Trembling With Fear

The one thing increasingly clear
Is markets are trembling with fear
As stock markets tumble
Most central banks fumble
Their message, then get a Bronx cheer

Being a central banker has become much more difficult recently, especially in the wake of yesterday’s global equity market rout. It seems that policies that they have collectively promulgated, QE and ZIRP/NIRP are now quite long in the tooth, and no longer having the positive impact desired. Let’s recap quickly.

The Great recession in 2008 called for an extraordinary monetary response by central banks around the world, and rightly so. The deepest recession since the Great Depression saw liquidity across many markets completely dry up. Even FX, arguably the most liquid market of them all, had structural problems. So the combination of QE and USD swap lines offered by the Fed to the rest of the world’s central banks was an appropriate response to help untangle the mess. Alas, fiscal policy never chipped in to the recovery and central banks took it upon themselves to do all the lifting, thus relieving governments of the need to make hard decisions. In hindsight, this was a key mistake!

Fast forward ten years to today and the situation, remarkably, is that most of that extraordinary monetary stimulus is still sloshing around the world as other than the Fed and the Bank of Canada (who raised rates yesterday and indicated they would be quickening the pace of doing so in the future), no other major central bank has done anything of note. The ECB, the BOJ and the PBOC are all still adding liquidity to their systems, while the BOE has raised rates just 25bps, net, from the lows established after the crisis. And the same is true of peripheral nations like Switzerland, Sweden and Australia, where interest rates remain at their post crisis nadirs (-0.75%, -0.50% and 1.50% respectively).

The problem for these central banks is that growth is starting to slow on a global basis. Whether it is the increased trade friction between the US and China, concerns over Brexit or simply that the US recovery (which still arguably drives most of the global economy) is now the longest on record and due to end, the situation is increasingly fraught. And that’s the rub. If interest rates are already negative, what can central banks do to stimulate the economy in the event of a recession? The answer, of course, is not much. More QE and even deeper negative interest rates are unlikely to have the same positive impact the first efforts had, in fact they could have the opposite effect by generating greater concern amongst investors and causing a more severe sell-off in markets. But politically, no central bank will be able to sit by and do nothing if a recession does appear. As I said, central banking has become much more difficult lately.

That is all a preamble to discuss what is going on in markets right now. FX is a backburner issue with equities front and center around the world. While European markets have stabilized at this time, one session of stability is not sufficient to declare an end to the rout. In the end, markets remain beholden to broad sentiment, the narrative if you will, and for the past ten years that narrative was that continued low inflation combined with steady growth would allow the central banks to maintain ultra easy monetary policy with no negative side effects. But in the past year, the cracks in that narrative have grown to the point where it is no longer seen as viable. First, inflation has begun to creep higher in certain areas around the world, notably the US and China. At the same time, growth data appears to have peaked last quarter. Tomorrow we will see the first estimate of Q3 GDP growth in the US (exp 3.3%), which is already considerably lower than Q2. In addition, we have seen Chinese growth slow more than expected and German growth fall to 0.0% in Q3. The combination of rising inflation and slower growth has put central banks in a bind forcing them to choose which issue to address first. The problem is by addressing one they are likely to exacerbate the other. So as the Fed fights threats of higher inflation, it impedes growth. Meanwhile, China has opted to support growth, thus feeding faster inflation. In the end, as the next recession looms closer, central banks will find themselves with fewer policy arrows in their quiver.

But this is an FX note, so let’s take a quick look at the market this morning. The dollar is a touch softer, with both the euro and the pound higher by 0.15% while we are seeing similar moves in most emerging market currencies. Activity in the market seems muted relative to the excitement in equities, but my sense is this will not last. Rather, if the equity sell-off continues, the dollar should find itself in a much stronger position. As to the stories that have been driving things in FX, the Italian budget, Brexit, central bank policies, there have been no real changes in the past twenty-four hours. The possible exception is that the interest rate futures market in the US has removed one price hike from the Fed’s expected path as concern grows that a continues slide in the stock market will lead to weaker growth and less need to keep driving rates higher. It seems that the Fed realizes that it began its tightening process far too late (thank you Chair Yellen!) and is now desperately trying to catch up so they can respond to the next downturn. But hey, the ECB is MUCH further behind.

Looking forward to today’s session, we start with the ECB meeting, where they announced no change in policy rates, but we still await Signor Draghi’s press conference at 8:30. It will be interesting if he continues to characterize the Eurozone economy risks as balanced, or if the downside risks are now elevated. If the latter, look for the euro to decline sharply! We also get US data including Durable Goods (exp -1.0%, ex transport +0.5%) and the Goods Trade Balance (-$74.9B). Yesterday’s New Home Sales data was awful, just 553K, well below expectations, and another sign that parts of the economy here are rolling over. I still don’t believe that the data turn has been enough to change the Fed’s mind about a December rate hike, but if numbers start to fall, watch out. Tomorrow’s GDP print will be quite important to the market. But today, I think the ECB dominates the story.

Good luck