Said Powell, we’re going to buy
More assets in order to try
To make sure that rates
Stay where the Fed states
And stop trading too effing high
“This is not QE; in no sense is this QE!” So said Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, yesterday at a conference in Denver when describing the fact that the Fed would soon resume purchasing assets. You may recall right around the time of the last FOMC meeting, there was sudden turmoil in the Fed Funds and other short-term funding markets as reserves became scarce and interest rates rose above the Fed’s target. That resulted in the Fed executing a series of short-term reverse repos in order to make more reserves available to the banking community at large. Of course, the concern was how the Fed let itself into this situation. It seems that the reduction of the Fed balance sheet as part of the normalization process might have gone a little too far. Yesterday, Powell confirmed that the Fed was going to start buying 3-month Treasury bills to expand the size of the balance sheet and help stabilize money markets. However, he insisted that given the short-term nature of the assets they are purchasing, this should not be construed as a resumption of QE, where the Fed bought maturities from 2-years to 30-years. QE was designed to lower longer term financing rates and boost investment and correspondingly economic growth. This action is meant to increase the availability of bank reserves in the system so that no shortages appear and money markets remain stable and functioning.
As far as it goes, that makes sense given commercial banks’ regulatory needs for a certain amount of available reserves. But Powell also spoke about interest rates more generally and hinted that a rate cut was a very real possibility, although in no way certain. Of course, the market is pricing in an 80% probability of a cut this month and a 50% probability of another one in December. Certainly Powell didn’t dispute those ideas. And yet a funny thing happened in the markets yesterday despite the Fed Chairman discussing further policy ease; risk was reduced. Equity markets suffered in Europe and the US, with all major indices lower by more than 1.0% (S&P -1.5%). Treasury yields fell 3bps and the dollar rallied steadily all day along with the yen, the Swiss franc and gold.
It is the rare day when the Fed Chair talks about easing and stock prices fall. It appears that the market was more concerned with the escalation in trade war rhetoric and the apparent death of any chance for a Brexit deal, both of which have been described as key reasons for business and investor uncertainty which has led to slowing growth, than with Fed policy. And for central banks, that is a bigger problem. What if markets no longer take their cues from the central bankers and instead trade based on macroeconomic events? What will the central banks do then?
On the China front, yesterday’s White House actions to blacklist eight Chinese tech firms over their involvement in Xinjiang and the Uigher repression was a new and surprising blow to US-China relations. In addition, the US imposed visa restrictions on a number of individuals involved in that issue and has generally turned up the temperature just ahead of the next round of trade talks which are due to begin tomorrow in Washington. It has become abundantly clear that the ongoing trade war is beginning to have quite a negative impact on the US economy as well as that of the rest of the world. President Trump continues to believe that the US has the advantage and is pressing it as much as he can. Of course, Chinese President Xi also believes that he holds the best cards and so is unwilling to cave in on key issues. However, this morning there was a report that China would be quite willing to sign a more limited deal where they purchase a significantly greater amount of agricultural products, up to $30 billion worth, as well as remove non-tariff barriers against US pork and beef in exchange for the US promising not to implement the tariffs that are set to go into effect next Tuesday and again on December 15. In addition, the PBOC fixed the renminbi last night at a lower than expected 7.0728, indicating that they want to be very clear that a depreciation in their currency is not on the cards. It is not hard to view these actions and conclude that China is starting to bend a little, especially with the Hong Kong situation continuing to escalate.
It also seems pretty clear that the talks this week have a low ceiling for any developments, but my sense is some minor deal will be agreed. However, the big issues like state subsidies and IP theft are unlikely to ever be resolved as they are fundamental to China’s economic model and there are no signs they are going to change. In the end, if we do get some de-escalation of rhetoric this week, I expect risk assets to respond quite favorably, at least for a little while.
Turning to Brexit, all we have heard since yesterday’s phone call between Boris and Angela is recriminations as to who is causing the talks to fall apart. Blame is not going to get this done, and at this point, the question is, will the UK actually ask for an extension. Ostensibly, Boris is due to speak to Irish PM Varadkar today, but both sides seem pretty dug in right now. The EU demand that Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union in perpetuity appears to be a deal breaker, and who can blame them. After all, the purpose of Brexit was to get out of that customs union and be free to negotiate terms as they saw fit with other nations. However, as European economic data continues to deteriorate, the pressure on the EU to find a deal will continue to increase. While you cannot rule out a hard Brexit, I continue to believe that some type of fudge will be agreed before this is over. Yesterday the pound suffered greatly, falling below 1.22 for a bit before closing lower by 0.6%. This morning, amid a broadly weaker dollar environment, the pound is a laggard, but still marginally higher vs. the dollar, up 0.1% as I type.
The rest of the FX market was singularly unimpressive overnight, with no currency moving even 0.5% as traders everywhere await the release of the FOMC Minutes this afternoon. Ahead of the Minutes, we only see the JOLTS jobs report (exp 7.25M) which rarely matters to markets. Yesterday’s PPI data was surprisingly soft, falling -0.3% and now has some analysts reconsidering their inflation forecasts for tomorrow. Of course, quiescent inflation plays into the hands of those FOMC members who want to cut rates further. At this point, the softer dollar seems to be more of a reaction to yesterday’s strength than anything else. I expect limited movement ahead of the Minutes, and quite frankly, limited afterwards as well. Tomorrow’s CPI feels like the next big catalyst we will see.