Not Quite Yet Elated

The sell-off in stocks has abated
Though bulls are not quite yet elated
Most bonds, which had jumped
This morning were dumped
While dollar bears still are frustrated

Two days of substantial equity weakness has halted this morning, with Asian markets rebounding nicely and Europe also on the rise. As usual, it is not clear exactly what caused this reaction, but there are several reasonable candidates. The first was a softer than expected US inflation print yesterday morning. If, in fact, inflation in the US continues to remain just north of 2.0%, then the Fed may feel much less urgency to raise rates aggressively, and markets around the world will appreciate that change of stance. Remember, one of the reasons that we have seen such disruption elsewhere in the world, most notably throughout emerging market economies and markets, is that during the eight year long period of US ZIRP, companies and governments around the world gorged themselves on cheap USD debt. Eight rate hikes later, that debt is no longer so cheap, especially when it comes time for those borrowers to refinance. So any hint that the Fed will have a lower terminal rate is going to be perceived as a market positive.

The other news was a surprise increase in the Chinese trade surplus, which rose to $31.7B, far above the expected $19.4B. Exports, to everyone’s surprise, rose 14.5% despite the tariff situation. While some of this may be due to timing issues of when these shipments were recognized, the news was positive nonetheless. I expect that as we go forward, Chinese export data is likely to suffer, but for now, the news is better than expected. Beyond those two stories, it is difficult to make a case for any real change anywhere.

One of the interesting things about the past two sessions is that while risk was clearly being jettisoned, the dollar was not a beneficiary like it had been in the past during these events. Traditionally, dollar strength accompanies weak equity and commodity markets, but not this time. Of course, one of the big issues in the market right now is the structural deficit in the US. Expansionary fiscal policy here has resulted in the highest non-wartime budget deficits on record, now approaching $1 trillion for this year and certain to be more than that next year, which means that the Treasury is going to need to issue a lot more debt to pay for things. At the same time, the Fed continues to reduce its bid for Treasury bonds as it shrinks its balance sheet steadily. This combination of events is almost certainly going to lead to higher US interest rates out the curve, as more price sensitive investors become the marginal buyer.

For the past six months, higher US rates have been an unalloyed USD positive, driving the dollar back to its levels of late last year and scotching all the talk of a significant dollar decline. But if you recall, I wrote about the opposing structural and cyclical issues facing the dollar several months ago, where the cyclical highlighted the faster growth in the US economy and higher interest rates as a dollar support, while the structural issues of growing twin deficits (budget and current account) pointed to a weaker currency going forward. It is entirely possible that the market’s recent behavior, where despite a risk-off situation the dollar is falling, is an indication that the structural issues are starting to lead the conversation. If that is the case, the dollar is likely to have seen its peak. While it is too early to know for sure, this is something that we will monitor closely going forward.

With regard to specifics in today’s session, most currencies have halted their rally but not really declined much. Other than the Chinese trade data, there has not been much of interest released today, and in the US all we get is Michigan Sentiment (exp 100.4). What we do know is that it is a Friday at the end of a stressful week for markets, which typically results in less active markets. Equity futures in the US are pointing higher, and as long as the US markets follow suit with Asia and Europe and rebound, I expect the dollar will do very little on the day. However, if we see this early strength turn around and US equity markets wind up closing lower on the day, look for much more global anxiety over the weekend and the risk-off sentiment to resume in earnest next week. That includes, at this time, further dollar weakness. So unusually, a modest equity market rally should result in modest USD strength, while a sell-off will likely see the dollar suffer as well.

Good luck and good weekend
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