It All Went to Hell

First Mario cooed like a dove
Then trade data gave things a shove
It all went to hell
As stock markets fell
While folks showed the dollar some love

It was a rocky day in markets yesterday as risk appetite was severely impaired. The ECB wound up being more dovish than many had expected by extending the guidance on interest rates and definitively rolling over the TLTRO program. And yet, this morning many analysts are complaining they didn’t do enough! The details are that interest rates will now remain where they are (-0.4% deposit rate) until at least the end of the year, well past “through the summer” as the guidance had been previously. Of course, for some time now, my own view has been that rates will remain unchanged well into 2020. In addition, the ECB said that there would be a new round of TLTRO’s initiated in September, but that the maturity of these new loans would only be two years, and the terms are not yet decided, with some indications they may not be as favorable as the current crop.

All of this followed in the wake of the ECB revising lower their 2019 GDP growth forecast from 1.7% to 1.1%. But remember, the OECD is looking for even slower growth at just 1.0%. “We never thought we were behind the curve,” said Signor Draghi, and “in any event today we are not behind the curve, for sure.” These comments are not nearly as impactful as “whatever it takes” from 2012, that’s the only thing for sure! Several other ECB members were quick to express that there was no expectation of a recession this year, but the market seems to have a less positive view. The market response to the surprisingly increased dovishness was negative across the board, with equity markets selling off in Europe (~-0.6%) and the US (-0.8%) while government bonds rallied (Treasuries -4.5bps) and the dollar strengthened materially, rising 1.2% vs. the euro.

But wait, there’s more! Overnight, Chinese trade data was released, and it turns out that exports fell -20.7% from a year ago! Now, in fairness, part of this has to do with the timing of the Chinese New Year, which was earlier this year than last, but even when stripped out of the data, the underlying trend showed a -4.7% decline. It appears that the US tariffs are really starting to bite.

Adding to the negative China sentiment were two more things. First, comments by Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to China, indicated that a trade deal was not so close (shocking!) and that the mooted meeting between President’s Trump and Xi later this month may well be postponed further. Second, in a huge surprise to Chinese investors, China Citic Securities issued a sell rating on one of the most popular stocks in the market there. The immediate response was for that particular stock, People’s Insurance Company (Group) of China, a state-owned insurer, to fall the daily 10% limit. This led the way for the Shanghai Index to fall 4.4% as investors now believe that the Chinese government is not merely willing to see equity markets fall, but actually interested in having it occur as they try to deflate the bubble that blew up during the past several months.

Needless to say, this information did not help assuage investor feelings anywhere, with the rest of Asia suffering on the day (Nikkei -2.0%, Hang Seng -1.9%) while Europe is also going down that road with the Stoxx 600 currently lower by -0.8%. And US futures? They too are under pressure, -0.4% as I type following yesterday’s -0.8% declines. [As an aside, can someone please explain to me why global index purveyors like MSCI are willing to include Chinese shares in their indices? Given the clear government market manipulation that exists there, as well as the foreign investment restrictions, the idea that they represent a true valuation of a company is laughable.]

So that is the backdrop as we head into the US session with employment data the first thing we’ll see. Expectations are currently as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 180K
Private Payrolls 170K
Manufacturing Payrolls 11K
Unemployment Rate 3.9%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.3% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Housing Starts 1.197M
Building Permits 1.289M

The data of late has pretty consistently shown the US economy holding its own relative to everywhere else in the world. Meeting expectations today would simply reinforce that view. Now, Fed speakers this week (Brainerd, Williams and Clarida) have been consistent in their comments that given the current situation and outlook, there is no need to raise rates further. And yet, that is still relatively hawkish compared to the ECB who has actually added more stimulus. Chairman Powell speaks this afternoon as well, but it would be remarkable if he were to change the message. In the end, the relative story remains the same; the US is still the best performing economy (although it is showing signs of slowing) and the dollar is likely to continue to benefit from that reality.

Good luck and good weekend
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