In China, the outcome this year
For growth is a little less clear
The target has changed
To feature a range
That’s lower, but still not austere
The Chinese have reduced their target rate of GDP growth to a range of 6.0%-6.5% from last year’s “about 6.5%” goal. It is, of course, unsurprising that the Chinese met last year’s goal, on paper, as despite significant evidence from individual economic data points, given the lack of independence of the Chinese statistics agency and the political imperative for President Xi to be seen as a great economic leader, 6.6% was determined to be the appropriate representation in 2018. However, given the fact that the growth trajectory in China has been slowing steadily for the past decade, and adding the fact that global growth continues to slow, it seems that even the mighty Chinese bureaucracy can no longer be certain of a particular outcome, hence the range. There is a large group that remains skeptical of the veracity of Chinese data (myself included), and the ongoing gradual reduction in forecasts that we have seen during the past several years simply reinforces the idea that previous data was too rosy.
At the same time, further fiscal stimulus was announced with a cut in VAT and more infrastructure spending, so for now, China remains focused on fiscal support rather than adding more monetary ease and potentially reflating the credit bubble they have spent the last two years trying to deflate. Much of this forecast, naturally, depends on a successful conclusion to the trade talks with the US, and while Sunday night there was a report indicating the deal is almost done, it is not done yet. If, in fact, the mooted deal falls through, look for analyst revisions lower and even government guidance toward the lower end of this range.
As to the renminbi, China has pledged to maintain a stable currency, although they have not indicated exactly what the benchmark for stability will be. This remains a key focus for President Trump and is ostensibly part of the nascent trade agreement. While I believe that economic pressures would naturally tend toward a weaker renminbi over time, as I had forecast at the beginning of the year, the one thing I know is that if the Chinese choose to strengthen the currency in the short run, regardless of the macroeconomic factors that may exist, they will be able to do so. Wall Street analysts are slowly adjusting their forecasts toward a stronger CNY this year, and if a trade agreement is reached, that seems exactly correct. Of course, if the talks founder, all bets are off.
Meanwhile, one week before PM May is set to have another Parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, she continues to try to get a modification to the terms of the Irish backstop. Uncertainty remains high as to the actual outcome, but it appears to me that either the deal, as written and newly interpreted, will squeak through, resulting in a short delay in order that all sides can pass the appropriate legislation, or the deal will fail and Parliament will vote to ask for a 6-9 month delay with the intent of having a new referendum. While there is still a chance that the UK leaves without a deal at the end of the month, it does seem to be a very small chance. With that in mind, a look at the pound, which has fallen ~1.5% in the past week (-0.15% overnight), and it appears that we are witnessing another ‘buy the rumor, sell the news’ outcome. As hopes grew that there would be no hard Brexit, the pound steadily rallied for a number of weeks. I have maintained that even a positive outcome has only limited further potential upside given the UK economy remains mired in a slowdown and their largest trading partner, the EU, is slowing even more rapidly. Don’t be surprised to see the pound jump initially on a positive vote next week, but it will be short-lived, mark my words.
Pivoting to the euro, this morning’s Services PMI data was mildly better than the flash projections of two weeks ago. The current market interpretation is that the slowdown in the Eurozone has stabilized. And while that may be true for the moment, it is in no way clear the future portends a resumption in growth. Meanwhile, the euro has continued its recent drift lower, with a very modest decline this morning, just 5bps, but approaching a 1% decline in the past week. The ongoing discussion about the ECB is focused on exactly what tools they have available in the event that the slowdown proves more long-lasting than currently hoped expected. I continue to believe that TLTRO’s will be rolled over with an announcement by June, but after that, the cupboard is bare. Pushing rates to an even more negative level will be counterproductive as the negative impact on banks will almost certainly curtail their lending activity. And restarting QE just months after they ended it would be seen as an indication the ECB has no idea what is going on in the Eurozone economy. Therefore, though Signor Draghi will be reluctant to discuss much about this on Thursday at his press conference, pressure on the ECB will increase when they lower their growth and inflation forecasts further. Look for the euro to continue to drift slowly lower and talk of TLTRO’s to increase.
Last night the RBA left rates on hold, which was universally expected, but the market continues to expect an eventual reduction in the overnight interest rate Down Under. The housing market bubble has been rapidly deflating, and while employment has so far held up, remember employment is a lagging indicator. With that in mind, it is not surprising that AUD has fallen -0.25% overnight, and I think the underlying trend will still point lower. This is especially true if the US-China trade talks falter given China’s status as Australia’s largest trading counterparty. Slowing growth in China means slowing growth in Australia, count on it.
As can be seen from these discussions, the dollar is modestly higher overall this morning, although movement in any given currency has been fairly small. While President Trump continues to decry the dollar’s strength, the US remains the only large economy that is not slowing sharply. And as I have written consistently, with the Fed’s clear stance that further tightening is off the table, you can be sure that no other central bank will be looking to tighten policy anytime ahead of the Fed. The president will not get satisfaction on this front anytime soon.
Turning to this morning’s data, we see ISM Non-Manufacturing (exp 57.3) and New Home Sales (600K). We also hear from Fed uber-dove Neel Kashkari, but now that the Fed has turned dovish overall, it is not clear that he can say much that will alter impressions in the market. While throughout February, the dollar was on its back foot, taking a step back shows that it has been range trading since last October. Given the recent data situation, as well as the sentiment shifts we have seen, it does appear that the dollar can grind back toward the top of that trading range (think of the euro at 1.1200), but we are still lacking a catalyst for a substantial change.