Progress Is Real

In Beijing, talks focused on trade
Continue as both sides conveyed
That progress is real
With hopes for a deal
Increasing, or so it’s portrayed

Once again, the market is embracing the idea that a trade deal is coming and coming soon. Talks in Beijing have restarted and while yesterday President Trump indicated he would not be meeting Chinese President Xi by month’s end, as had been suggested last week, this morning, Mr Trump expressed a desire to meet with him “very soon”. Investors have taken this to mean that while a deal may not be completed by the initial March 1st deadline, there will be an extension of the truce and no tariff increases at that time. It should be no surprise that the equity market has taken this news well, with Asian stocks generally rallying (Nikkei +2.6%, Shanghai +0.7%), European stocks following suit (DAX + 1.3%, CAC + 1.1%) and US equity futures pointing higher (DJIA + 0.8%, S&P + 0.7%). Adding to the bullishness has been the news that there is a tentative deal in Congress to avoid a second government shutdown. So, all the stars have aligned for the bulls today.

And yet, the data continues to be lackluster with limited prospect to improve in the short run. A random sampling of recent releases shows that UK growth (as mentioned yesterday) was the weakest in six years and shows no signs of picking up ahead of Brexit. But also, Norwegian inflation is sinking along with Mexican IP and the Australian housing market. South African Unemployment remains near a record 27.5% and even the NFIB Survey here at home has fallen to its lowest level since November 2016 (Trump’s election), although it remains much closer to its historic highs than its lows. The point is that despite soothing words from central bank officials that recent weaker data is temporary, it is looking nothing of the sort. I’m not sure when temporary morphs into long-term, but we are now pushing into our fifth consecutive month of slowing global data and the trend shows no signs of abating.

So, what is an investor or a hedger to conclude from all this? Is the trade deal more important? Or is it the ongoing data story? While both of those may have short-term impacts, the reality remains that it is still the central banks that exert the most influence on markets. The Fed’s complete conversion from hawk to dove in six weeks has been THE dominant force in markets since December. Not only has that conversion helped the US markets, but it has dramatically reduced pressure on other nations to maintain their own hawkishness. This can be seen in the BOE, where earlier talk of needing to hike rates in the event of Brexit has abated. It can be seen in the ECB where the conversation has changed from raising rates in the autumn to what other measures of stimulus can they provide given the current negative rates and bloated balance sheet. (TLTRO’s will absolutely be rolled over.) In Scandinavia, both Norway and Sweden have seen inflation data decline and are now seen as far more likely to leave rates on hold rather than raising them as had been expected just a few months ago. And not to be outdone, the PBOC, which had been in the midst of a two-year program to reduce excess leverage in China, has handily turned far more dovish, injecting significant liquidity and ‘encouraging’ banks to make loans to SME’s there. So, in the end, while the trade story may garner headlines for a few more weeks, it remains a central bank controlled world.

As to today, the dollar is dipping slightly after a continued solid rally during yesterday’s session. This has been more evident in the EMG space than in G10. For example, MXN (+0.4%) and BRL (+0.95%) are leading the way in LATAM while INR (+0.7%) and CNY (+0.3%) have benefitted from the dollar’s lackluster performance. And of course, the dovish turn by the Fed has had an especially beneficial impact on EMG currencies since so many companies located there borrow in dollars. The idea that US rates have stopped rising has been one of the biggest changes we have seen.

However, it is important to remember that on a relative basis, US policy remains tighter than that anywhere else in the world, and as it becomes clearer that other central banks will turn more dovish, the dollar should retain its footing.

We have already seen the NFIB data print weaker than expected, and the only other data point today is the JOLT’s Jobs report (exp 6.90M), however, we do hear from Chairman Powell at 12:45 this afternoon, so all eyes will be on him. The thing is, given the data we have seen since the Fed changed course has continue to be weak, I would argue the only surprise can be dovish. In other words, comments hinting that the Fed will end the balance sheet roll-off, or a reevaluation of the neutral rate lower would be the type of thing to start a big rally. In the event that something like that were to occur, look for equities to rocket and the dollar to fall. But given the sudden increase in stories about prices rising in consumer products (yesterday’s WSJ talking about cat litter and detergent, today’s about Whole Foods raising prices), it seems hard to believe that a more dovish tone is likely.

In the end, the dollar has had a good run over the past two weeks. If that is ending, it is entirely reasonable, but don’t look for a collapse.

Good luck
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