All We’ve Endured

“Legal changes” have now been “secured”
Which, following all we’ve endured
Encouraged the buying
Of pounds, clarifying
The thought that soft Brexit’s assured

In the ongoing game of chicken, otherwise known as the Brexit negotiations, it seems the EU was the one who flinched. Last night, British PM Theresa May returned from a Strasbourg meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker after obtaining potentially substantial modifications to the Irish backstop portion of the negotiated deal. If you recall, this has been the sticking point because the twin objectives of first; preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; and second, insuring that if the UK is outside the EU customs union, appropriate tariffs can be collected, and goods inspected were leading to opposite solutions. The Irish backstop was designed to help alleviate British concerns they would be stuck in the customs union forever. However, as it had previously been written, that did not seem to be the case. Now comes some new language, touted as legally binding, that ostensibly insures that the UK can opt out of the customs union if desired. While I am no lawyer, and thus not qualified to give a legal opinion, my reading of the plain language leaves the impression that nothing much has changed.

This morning, the UK Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, is going over the package and will be giving his far more qualified opinion to Parliament shortly. (**FLASH – GEOFFREY COX SAYS THE LEGAL RISK OF THE NEW IRISH BACKTOP IS UNCHANGED**) The vote on the deal is still scheduled for 7:00pm this evening (3:00pm EDT) although there are some MP’s who would like a one-day delay in order to be able to read and understand it themselves. In the interim, the market has had quite a wild ride. From yesterday morning, when the pound was trading below 1.30, we have seen a more than 2.0% rally which in the past two hours has completely unwound! Thus, 1.2975 => 1.3250 => 1.3015 has been the movement in the past twenty-four hours. It seems the initial euphoria is being replaced by a more skeptical view that these changes will be enough to turn the Brexit tide in Parliament. At this point, it’s a mug’s game to try to forecast the outcome of this vote. The last I saw was that the deal would lose by 50 votes or so, a much better performance than last time, but still a loss. My gut tells me that a hard Brexit is still a possible outcome, and that there is no certainty whatsoever that Parliament will be able to prevent that.

But away from the pound, the only other currency that has shown any real movement has been the Philippine peso, which has declined a sharp 1.65% overnight. This occurred after the new President of the central bank there explained that the peso had strengthened as much as it could and that given low inflation readings, further rate cuts were on the table. At least this market movement makes sense!

Ongoing stories include the US-China trade talks, where there has been no additional progress, at least none publicized. The Chinese remain concerned that any meeting between the Presidents be just a signing ceremony rather than finalizing negotiations as they are worried that President Trump might reject a deal at the final moments with President Xi thus losing face in the process. I am confident we will hear more on this subject in the next days, and the latest signs point to a positive outcome, but here, too, nothing is certain.

The other ongoing story of note is the rapid change of tack by the world’s central banks. At this point in time, there is only one central bank that is remotely hawkish, the Norgesbank in Norway, where inflation has been running above target, and more importantly, has seen a rising trajectory. However, beyond that, the rest of the world is firmly in the dovish camp. In fact, at this point, the question seems to be just how much more dovish they will become as it grows increasingly clear that global growth is slowing rapidly. While there is the odd positive surprise on the data front, the weight of evidence is pointing to further slowing. The problem the ECB and BOJ have is that they have very little ammunition left to fight slowing growth. While the Fed could certainly cut rates if necessary, that would be quite an abrupt turn of events, given it has been barely three months since they last raised them, and would damage their credibility further. And the PBOC definitely has some room, but they continue to fight their battle against overleverage, and so are stuck between the Scylla of slowing growth and the Charibdis of excess debt. In the end, look for Scylla to win this battle.

Turning to the data story, yesterday’s Retail Sales report printed at +0.2%, after a downward revision of the December print to -1.6%. While there was significant disbelief in the December data point when it was first released, it looks like it was real. The most immediate impact was to the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now tracker, which fell sharply and is now estimating a 0.5% GDP growth rate for Q1. As to today, CPI is due shortly, with the market expecting 1.6% headline and 2.2% core readings. The Fed remains concerned that they have been unable to generate sufficient inflation. Personally, I think we have too much inflation, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

The upshot of all this is that nothing has changed in the big picture with regard to the dollar. While risk has been embraced in the past two sessions, the dollar story remains one of relative monetary policy stances, and in that camp, the Fed reigns supreme, and by extension, the dollar!

Good luck
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