While Powell did not actually say
That rate cuts were soon on the way
He hinted as much
So traders did clutch
The idea and quickly made hay
If there was ever any doubt as to what is driving the equity markets, it was put to rest yesterday morning. Chairman Powell, during his discussion of the economy and any potential challenges said the following, “We are closely monitoring the implications of these developments for the U.S. economic outlook and, as always, we will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.” Nowhere in that comment does he actually talk about cutting rates, but the market belief is that ‘appropriate action’ is just that. The result was a powerful equity market rally (DJIA and S&P +2.1%, NASDAQ +2.6%), a modest Treasury sell-off and further weakness in the dollar. At this point, Wall Street analysts are competing to define the terms of the Fed’s next easing cycle with most now looking for at least two rate cuts this year, but nobody expecting a move later this month. And don’t forget the futures market, where traders are pricing in 60bps of rate cuts before the end of the year, so two cuts and a 40% probability of a third.
All of this is ongoing in the face of continuing bombastic trade rhetoric by both the US and China, and with President Trump seemingly quite comfortable with the current situation. While it appears that he views these as negotiating tactics, it seems clear that the strategy is risky and could potentially spiral into a much more deeply entrenched trade war. However, with that in mind, the one thing we all should have learned in the past two plus years is that forecasting the actions of this President is a mug’s game.
Instead, let’s try to consider potential outcomes for various actions that might be taken.
Scenario 1: status quo, meaning tariffs remain in place but don’t grow on either side and trade talks don’t restart. If the current frosty relationship continues, then markets will become that much more reliant on Fed largesse in order to maintain YTD gains, let alone rally. Global growth is slowing, as is growth in trade (the IMF just reduced forecasts for 2019 again!), and earnings data is going to suffer. In this case, the market will be pining for ‘appropriate action’ and counting on the Fed to cut rates to support the economy. While rate cuts will initially support equities, there will need to be more concrete fiscal action to extend any gains. Treasuries are likely to continue to see yields grind lower with 2.00% for the 10-year quite viable, and the dollar is likely to continue to suffer in this context as expectations for US rate cuts will move ahead of those for the rest of the world. Certainly, a 2% decline in the dollar is viable to begin with. However, remember that if the economic situation in the US requires monetary ease, you can be sure that the same will be true elsewhere in the world, and when that starts to become the base case, the dollar should bottom.
Scenario 2: happy days, meaning both President’s Xi and Trump meet at the G20, agree that any deal is better than no deal and instruct their respective teams to get back to it. There will be fudging on both sides so neither loses face domestically, but the threat of an all-out trade war dissipates quickly. Markets respond enthusiastically as earnings estimates get raised, and while things won’t revert to the 2016 trade situation, tariffs will be removed, and optimism returns. In this case, without any ‘need’ for Fed rate cuts, the dollar will likely soar, as once again, the US economic situation will be seen as the most robust in the world, and any latent Fed dovishness is likely to be removed. Treasury prices are sure to fall as risk as quickly embraced and 2.50%-2.75% 10-year Treasuries seems reasonable. After all, the 10-year was at 2.50% just one month ago.
Scenario 3: apocalypse, the trade war escalates as both Presidents decide the domestic political benefits outweigh the potential economic costs and everything traded between the two nations is subject to significant tariffs. Earnings estimates throughout the world tumble, confidence ebbs quickly and equity markets globally suffer. While this will trigger another bout of central bank easing globally, the impact on equity markets will be delayed with fear running rampant and risk rejected. Treasury yields will fall sharply; 1.50% anyone? The dollar, however, will outperform along with the yen, as haven currencies will be aggressively sought.
Obviously, there are many subtle gradations of what can occur, but I feel like these three descriptions offer a good baseline from which to work. For now, the status quo is our best bet, with the chance of happy days coming soon pretty low, although apocalypse is even more remote. Just don’t rule it out.
As to the markets, the dollar has largely stabilized this morning after falling about 1% earlier in the week. Eurozone Services PMI data printed ever so slightly higher than expected but is still pointing to sluggish growth. The ECB is anticipated to announce the terms of the newest round of TLTRO’s tomorrow, with consensus moving toward low rates (-0.4% for banks to borrow) but terms of just two years rather than the previous package’s terms of four years. Given the complete lack of inflationary pulse in the Eurozone and the ongoing manufacturing malaise, it is still very hard for me to get excited about the euro rallying on its own.
This morning brings ADP Employment data (exp 185K) as well as ISM Non-Manufacturing (55.5) and then the Fed’s Beige Book is released at 2:00. We hear from three more Fed speakers, Clarida, Bostic and Bowman, so it will be interesting to see if there is more emphasis on the willingness to respond to weak markets activity. One thing to note, the word patience has not been uttered by a single Fed member in a number of days. Perhaps that is the telling signal that a rate cut is coming sooner than they previously thought.