More Concern

The tide is beginning to turn
As hawks at the Fed slowly learn
Their earlier view
No longer rings true
So they’ve now expressed more concern

These days there are three key drivers of the market narrative as follows:

The Fed – There is no question that the tone of commentary from Fed speakers has softened over the past two weeks, certainly from the way it sounded two months ago. Back then Chairman Powell explained that the Fed Funds rate was “a long way” from neutral, implying numerous further interest rate hikes. Equity markets responded by selling off sharply and talk of a yield curve inversion leading to a recession was nonstop. Meanwhile, the dollar rose nicely vs. most of its counterparties. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to that next rate hike due next week; economic data started to soften.

Softer housing data as well as declines in production numbers and survey data like the ISM have resulted in a more cautionary stance by these same Fed members. While the doves (Kashkari, Bullard and Brainerd) had always shown some concern over the pace of rate hikes given the absence of measured inflation, the rest of the Fed were happy to hew to the Phillips curve model and assume that the exceptionally low unemployment rate would lead to much higher inflation. This latter view encouraged them to gradually raise rates in order to prevent a failure on that part of their mandate.

But whether it is a result of the sharp declines seen in equity prices, the ongoing bashing from President Trump or simply the fact that the growth picture is slowing (I certainly hope it is the last of these!), the tone from this august group is definitely less aggressive. And while yesterday Chairman Powell reiterated that the economy was “very strong” on many measures, he was also clear to indicate that there was much more uncertainty over what the future would bring. This change of tone has been well received by the punditry, and quite frankly, by markets, which saw a sharp late day equity rally sufficient to reduce early session losses to nearly flat.

The Fed’s problem is that they created a monster with Forward Guidance, which was great when it helped them to further their easing bias, but is not well suited to changes in policy. Futures markets are now pricing less than one rate hike in 2019, down from nearly three hikes just a month ago. Transitions are always the hardest times for any market and for all policymakers. It is no surprise that we have seen increased volatility across markets lately, and I expect it will continue.

Trade – The trade situation is extremely difficult to describe. In the course of a week, market sentiment has gone from euphoria over the reopening of talks between the US and China on Monday, to outright fear after the US had the CFO of one of China’s largest companies, Huawei, arrested in Canada regarding the breech of sanctions on Iran. There are two concerns over the trade issue that need to be addressed when considering its impact on markets. First is the impact on prices. Tariffs will unambiguously raise prices to someone as long as they are in place. The question is who will feel the pain. For importers, their choices are pass on the cost by raising prices, eat the cost by reducing margins or have their vendors eat the cost by renegotiating their prices. In the first case, it is a direct impact on inflation data, something that has not yet been evident. In the second case, it is a direct hit to profitability, also something that has not yet been evident, but it has been discussed by a number of CEO’s as they get asked about their business. In the third case, the US makes out well, with neither of the potential problems coming home to roost.

The second, knock-on impact is on growth. Higher prices will reduce demand and lower margins will reduce available cash flow, and correspondingly reduce the ability of companies to invest and grow. In other words, there are no short term positives to be had from the tariffs. However, if negative behavior can be changed because of their imposition, such that IP is protected and an agreement can help reduce all trade barriers, including non-tariff ones, then the ends may justify the means. Alas, I am not confident that will be the case. Looking at the market impact, theory would dictate the dollar should rise on the idea that other currencies will depreciate sufficiently to offset the tariffs and reestablish equilibrium. We have seen that in USDCNY, which has fallen about 8% from its peak in spring, nearly offsetting the 10% tariffs. Looking ahead though, if the tariff rate rises to 25%, it is harder to believe the Chinese will allow the yuan to fall that much further. For the past decade they have been fearful of allowing their currency to fall to quickly as it has led to significant capital flight, so it would be premature to expect a decline anywhere near that magnitude.

Oil – Oil prices have moved back to the top of the market’s play list as a combination of factors has lately driven significant volatility. It wasn’t that long ago that there was talk of oil getting back to $100/bbl, especially with the US sanctions on Iran being reimposed. But then political pressure from the US on Saudi Arabia resulted in a significant increase in production there, which alongside continuing growth in US production, turned fears of a shortage into an absolute oil glut. This resulted in a 33% decline in the price in less than two months’ time, with ensuing impact on petrocurrencies like CAD, RUB and MXN, as well as a significant change in sentiment regarding inflation. With global growth continuing to show signs of slowing further, it is hard to believe that oil prices will rebound anytime soon. As such, one needs to consider that those same currencies will remain under pressure going forward.

All of this leads us to today’s session where the primary focus will be on the employment report. Expectations are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 200K
Private Payrolls 200K
Manufacturing Payrolls 20K
Unemployment Rate 3.7%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.1% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Michigan Sentiment 97.0

It feels like the market is more concerned over a strong number, which might put the Fed on alert for further rate hikes. In fact, it seems like we have moved into a good news is bad situation again, at least for equities. For the dollar, though, strong data is likely to lead to support. My view is that we may start to see a softer tone from the data, which would lead to further softening in the dollar, but a rebound in stocks.

Good luck and good weekend
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