Said Christine Lagarde, don’t be fooled
That we’re on hold can be overruled
If data gets worse
Or else the reverse
Then our policies can be retooled
Madame Lagarde was in fine fettle yesterday between her press conference in Frankfurt following the ECB’s universally expected decision to leave policy unchanged, and her appearance on a panel at the WEF in Davos. The essence of her message is that the ECB’s policy review is critical to help lead the bank forward for the next decades, but that there is no goal in sight as they start the review, other than to try to determine how best to fulfill their mandate. She was quite clear, as well, that the market should not get complacent regarding policy activity this year. Currently, the market is pricing for no policy movement in 2020. However, Lagarde emphasized that at each meeting the committee would evaluate the current situation, based on the most recent data, and respond accordingly.
With that as a backdrop, it is interesting to look at this morning’s flash PMI data, which showed that while manufacturing across the Eurozone may be starting to improve slightly, overall growth remains desultory at best. Interestingly it was France that was the bigger laggard this month, with its Services and Composite data both falling well below expectations, and printing well below December’s numbers. Germany was more in line with expectations, but the situation overall is not one of unadulterated economic health. The euro, not surprisingly has suffered further after the weak data, falling another 0.2% this morning which takes the year-to-date performance to a 1.6% decline. While that is certainly not the worst performer in the G10 (Australia holds the lead for now) it is indicative that despite everything happening in the US politically, the economy continues to lead the G10 pack.
Perhaps a bit more surprising this morning is the British pound’s weakness. It has fallen 0.3% despite clearly more robust PMI data than had been expected. Manufacturing PMI rose to 49.8, well above expectations and the highest level since last April. Meanwhile, the Composite PMI jumped to 52.4, its highest point since September 2018, and indicative of a pretty substantial post-election rebound in the economy. Even better was that some of the sub-indices pointed to even faster growth ahead, and the econometricians have declared that this points to UK GDP growth of 0.2% in Q1, again, better than previously expected. Remember, the BOE meets next Thursday, and a week ago, the market had been pricing in a 70% probability of a 25bp rate cut. This morning that probability is down to 47% and the debate amongst analysts has warmed up on both sides. My view is the recent data removes the urgency on the BOE’s part, and given how little ammunition they have left, with the base rate sitting at 0.75%, they will refrain from moving. That means there is room for the pound to recoup some of its recent losses, perhaps trading back toward the 1.3250 level where we started the year.
Away from those stories, the coronavirus remains a major story with the Chinese government now restricting travel in cities with a total population of more than 40 million. While the WHO has not seen fit to declare a global health emergency, the latest count shows more than 800 cases reported with 27 deaths. The other noteworthy thing is the growing level of anger being displayed on social media in China, with the government getting blamed for everything that is happening. (I guess this is the downside of taking credit for everything good that happens). At any rate, if the spread is contained at its current levels, it is unlikely to have a major impact on the Chinese economy overall. However, if the virus spreads more aggressively, and there are more shutdowns of cities and travel restrictions, it is very likely to start impacting the data. With Chinese markets closed until next Friday, our only indicator in real-time will be CNH, which this morning is unchanged. Watch it closely as weakness there next week could well be an indicator that the situation on the ground in China is getting worse.
But overall, today’s market activity is focused on adding risk. Japanese equities, the only ones open in Asia overnight, stabilized after yesterday’s sharp declines. And European equities are roaring this morning, with pretty much every market on the Continent higher by more than 1.0%. US futures are pointing higher as well, albeit just 0.25%. In the bond market, Treasuries and bunds are essentially unchanged, although perhaps leaning ever so slightly toward higher rates. And gold is under pressure today, along with both the yen and Swiss franc. As I said, risk is back in favor.
There is neither data nor Fedspeak today, so the FX market will need to take its cues from other sources. If equities continue to rally, look for increased risk appetite leading to higher EMG currencies and arguably a generally softer dollar. What about the impeachment? Well, to date it has had exactly no impact on markets and I see no reason for that to change.
Good luck and good weekend