Said Williams, the Fed must be swift
When acting if growth is adrift
The market inferred
A half point’s preferred
Which gave all stock markets a lift
If there was any doubt that markets are still entirely beholden to the Fed, they should have been removed after yesterday’s price action. First, recall that a number of emerging market central banks cut interest rates, some in a complete market surprise (South Korea), while others were anticipated (Indonesia, South Africa, Ukraine) and yet all of those currencies strengthened on the day. It is always curious to me when a situation like that occurs, as it forces a deeper investigation as to the market drivers. But this investigation was pretty short as all the evidence pointed in one direction; the Fed. Yesterday afternoon, NY Fed President John Williams gave an, ostensibly, academic speech about how central banks should respond to economic weakness and highlighted that they should act quickly and aggressively in such cases. Notably, he said, “take swift action when faced with adverse economic conditions” and “keep interest rates lower for longer.” The market interpretation of those comments was an increased expectation for a 50bp rate cut by the Fed at the end of the month. Stocks reversed early losses, bonds rallied, with yields falling 4bps and the dollar fell as much as 0.5%. While a spokesperson for the NY Fed made a statement later trying to explain that Williams’ speech was not about policy, just academic research, the market remained convinced that 50bps is coming to a screen near you on July 31! We shall see.
The problem with the 50bp theme is that the economic data of late has actually been generally, although not universally, better than expected. Consider that last week, both core CPI (2.1%) and PPI (2.3%) printed a tick higher than expectations; Retail Sales were substantially stronger at 0.4% vs. the 0.1% expected; and both the Empire State and Philly Fed indices printed stronger than expected at 4.3 and 21.8 respectively. Also, the jobs report at the beginning of the month was much stronger than expected. Of course, there have been negatives as well, with IP (0.0%), Housing Starts (-0.9%) and Building Permits (-6.1%) all underperforming. In addition, we cannot forget the situation elsewhere in the world, where China printed Q2 GDP at 6.2%, its lowest print in the 27 years they have been releasing quarterly data, while Eurozone data continues to suffer as well. The implication is that if you assume there is a case for a rate cut at all, the case for a 50bp rate cut relies on much thinner gruel.
At this point, even if we continue to see stronger than expected US data, I believe that Powell and company are locked into a rate cut. Given that futures markets have fully priced that in, as well as the fact that the equity markets are unquestionably counting on that cut, disappointment would serve to truly disrupt markets, potentially impinging on financial conditions and certainly draw the ire of the White House. None of these consequences seem worthwhile for the potential benefit of leaving 25bps of dry powder in the magazine. Add to this the fact that we have heard from several Fed members; Bostic, Kaplan and George, none of whom are enthused about a rate cut at all. Now, of those three, only Esther George is a current voter, but one dissenting vote will not be enough to sway a clearly dovish FOMC. Add it all up and I think we see 25bps when the dust settles. Of course, if that’s the case, it is entirely realistic to see equity prices ‘sell the news’ unless Powell is hyper dovish in the press conference.
And in truth, that is the entire story today. Virtually every story in the financial press focuses on rate cuts, whether the question about the Fed, or the discussion of all the other central banks that have already acted. There is an ongoing argument about whether the ECB actually cuts rates next week, or if they simply prepare the market for a cut in September and the reinstitution of QE in January. Most analysts are opting for the latter, believing that Signor Draghi will wait and see, but if they know they are going to cut, why wait? I think there is a much better chance of immediate action than is being priced into the market.
On the Brexit front, the voting by Tory members continues, and by all accounts, Boris is still in the lead and due to be the next PM. That will continue to pressure the pound, as unless there is further movement by the EU, the chances of a no-deal Brexit will continue to rise. In fact, next week will be quite momentous as we hear from the ECB and get the UK voting results on Thursday.
Away from these stories, most things fall into the background. For example, China Minsheng Group, a major Chinese conglomerate, is defaulting on a $500 million bond repayment due in August. Clearly, this is not a positive event, but more importantly speaks to two specific issues, the lack of US dollar liquidity available in emerging markets as well as the true nature of the slowdown in the Chinese economy. This will be used as further ammunition for the camp that believes the Chinese significantly overstate their economic data.
Turning to this morning’s activity, the only data point is the Michigan Sentiment data (exp 98.5) and we get one more Fed speech, from uber-dove James Bullard. The dollar is stronger today, after yesterday’s afternoon selloff, having risen 0.35% vs. the euro and with gains also against the yen (0.3%), Aussie (0.25%) and most emerging market currencies (MXN 0.3%, ZAR 0.6%, CNY 0.1%). My sense is that yesterday afternoon’s price action was a bit overdone on the dollar, and so we will see more of that unwound ahead of the weekend. Look for modest further USD strength.
Good luck and good weekend