While Powell said growth may be strong
He still thinks it seems rather wrong
That prices won’t rise
So it’s no surprise
That rates will go lower ‘ere long
After the FOMC left policy largely unchanged yesterday (they did tweak the IOER down by 5bps) and the statement was parsed, it appeared that the Fed’s clear dovish bias continues to drive the overall tone of policy. Growth is solid but inflation remains confusingly soft and it appeared that the Fed was moving closer to the ‘insurance’ rate cut markets have been
looking hoping for to prevent weakness from showing up. Stocks rallied and so did bonds with the yield on the 10yr falling to 2.45% just before the press conference while stock markets were higher by 0.5% or so. But then…
According to Powell the story
Is price declines are transitory
So patience remains
The thought in Fed brains
With traders stuck in purgatory
Powell indicated that the majority view at the Fed was that the reason we have seen such weak price data lately is because of transitory issues. These include reduced investment management fees in the wake of the sharp equity market declines in Q4 of last year and the change in the way the Fed gathered price data at retail stores where they now collect significantly greater amounts of data digitally, rather than having ‘shoppers’ go to stores and look at price tags. The upshot is that while he was hardly hawkish in any sense of the word, trying to maintain as neutral a stance as possible, he was far more hawkish than the market had anticipated. Not surprisingly, markets reversed their earlier moves with 10yr yields shooting higher by 6bps, closing higher than the previous day’s close, while equity markets ceded all their early gains and wound up falling about 0.7% on average between the three major indices.
What about the dollar? Well, it followed the same type of trajectory as other assets, softening on the dovish ideas throughout the session before rallying a sharp 0.55% in the wake of Powell’s press conference opening statement. Since then, it has largely maintained the rebound, although this morning it is softer by about 0.1% across the board.
Looking ahead, markets are going to continue to focus on the interplay between the data releases and the central bank comments. Nothing has changed with regard to the overarching dovish bias evident in almost all central banks, but in order for them to act, rather than merely talk, the data will have to be clearly deteriorating. And lately, the best description of the data releases has been mixed. For example, yesterday saw a huge ADP Employment number, 275K, boding well for tomorrow’s NFP report. However, ISM Manufacturing fell sharply to 52.8, well below last month’s 55.3 reading as well as far below the 55.0 market expectation. So, which one is more important? That’s the thing. As long as we see strength in some areas of the economy along with weakness in others, the Fed is almost certainly going to sit on the sidelines. That is, of course, unless the inflation data starts to move more aggressively in either direction. I think it is far better than even money that Fed funds are 2.25%-2.50% on December 31.
But what about other places? Well, the ECB seems stuck between a rock and a hard place as Q1 data has been disappointing overall and they are running out of tools to fight a slowdown. Given the current rate structure, the question being debated in the halls in Frankfurt is just how low can rates go before having a net detrimental impact on the economy. If we see any further weakness from the Eurozone, we are going to find out. That brings us to this morning’s PMI data, where Bloomberg tried hard to put a positive spin on what remains lousy data. Germany (44.4), Italy (49.1) and France (50.0) remain desultory at best. The Eurozone print (47.2) is hardly the stuff of dreams, although in fairness, it was better than analysts had been expecting. So perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a stabilization in the decline, rather than a continuing acceleration of such. But that hardly gives a rationale for tighter policy. The ECB remains stuck on hold on the rate front and is certainly going to see significant uptake of their new TLTRO’s when they come out. It remains difficult to see a reason for the euro to rebound given the underlying economic weakness in the Eurozone, especially with the ECB committed to negative rates for at least another year.
What about the UK? Well, the BOE met this morning and left rates on hold by a unanimous vote. They also released new economic forecasts that showed reduced expectations for inflation this year, down to 1.6%, with the out years remaining essentially unchanged. They indicated that the delay in Brexit would have a limited impact as they continue to plan on a smooth transition, and their growth forecasts changed with 2019 rising to 1.5% on the back of the inventory led gains in Q1, although the out years remain unchanged. Here, too, there is no urgency to raise rates, although they keep trying to imply that slightly higher rates would be appropriate. However, the market is having none of it, pricing a 30% chance of a 25bp rate cut before the end of next year. The pound chopped on the news, rallying at first, but falling subsequently and is now sitting at 1.3050, essentially unchanged on the day.
Of course, Brexit continues to influence the pound’s movements and recent hints from both PM May and Labour Leader Corbyn indicate that it is possible they are going to agree a deal that includes permanent membership of a customs union with the EU. Certainly, verification of that will help the pound rally back. But boy, if I voted for Brexit and this is what they delivered, it would be quite upsetting. In essence, it destroys one of the main benefits of Brexit, the ability to manage their own trade function. We shall see how it plays out.
This morning brings more data, starting with Initial Claims (exp 215K), Nonfarm Productivity (2.2%) and Unit Labor Costs (1.5%) at 8:30, then Factory Orders (1.5%) at 10:00. The onslaught of Fed speakers doesn’t start until tomorrow, so that’s really it for the day. Equity futures are rallying this morning as the idea that the markets fell yesterday seems more like a mirage than a market response to new information. In the end, you cannot fight city hall, and though Powell tried to sound tough, I didn’t see anything to change the view that the Fed remains biased toward cutting rates as their next move.