In Beijing, the Chinese yuan
Fell sharply as it’s now been drawn
Into the trade fight
Much to the delight
Of bears, who had shorts layered on
For President Xi, though, the risk
Is money there exits the fisc
With growth there still slowing
More doubt he is sowing
So capital flight could be brisk
Things changed overnight as the PBOC fixed the renminbi below 6.90, much weaker than expected and then the currency fell sharply in subsequent trading in both the on-shore and offshore markets. As you will have no doubt seen, USDCNY is trading somewhere in the vicinity of 7.08 this morning, although the price has been quite volatile. While that represents a decline of more than 1.5% compared to Friday’s closing levels, the more important questions revolve around the PBOC’s new strategy going forward.
Recall, one of the reasons that there was a strong market belief in the sanctity of the 7.00 level was that four years ago, when the PBOC surprised markets with a mini-devaluation, locals took their cash and ran for the hills. Capital outflows were so great, in excess of $1 trillion, that the PBOC needed to institute strict new rules preventing further flight. That was a distinct loss of face for an institution that was trying to modernize and prove that it could manage things like G10 countries where capital flows more freely. Ever since, the assumption was that the Chinese population would get nervous if the renminbi weakened beyond that level and correspondingly, the PBOC would not allow that outcome to occur.
But that was then, in the days when trade was simply a talking point rather than the focus of policy. As the trade war intensifies, the Chinese have fewer tools with which to fight given the massive imbalance that exists. The result of this is that increases in US tariffs cannot be matched and so other weapons must be used, with changes in the exchange rate the most obvious. While the PBOC claims they can continue to manage the currency and maintain its stability, the one thing I have learned throughout my career is that markets have a way of abusing claims of that nature, at least for a while. Back in January I forecast USDCNY to reach 7.40 by the end of this year and, as of this morning, that seems quite realistic.
But the impact on markets is far greater than simply the USDCNY exchange rate. This has been the catalyst for a significant amount of risk-off behavior with equity markets throughout Asia (Nikkei -1.75%, Shanghai -1.6%, Hang Seng -2.85%) and Europe (DAX -1.85%, CAC -2.25%, FTSE -2.25%) sharply lower; Treasury (1.76%) and Bund (-0.51%) yields sharply lower, the Japanese yen (+0.6%) and Swiss franc (+0.75%) both sharply higher and most emerging market currencies (e.g. MXN -1.5%, INR -1.4%, ZAR -1.2%, KRW -0.9%) falling alongside the renminbi. It should be no surprise that gold is higher by 1.0%, to a 6-year high, as well this morning and oil prices (-1.1%) are falling amid concerns of waning demand from the slowing global growth story.
So, what’s a hedger to do? The first thing to consider is whether these moves are temporary fluctuations that will quickly be reversed, or the start of longer-term trends. Given the imbalances that have been building within markets for the past decade and given that central banks have a greatly reduced set of monetary tools with which to manage things, despite their comments otherwise, this could well be the tipping point where markets start to unwind significant positions. After all, the one thing that truly underpinned gains in both equity and bond markets, especially corporate and high-yield bond markets, was confidence that regardless of fiscal policy failures, the central banks would be able to maintain a level of stability.
However, this morning that belief seems a little less secure. It will not take much for investors to decide that, ‘it’s been a good run and now might be a good time to take some money off the table’, at least figuratively. Last week saw equity markets suffer their worst week of the year and this week is not starting any better. Yes, the Fed has room to cut rates further, but will 200bps be enough to stop a global recession? Arguably, that’s the question that needs to be answered. From where I sit, that answer is no, but then I am a cynic. Of course, that cynicism is born of a long career in financial markets.
Thus, my take is that there is further to run in most of these currencies, and that assuming a quick reversion would be a mistake. While option prices are clearly higher this morning than last week, they remain low by historic standards and should be considered for their value in uncertain times. Just sayin’.
What else does this week have to offer? Well, the US data set is not that substantial, but we do hear from a number of Fed speakers, which given last week’s confusion will be extremely important and closely watched. There are also a number of foreign central bank meetings that will be interesting regarding their rate maneuvers.
|Tuesday||JOLT’s Job Openings||7.317M|
|Wednesday||RBNZ Rate Decision||1.25% (25bp cut)|
|RBI Rate Decision||5.50% (25bpcut)|
|Thursday||Philippine Rate Decision||4.25% (25bp cut)|
|Friday||PPI||0.2% (1.7% Y/Y)|
|-ex food & energy||0.2% (2.4% Y/Y)|
We also hear from three dovish Fed speakers; Brainerd, Bullard and Evans, who are likely to give more reasons for further rate cuts, especially if markets continue to fall. As to the three central banks with decisions to make, they find themselves in a difficult place. All three are extremely concerned about their currencies’ value and don’t want to exert further downward pressure on them, yet all three are facing slowing economies and need to do something to boost demand. In fact, this is going to be the central bank conundrum for some time to come across both developing and G10 countries as they try to continually manage the impossible trilateral of exchange rates, interest rates and growth.
All of this adds up to yet more reasons for higher volatility across all asset classes in the near future. It appears that these are the first cracks in the old economic order, and there is no way to know how everything will play out going forward. As long as risk is being jettisoned though, Treasuries, the yen, the Swiss franc and the dollar will see demand. Keep that in mind as you manage your risks.