Hitting Home

The current Fed Chairman, Jerome
Initially’d taken the tone
That interest rate hiking
Was to the Fed’s liking
Until hikes began hitting home

Then stock markets round the world crashed
And policymakers’ teeth gnashed
He then changed his mind
And now he’s outlined
His new plan where tightening’s trashed

It’s interesting that despite the fact that the employment report was seen as quite positive, the weekend discussion continued to focus on the Fed’s U-turn last Wednesday. And rightly so. Given how important the Fed has been to every part of the market narrative, equities, bonds and the dollar, if they changed their reaction function, which they clearly have, then it will be the focus of most serious commentary for a while.

But let’s deconstruct that employment report for a moment. While there is no doubt that the NFP number was great (304K, nearly twice expectations, although after a sharply reduced December number), something that has gotten a lot less press is the Unemployment Rate, which rose to 4.0%, still quite low but now 0.3% above the bottom seen most recently in November. The question at hand is, is this a new and concerning trend? If the unemployment rate continues to rise, then the Fed was likely right to stop tightening policy. Yet, most analysts, like politicians, want their cake and the ability to eat it as well. If the Fed has finished tightening because growth is slowing, is that really the outcome desired? It seems to me I would rather have faster growth and tighter policy, a much better mix all around. Now it is too early to say that Unemployment has definitely bottomed, but another month or two of rises will certainly force that to creep into the narrative. And you can bet that will include all the reasons that the Fed better start cutting rates again! Remember, too, if the Fed is turning from tightening to easing, I assure you that the idea the ECB might raise rates is absurd.

Now, with the Fed decision behind us, as well as widely applauded, and the payroll report past, what do we have to look forward to? After all, Brexit is still grinding forward to a denouement in late March, although we will certainly hear of more trials and tribulations before then. I was particularly amused by the idea that the British government has developed plans for the Queen to be evacuated in the event of a hard Brexit. WWII wasn’t enough to evacuate royalty, but Brexit will be? Not unlike Y2K (for those of you who remember that) while a hard Brexit will almost certainly be disruptive in the short run, I am highly confident that the UK will continue to function going forward. The fear-mongering that is ongoing by the British government is actually quite irresponsible.

And of course, there are the US-China trade talks. Except that this week is Chinese New Year and all of China (along with much of Asia) is on holiday. So, there are no current discussions ongoing. But markets have taken heart from the view that President’s Xi and Trump will be meeting in a few weeks, and that they will come to an agreement of some sort. The problem I see is that the big issues are not about restrictions as much as about protection of IP and forced technology transfer. And since the Chinese have consistently denied that both of those things occur, it is not clear to me how they can credibly agree to stop them. The market remains sanguine about the prospects for a trade reconciliation, but I fear the probability of a successful outcome is less than currently priced. While this will not dominate the discussion for another two weeks, be careful when it surfaces again.

Looking ahead to this week, while US data is in short supply, really just trade, we do see more central bank meetings led by the BOE (no change expected), Banxico (no change expected) and Banco do Brazil (no change expected). The biggest risk seems to be in Mexico where some analysts are calling for a 25bp rate cut to 8.00%. We also hear from six Fed speakers, including Chairman Powell again, although at this point, it seems the market has heard all it wants. After all, given Friday’s payroll report, it seems impossible to believe that any Fed member can discuss cutting rates. Not raising them is the best they’ve got for now.

Tuesday ISM Non-Manufacturing 57.1
Wednesday Trade Balance -$54.0B
  Unit Labor Costs 1.7%
  Nonfarm Productivity 1.7%
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
  Consumer Credit $17.0B

So, markets are in a holding pattern while they await the next important catalyst. The stories that have driven things lately, the Fed, Brexit and trade talks are all absent this week. That leads to the idea that the dollar will be impacted by equity and bond markets.

We all know that equity markets had a stellar January and the question is, can that continue? With bond markets also rallying, they seem to be telling us different stories. Equities are looking to continued strength in the economy, while bonds see the opposite. I have to admit, based on the data we continue to see around the world, it appears that the bond market may have it right. As such, despite my concerns over the dollar’s future given the Fed’s pivot, a reversal in equities leading to a risk off scenario would likely underpin the dollar. While it is very modestly higher this morning, it is fair to call it little changed. I think the bias will be for a softer dollar unless things turn ugly. If that does happen, make sure your exposures are hedged as the dollar will benefit.

Good luck
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