If Job Numbers Swoon

For Powell, the data he’s viewing
Shows weakness is palpably brewing
Will he change his tune
If job numbers swoon?
If not, it could prove his undoing!

The admonition that markets will remain volatile in 2019 certainly has held true to form thus far. After a significant sell-off in global equity markets yesterday, two pieces of news have now helped a partial rebound. First was the story that vice-ministerial trade talks are now scheduled to be held between the US and China next Monday and Tuesday. The market has taken this as a sign that the trade conflict is abating and that there will be a deal forthcoming shortly. While that would certainly be great news, it seems a bit premature. Nonetheless, it was clearly seen as a market positive overnight.

The second bit of news comes from China, where the PBOC has announced a 1.0% cut in the RRR for all Chinese banks, half to be implemented next week and half two weeks later. As opposed to the very targeted efforts announced earlier in the week, this is a broad-based easing of monetary policy, the first since 2016, and appears to be a direct response to the fact that the Manufacturing PMI data is alluding to contraction in the Chinese economy. As I have written before, China will be forced to continue to ease monetary policy this year due to slowing growth, and it is for that reason that I expect the renminbi to gradually decline all year.

But the bad news is not restricted to China, we have also seen weaker data from both the US and Europe. Yesterday’s ISM Manufacturing data printed at 54.1, significantly lower than expectations and its weakest print November 2016, and while still in expansionary territory is indicative of slowing growth ahead. Meanwhile, inflation data from the Eurozone showed that price pressures continue to recede there on the back of sharply declining oil prices with the area wide CPI rising only 1.6% and the core reading remaining at 1.0%. It appears that the mooted inflation pressures Signor Draghi has been dreaming about remain only in his dreams.

Bond market reaction to this data was very much as would be expected, with 10-year Treasury yields falling to 2.57%, their lowest level since last January, while Bund yields have fallen back to 0.15%, levels not seen since April 2017. In fact, the futures market in the US is now beginning to bet on a rate cut by the Fed before the end of 2019. If you recall, at the December FOMC meeting, the dot plot indicated a median expectation of two more rate hikes this year.

What we can safely say is that there is a great deal of uncertainty in markets right now, and many disparate opinions as to how the economy will perform going forward, and to how the Fed and its central banking brethren will respond. And that uncertainty is not likely to dissipate any time soon. In fact, my fear is that when it does start to fade, it will be because the data is pointing to a much slower growth trajectory, or a recession on a widespread basis. At that point, uncertainty will diminish, but so will asset values!

And how, you may ask, is all this affecting the dollar? Well, yesterday’s price action was of the risk off variety, where the yen was the leader, but the dollar outperformed most emerging market currencies, as well as Aussie and Kiwi, but was slightly softer vs. the rest of its G10 counterparts. This morning, however, on the strength of the trade talk news and policy ease by China, risk is being tentatively embraced and so the yen has fallen a bit, -0.35%, and the dollar has ceded most of its recent gains vs. the EMG space. For example, ZAR (+1.3%), RUB (+1.0%), TRY (+1.1%), and IDR (+1.0%) have all managed to rally sharply alongside a rebound in commodity prices. As well, the market is still enamored of newly installed President Bolsonaro in Brazil with the real higher by a further 0.9% this morning, taking the YTD gain up to 3.0%.

As for the G10, AUD has benefitted from the Chinese news, rising 0.55%, while CAD and NOK are both higher by 0.5% on the back of the rebound in oil prices. This move was a reaction to OPEC output falling sharply. As to the euro, it is higher by just 0.2% although it has recouped about half its losses from Wednesday now. And finally, the pound has bounced as well after its PMI data was actually a positive surprise. That said, it remains within a few percent of its post Brexit vote lows, and until there is a resolution there, will be hard-pressed to gain much ground. Of course, if there is no deal, the pound is likely to move sharply lower. The UK Parliament is due to vote on the current deal next week, although recent news from PM May’s political allies, the Northern Irish DUP, indicates they are unhappy with the deal and cannot support it yet. With less than three months to go before Brexit is upon us, it is increasingly looking like there will be no deal beforehand, and that the pound has further to fall. For hedgers, I cannot exhort you enough to consider increasing your hedges there. I think the risks are highly asymmetric, with a deal resulting in a modest rally of perhaps 2-3%, while a no-deal outcome could easily see an 8% decline.

For today, the NFP report is on tap with expectations as follows:

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

We also hear from Chairman Powell at 10:15, where the market will be parsing every word to try to get a better understanding of the Fed’s data reaction function, and perhaps to see which data points they deem most important. At this point, strong NFP data ought lead to declining Treasury prices and rising stock prices although I expect the dollar would remain under pressure based on the risk-on feeling. If the data is weak, however, look for stock futures to reverse course (currently they are higher by ~1.0%) and Treasuries to find support. As to the dollar then, broadly stronger, although I expect the yen will be the best performer overall.

Good luck
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