Disruption and Mayhem

Tomorrow when Parliament votes,
According to some anecdotes,
Another rejection
Will force introspection
As well as a search for scapegoats

For traders the story that’s clear
Is Brexit may soon engineer
Disruption and mayhem
And soon a new PM
Who’s not named May just might appear!

As we begin a new week, all eyes remain focused on the same key stories that have been driving markets for the past several months; the Fed, Brexit and the US-China trade talks. Ancillary issues like weakening Eurozone and Japanese growth continue to be reported but are just not as compelling as the first three.

Starting with Brexit this morning, after a weekend of failed negotiations, PM May looks on course to lose the second vote on her negotiated deal. Interestingly, the EU has been unwilling to make any concessions of note which implies they strongly believe one of two things: either the lack of a deal will force a delay and second referendum which will result in Remain winning, or they will be effectively unscathed by Brexit. I have to believe they are counting on the first outcome, as it is a purely political calculation, and in the spirit of European referenda since the EU’s creation, each time a vote went against the EU’s interest (Maastricht, Treaty of Lisbon, etc.) the government of the rejecting country ignored the result and forced another vote to get the ‘right’ result. However, in this case, it appears the EU is playing a very risky game. None of the other referenda had the same type of economic consequences as Brexit, and a miscalculation will be very tough to overcome.

While several weeks ago, it appeared that PM May had been building some support, the latest estimates are for a repeat of the 230-vote loss from late January. The question is what happens after that. And to that, there is no clear answer. The probability of a hard Brexit continues to rise, although many still anticipate a last-minute deal. But the pound has declined for nine consecutive sessions by a total of 3.0% (-0.2% overnight) and unless some good news shows up, has the opportunity to fall much further. The next several weeks will certainly be interesting, but for hedgers, quite difficult.

As to the Fed, last night Chairman Powell was interviewed on 60 Minutes along with former Fed Chairs Bernanke and Yellen. Powell explained that the economy was strong with a favorable outlook and that rates were at an appropriate level for the current situation. When questioned on the impact of President Trump’s complaints, he maintained that the Fed remained apolitical and independent in their judgements. And when asked about the stock market, he essentially admitted that they have expanded their mandate to include financial markets. Given the broad financialization of the economy, I guess this makes sense. At any rate, there is no way a Fed chair will ever describe the economy poorly or forecast lower growth as it would cause a panic in markets.

Finally, turning to the trade talks, the weekend news indicated that there has been agreement over the currency question with the Chinese accepting an effective floor to the renminbi. Although the Chinese denied that there was a one-way deal, they repeated their mantra of maintaining a stable currency. As yet, no signing ceremony has been scheduled, so the deal is not done. However, Chinese equity markets rebounded sharply overnight (after Friday’s debacle) as expectations grow that a deal will be ready soon. It continues to strike me that altering the Chinese economic model is likely to take longer than a few months of negotiations and anything that comes out of these talks will be superficial at best. However, any deal will certainly be the catalyst for a sharp equity rally, of that you can be sure. One other thing to note about China is that we continue to see softening data there. Over the weekend, Loan growth was reported at a much lower than expected CNY 703B ($79.4B), not the type of data that portends a rebound. And early this morning, Vehicle Sales were reported falling 13.8%! Again, more evidence of a slowing economy there.

In the meantime, Friday’s payroll data was a lot less positive than had been expected. The headline NFP number of just 20K (exp 180K) was a massive disappointment, and though previous months were revised higher, it was just by 12K. However, the Unemployment Rate fell to 3.8% and Average Hourly Earnings rose 3.4% Y/Y, the strongest since 2007. Housing data was also positive, so the news, overall, was mixed. Friday saw markets turn mildly negative on the US, with both equities and the dollar under pressure.

Add it all up and you have a picture of slowing global growth with the idea that monetary policy is going to tighten quickly fading from view. The critical concern is that central bankers have run out of tools to help positively impact their economies when things slow down. And that is a much larger long-term worry than a modest slowing of growth right now.

Looking at the data this week, two key data points will be released, Retail Sales and CPI. Here is the full list:

Today Retail Sales -0.1%
  -ex autos 0.2%
  Business Inventories 0.6%
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 102.0
  CPI 0.2% (1.6% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.2% Y/Y)
Wednesday Durable Goods -0.7%
  -ex transport 0.2%
  PPI 0.2% (1.9% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.6% Y/Y)
  Construction Spending 0.4%
Thursday Initial Claims 225K
  New Home Sales 620K
Friday Empire Manufacturing 10.0
  IP 0.4%
  Capacity Utilization 78.5%
  Michigan Sentiment 95.5
  JOLT’s Jobs Report 7.22M

So, lots of stuff, plus another Powell speech this evening, but I think Retail Sales will be the big one. Recall, last month, Retail Sales fell 1.2% and nobody believed it. But I have to say the forecast is hardly looking for a major rebound. In the end, though, the US economy continues to be the top performing one around, and while the Fed may no longer be tightening, we are seeing easing pressures elsewhere (RBA, ECB). Today’s price action has shown little overall movement in the dollar, but the future still portends more strength.

Good luck
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