A Market Doomsday

Last week it was Mario’s turn
To tell us what gave him heartburn
The risk which is growing
That Europe is slowing
Thus, negative rates won’t adjourn

This week eyes are on Chairman Jay
Whose last comments tried to defray
The idea the rates
That he regulates
Will e’er cause a market doomsday

As we begin the new week, the biggest weekend event was the reopening of the US Federal government, although apparently it could shut down again in three weeks. Funnily enough, while economists have calculated that each week the government was closed, GDP would be reduced by 0.1%, nobody seemed to care that much. I think if traders can explain an anomaly, they will ignore it in pricing. And certainly, a government shutdown is a big picture anomaly.

But all the other stories remain the same. Brexit is still unresolved with the next series of votes to be held tomorrow. It remains unclear exactly how things will play out, but it seems pretty clear that neither side wants a no-deal outcome. However, whether that means a vote to delay things, or acceptance of the deal that was roundly rejected just two weeks ago is completely uncertain. Of course, the third option is that they simply opt not to leave the EU, which is within their power. At this point, it seems the most likely outcome is a delay, as nobody likes the deal, and PM May has consistently indicated she would follow the vote to leave.

With that as the background, the pound is lower by -0.4% this morning, actually one of the larger movers in FX overnight. This appears to be short term profit taking by traders who have been accumulating long positions over the past month. But keep in mind that the big, long-term positions remain short pounds. So as long as there is no hard Brexit, which seems highly unlikely given both sides’ stated opposition to that outcome, there is room for the pound to rebound in the next months. However, I continue to like the dollar far better than the pound given the potential for future growth in both places. And while the Fed may not be aggressively tightening policy anymore, I don’t think we are that close to easing. Meanwhile, the BOE is watching the UK economy slow perceptibly, and cannot be serious about raising rates in the near term.

But this week is really about two things, the FOMC meeting and the trade talks with China. Looking at the latter first, both sides have made encouraging noises, but the key issues for the US remain IP theft and SOE support, neither of which have been adequately addressed. I know the equity market has been euphoric over every hint that the trade war would end, and tariffs would be removed, but I think they are way ahead of themselves. I fear there is, at best, a 50:50 chance that talks are concluded successfully before the March deadline. However, I think it likely that as long as the dialog remains open, the US postpones implementation of new, larger tariffs. As to the FX impact, you can be sure that the PBOC is going to prevent CNY from weakening in any substantial way until the talks are concluded one way or the other. But given the ongoing weak data in China, I continue to expect to see the renminbi weaken over time.

And finally, the Fed. On Wednesday Chairman Powell will have a press conference after the statement is released at 2:00 EST. (There is zero expectation that policy will change.) There has been a great deal of carping by Street economists that because Powell is not a PhD economist himself, he cannot adequately deliver the message. But I disagree. Instead, I would argue the reason there has been difficulty in articulating the Fed’s stance is that they don’t really know what to do. The current situation is unprecedented historically, between the size of the balance sheet and the level of interest rates relative to the growth trajectory of the economy. They have already had to change the way they manage interest rates, no longer adjusting balances in the market and instead paying interest on excess reserves. The upshot of that change is that there is no history for them to examine regarding potential outcomes. At the same time, to a wo(man), every Fed member is adamant that because Treasuries have behaved well, the balance sheet rundown is not having any impact on markets at all. To which I ask, if it’s not having an impact, why did they do it in the first place? Clearly the Fed thought that QE was going to help support the economy by supporting the stock market (you remember, the Portfolio Balance Channel). So how can they seriously believe that if the implementation of QE was stimulative, its reduction would not reverse that stimulus? It is arguments like this that frustrate investors and help chip away at the Fed’s credibility.

As to the markets today, the dollar is pretty well behaved, having stabilized after pretty substantial weakness on Friday. Other than the pound mentioned above, not much significant movement has been observed. Equity markets are softer around the world and US futures are pointing in the same direction. Treasury yields have not moved from Friday, and oil prices are slipping slightly. It is hard to characterize the market as anything other than confused.

On the data front, although the government shutdown has ended, all the data has not been collected, let alone collated, so I expect that we will start to see things during the week. Of course, Friday brings the payroll report, and that seems set to be released. There is nothing of note scheduled today, so I will wait to list things until tomorrow when there is more certainty as to what is coming and when. So, for today, there seems little reason for the dollar to do much unless something really negative occurs in equities. That’s not my base case, but you never know, especially as there are key earnings releases later this week (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet) and any rumors could drive things. But overall, I expect a quiet session today.

Good luck