Not Whether but When

The question’s not whether but when
The Fed adds more money again
With Congress unable
To reach cross the table
It’s up to Jay and his (wo)men

For the first time in months, the top stories today are simply a rehash of the top stories yesterday.  In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, at least with respect to market activities.  There has been nothing new regarding Brexit (talks continue but no word on an outcome); nothing new regarding US fiscal stimulus (talks continue but no word on an outcome);  and nothing new regarding Covid-19 (vaccines have begun to be administered, but lockdowns continue to be the primary tool to fight the spread of the infection).

True, we received some data from China overnight describing an economy that continues to recover, but one whose pace of recovery is barely accelerating and certainly not exceeding expectations.  We saw some data from the UK that described the employment situation as less dire than forecast, but still a mess.  And we saw some inflation data from both Italy and France describing the complete lack of an inflationary impulse on the Continent.  The point is, none of this could be called new information, and so investor response has been extremely muted.

Rather, the story that is developing traction seems to be the question of what the FOMC is going to do when they meet tomorrow.  There seem to be two questions of note; first, will they leave everything just as it is, reiterating their current forward guidance to continue to support the economy until it is deemed capable of recovering on its own, or will they start to attach some metrics to their views; and second, will they leave their current asset purchase program unchanged, or will they alter either the size or tenor?

The bigger picture on this issue needs to consider what we have heard from various Fed speakers prior to the quiet period.  To a (wo)man, they all explained that more fiscal stimulus was critical in helping the economy to recover, and so the fact that none has been forthcoming must be weighing on their views of the future.  This would seem to bias a call for action, not inaction.

Regarding the first question, if we learned anything from the FOMC Minutes three weeks’ ago, it was that there seemed to be movement in the direction of applying metrics to their hitherto vague statements regarding when they will act.  The concern with this approach is that in the wake of the financial crisis, they did just this, explaining that rates would remain near zero until the Unemployment Rate reached their then-current view of full employment, which initially was pegged at 5.0%.  That target was changed several times until it was finally abandoned, as it turned out their models weren’t all that accurate.  Which begs the question, do they want to put themselves in the same position of defining a position and subsequently finding out their initial assumptions were wrong, so they need to change that position?  Remember, credibility is one of a central bank’s most crucial assets and moving targets on policy because of model or forecast errors does not enhance credibility.  In the end, it seems more likely they will not apply hard numbers to their targets, rather much softer views like, full employment rather than a specific unemployment rate; or trend inflation rather than a specific average inflation rate with a timeline attached.

As to the second question, based on positioning indicators, current expectations are pretty evenly distributed as to a change (either more purchases or a Twist) or standing pat.  Again, based on the commentary that fiscal stimulus is crucial and its failure to be agreed, I would lean toward the side of more stimulus to be announced now, perhaps stoking the Christmas rally in equities.  (After all, half the time it seems stoking equity rallies is their entire focus.)

But away from that conversation, there is precious little else to discuss today.  A quick tour of markets shows that after yesterday afternoon’s US equity selloff, Asian equities followed suit with modest declines across the board (Nikkei -0.2%, Hang Seng -0.7%, Shanghai -0.1%).  European bourses, which had been modestly higher earlier, are starting to fade a bit, although the DAX (+0.6%) and CAC (+0.3%) remain in the green.  However, the FTSE 100 (-0.3%) has turned lower as the pound has recently started to edge higher.  US futures are all pointing higher, though, with gains of around 0.6% across the board.

Bond prices are mixed, with Treasuries very slightly softer and yields there higher by less than 1 basis point, but European markets starting to find a bid with yields declining modestly across the board.  The outperformers right now are the PIGS, with yield declines of between 1.5 and 4 basis points, while the rest of Europe’s markets are looking at smaller price gains.

Commodities are reversing yesterday’s price action with oil virtually unchanged while gold has rallied 1.0% this morning.  And finally, the best way to describe the dollar is modestly, but not universally, softer.  In the G10, as I write, GBP (+0.4%) has rallied in the past hour although there has been nothing on the tape that would seem to account for the price action.  But most of the bloc is modestly firmer, between 0.1% and 0.2%, with only two laggards, AUD and NZD (both lower by -0.1%) which have responded to China’s announcement they would be banning shipments of coal from Australia going forward.

EMG currencies are also somewhat firmer in general, led by LATAM (BRL, MXN and CLP all +0.50%) with two others showing similar strength (ZAR and RUB).  As to the rest of the bloc, gains and losses are less than 0.2%, which is another way of saying there is no new information there either.  Broadly speaking, this bloc is going to take its cues from the G10 space, and while the consensus for 2021 remains a much weaker dollar, today that is not taking shape.

On the data front, we see Empire Manufacturing (exp 6.3), IP (0.3%) and Capacity Utilization (73.0%) this morning, although none of these seem likely to change any views.  As such, at this point, it seems the best bet is the FX market will follow the broad risk theme, assuming one develops, or will respond to news, perhaps a fiscal stimulus breakthrough will come today, which is likely to lead to further dollar weakness.  But we will have to wait for that.

Good luck and stay safe