Naught But Fool’s Gold

There once was a story, oft told
That growth round the world would be bold
But data of late
Has shown that the fate
Of that tale was naught but fool’s gold

Instead round the world what we see
Are signs that the future will be
Somewhat less robust
Than had been discussed
Since money is no longer free!

The dollar is strong this morning, rising vs. essentially every other currency after a series of weak data points from China and the EU reinforced the idea that global growth is slowing. As I type my last note of the year, the euro is lower by 0.65%, the pound -0.7% and Aussie has fallen -0.9%. In the emerging market space, the damage is generally less severe, with both CNY and BRL falling -0.4% while MXN and INR have both slipped -0.3%. There are two notable exceptions to this, however, as ZAAR has tumbled 1.5% and KRW fallen -0.8%. In other words, the dollar is in the ascendant today.

What, you may ask, is driving this movement? It started early last evening when China released some closely watched economic indicators, all of which disappointed and indicated further slowing of the economy there. Fixed Asset Investment rose just 5.9%, IP rose just 5.4% and Retail Sales rose just 8.1%. As Chinese data continue to fall below estimates, it increases the odds that the PBOC will ease monetary policy further, thus undermining the renminbi somewhat. But the knock on effect of weakening Chinese growth is that the rest of Asia, which relies on China as a key market for their exports, will also suffer. Hence the sharp decline in AUD and NZD (-1.0%), along with KRW and the rest of the APAC currencies. It certainly appears as though the trade tensions with the US are having a deleterious effect on the Chinese economy, and that may well be the reason that we have heard of more concessions on their part in the discussions. Today’s story is that corn purchases will be restarting in January, yet another rollback of Chinese trade barriers.

But it was not just China that undermined the global growth story; Eurozone data was equally dismal in the form of PMI releases. In this case, Germany’s Manufacturing PMI printed at 51.5, France at 49.7 and the Eurozone as a whole at 51.4. Each of these was substantially below expectations and point to Q4 growth in the Eurozone slowing further. While the French story is directly related to the ongoing gilets jaune protests, Germany is a bigger issue. If you recall, Q3 growth there was negative (-0.2%) but was explained away as a one-off problem related to retooling auto plants for emissions changes in regulations. However, the data thus far in Q4 have not shown any substantive improvement and now call into question the idea that a Q4 rebound will even occur, let alone offset the weak Q3 data.

Adding to the Eurozone questions is the fact that the ECB yesterday confirmed it was ending QE this month, although it has explained that it will be maintaining the size of the balance sheet for “an extended period of time” after its first interest rate rise. Currently, the market is pricing in an ECB rate hike for September 2019, but I am very skeptical. The fact that Signor Draghi characterized economic risks as to the downside rather than balanced should come as no surprise (they are) but calls into question why they ended QE. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the ECB reduced its forecasts for both growth and inflation for 2018 and 2019, hardly the backdrop to be tightening policy. In the end, much of this was expected, although Draghi’s tone at the press conference was clearly more dovish than had been anticipated, and the euro fell all day yesterday and has continued on this morning in the wake of the weak data. And this doesn’t even include the Italian budget mess where Italy’s latest figures show a smaller deficit despite no adjustments in either spending or taxes. Magical thinking for sure!

Meanwhile, the UK continues to hurtle toward a hard Brexit as PM May was rebuffed by the EU in her attempts to gain some conciliatory language to bring back to her Parliament. While I don’t believe in the apocalyptic projections being made about the UK economy come April 1st next year, I do believe that the market will severely punish the pound when it becomes clear there will be no deal, which is likely to be some time in January.

As to the US-China trade situation, this morning there is more fear of tariffs by the US, but the negotiation is ongoing. Funnily enough, my reading of the signs is that China is, in fact, blinking here and beginning to make some concessions. The last thing President Xi can afford is for the Chinese economy to slow sharply and put millions of young men out of work. Historically, excessive unemployed youth can lead to revolution, a situation he will seek to avoid at all costs. If it means he must spin some concessions to the US into a story of strengthening the Chinese economy, that is what he will do. It would certainly be ironic if President Trump’s hardball negotiating tactics turned out to be successful in opening up the Chinese economy and broadly pushing forward a more internationalist agenda, but arguably, it cannot be ruled out. Consider the ramifications on the political debate in the US if that were to be the case!! As to the market implications, I would expect that risk would be quickly embraced, equity markets would rally sharply as would the dollar, while expectations for the Fed would revert to tighter policy in 2019 and beyond. Treasuries, on the other hand, would fall sharply and yields on the 10-year would likely test their highs from early November. We shall see.

This morning brings Retail Sales (exp 0.2%, ex autos 0.2%), IP (0.3%) and Capacity Utilization (78.6%). Data that continues to show the US growing, especially in the wake of the weakness seen elsewhere in the world, should continue to underpin the dollar going forward. While I understand the structural issues like the massive budget and current account deficits should lead to dollar weakness, we are still in a cyclical phase of the market, and the US remains the best place to be for investment, so it remains premature to write off further dollar strength.

Good luck, good weekend and happy holidays to you all.

FX Poetry will return on January 2nd with forecasts for next year, and in regular format starting January 3rd.

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