The UK Wants to Shun

This morning as part of his plan
For Brexit, the PM began
A series of talks,
Before Britain walks,
With Angela as middleman

Alas, when the phone call was done
The odds of a deal approached none
The EU made clear
The (Northern) Irish adhere
To rules the UK wants to shun

The pound is suffering this morning, down 0.5%, after news that a phone call between Boris and Angela resulted in Johnson explaining that a Brexit deal is “essentially impossible” at the current time. If you recall, Boris’s plan was for Northern Ireland to adhere to EU rules on manufactured goods and agricultural products while customs activities would take place a number of miles from the actual border. Finally, Northern Ireland would be allowed to vote every four years to determine if they were happy with that situation. The EU view is that Northern Ireland must remain a part of the customs union in perpetuity, something that would essentially split them from the rest of the UK. It is no surprise that both Boris and Northern Ireland rejected that outcome, and so the Johnson government has increased preparations for a hard Brexit.

There are two interesting tidbits ongoing as well, both of which bode ill for a deal. First is that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is terrified that he and his nation will be blamed if no deal is reached. And when I say terrified, it means that he is afraid that a no-deal Brexit will result in a significant (~5%) hit to Ireland’s economy and that he will be tossed from office because of that. Remember, every politician’s number one priority during any situation is to be reelected, hence his terror. His response has to increase the rhetoric about how Boris is the problem, further poisoning the well. The second interesting thing is that a survey in the EU by Kantar (a European polling company) showed that between 47% and 66% of citizens in six EU nations (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Spain and Poland) believe the EU should not extend the Brexit deadline, with a solid majority in all nations except the Netherlands. Perhaps Boris will get his wish that Europe won’t offer an extension or agree to one if asked. It appears that this saga is reaching its denouement. And despite all of this, I continue to see a strong possibility that the EU blinks as they figure out Boris is serious. My impression is that Merkel and the EU continue to believe that the UK will come begging, hat in hand, for another extension and that a new vote will lead to the end of this process with the UK revoking Article 50. And so they continue to believe they are dealing from a position of strength. We shall see.

Of course, the reason we care so much about this is not just for the impact on the British pound, but actually the impact on the global economy. Consider that the global economy has been slowing steadily for the past eighteen months under pressure from the ongoing trade war between the US and China and the uncertainty that has engendered. If the estimates of the economic impact of a hard Brexit are even halfway correct, we are looking at a sharp decline in economic activity in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France and the Netherlands, ranging between 0.5% and 5.0%. I assure you that will not help the global growth situation. It will also result in immediate additional policy ease by the world’s central banks, notably the Fed. The impact on equity markets will be significant, bond markets will rally sharply as will haven currencies. In other words, it could easily be the catalyst required to bring on that recession on the horizon.

Beyond Brexit, the other big story overnight was on trade as the US put 28 Chinese firms on an export blacklist under the guise of those companies helping in repression of Muslim minorities in northwest China. Not surprisingly, the Chinese were not amused and ‘instructed’ the US to correct its mistake. They also told the world to “stay tuned” for any retaliation that will be forthcoming. Fortunately, this has not changed the plans for the trade talks to be held on Thursday and Friday in Washington with Vice-premier Liu He, at least not yet. But that remains a huge concern, that He will not make the trip and that the trade impasse will harden. At this point it has become pretty clear that a big trade deal is not in the offing. The Chinese appear to be betting that President Trump will lose the election and so are waiting him out. However, this is the one area where the President truly has bipartisan support so it is not clear to me that a President Warren, Biden or Sanders would be any more inclined to come to an agreement that didn’t meet hurdles regarding IP theft and state subsidies.

The combination of these two events has served to undermine equity markets in Europe with virtually every major index having fallen by more than 1% this morning. While Asian equity markets performed well (Nikkei +1.0%, KOSPI +1.2%, Shanghai +0.25%) that was before the Boris-Angela call. US futures have turned lower in the past hour with all three exchanges now pointing to 0.5% declines on the opening. Meanwhile, Treasury yields continue to fall with the 10-year at 1.52%, down 4bps and Bunds are following with yields there down 1.5bps.
As to the dollar, it is no surprise the yen (+0.4%) and Swiss franc (+0.35%) have rallied, but a bit more surprising that aside from the pound, most other G10 currencies are firmer. That said, the movement has not been that large and if we see a true risk-off session in the US, I would expect the dollar to strengthen. In the EMG space, ZAR is the biggest loser today, falling 0.65%, after Renaissance Capital put out a report that the country’s debt would be downgraded to junk status next month. Given their recent track record, correctly calling 8 of the past 9 ratings moves, it is being given some credence. After that, RUB has fallen 0.5% on the back or weaker oil prices, which are down 1.3% this morning and more than 11% from before the attack on the Saudi oil facility in the middle of September.

As to data today, NFIB was already released at a slightly weaker than expected 101.8. While that remains at the high end of its historic readings, it is clear that this series has rolled over and is heading lower. We also get PPI (exp 1.8%, 2.3% ex food & energy) at 8:30 but most folks ignore that and are looking for CPI on Thursday. Chairman Powell speaks again today at 2:30 this afternoon, so all eyes will be focused on Denver to see how he responds to the most recent gyrations in the big stories.

Overall, it feels like a day of uncertainty and risk reduction. Look for further yen and Swiss franc strength as well as for the dollar to regain its footing against the rest of its counterparts.

Good luck
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