If Things Go Astray

The jobs report Friday was great
Which served to confuse the debate
Is growth on the rise?
Or will it downsize?
And how will the Fed acclimate?

The first indication from Jay
Is data continues to say
While growth seems robust
We’ll surely adjust
Our actions, if things go astray

In what can only be described as remarkable, despite the strongest jobs report in nearly a year, handily beating the most optimistic expectations for both job growth and wages, Fed Chairman Jay Powell told the market that the Fed could easily slow the pace of policy tightening if needed. While this may seem incongruous based on the data, it was really a response to several weeks of market gyrations that have been explicitly blamed on the Fed’s ongoing policy normalization procedure. A key concern over this sequence of events is that the data of ‘data dependence’ is actually market indices rather than economic ones. For every analyst and economist who had been looking for Powell to break the cycle of kowtowing to the stock market, Friday was a dark day. For the stock market, however, it was anything but, with the S&P 500 rising 3.4% and the NASDAQ an even more impressive 4.25%. The Fed ‘put’ seems alive and well after a three month hiatus.

So what can we expect going forward? The futures market has removed all pricing for the Fed to raise rates further in 2019, and in fact, has priced in a 50% probability of a 25bp rate cut before the year is over! Think about that. Two weeks ago, the market was priced for two 25bp rate hikes! This is a very large, and rapid, change of opinion. The upshot is that the dollar has come under significant pressure as both traders and investors abandon the view of continued cyclical dominance and start to focus on the US’ structural issues (growing twin deficits). In that scenario, the dollar has much further to fall, with a 10% decline this year well within reason. Equity markets around the world, however, have seen a short-term revival as not only did Powell blink, but also the Chinese continue to aggressively add to their monetary policy ease. And one final positive note was heard from the US-China trade talks in Beijing, where Chinese Vice-Premier, Liu He, President Xi’s top economic official, made a surprise visit to the talks. This was seen as a demonstration of just how much the Chinese want to get a deal done, and are likely willing to offer up more concessions than previously expected to do so. The ongoing weak data from China is clearly starting to have a real impact there.

It is situations like this that make forecasting such a fraught exercise. Based on the information we had available on December 31, none of these market movements seemed possible, let alone likely. But that’s the thing about predictions; they are especially hard when they focus on the future.

As to markets today, while Asian equity markets followed Friday’s US price action higher, the same has not been true in Europe, where the Stoxx 600 is lower by 0.4%. Weighing on the activity in Europe has been weaker than expected German Factory Order data (-1.0%) as well as the re-emergence of the gilets jaunes protests in France, where some 50,000 protestors, at least, made their presence felt over the weekend.

Turning to the dollar, it is down broadly, with every G10 currency stronger vs. the greenback and most EMG currencies as well. If the market is correct in its revised expectations regarding the Fed, then the dollar will remain under pressure in the short run. Of course, if the Fed stops tightening policy, and we continue to see Eurozone malaise, you can be certain that the ECB is going to be backing away from any rate rises this year. I have maintained that the ECB would not actually raise interest rates until 2020 at the earliest, and I see no reason to change that view. With oil prices hovering well below year ago levels, headline inflation has no reason to rise. At the same time, despite Signor Draghi’s false hope regarding eventual wage inflation, core CPI in the Eurozone seems pegged at 1.0%. As long as this remains the case, it will be extremely difficult for Draghi, or his successor, to consider raising rates there. As that becomes clearer to the market, the euro will likely begin to suffer. However, until then, I can see the euro grinding back toward 1.18 or so.

One last thing to remember is that despite the Christmas hiatus, the Brexit situation remains front and center in the UK, with Parliament scheduled to vote on the current deal early next week. At this time, there is no indication that PM May is going to find the votes to carry the day, although as the clock ticks down, it is entirely possible that some nays turn into yeas in order to prevent the economic catastrophe that is being predicted by so many. The pound remains beholden to this situation, but I believe the likely outcomes are quite asymmetric with a 2-3% rally all we will see if the deal passes, while an 8% decline is quite viable in the event the UK exits the EU with no deal.

As to data this week, it will not be nearly as exciting as last week, but we see both the FOMC Minutes on Wednesday and CPI on Friday. In addition, we hear from seven Fed speakers across nine speeches, including Chairman Powell again, as well as vice-Chairman Clarida.

Today ISM non-Manufacturing 59.0
Tomorrow NFIB Small Business Optimism 105.0
  JOLT’s Job Openings 7.063M
Wednesday FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Initial Claims 225K
Friday CPI -0.1% (1.9% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.2% Y/Y)

All in all, it seems that the current market narrative is focused solely on the Fed changing its tune while the rest of the central banking community is ignored. As long as this is the case, look for a rebound in equity markets and the dollar to remain under pressure. But you can be certain that if the Fed needs to hold rates going forward because of weakening economic data, the rest of the world will be in even more dire straits, and central banks elsewhere will be back to easing policy as well. In the end, while there may be short-term weakness, I continue to like the dollar’s chances throughout the year as the US continues to lead the global economy.

Good luck
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