A Rate Cut’s Assumed

In Washington DC today
We’ll get to hear from Chairman Jay
A rate cut’s assumed
So, equities boomed
While dollar strength seems here to stay

Markets are on tenterhooks as the release of the FOMC statement approaches. That actually may be overstating the case. The market is highly confident that the Fed is going to cut the funds rate by 25 bps this afternoon as there has not been nearly enough change in the trajectory of the economic data over the past ten days to change any views. During this ‘quiet period’ we have seen solid, if unspectacular economic indicators. Certainly nothing indicating a severe slowdown, but also nothing indicating that the economy is overheating. As well, we have heard from several other central banks, notably the ECB and BOJ, that further policy ease is on the way and they are ready to move imminently. Finally, the whipped cream on this particular decision was released yesterday morning when core PCE data printed at 1.6%, a lower than expected outcome, and sufficient proof that inflation remains too quiescent for the Fed’s liking. At this point, it all seems anticlimactic.

Perhaps of more interest will be the press conference to be held at 2:30, when Chairman Powell will be able to explain more fully the rationale behind cutting rates with an economy running at potential, historically low unemployment and the easiest financial conditions seen in a decade. But hey, inflation is a few ticks low, so that is clearly justification. (As an aside, I find it remarkable that any central bank is so wedded, with precision, to a specific target inflation rate, and that not achieving that target is grounds for policy change. Let’s face it, monetary policy tools are blunt instruments and work with a significant lag. In fact, when a target is achieved, that seems to be more luck than skill. There are a number of central banks that aim for inflation to be within a range, and that seems to make far more sense than setting a 2.0% target and complaining when the rate is at 1.6%.)

In the meantime, there are still a few other things that are impacting markets today, notably the US-China trade talks and the ongoing Brexit story. Regarding the trade talks, the delegations met for two days in Shanghai and made approximately zero headway. The word is they are further apart now than when talks broke down three months ago. Suddenly it is dawning on a lot of people that these trade talks may not be concluded on a politically convenient schedule (meaning in time for the US election). The market impact was a decline in Asian equity indices with the Nikkei falling 0.9%, both Shanghai and Korea falling 0.7%, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong down 1.3%. However, European indices have barely moved on the day and US futures are pointing higher after Apple beat earnings estimates following the close yesterday. The implication here is that US markets have moved on from the trade story while Asian ones are still beholden to every word. Quite frankly, that seems to be a realistic outcome given the fact that trade represents such a small part of the US economy as opposed to every Asian nation, where it is a major driver of economic activity.

Turning to the Brexit story, the pound plumbed new depths yesterday, trading close to 1.21 before a modest bounce this morning (+0.15%) as Boris continues to hold a hard line on talks. He is pushing very hard for the EU to reopen the existing, unratified deal and will not meet face-to-face with any EU counterparts until they do so. Thus far, the EU has been adamant that the deal is done, and they refuse to change it.

But here’s the first clue that things are going to change; the Bank of Ireland said that a hard Brexit will reduce GDP growth in 2020 to 0.7% from the currently expected 4.1% growth. As I mentioned before, Ireland is on the front lines and will feel the brunt of the early impacts. At some point, probably pretty soon, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is going to prevail on the rest of the EU to reopen talks before Ireland is crushed. And remember, too, that a no-deal Brexit leaves the EU with a £39 billion hole in their budget as that was to be the UK’s parting alimony payment.

While the EU tries to convince one and all that they hold the upper hand, it is not clear to me that is the case. Working in Boris’s favor was today’s Q2 GDP data from the Eurozone showing growth falling to 0.2% in the quarter with Italy at 0.0%, Spain dipping to 0.5% and France having reported 0.2% yesterday. Germany doesn’t actually report until next month, but indications are 0.0% is the best they can expect. The euro remains under pressure, trading at the bottom of its recent 1.11-1.14 trading range and shows no signs of rebounding. And of course, the fact that the ECB is getting set to ease policy further is not helping the single currency at all. I maintain that despite the Fed’s actions today, unless Powell promises three more cuts soon, the dollar will remain bid.

And those are really today’s stories. Overall, the FX market is pretty benign today, with the largest mover being TRY, which rallied 0.45% as optimism is growing that the economy is stabilizing which means that the current high rates are quite attractive to investors. But away from that, movement has been on the order of 0.10%-0.20% in either direction. In other words, nothing is happening.

On the data front, remember this is payroll week as well, and today we see ADP Employment (exp 150K) and then Chicago PMI (50.6) before the FOMC this afternoon. As earnings season is still underway, I expect equities to respond to that data, but the dollar will likely bide its time until the Fed. After that, nothing has changed my broadly bullish view, although an uber-dovish Powell could clearly do so.

Good luck