No Rapprochement

The topic du jour is Iran
Where threats, to and fro, carry on
Risk appetite’s fallen
And bears are now all in
That this time there’s no rapprochement

The rhetoric between the US and Iran over the weekend has escalated with both sides threatening retaliation for anything the other side does. Stories of cyber-attacks on the US as well as an attack on a base in Kenya where three Americans were killed seem to be the first steps, but with the US deploying reinforcements to the Middle East, and President Trump promising disproportionate responses to any further actions, the situation has become fraught with danger.

Not surprisingly, financial markets are stressing with risk appetites throughout the world dissipating and haven assets in demand. So, for a second day we have seen equity markets fall around the world (Nikkei -1.9%, Hang Seng -0.8%, DAX -1.6%, CAC -1.1%, FTSE -1.0%) and US futures are following along with all three indices currently lower by approximately 0.8%. Treasuries and German bunds have rallied, albeit Friday’s price action was far greater than this morning’s movement which has seen yields on each fall just one more basis point. Gold has soared to its highest level since April 2013 and is now pressing up toward $1600/oz. Oil continues to rise on supply fears, up another 1.0% this morning and nearly 6.0% since Friday morning. But recall that prior to the US action against Soleimani, oil was up more than 20% since October.

And finally, the dollar this morning is…lower. At least mostly that’s the case. In some ways this is quite surprising as the dollar tends to be a haven in its own right, but markets have been known to be fickle prior to today. In the G10 space, the pound is leading the way higher overnight, up 0.5%, which may well be a response to modestly better than expected UK data (New Car Registrations +3.4%, Services PMI 50.0) rather than to the geopolitical risks. Of course, PMI at 50.0 is hardly cause for celebration, but I guess that’s better than further sub-50 readings. The euro has also benefitted this morning, +0.35%, after PMI data across the region was also modestly better than the flash numbers from the week before last. However, based on the latest data, according to most econometric models, GDP for Q1 in the Eurozone is still running at just 0.1%, or less than 0.5% annualized. Again, it’s hard to get too excited about the situation yet.

And then there is the yen, which is essentially unchanged on the day, perhaps the biggest surprise of all. This is because even when the dollar has not run true to course on a risk basis, the yen has been extremely consistent. Granted, since New Year’s Eve, the yen has been the top G10 performer but its 0.5% rally in that time is hardly inspirational. My take is that even heightened rhetoric from either side is likely to see the yen gain further, but remember there are market technicals involved in the trade, with 108.00 having demonstrated strong support since early October. It appears we will need a bit more of a ‘kinetic’ action in Iraq/Iran before the yen takes its next steps higher.

In the EMG bloc, the situation is a bit different, with EEMEA currencies all trading in a tightly linked manner to the euro, and so higher by about 0.35%, but modest weakness seen across most of the APAC region. As to LATAM, CLP is opening much lower (-1.75%) as the central bank backed away from its USD sale program. The bank announced this morning that it would not be selling the $150mm in the spot market it has been executing every day since last autumn. If nothing else, this should be a good indication for hedgers of just how little liquidity exists within that market.

Turning to Friday’s FOMC Minutes, it can be no surprise that the Fed nearly twisted their own arm, patting themselves on the back, for setting policy at just the right place. And then there was the American Economic Association conference this past weekend where the Fed loomed large in the paper production. Former Fed chairs Bernanke and Yellen once again explained that things beyond their control (demographics and technology) were the reason that they could not achieve their policy targets, but both assured us that more of the same policies that have been ineffective for the economy (but great for the stock market) would get the job done! Meanwhile, current Fed members all expressed satisfaction with the current settings, although it is clear there is far more concern over economic weakness than rising price pressures. What is clear is that higher prices are coming to a store (every store) near you.

As to this week, the data parade starts tomorrow and runs through Friday’s payroll report as follows:

Tuesday Trade Balance -$43.9B
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 54.5
  Factory Orders -0.7%
Wednesday ADP Employment 160K
  Consumer Credit $15.8B
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 162K
  Private Payrolls 152K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 5K
  Unemployment Rate 3.5%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.1% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.4

Source: Bloomberg

In addition, we hear from five more Fed speakers, with many more doves than hawks slated to discuss their views. In truth, I think it would be more effective if they would simply shut up rather than constantly reiterate their opinion that they have done a great job and will continue to do so unless things change. However, with the reduced risk appetite due to the Iran situation, I guess they feel the need to try to support stock prices at all costs.

In the medium term, I think the dollar will continue to come under pressure. In the short term, I think it is much harder to have a view given the highly volatile nature of the current situation in the Middle East. This is why you hedge; to prevent significant problems, but take care in executing those hedges, markets are skittish on the opening, and market depth may be a bit less robust than normal.

Good luck
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