The overnight data expressed
That China is still feeling stressed
But Europe’s reports
Showed growth of some sorts
Might finally be manifest
The dollar is on its heels this morning after data from Europe showed surprising strength almost across the board. Arguably the most important data point was Eurozone GDP printing at 0.4% in Q1, a tick higher than expected and significantly higher than Q4’s 0.2%. The drivers of this data were Italy, where Q1 GDP rose 0.2%, taking the nation out of recession and beating expectations. At the same time Spain grew at 0.7%, also better than expectations while France maintained its recent pace with a 0.3% print. Interestingly, Germany doesn’t report this data until the middle of May. However, we did see German GfK Consumer Confidence print at 10.4, remaining unchanged on the month rather than falling as expected. Adding to the growth scenario were inflation readings that were generally a tick firmer than expected in Italy, Spain and France. While these numbers remain well below the ECB target of “close to but just below” 2.0%, it has served to ease some concerns about Europe’s future. In the end, the euro has rallied 0.25% while European government bond yields are all higher by 2-5bps. However, European equity markets did not get the memo and remain little changed on the day.
Prior to these releases we learned that China’s PMI data was softer than expected, with the National number printing lower at 50.1, while the Caixin number printed at 50.2. Even though both remain above the 50.0 level indicating future growth, there is an increasing concern that China’s Q1 GDP data was more the result of a distorted comparison to last year’s data due to changed timing of the Lunar New Year. Remember, that holiday has a large impact on the Chinese economy with manufacturing shutdowns amid widescale holiday making, and so the timing of those events each year are not easily stabilized with seasonal adjustments to the data. As such, it is starting to look like Q1’s 6.4% GDP growth may have been somewhat overstated. Of course, China remains opaque in many ways, so we may need to wait until next month’s PMI data to get a better handle on things. One other clue, though, has been the ongoing decline in the price of copper, a key industrial metal and one which China represents approximately 50% of global demand. Arguably, a falling copper price implies less demand from China, which implies slowing growth there. Ultimately, while it is no surprise that the renminbi is little changed on the day, Chinese equities edged higher on the theory that the PBOC is more likely to add stimulus if the economic slowdown persists.
Of course, the other China story is that the trade talks are resuming in Beijing today and market participants will be watching closely for word that things are continuing to move in the right direction. You may recall the President Xi Jinping gave a speech last week where he highlighted the changes he anticipated in Chinese policy, all of which included accession to US demands in the trade talks. At this point, it seems the negotiators need to “simply” hash out the details, which of course is not simple at all. But if the direction from the top is broadly set, a deal seems quite likely. However, as I have pointed out in the past, the market appears to have already priced in the successful conclusion of a deal, and so when (if) one is announced, I would expect equity markets to fall on a ‘sell the news’ response.
Turning to the US, yesterday’s data showed that PCE inflation (1.5%, core 1.6%) continues to lag expectations as well as remain below the Fed’s 2.0% target. With the FOMC meeting starting this morning, although we won’t hear the outcome until tomorrow afternoon, the punditry is trying to determine what they will say. The universal expectation is for no policy changes to be enacted, and little change in the policy statement. However, to me, there has been a further shift in the tone of the most recent Fed speakers. While I believe that Loretta Mester and Esther George remain monetary hawks, I think the rest of the board has morphed into a more dovish contingent, one that will respond quite quickly to falling inflation numbers. With that in mind, yesterday’s readings have to be concerning, and if we see another set of soft inflation data next month, it is entirely possible that the doves carry the day at the June meeting and force an end to the balance sheet roll-off immediately as a signal that they will not let inflation fall further. I think the mistake we are all making is that we keep looking for policy normalization. The new normal is low rates and growing balance sheets and we are already there.
As Powell and friends get together
The question is when, it’s not whether
More policy easing
Will seem less displeasing
So prices can rise like a feather
Looking at this morning’s releases, the Employment Cost Index (exp 0.7%) starts us off with Case-Shiller home prices (3.2%) and then Chicago PMI (59.0) following later in the morning. However, with the Fed meeting ongoing, it seems unlikely that any of these numbers will move the needle. In fact, tomorrow’s ADP number would need to be extraordinary (either high or low) to move things ahead of the FOMC announcement. All this points to continued low volatility in markets as players of all stripes try to figure out what the next big thing will be. My sense is we are going to see central banks continue to lean toward easier policy, as the global focus on inflation, or the lack thereof, will continue to drive policy, as well as asset bubbles.