Greater Clarity

Last year rate hikes had regularity
But now the Fed seeks greater clarity
‘Bout whether our nation
Is feeling inflation
Or some other source of disparity

Investors exhaled a great sigh
And quickly realized they must buy
Those assets with risk
To burnish their fisc
Else soon prices would be too high

The December FOMC Minutes were received quite positively by markets yesterday as it appears despite raising rates for the fourth time in 2018, it was becoming clearer to all involved that there was no hurry to continue at the same pace going forward. The lack of measured inflation and the financial market ructions were two key features that gave pause to the FOMC. While the statement in December didn’t seem to reflect that discussion, we have certainly heard that tune consistently since then. Just yesterday, two more Fed regional presidents described the need for greater clarity on the economic situation before seeing the necessity to raise rates again. And after all, given the Fed has raised rates 225bps since they began in December 2015, it is not unreasonable to pause and see the total impact.

However, regarding the continued shrinking of the balance sheet, the Fed showed no concern at this point that it was having any detrimental effect on either the economy or markets. Personally I think they are mistaken in this view when I look at the significant rise in LIBOR beyond the Fed funds rate over the past year, where Fed Funds has risen 125 bps while LIBOR is up 187bps. But the market, especially the equity market, remains focused on the Fed funds path, not on the balance sheet, and so breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday.

Given this turn of events, it should also not be surprising that the dollar suffered pretty significantly in the wake of the Minutes’ release. In the moments following the release, the euro jumped 0.7% and continued subsequently to close the day nearly 1% stronger. One of the underpinnings of dollar strength has been the idea that the Fed was going to continue to tighten policy in 2019, but the combination of a continuous stream of comments from Fed speakers and recognition that even back in December the Fed was discussing a pause in rate hikes has served to alter that mindset. Now, not only is the market no longer pricing in rate hikes this year, but also analysts are backing away from calling for further rate hikes. In other words, the mood regarding the Fed has turned quite dovish, and the dollar is likely to remain under pressure as long as this is the case.

Of course, the other story of note has been the trade talks between the US and China which ended yesterday. During the talks, market participants had a generally upbeat view of the potential to reach a deal, however, this morning that optimism seems to be fading slightly. Equity markets around the world have given back some of their recent gains and US futures are also pointing lower. As I mentioned yesterday, while it is certainly good news that the talks seemed to address some key issues, there is still no clarity on whether a more far-reaching agreement can be finalized in any near term timeline. And while there has been no mention of tariffs by the President lately, a single random Tweet on the subject is likely enough to undo much of the positive sentiment recently built.

The overnight data, however, seems to tell a different story. It started off when Chinese inflation data surprised on the low side, rising just 1.9% in December, much lower than expected and another red flag regarding Chinese economic growth. It seems abundantly clear that growth there is slowing with the only real question just how much. Forecasts for 2019 GDP growth have fallen to 6.2%, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lowered going forward. On the other hand, the yuan has actually rallied sharply overnight, up 0.5%, despite the prospects for further monetary ease from Beijing. It seems that there is a significant inflow into Chinese bond markets from offshore which has been driving the currency higher despite (because of?) those economic prospects. In fact, the yuan is at its strongest level since last August and seemingly trending higher. However, I continue to see this as a short-term move, with the larger macroeconomic trends destined to weaken the currency over time.

As to the G10 currencies, they have stabilized after yesterday’s rally with the euro virtually unchanged and the pound ceding 0.25%. Two data points from the Eurozone were mixed, with French IP slipping to a worse than expected -1.3% while Italian Retail Sales surprised higher at +0.7% back in November. While there was no UK data, the Brexit story continues to be the key driver as PM May lost yet another Parliamentary procedural vote this morning and seems to be losing complete control of the process. The thing I don’t understand about Brexit is if Parliament votes against the current deal next week, which seems highly likely at this stage, what can they do to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Certainly the Europeans have not been willing to concede anything else, and with just 79 days left before the deadline, there is no time to renegotiate a new deal, so it seems a fait accompli that the UK will leave with nothing. I would welcome an explanation as to why that will not be the case.

Turning to this morning’s activity, the only data point is Initial Claims (exp 225K), but that is hardly a market moving number. However, we hear from three regional Fed presidents and at 12:45 Chairman Powell speaks again, so all eyes will be focused on any further nuance he may bring to the discussion. At this point, it seems hard to believe that there will be any change in the message, which if I had to summarize would be, ‘no rate changes until we see a strong reason to do so, either because inflation jumps sharply or other data is so compelling that it forces us to reconsider our current policy of wait and see.’ One thing to keep in mind, though, about the FX markets is that it requires two sets of policies to give a complete picture, and while right now all eyes are on the Fed, as ECB, BOJ, BOE and other central bank policies evolve, those will have an impact as well. If global growth is truly slowing, and the current evidence points in that direction, then those banks will start to sound more dovish and their currencies will likely see plenty of selling pressure accordingly. But probably not today.

Good luck
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