A New Plan

While all eyes are turned toward Japan
Most central banks made a new plan
If there’s no trade truce
They’ll quickly reduce
Their base rates, stock markets, to fan

As the week comes to a close, the G20 Summit, and more importantly, tomorrow’s meeting between President’s Trump and Xi are the primary focus of investors and traders everywhere. While there is still great uncertainty associated with the meeting, at this point I would characterize the broad sentiment as an expectation that the two leaders will agree to resurrect the talks that were abruptly ended last month, with neither side imposing additional tariffs at this time. And quite frankly, that does seem like a pretty reasonable expectation. However, that is not nearly the same thing as assuming that a deal will be forthcoming soon. The negotiations remain fraught based on the simple fact that both nations view the world in very different ways, and what is SOP in one is seen as outside the bounds in the other. But in the meantime, I expect that markets will take the news that the situation did not deteriorate as a massive bullish signal, if only because the market has taken virtually everything that does not guaranty an apocalypse as a massive bullish signal.

At the same time, it has become abundantly clear that the major central banks have prepared for the worst and are all standing by to ease policy further in the event the talks fall apart. Of course, the major central banks have all been pretty clear lately that they are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that interest rates can remain much lower than historical levels without stoking inflation. In fact, there are still several central bankers, notably Kuroda-san and Signor Draghi, who feel they are fighting deflation. In fairness, the latest data, released just last night, highlights that runaway inflation is hardly a cause for concern as Japan clocked in at 1.1%, with core at 0.9% and the Eurozone reported inflation at a rip roaring 1.2%, with core at 1.1%. It has been data of this nature that stokes the imagination for further policy ease, despite the fact that both these central banks are already working with negative interest rates.

Now, it must be remembered that there are 18 other national leaders attending the meeting, and many of them have their own concerns over their current relationship with the US. For example, the president has threatened 25% tariffs on imported autos, a move which would have a significantly negative impact on both Germany (and by extension the EU) and Japan. For now, those tariffs are on hold, but it is also clear that because of the intensity of the US-China trade situation, talks about that issue with both the EU and Japan have been relegated to lower level officials. The concern there is that the original six-month delay could simply run out without a serious effort to address the issue. If that were to be the case, the negative consequences on both economies would be significant, however, it is far too soon to make any judgements on the outcome there.

And quite frankly, that is pretty much the entire story for the day. Equity markets remain mixed, with Asia in the red, although the losses were relatively modest at between 0.25% and 0.50%. Europe, meanwhile, has taken a more positive view of the outcome, with markets there rising between 0.2% and 0.5%, which has left US futures pointing to modest, 0.2%, gains at the opening. Bond prices are actually slightly lower this morning (yields higher) but remain within scant basis points of the lows seen recently. For example, Bunds are trading at -0.319%, just 1.5bps from its recent historic low while Treasuries this morning are trading at 2.017%, just 4bps from its recent multi-year lows. Perhaps the most remarkable news from the sovereign bond market was yesterday’s issuance by Austria of 100-year bonds with a coupon of just 1.20%! To my mind, that does not seem like a reasonable return for the period involved, but then, that may be very backwards thinking.

Consider that the acceptance of two policy changes that have been mooted lately, although are still quite controversial, would result in the Austrian issue as being seen as a virtual high-yield bond. Those are the abolition of cash and the acceptance of MMT as the new monetary policy framework. I can assure you that if when cash is abolished, interest rates will turn permanently negative, thus making a yield of 1.20% seem quite attractive, despite the century tenor. As to MMT, it could play out in one of two ways, either government bonds issued as perpetual 0.0% coupons, or the end of issuing debt completely, since the central banks would merely need to print the currency and pay it as directed. In this case too, 1.20% would seem awfully good.

Finally, let’s look at the FX markets this morning, where the dollar is modestly softer against most of its counterparts. But when I say modestly, I am not kidding. Against G10 currencies, the largest movement overnight was NZD’s 0.14% appreciation, with everything else + or – 0.1% or less. In other words, the FX markets are looking at the Trump-Xi meeting and waiting for the outcome before taking a view. Positions remain longer, rather than shorter, USD, but as I have written recently, that view is beginning to change on the back of the idea that the Fed has much further to ease than other central banks. While I agree that is a short-term prospect, I see the losses as limited to the 3%-5% range overall before stability is found.

Turning to the data picture, yesterday saw GDP print as expected at 3.1%. This morning we get Personal Income (exp 0.3%), Personal Spending (0.4%), Core PCE (1.6%). Chicago PMI (53.1) and Michigan Sentiment (98.0). However, barring an outlandish miss in anything, it seems unlikely there will be too much movement ahead of tomorrow’s Trump-Xi meeting. Look for a quiet one.

Good luck and good weekend