Clearly On Hold

Though policy’s clearly on hold
Most central banks feel they’ve controlled
The story on growth
And yet they’re still loath
To change their inflation threshold

Amidst generally dull market activity (at least in the FX market), traders and investors continue to look for the next key catalysts to drive markets. In US equity markets, we are now entering earnings season which should keep things going for a while. The early releases have shown declining earnings on a sequential basis, but thus far the results have bested estimates so continue to be seen as bullish. (As an aside, could someone please explain to me the bullish case on stocks trading at a 20+ multiple with economic growth in the US at 2% and globally at 3.5% alongside extremely limited policy leeway for further monetary ease? But I digress.) Overnight saw Chinese stocks rock, with Shanghai soaring 2.4% and the Hang Seng 1.1%. European stocks are a bit firmer as well (DAX +0.6%, FTSE +0.4%) and US futures are pointing higher.

Turning to the central banks, we continue to hear the following broad themes: policy is in a good place right now, but the opportunity for further ease exists. Depending on the central bank this is taking different forms. For example, the Minutes of the RBA meeting indicated a growing willingness to cut the base rate further, and market expectations are building for two more cuts this year, down to 1.00%. Meanwhile, the Fed has no ability to cut rates yet (they just stopped raising them in December) but continues to talk about how they achieve their inflation target. Yesterday, Boston Fed president Rosengren posited that a stronger commitment to the symmetry around their 2.0% target could be useful. Personally, I don’t believe that, but I’m just a gadfly, not a PhD economist. At any rate, the idea is that allowing the economy to run hot without tightening is tantamount to easing policy further. In the end, it has become apparent the Fed’s (and every central bank’s) problem is that their economic models no longer are a good representation of the inner workings of the economy. As such, they are essentially flying blind. Previous relationships between growth, inflation and employment have clearly changed. I make no claim that I know what the new relationships are like, just that 10 years of monetary policy experiments with subpar results is enough to demonstrate the central banks are lost.

This is true not just in the US and Europe, but in Japan, where they have been working on QE for nearly thirty years now.

More ETF’s bought
Will be followed by more and
More ETF’s bought

It’s vital for the Bank of Japan to continue persistently with powerful monetary easing,” Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said. As can be seen from Kuroda-san’s comments last night in the Diet, the BOJ is a one-trick pony. While it is currently illegal for the Fed to purchase equities, that is not the case in Japan, and they have been buying them with gusto. The thing is, the Japanese economy continues to stumble along with minimal growth and near zero inflation. As the sole mandate for the BOJ is to achieve their 2.0% inflation target, it is fair to say that they have been failing for decades. And yet, they too, have not considered a new model.

In the end, it seems the lesson to be learned is that the myth of omnipotence that the central banks would have us all believe is starting to crack. Once upon a time central banks monitored activity in the real economy and tried to adjust policy accordingly. Financial markets followed their lead and responded to those actions. But as the world has become more financially oriented during the past thirty years, it seems we now have the opposite situation. Now, financial markets trade on anticipation of central bank activity, and if central banks start to tighten policy, financial markets tend to throw tantrums. However, there is no tough love at central banks. Rather they are indulgent parents who cave quite quickly to the whims of declining markets. Regardless of their alleged targets for inflation or employment, the only number that really matters is the S&P 500, and that is generally true for every central bank.

Turning to this morning’s data story, the German ZEW survey was released at a better than expected 3.1. In fact, not only was this better than forecast, but it was the first positive reading in more than a year. It seems that the ongoing concerns over German growth may be easing slightly at this point. Certainly, if we see a better outcome in the Manufacturing PMI data at the end of April, you can look for policymakers to signal an all clear on growth, although they seem unlikely to actually tighten policy. Later this morning we see IP (exp 0.2%) and Capacity Utilization (79.1%) and then tonight, arguably more importantly, we see the first look at Chinese Q1 GDP (exp 6.3%).

If you consider the broad narrative, it posits that renewed Chinese monetary stimulus will prevent a significant slowdown there, thus helping economies like Germany to rebound. At the same time, the mooted successful conclusion of the US-China trade talks will lead to progress on US-EU and US-Japanese talks, and then everything will be right with the world as the previous world order is reincarnated. FWIW I am skeptical of this outcome, but clearly equity market bulls are all-in.

In the end, the dollar has been extremely quiet (volatility measures are back to historic lows) and it is hard to get excited about movement in the near-term. Nothing has yet changed my view that the US will ultimately remain the tightest policy around, and thus continue to draw investment and USD strength. But frankly, recent narrow ranges are likely to remain in place for a little while longer yet.

Good luck
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