Will We Understand?

The current Fed Chairman named Jay
Will speak to us later today
The question at hand
Will we understand
The message that he will relay?

Meanwhile, nearby trade talks resume
Midst fears that a failure spells doom
For Trump and for Xi
They need victory
To help both economies boom

Three main stories continue to dominate the headlines; Brexit, the Fed and US-China trade talks. Given that all three remain unsettled, it should not be surprising that markets have shown little direction of late. This is evidenced by the fact that, once again, the dollar is little changed this morning against the bulk of its counterparts while both Treasury yields and equity prices remain rangebound.

Starting with the Fed, this afternoon at 2:00 the policy statement is released and then at 2:30 Chairman Powell holds his first of eight press conferences this year. We all know about the change in tone from Fed speakers since the December meeting where the Fed funds rate was raised 25bps to 2.50%. Since then, we have seen every Fed speaker back away from the previous narrative of slow and steady rate hikes to the new watchword, ‘patience’. In other words, previous expectations of two or three rate hikes this year have been moderated and will only occur if the data supports them. At this point, it seems pretty clear that the Fed will not raise rates in March, and likely not in June either, unless the data between now and then brightens significantly. As to the second half of the year, based on the slowing trajectory of global growth, it is becoming harder to believe they will push rates higher at all this year.

This is a significant change of expectations and will certainly impact other markets, notably the dollar. Given the view that any dollar strength was predicated on tighter Fed policy, the absence of such tightening should negatively impact the buck. But as I frequently point out, the dollar is a two-sided coin, and if the Fed is tightening less than expected, you can be certain that so is every other central bank, with the possibility of easing elsewhere coming into play. On a relative basis, I continue to see the dollar being the beneficiary of the tightest monetary policy around.

Moving to the trade talks, while hopes remain high, it seems expectations need to be moderated. The US is seeking major structural changes from China, including the reduction of subsidies for SOE’s and changes in terms for partnerships between US and Chinese firms. China built its economic model on those terms and seems unlikely to give them up. And that doesn’t include the IP theft issue, which the Chinese deny while the US continues to maintain is the reality. I think the best case scenario is that the talks continue and that any tariff increases remain on hold for another 90 days to try to achieve a settlement. But I would not rule out the chance that the talks break down and that higher tariffs are put into place come March 2nd. If the former occurs, I expect equity markets to rally on hope, while the dollar comes under modest pressure. However, if they break down, equities will suffer around the world and I expect to see safe havens, including the dollar, rally.

Finally, to Brexit, where yesterday Parliament voted to have PM May go back and reopen negotiations but did not vote to prevent a no-deal Brexit. This is what May wanted, but it is not clear it will solve any problems. The EU has been adamant that they will not reopen negotiations on the deal, although they seem willing to discuss the ‘political’ issues like the nature and timing of the backstop deal regarding Ireland. At this point, it seems May is playing chicken with her own party, as well as Labour, and trying to force them to vote for the current deal as the best they can get. But with time running out and the requirement that a unanimous vote of the EU is needed in order to delay the timeline, the chance of a no-deal Brexit is certainly increasing. The pound suffered yesterday after the vote, falling about 1%, although this morning it has bounced 0.25% from those levels. It is very clear that the market has ascribed a diminishing probability to a no-deal Brexit, but hedgers need to be careful. That probability is definitely not zero! And if it does come about, the pound will fall very sharply very quickly. A 10% decline is not unreasonable under those circumstances.

Away from those stories, this morning brings us the ADP Employment report (exp 178K) and we cannot forget that NFP comes on Friday. Eurozone data was generally soft, as was Japanese data, but that has all become part of the new narrative of a temporary lull in the global economy before things pick up again when the big issues (trade and Brexit) are behind us. The risk is those issues don’t resolve in a positive manner, and the slowdown is not as temporary as hoped. If global growth keeps deteriorating, all ideas on monetary policy will need to be reconsidered, which will have a direct impact on views of the future of the dollar, equity markets and bonds. So far, things haven’t changed enough to bring that about, but beware a situation where economic data continues to slide.

Good luck