The Chair said, ‘inflation’s too low
And there’s something you all need to know
Lest prices soon rise
We’ll not compromise
Thus another cut’s quite apropos
There are a number of discussion topics in the market this morning so let’s get right to it.
First the Fed surprised exactly nobody yesterday afternoon by leaving policy unchanged, (except for a ‘technical’ adjustment to IOER, which they raised by the expected 5bps). However, the talk this morning is all about the tone of the statement and the ensuing press conference. In the end, it appears that the Fed is leaning slightly more dovish than they had seemed to be previously, with a still greater focus on inflation. Powell and friends appear to be increasingly concerned that inflation expectations are still declining, and are terrified of an ultimate outcome similar to the past two decades in Japan. As such, it appears they are getting set to move from an inflation target to a price level target. This means that if inflation runs below target for a period of time, as it has been doing ever since it was officially announced in 2012, they will be comfortable allowing it to run above target in order to make up ground. The conclusion is that the bar to raising rates is now impossibly high, at least assuming prices don’t follow the lead of Argentina or Venezuela. And if anything, especially with the impact of the coronavirus still just being discussed and modeled, the likelihood is for more rate cuts before the end of the year.
Speaking of the coronavirus, the WHO has suddenly figured out what the rest of the world has known for a week, this is a serious problem that is spreading quickly. The death toll is over 170 and the number of cases is quickly approaching 8000. The economic impact is growing as more and more companies halt activity in China, more flights are canceled to and from all cities in China, and fear spreads further. Last night, Taiwan’s stock market reopened for the first time in a week and fell 5.75%. Meanwhile the Taiwan dollar fell 1.0%. And the renminbi? Well onshore markets are still closed, and will be so through Monday, at least, but the CNH traded below 7.00 (dollar higher) in London early this morning and remains within basis points of that level as NY walks in. As I wrote on Monday, this will be the best indicator of sentiment as it is the only thing that can actively trade that reflects opinions on the mainland. It should be no surprise that the other Asian equity markets that were open also fell sharply (Nikkei -1.7%, Hang Seng -3.1%, KOSPI -1.7%) as investors just don’t know what to do at this stage. Fear remains the key driver, and will continue to be until there is some sense that the infection rate is slowing down. To date, that has not been the case.
And finally, the Old Lady just announced no change in the base rate, which according to the futures market had been a 50:50 chance. The pound’s response was an immediate pop and it is now higher by 0.4% on the day, making it the best performing G10 currency. Data early in the month prompted a number of dovish comments from three BOE members, including Governor Carney himself, but the data we have seen recently has shown much more positive momentum in the wake of PM Johnson’s December electoral victory. Clearly, a number of fears have receded and tomorrow is the big day, when the UK officially leaves the EU. The EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal, as the UK’s Parliament did last week. So the UK has reclaimed its total sovereignty and now must make its own way in the world. As I have said all along, while there is a risk that no trade deal is agreed by year end, I think the odds are vanishingly small that Boris will risk his current political strength by pushing things to that level. Come summer, a short delay will be agreed and eventually a deal will be signed. Meanwhile, the US will be seeking a deal as well. Overall, I like the pound throughout the year on the twin features of an increasingly weaker USD (QE related) and the positivity of the situation on the ground there.
And those are the three big stories of the morning. We did get some data, notably the German employment report which showed the Unemployment Rate remained unchanged at 5.0%, while the number of people unemployed fell by…2k. This was better than the expected 5k increase in unemployment, but can we step back for a moment and consider what this actually means. Do you know how many people are employed in Germany? I didn’t think so. But the answer is 41.73 million. So, this morning’s data, showing a net change of 7k vs. expectations represents exactly a 0.0167% improvement. In other words, IT DOESN’T MATTER. And I think we need to consider this issue on a regular basis. So much is made of a number being better or worse than expected when most of the time it is well within the margin of error of any estimate. Nonetheless, the euro has edged higher this morning, by just 0.15%, but my goodness it has been stable of late. And quite frankly, in the short term, barring a massive uptick in coronavirus cases which changes broad risk sentiment, I see no reason for it to do much. Ultimately, I still like the single currency to edge higher throughout the year on the back of my weaker dollar call.
This morning brings two more data points in the US, with Initial Claims (exp 215K) and Q4 GDP (2.0%) released at 8:30. However, unless the GDP number is significantly different from expectations, the market focus will remain on the coronavirus issue. Equity markets in Europe are under pressure (DAX -1.1%, CAC -1.4%) and US futures are pointing in the same direction, with all 3 indices leaning about 0.75% lower. Meanwhile, Treasury yields continue to fall with the 10-year now at 1.56%, its lowest level in three months. With no Fed speakers on the docket, today is a risk day, and that arrow is pointing lower. Look for EMG currencies to suffer, while the yen benefits.