Past Its Shelf Life

The narrative most of this year
Described central banks full of fear
So rates they would cut
Which might help somewhat
But so far that hasn’t been clear

Instead every meeting’s been rife
With conflict, dissension and strife
For NIRP, the doves pine
While hawks like to whine
That policy’s past its shelf life

At the end of a week filled with numerous central bank meetings, it’s time to consider what we’ve learned. Arguably, the first thing is that groupthink in the central banking community is not quite as widespread as we previously believed. This was made evident by the three dissenting votes at the FOMC on Wednesday as well as last week’s ECB meeting, where at least five members of the council argued vociferously for no further stimulus. The funny thing is that while I understand the European monetary hawks’ zeitgeist, (German hyperinflation of the 1920’s) the fact remains that Europe is slipping into recession and arguably the ECB is correct in trying to address that. With that said, I would argue they would have been far better off extending the TLTRO’s to an even longer maturity and cut rates there, allowing banks to earn from the ECB while they lend to clients at a positive rate. Simply cutting the deposit rate to -0.50% is very unlikely to spur growth further, at least based on the fact that it has not helped yet.

At the same time, the FOMC also has a wide range of opinions on display. Not only were there two hawkish dissents, there was a dovish one as well. And based on the dot plot, after this cut, there are now ten of the seventeen members who see no further rate action in 2019. Meanwhile, the market is still pricing in a 69% probability of a cut by the December meeting. There was a comment by a famous hedge fund trader that Chairman Powell is the weakest chairman in decades, based on these dissents, but it was just three years ago, in the September 2016 meeting when Janet Yellen chaired the Fed, that there were also three dissents at a meeting, with all three seeking a rate hike, while the Fed stood pat. The point is, it is probably a bit unfair to be claiming Powell is weak because some members have different views. And in the big picture, shouldn’t we want a diversity of ideas at the Fed? I think that would make for a healthier debate.

Two other meetings stand out, the BOJ and the PBOC, or at least actions by those banks stand out. While the BOJ left policy on hold officially, they not only promised a re-evaluation of the current monetary policy framework, but last night, they significantly reduced the amount of JGB’s that they purchased in the longer maturities. The absent ¥50 billion surprised market players and helped drive the yields on the back end higher by between 3-4bps. The BOJ have made it clear that they are interested in a steeper yield curve, and that’s just what they got. Their problem is that despite decades of ZIRP and then NIRP, as well as a massive QE program, their inflation target remains as far away as ever. Last night, for example, CPI was released at 0.5% Y/Y ex fresh food, the lowest level since mid-2017. It seems pretty clear that their actions have been a failure for decades and show no sign of changing. Perhaps they could use a little dissent!

Finally, the PBOC cut its 1-year Loan Prime Rate (its new monetary benchmark) by 5bps last night, the second consecutive cut and an indication that they are trying to add stimulus without inflating any financial bubbles. While this move was widely anticipated, they did not change the level of the 5-year Rate, which was also anticipated. The overall difference here, though, is that the PBOC is clearly far less concerned with what happens to investors than most Western central banks. After all, they explicitly take their marching orders from President Xi, so the overall scope of policy is out of their hands.

When looking at the impact of these moves, though, at least in the currency markets, the thrust was against the grain of what was desired by the central banks. If you recall last week, the euro initially declined, but then rallied sharply by the end of the day after the ECB meeting and has largely maintained those gains. Then yesterday we saw JPY strength, with no reprieve overnight after their change of stance, while the renminbi has actually strengthened 0.2% overnight in the wake of the rate cut. As I have been writing, central banks are slowly losing their grip on the markets, a situation which I believe to be healthy, but also one that will see increased volatility over time.

Looking at the market activity overnight, the screen shows that one of the best performers was INR, with the rupee gaining 0.5%. This comes on the back of the government’s announced $20 billion stimulus plan of corporate tax cuts. While equity markets there responded joyfully, Sensex +5.3%, government bonds fell sharply, with 10-year yields rising 15bps as bond investors questioned the ability of the government to run larger deficits. But away from that, the FX market was quite dull. EMG currencies saw both gainers and losers, with INR the biggest mover. G10 currencies were pretty much the same story with NZD the biggest mover, falling 0.4% after S&P explained that New Zealand banks still had funding problems.

The other two big stories have had mixed impact, with positive trade vibes being felt as low-level talks between the US and China have been ongoing this week, while the UK Supreme Court is now done with its hearings and we all simply await the decision. At the same time, EC President Juncker sounded positive that a Brexit deal could be done although Ireland continues to claim that nothing is close. The pound rallied on Juncker’s comments, but fell back below 1.25 after Ireland weighed in. Ask yourself if you think the rest of the EU will tolerate a solo Irish dissent on getting to a deal. It ain’t gonna happen.

As to today’s session, there is no data to be released but we will hear from three Fed speakers, Williams first thing, then Rosengren and Kaplan. It will be interesting to see how they try to spin things as to the Fed’s future activities. With that in mind, the biggest surprise seems like it can come from the UK , if we hear from the Supreme Court later today. While there is no clarity when they will rule, it is not out of the question. As to the dollar, it has no overall momentum and I see no reason for it to develop any without a catalyst.

Good luck and good weekend