Risk is in Doubt

The chatter before the Fed met
Was Powell and friends were all set
To ease even more
Until they restore
Inflation to lessen the debt

And while Jay attempted just that
His efforts have seemed to fall flat
Now risk is in doubt
As traders clear out
Positions from stocks to Thai baht

Well, the Fed meeting is now history and in what cannot be very surprising, the Chairman found out that once you have established a stance of maximum policy ease, it is very difficult to sound even more dovish.  So, yes, the Fed promised to maintain current policy “…until labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment and inflation has risen to 2 percent and is on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”  And if you really parse those words compared to the previous statement’s “…maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals”, you could make the case it is more dovish.  But the one thing at which market participants are not very good is splitting hairs.  And I would argue that is what you are doing here.  Between the old statement and Powell’s Jackson Hole speech, everybody already knew the Fed was not going to raise rates for a very long time.  Yesterday was merely confirmation.

In fact, ironically, I think the fact that there were two dissents on the vote, Kaplan and Kashkari, made things worse.  The reason is that both of them sought even easier policy and so as dovish as one might believe the new statement sounds, clearly some members felt it could be even more dovish than that.  At the same time, the dot plot added virtually nothing to the discussion as the vast majority believe that through 2023 the policy rate will remain pegged between 0.00%-0.25% where it is now.  Also, while generating inflation remains the animating force of the committee, according to the Summary of Economic Projections released yesterday, even their own members don’t believe that core PCE will ever rise above 2.0% and not even touch that level until 2023.

Add it all up and it seems pretty clear that the Fed is out of bullets, at least as currently configured with respect to their Congressional mandate and restrictions.  It will require Congress to amend the Federal Reserve Act and allow them to purchase equities in order to truly change the playing field and there is no evidence that anything of that nature is in the cards.  A look at the history of the effectiveness of QE and either zero or negative interest rates shows that neither one does much for the economy, although both do support asset markets.  Given those are the only tools the Fed has, and they are both already in full use (and not just at the Fed, but everywhere in the G10), it is abundantly clear why central bankers worldwide are willing to sacrifice their independence in order to cajole governments to apply further fiscal stimulus.  Central banks seem to have reached the limit of their capabilities to address the real economy.  And if (when) things turn back down, they are going to shoulder as much blame as elected officials can give with respect to who is responsible for the bad news.

With that as background, let’s take a peek at how markets have responded to the news.  Net-net, it hasn’t been pretty.  Equity markets are in the red worldwide with losses overnight (Nikkei -0.7%, Hang Seng -1.6%, Shanghai -0.4%) and in Europe (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.8%, FTSE 100 -1.0%).  US futures are pointing lower after equity markets in the US ceded all their gains after the FOMC and closed lower yesterday.  At this time, all three futures indices are lower by about 1.0%.

Meanwhile, bond markets, which if you recall have not been tracking the equity market risk sentiment very closely over the past several weeks, are edging higher, at least in those markets truly seen as havens.  So, Treasury yields are lower by 2bps, while German bunds and French OATS are both seeing yields edge lower, but by less than one basis point.  However, the rest of the European government bond market is under modest pressure, with the PIGS seeing their bonds sell off and yields rising between one and two basis points.  Of course, as long as the ECB continues to buy bonds via the PEPP, none of these are likely to fall that far in price, thus yields there are certainly capped for the time being.  I mean even Greek 10-year yields are 1.06%!  This from a country that has defaulted six times in the modern era, the most recent being less than ten years ago.

Finally, if we look to the FX markets, it can be no surprise to see the dollar has begun to reverse some of its recent losses.  Remember, the meme here has been that the Fed would be the easiest of all central banks with respect to monetary policy and so the dollar had much further to fall.  Combine that with the long-term theme of macroeconomic concerns over the US twin deficits (budget and current account) and short dollars was the most popular position in the market for the past three to four months.  Thus, yesterday’s FOMC outcome, where it has become increasingly clear that the Fed has little else to do in the way of policy ease, means that other nations now have an opportunity to ease further at the margin, changing the relationship and ultimately watching their currency weaken versus the dollar.  Remember, too, that essentially no country is comfortable with a strong currency at this point, as stoking inflation and driving export growth are the top two goals around the world.  The dollar’s rebound has only just begun.

Specifically, in the G10, we see NOK (-0.5%) as the laggard this morning, as it responds not just to the dollar’s strength today, but also to the stalling oil prices, whose recent rally has been cut short.  As to the rest of the bloc, losses are generally between 0.15%-0.25% with no specific stories to drive anything.  The exception is JPY (+0.2%) which is performing its role as a haven asset today.  While this is a slow start, do not be surprised to see the dollar start to gain momentum as technical indicators give way.

Emerging market currencies are also under pressure this morning led by MXN (-0.7%) and ZAR (-0.6%).  If you recall, these have been two of the best performing currencies over the past month, with significant long positions in each driving gains of 5.3% and 7.1% respectively.  As such, it can be no surprise that they are the first positions being unwound in this process.  But throughout this bloc, we are seeing weakness across the board with average declines on the order of 0.3%-0.4%.  Again, given the overall risk framework, there is no need for specific stories to drive things.

On the data front, yesterday’s Retail Sales data was a bit softer than expected, although was generally overlooked ahead of the FOMC.  This morning saw Eurozone CPI print at -0.2%, 0.4% core, both still miles below their target, and highlighting that we can expect further action from the ECB.  At home, we are awaiting Initial Claims (exp 850K), Continuing Claims (13.0M), Housing Starts (1483K), Building Permits (1512K) and the Philly Fed index (15.0).

Back on the policy front, the BOE announced no change in policy at all, leaving the base rate at 0.10% and not expanding their asset purchase program.  However, in their effort to ease further they did two things, explicitly said they won’t tighten until there is significant progress on the inflation goal, but more importantly, said that they will “engage with regulators on how to implement negative rates.”  This is a huge change, and, not surprisingly the market sees it as another central bank easing further than the Fed.  The pound has fallen sharply on the news, down 0.6% and likely has further to go.  Last night the BOJ left policy on hold, as they too are out of ammunition.  The fear animating that group is that risk appetite wanes and haven demand drives the yen much higher, something which they can ill afford and yet something which they are essentially powerless to prevent.  But not today.  Today, look for a modest continuation of the dollar’s gains as more positions get unwound.

Good luck and stay safe
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