If Things Go Very Wrong

Last year he thought growth would be strong
This year, “if things go very wrong”
It seems Signor Draghi
Just might restart QE
And rate hikes? They’ll ne’er come along!

Markets continue to bide their time ahead of tomorrow’s FOMC statement and the press conference by Chairman Powell. In addition, the Brexit saga continues with a series of votes scheduled today in Parliament that may help determine the next steps in that messy process. And of course, the next round of US-Chinese trade talks are set to begin tomorrow. So, there is plenty of potential news on the near-term horizon. But before I touch on those subjects, I wanted to highlight comments from ECB President Draghi yesterday speaking to EU lawmakers in Brussels. From the Bloomberg article this morning:

        The president of the European Central Bank blamed “softer external demand and some country and sector-specific factors” for the slowdown, but indicated he still has some confidence in the underlying strength of the economy.
       “If things go very wrong, we can still resume other instruments in our toolbox. There is nothing objecting to that possibility,” he told lawmakers in Brussels in response to a question on whether net asset purchases could be restarted. “The only point is under what contingency are we going to do this. And at this point in time, we don’t see such contingency as likely to materialize, certainly this year.”

Basically, he opened the door to reinstate QE, something which just two months ago would never have been considered. And while he tried to downplay the problems, it is clear there is growing concern in Frankfurt about Eurozone growth. Surprisingly, to me, the euro barely budged on the report, as I would have anticipated a sell-off. However, given the Fed is due to make its comments tomorrow, it appears that traders are waiting to see where Powell comes out on the hawkish-dovish spectrum. Because to me, Draghi’s comments were quite dovish. But essentially, the euro has been unchanged since trading opened in Asia yesterday, so clearly the market doesn’t see these comments as newsworthy.

Now, looking at the other three stories, there has been virtually no new information released since last week. Regarding the Fed, yesterday’s WSJ had an article that looked like a Fed plant discussing how unimportant the balance sheet issue was, and how the Fed sees no evidence that shrinking the balance sheet is having any impact on markets. That assessment is quite controversial as many investors and pundits see the balance sheet as a key issue driving recent market volatility. I expect we will hear more on Wednesday from Powell, but I also expect that now that Powell has shown he cannot withstand pressure from a declining stock market, that the pace of balance sheet reduction is going to slow. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it cut in half with a corresponding rally in both stocks and bonds on the news. In this event, the dollar should come under pressure as well.

As to Brexit, there still seems to be this disconnect between the UK and the EU in that the UK continues to believe that if Parliament votes to renegotiate parts of the deal, the EU will do so. Thus far, the EU has been pretty consistent that they like the deal the way it is and that there is not enough time to make changes. But from what I have seen this morning, it seems the most likely outcome is the ‘Malthouse proposal’ which will essentially do just that. Get support from Parliament to go back and change the Irish backstop arrangement. While I know that there is no desire for a hard Brexit, it strikes me that one cannot yet be ruled out.

Finally, on to the trade talks, we continue to get conflicting information from the US side as to where things stand, but ultimately the key issue is much more likely to be enforcement of any deal, rather than the deal itself. There is a great wariness that the Chinese will agree to something, and then ignore the details and go back to business as usual. Or perhaps create new and different non-tariff barriers to maintain their advantages. While the equity market continues to be positive on the process, I don’t see things quite so rosily. I think a deal would be great, but I don’t ascribe more than a 50% chance to getting one. However, I do expect that any tariff increases will be postponed for another round of talks to be enabled.

Beyond those stories, not too much of note is happening, which is evident by the fact that there has been almost no movement in the FX market, or any market for that matter. The G10 currencies are within pips of yesterday’s closing levels, and even EMG currencies are generally little changed. One exception is BRL, which has fallen -0.6% as ongoing news regarding the mining disaster and its impact on CRDV, a huge Brazilian mining conglomerate, seems to be generating a little angst. But otherwise, even this bloc of currencies is little changed. Equity markets are close to flat, as are bond and commodity markets. In other words, investors and traders are looking to the horizon and waiting for the big stories to play out. First in line is the Brexit voting, so perhaps later this afternoon we will see some movement, but I suspect that the FOMC is actually THE story of note for most people right now.

Good luck
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