, down 1.3% and has now erased all the gains it made in the wake of last week’s surprising 625bp rate hike. But in truth, beyond that, I can’t find an important emerging market currency that has moved more than 20bps. There are two key central bank meetings this week, Brazil tomorrow and South Africa on Thursday. Right now, expectations are for both to stand pat, leaving interest rates in both nations at 6.50%. However, the whisper campaign is brewing that South Africa may raise rates, which has undoubtedly helped the rand over the past two weeks as it has rallied some 4.5% during that time. We will know more by Thursday.
This overall lack of activity implies that traders are waiting the next important catalyst for movement, which may well be next Wednesday’s FOMC meeting! That is a very long time in the market for treading water, however, given the US data the rest of this week is second tier, and the trade situation is widely understood at this time, it is a challenge to see what else will matter until we hear from the Fed. And remember, the market has already priced in a 100% probability that they will raise rates by 25bps, so this is really all about updated forecasts, the dot plot and the press conference. But until then, my sense is that we are in for a decided lack of movement in the FX world.