Shocked and Surprised

Delivering just twenty-five
Did not satisfy Donald’s drive
To boost US growth
So he made an oath
That tariffs he’d quickly revive

Investors were shocked and surprised
As trade talks had seemed civilized
Thus stocks quickly fell
And yields did as well
Seems risk assets are now despised

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

Obviously, the big news yesterday was President Trump’s decision to impose a 10% tariff on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports starting September 1st. Arguably, this was driven by two things; first was the fact that he has been increasingly frustrated with the Chinese slow-walking the trade discussions and wants to push that along faster. Second is he realizes that if he escalates the trade threats, the Fed may be forced to cut rates further and more quickly. After all, one of their stated reasons for cutting rates Wednesday was the uncertainty over global growth and trade. That situation just got more uncertain. So in President Trump’s calculation, he addresses two key issues with one action.

Not surprisingly, given the shocking nature of the move, something that not a single analyst had been forecasting, there was a significant market reaction. Risk was quickly jettisoned as US equity markets turned around and fell 1% on the day after having been higher by a similar amount in the morning. Asian equity markets saw falls of between 1.5% and 2.0% and Europe is being hit even harder, with a number of markets (DAX, CAC) down more than 2.5%. But even more impressive was the decline in Treasury yields, which saw a 12bp fall in the 10-year and a 14bp fall in the 2-year. Those are the largest single day declines since May 2018, and the 10-year is now at its lowest level since October 2016. Of course, it wasn’t just Treasuries that rallied. Bund yields fell to a new record low of -0.498%, and we have seen similar declines throughout the developed markets. For example, Swiss 10-year yields are now -0.90%, having fallen 9bps and are the lowest in the world by far! In fact, the entire Swiss government yield curve is negative!

And in the FX market, haven number one, JPY rallied sharply. After weakening early in the session, it rebounded 1.7% yesterday and is stronger by a further 0.5% this morning. This has taken the yen back to its strongest level since April last year. Not surprisingly the Swiss franc saw similar price action and is now more than 1.0% stronger than yesterday. However, those are not the only currencies that saw movement, not by a long shot. For example, CNY has fallen 0.9% since the announcement and is now within spitting distance of the key 7.00 level. Significant concern remains in the market about that level as the last time the renminbi was that weak, it led to significant capital outflows and forced the PBOC to adjust policy and impose restrictions. However, there are many analysts who believe it is seen as less of a concern right now, and of course, a weaker renminbi will help offset the impact of US tariffs.

Commodity prices were also jolted, with oil tumbling 7% and oil related currencies feeling the brunt of that move. For example, RUB is lower by 1.2% this morning after a 0.5% fall yesterday. MXN is lower by a further 0.3% this morning after a 0.6% decline yesterday and even NOK, despite its G10 status, is lower by 1.0% since the tariff story hit the tape. In fact, looking at the broad dollar, it is actually little changed as there has been significant movement in both directions as traders and investors adjust their risk profiles.

With that as a prelude, we get one more key piece of data this morning, the payroll report. Current expectations are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 164K
Private Payrolls 160K
Manufacturing Payrolls 5K
Unemployment Rate 3.6%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (3.1% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.4
Trade Balance -$54.6B
Michigan Sentiment 90.3

You can see the bind in which the Fed finds itself. The employment situation remains quite robust, with the Unemployment Rate expected to tick back to 50-year lows and steady growth in employment. This is hardly a classic set of statistics to drive a rate cut. But with the escalation of the trade situation, something they specifically highlighted on Wednesday, they are going to need to address that or lose even more credibility (although it’s not clear how much they have left to lose!) In a funny way, I would wager that Chairman Powell is secretly rooting for a weak number this morning which would allow further justification for rate cuts and correspondingly allow him to save some face.

In the end, the key to remember is that markets are beholden to many different forces with the data merely one of those, and increasingly a less and less important one. While historically, the US has generally allowed most market activity without interference, there has clearly been a change of heart since President Trump’s election. His increased focus on both the stock market and the dollar are something new, and we still don’t know the extent of the impact this will have over time. While volatility overall has been relatively low, it appears that is set to change with this increased focus. Hedgers keep that in mind as programs are implemented. All of this untested monetary policy is almost certainly building up problems for the future, and those problems will not be easily addressed by the central banks. So, my sense is that we could see a lot more volatility ahead.

In the meantime, today has the sense of a ‘bad news is good’ for stocks and vice versa as equity investors will be looking for confirmation that more rate cuts are on the way. As to the dollar, bad news will be bad!

Good luck and good weekend