A Statement, Acute

The company named for a fruit
Explained in a statement, acute
Though services grew
Its gross revenue
Was destined, not to follow suit

The impact ‘cross markets was vast
As traders, most havens, amassed
Thus Treasuries jumped
The dollar was dumped
While yen demand was unsurpassed

Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope it is a successful and prosperous 2019 for everyone.

But boy, has it gotten off to a rough start! Since I last wrote on December 14, volatility across markets has done nothing but increase as fear continues to pervade both the investor and trader communities. While some pundits point to the trade war and/or the US government shutdown, what has been apparent to me for the past several months is that central banking efforts around the world to normalize policy have begun to take their toll on economic activity and by extension on markets that have become completely dependent on that monetary buffer.

Ten years of extraordinary monetary support by central banks around the world has changed the way markets behave at a fundamental level. The dramatic increase in computer driven, algorithmic trading across markets, as well as passive investing and implicitly short volatility strategies has relegated fundamental analysis to the dust heap of history. Or so it seems. The problem with this situation is that when conditions change, meaning liquidity is no longer being continually added to markets, all those strategies suffer. It will be interesting to watch just how long the world’s central banks, who are desperately trying to normalize monetary policy before the next economic downturn, are able to continue on their present path before the pressure of slowing growth forces a reversion to ‘free’ money for all. (Despite all their claims of independence, I expect that before the summer comes, tighter monetary policy will be a historical footnote.)

In the meantime, last night’s volatility was triggered when a certain mega cap consumer electronics firm explained to investors that its sales in China would be much weaker than previously forecast. Blaming the outcome on a slowing Chinese economy, management tried to highlight growth elsewhere, but all for naught. The market response was immediate, with equity markets falling sharply, including futures in both Europe and the US, and the FX markets picking up where last year’s volatility left off. Notably, with Tokyo still on holiday, the yen exploded more 3.5% vs. the dollar during the twilight hours between New York’s close and Singapore’s open, trading to levels not seen since last March. While it has given back a large portion of those gains, it remains higher by 1.2% in the session, and is more than 5% stronger than when I last wrote. If ever there was a signal that fear continues to pervade markets, the yen’s performance over the past three weeks is surely that signal.

Speaking of slowing Chinese growth, the recent PMI data from China printed below that critical 50.0 level at a weaker than expected 49.4, simply confirming the fears of many. What has become quite clear is that thus far, the trade dispute is having a much more measurable negative impact on China’s economy than on the US economy. This has prompted the PBOC to ease policy further overnight, expanding the definition of a small company to encourage more lending to that sector. Banks there that increase their loans to SME’s will see their reserve requirements reduced by up to a full percentage point going forward. (One thing that is very clear is there is no pretense of independence by the PBOC, it is a wholly owned operation of the Chinese government and President Xi!) I guess China is the first central bank to back away from policy normalization as the PBOC’s previous efforts to wring excess leverage out of the system are now overwhelmed by trying to add back that leverage! Look for the ECB to crack soon, and the Fed not far behind.

And while the rest of the FX market saw some pretty fair activity, this was clearly the key story driving activity. The funny thing about the euro is that there are mixed views as to whether the euro or the dollar is a better safe haven, which means that in risk-off scenarios like we saw last night, EURUSD tends not to move very far. Arguably, its future will be determined by which of the two central banks capitulates to weaker data first. (My money continues to be on the ECB).

This week is a short one, but we still have much data to come, including the NFP report tomorrow. So here is a quick update of what to expect today and tomorrow:

Today ADP Employment 178K
  Initial Claims 220K
  ISM Manufacturing 57.9
  ISM Prices Paid 58.0
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 177K
  Private Payrolls 175K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 20K
  Unemployment Rate 3.7%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.5

Tomorrow we also hear from Fed Chair Powell, as well as two other speakers (Bullard and Barkin) and then Saturday, Philly Fed President Harker speaks. At this point, all eyes will be on the Chairman tomorrow as market participants are desperate to understand if the Fed’s reaction function to data is set to change, or if they remain committed to their current policy course. One thing that is certain is if the Fed slows or stops the balance sheet shrinkage, equity markets around the world will rally sharply, the dollar and the yen will fall and risky assets, in general, should all benefit with havens under pressure. At least initially. But don’t be surprised if the central banks have lost the ability to drive markets in their preferred long-term direction, even when explicitly trying to do so!

Good luck