It seems that the pumping of cash
By China was good for a flash
Of higher stock prices
But there’s still a crisis
So traders there felt some whiplash
In Europe, the same might be said
As traders, Italian debt fled
The EU today
Rome’s budget will weigh
With portents of more strife ahead
Remember how the officially induced rally in the Chinese equity market was going to stabilize markets? Yeah, me neither. It seems that, last night, despite lots more talk and promises of more funding, investors in those equity markets were decidedly unimpressed with the prospects and have resumed their active share selling. Overnight saw the Shanghai composite decline 2.25% and drag the rest of Asian markets lower alongside (Nikkei -2.7%, Hang Seng -2.9%). The impact on the CNY was very much as would be expected, a modest decline of 0.25% as traders test the PBOC resolve of preventing a move to 7.00.
This has also impacted European markets, which are lower across the board, none more so than Germany’s DAX which has fallen 2.0%. Given the ongoing angst over the Italian budget situation, one might have expected the Italian markets to be the worst performers, but Germany revealed its own little secret this morning, Q3 GDP growth there is expected to be 0.0%! That’s right, Europe’s strongest economy is going to suffer a stagnant quarter, and so equity markets have responded accordingly. This is not to imply that all is rosy in Rome, just that the Germans had a bigger surprise today.
Before moving on to the Italian story, let me note that the situation in China needs to be watched carefully going forward for another reason. For the past ten years, central banks around the world have controlled the price action in markets. Whether it was the first QE implementation by Benny the Beard, or Signor Draghi’s “whatever it takes” comments, when central bankers spoke, markets responded as the bankers desired. But lately, those same central banks seem to have lost a little bit of their mojo, as comments they make in an effort to sway markets have a shorter and shorter half-life. The fact that despite a concerted effort by every senior financial official in China, including President Xi, to talk up equity markets, and by reference the health of the Chinese economy, has had such a short lived impact, may well imply that the meme of central banks controlling markets is coming to an end.
And to my mind, that would be a good thing. Ten years of unprecedented monetary policy actions have dramatically distorted price signals in virtually every market. Whether it is the abnormally low spread between high-yield debt and government bonds, or the idea that P/E ratios of 100 are the signs of a good investment, markets no longer offer price discovery. Or perhaps they no longer offer the opportunity to discern value in a price. Keep in mind that there are still more than €5 trillion of debt outstanding that have negative interest rates. But while I may see this as a positive step toward markets regaining their functionality, the central banks are likely to feel very differently. If their words are no longer effective tools to manage markets, they will be forced to enact actual policies, some of which may be contrary to fiscal considerations. ‘Forward guidance’ is much easier to implement (and comes with much less political fallout) than actual policy changes. Just remember, if this thesis is correct, market volatility in every market is going to increase going forward.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. The Italian budget continues to be topic number one in terms of current risks to market stability. Thus far the Italian government has been unwilling to change its plans and the EU is studying them closely to determine if the budget breaks the rules. The problem for the EU is that if they crack down hard, reject the budget and tell Rome what to do, it is likely to further inflame the anti-establishment forces in Italy, and potentially have a bigger detrimental impact on the European Parliament elections to be held early next year. However, if they do nothing, the risk is that Italy finds itself in a situation where it has increased difficulty in refinancing its debt, and that could stress the entire Eurozone project. It was much easier for the EU to act tough with Greece, whose economy was so tiny. Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone , and if they have financing troubles it could quickly lead to problems throughout the continent, and directly impact the euro. In other words, there is no good answer.
The market impact of this ongoing situation has been a gradual erosion in the euro’s value, which fell about 0.7% yesterday, although it has stabilized this morning. While the German GDP story is obviously a negative for the currency, the reality is that the euro, for now, is beholden to the Italian budget story. If Italy remains recalcitrant, look for further weakness. Meanwhile, the pound, too, suffered yesterday, falling a penny alongside the euro, as the ongoing Brexit story continues to weigh on the currency. Consider that there are essentially five months left to find a compromise and that the problem has not gotten any easier. Despite the lack of progress, I still expect some sort of face-saving deal at the end of the process, but the risk situation is highly skewed. If there is no deal, look for the pound to fall very sharply, maybe another 5% right away, whereas any deal will likely only see a relief rally of 2% or so. Hedgers beware.
And those are really the only stories that matter today. There is a great deal of discussion regarding the US midterm elections, and how any given result may impact markets, but that is well beyond the purview of this note. Generally, risk was tossed overboard yesterday as 10-year Treasury yields fell 5bps, gold rallied and so did the dollar, the yen and the Swiss franc. This morning, there has been less movement in that group of havens, although risk assets remain under pressure. My sense is that given the absence of any US data, the broad risk profile will drive the dollar. To me, all signs point to further equity weakness and therefore more haven buying. I like the dollar in that scenario.