Mostly Mayhem

There once was a female PM
Whose task was the fallout, to stem,
From Brexit, alas
What then came to pass
Was discord and mostly mayhem

And so, because progress has lumbered
Theresa May’s days are now numbered
The market’s concern
Is Boris can’t learn
The problems with which he’s encumbered

In the battle for headline supremacy, at least in the FX market’s eyes, Brexit has once again topped the trade war today. The news from the UK is that PM May has now negotiated her own exit which will be shortly after the fourth vote on her much-despised Brexit bill in Parliament. The current timing is for the first week of June, although given how fluid everything seems to be there, as well as a politician’s preternatural attempts to retain power, it may take a little longer. However, there seems to be virtually no possibility that the legislation passes, and Theresa May’s tumultuous time as PM seems set to end shortly.

Of course, that begs the question, who’s next? And that is the market’s (along with the EU’s) great fear. It appears that erstwhile London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is a prime candidate to win the leadership election, and his views on Brexit remain very clear…get the UK out! In the lead up to the original March 31 deadline, you may recall I had been particularly skeptical of the growing sentiment at the time that a hard Brexit had been taken off the table. In the end, the law of the land is still for the UK to leave the EU, deal or no deal, now by October 31, 2019. It beggars belief that the EU will readily reopen negotiations with the UK, especially a PM Johnson, and so I think it is time to reassess the odds of the outcome. Here is one pundit’s view:

  May 16, 2019 May 17, 2019
Soft Brexit 50% 20%
Vote to Remain 30% 35%
Hard Brexit 20% 45%

Given this change in the landscape, it can be no surprise that the pound continues to fall. This morning sees the beleaguered currency lower by a further 0.3% taking the move this month to 3.2%. And the thing is, given the nature of this move, which has been very steady (lower in 9 of the past 10 sessions with the 10th unchanged), there is every reason to believe that this has further room to run. Very large single day moves tend to be reversed quickly, but this, my friends is what a market repricing future probability looks like. The most recent lows, near 1.25 in December look a likely target at this time.

Of course, the fact that the market seems more focused on Brexit than trade doesn’t mean the trade story has died. In fact, equity markets in Asia suffered, as have European ones, on the back of comments from the Chinese Commerce Ministry that no further talks are currently scheduled, and that the Chinese no longer believe the US is negotiating in good faith. As such, risk is clearly being reduced across the board this morning with not merely equity weakness, but haven strength. Treasury (2.37%) and Bund (-0.11%) yields continue to fall while the yen (+0.2%) rallies alongside the dollar.

In FX markets, the Chinese yuan has fallen again (-0.3%) and is now trading at 6.95, quite close to the supposed critical support (dollar resistance) level of 7.00. There continues to be a strong belief in the market, along with the analyst community, that the PBOC won’t allow the renminbi to weaken past that level. This stems from market activity in 2015, when the Chinese surprised everyone with a ‘mini-devaluation’ of 1.5% one evening in early August of that year. The ensuing rush for the exits by Chinese nationals trying to save their wealth cost the PBOC $1 trillion in FX reserves as they tried to moderate the renminbi’s decline. Finally, when it reached 6.98 in late December 2016, they changed the capital flow regulations and added significant verbal suasion to their message that they would not allow the currency to fall any further.

And for the most part, it worked for the next 15 months. However, clearly the situation has changed given the ongoing trade negotiations, and arguably given the deterioration in the relationship between the US and China. While the Chinese have pledged to avoid currency manipulation, it is not hard to argue that their current activities in maintaining yuan strength are just that, manipulation. Given the capital controls in place, meaning locals won’t be able to rush for the doors, it is entirely realistic to believe the PBOC could say something like, ‘we believe it is appropriate for the market to have a greater role in determining the value of the currency and are widening the band around the fix to accommodate those movements.’ A 5% band would certainly allow a much weaker renminbi while remaining within the broad context of their policy tools. In other words, I am not convinced that 7.00 is a magic line, perhaps more like a Maginot Line. If your hedging policy relies on 7.00 being sacrosanct, it is time to rethink your policy.

Overall, the dollar is firmer pretty much everywhere, with yesterday’s broad strength being modestly extended today. Yesterday’s US data was much better than expected as Housing starts grew 5.6% and Philly Fed printed at a higher than expected 16.6. Later this morning we see the last data of the week, Michigan Sentiment (exp 97.5). We also hear from two more Fed speakers, Clarida and Williams, although we have already heard from both of them earlier this week. Yesterday Governor Brainerd made an interesting series of comments regarding the Fed’s attempts to lift inflation, highlighting for the first time, that perhaps their models aren’t good descriptions of the economy any more. After a decade of inability to manage inflation risk, it’s about time they question something other than the market. While I am very happy to see them reflecting on their process, my fear is they will conclude that permanent easy money is the way of the future, a la Japan. If that is the direction in which the Fed is turning, it will have a grave impact on the FX markets, with the dollar likely to suffer the most as the US is, arguably, the furthest from that point right now. But that is a future concern, not one for today.

Good luck and good weekend