An Own Goal

So, Parliament’s taken control
Of Brexit, but can they cajole
Frau Merkel and friends
To finally bend
Or have they now scored an own goal

The one truism about the FX markets these days is that nobody has a real clue as to what is going to happen to the pound. Every day there is a different view as to whether or not there is going to be a deal or a hard Brexit, or something else. The latest machinations in the UK have changed the process there somewhat, with Parliament voting to wrest control of the negotiations from PM May’s hands and make decisions directly. The upshot of this is that tomorrow, they will vote on a series of bills that try to outline what the members would like to see in a Brexit outcome. Of course, it strikes me as fanciful that Parliament, in a few days’ time, will be able to come to agreement on something that has been this contentious for more than two years. And while everybody continues to claim there cannot be a hard Brexit, I almost think this new tactic will assure that outcome. The only thing we know for sure is that there is no majority FOR any direction. While there have been clear rejections of the PM’s negotiated deal, nobody has come up with something that the UK wants, and that might be acceptable to the EU. Remember, too, the EU has given just a two-week extension for Parliament to come up with something. In other words, this is all still a huge mess with no clear outcome. The pound, as should be expected, continues to chop back and forth as the flavor of the day indicates either a deal, or a crash. As I type, the pound has rallied slightly, up 0.2%, but it continues to trade within its recent range, and will likely do so until a decision, any decision, is taken.

The other story of note this morning is the news that the French and Chinese have signed some trade deals as Chinese President Xi wraps up his European tour. I admit I am a little confused that France is allowed to ‘negotiate’ directly with a non-EU member on trade deals as I thought that was the whole point of the EU, the same terms for everyone. At any rate, this optimism has bled into the US-China trade discussion which is set to become headline news again with Messrs. Lighthizer and Mnuchin arriving in Beijing today to resume those talks. The last we heard on this subject indicated concerns over whether the Chinese were willing to agree to some key US demands regarding IP protection and the available punishments in the event of a breach of the new rules. But, today, the glass is half full, so markets are rebounding on the idea that a deal is, in fact, near.

Turning back to yesterday’s yield curve story, while 10-year yields in the US have edged higher this morning, they remain below 3-month yields. There have been several articles recently describing why this inversion is not the same as the ones that we have seen in the past. Briefly, past inversions arose because the Fed was raising short-term rates in order to head off rising inflationary pressures that had built up during a recovery. And while in one sense, that is what seems to have happened this time, the missing ingredient has been the actual inflation. The Fed’s rate hikes over the past three years were partly in anticipation of higher inflation based on the declining unemployment rate (the misapplied Phillips Curve). But a key difference this time has been the fact that in the wake of QE, the Fed’s balance sheet is much larger, and by design, longer term rates are much lower than they might otherwise be. If the Fed did not own an extra $2.5 trillion of Treasuries, where would the 10-year yield actually trade? Arguably, far higher than 2.4%. And so, the crux of the argument that this time is different is based on that fact. Without QE, short-term rates would not yet be approaching long-term rates, and so no inversion discussions would be taking place.

The opposing view, however, is that we have continued to see weaker data in the US and throughout the world, which implies that global growth is slowing. So, inverted yield curve or not, a recession may well be coming. It is important to remember that an inverted yield curve does not cause a recession per se, it has simply been a pretty reliable indicator of upcoming recessions based on its history over the past 50 years. And, in truth, the indicator that gets the most press is the 2yr-10yr spread, which as of yet has not inverted, although remains quite close to flat at just 15bps right now.

The reason this discussion matters is it helps drive market views of the Fed’s next steps and therefore the market reactions to those steps. As I have maintained consistently, however, the US is unlikely to head into recession without dragging the rest of the world along for the ride. And correspondingly, if the rest of the world is actually headed toward a recession, the US is certainly going to see slower growth. But as this relates to the dollar’s value, there is no evidence the US is weakening faster than the EU, the UK, China or most of the rest of the world, and so as dovish as the Fed may sound, other central banks will be more dovish still. The dollar should still be the main beneficiary of this situation, especially if it includes a significant equity correction and risk-off scenario.

Turning to this morning’s story, Housing Starts (exp 1.213M), Building Permits (1.3M), Case-Shiller House Prices (4.0%) and Consumer Confidence (132.0) are on the docket as well as three Fed speakers (Harker, Evans and Daly) two of whom have already spoken overseas but whose comments have not been widely circulated yet. Overall, the dollar is slightly softer this morning, but that is after several positive sessions, so in the end, we continue to chop in our trading range waiting for the next key driver. At this point, my money is on Brexit, but you never know.

Good luck