Dire Straits

The Vice-Chair explained he foresees
A time when the Fed, by degrees
Will taper their buying
Of bonds while they’re trying
To offset the spread of disease

Soon after they finish that deed
Most members already agreed
To raise interest rates
Unless dire straits
In markets don’t let them succeed

Fed Vice-Chair Richard Clarida certainly surprised markets yesterday with his speech as he laid out his reasoning that the tapering of the Fed’s current QE purchases will occur sooner than many had previously expected.  While he started out with the caveat that the Fed will not be responding to forecasts, but rather to actual economic outcomes, he then proceeded to forecast the exact sequence of events that will occur and create the proper environment for the Fed to first, taper bond purchases and second, eventually raise interest rates.  The market response was immediate, with the bond market selling off sharply, the dollar rallying and equity markets ceding early gains alongside most commodity prices.  After all, a tighter Fed is not nearly as supportive of risk assets, but neither does it imply lower interest rates.  It is also worth noting that coincident with the release of the text of his speech was the release of the ISM Services number which printed at a much higher than expected, and record level, 64.1.  So, a positive data print and a hawkish Fed speaker were sufficient to change a lot of opinions.

But not this author’s, at least not yet.  My baseline view continues to be that the Fed remains in an extremely difficult position where inflation continues at much higher levels than which they expected or with which they are comfortable, but the employment market remains far away from their restated goal of maximum employment.  As well, as Clarida noted yesterday, and as has been repeated by numerous other Fed speakers, they promise they are not going to move on forecasts or survey data, but instead wait for actual numbers (read the NFP data and core PCE) to achieve their preferred levels before altering policy.  This means that tomorrow’s NFP data will be scrutinized even more closely than usual, as Clarida’s comments yesterday imply that even more FOMC members are ready to move.

One problem with the early taper thesis is that the data may not meet the FOMC’s requirements, at least not in the near term.  For instance, yesterday’s ADP Employment release printed at 330K, less than half the expected 690K and basically one-third of the forecasts for NFP tomorrow.  While the month to month correlation between the two data points is not perfect (0.784 over the past 5 years) it is certainly high enough to imply a strong relationship between the two.  The point is that if tomorrow’s NFP number disappoints, which cannot be ruled out, and assuming that the Fed is true to their word regarding waiting for actual data to reach their preferred levels, it would certainly suggest a delay to the tapering story.  Keep in mind, as well, that the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which measures actual releases vs. forecasts, remains in negative territory, implying that the economy is slowing further rather than extending gains seen earlier in the year.  In fact, after the much worse than expected GDP print last week, it appears that growth is already slipping back toward pre-Covid trends of 1.5% – 2.0%.  Oh yeah, none of this includes the impact of the delta variant, which has resulted in numerous lockdowns around the world and augers still slower growth.

On the flip side, though, is the fact that we have seen an increasing number of FOMC members start to accept the idea that tapering will soon be appropriate.  In addition to Clarida, yesterday we also heard from SF Fed President Daly, an avowed dove, who said, “Fed will do something on asset purchases end ’21 / early ’22.”  By my count, that makes at least six different FOMC members who have indicated tapering is coming soon.  Of this group, Clarida is by far the most important, but if even the doves like Daly are coming round to that view, tapering cannot be ruled out.

To taper or not remains the $64 trillion question for all markets, and while the recent trend of the narrative seems to be pushing in that direction, without support from ongoing improvements in employment data (after all, inflation is well through their target), it will still come to naught.

One last thing on inflation.  As the Fed tries to retake the narrative from the market, be prepared for a new description of inflation.  No longer will it be transitory, but rather, perhaps, tolerable.  In other words, they will accept that it is running hotter than their target and make the excuse that it is far more important to get the nation back to work first, at which point they can use those vaunted tools they frequently mention to address rapidly rising prices.

With all this in mind, the next question is, how will these changes impact the markets?  Yesterday’s price action is likely to be a very good case study if the data continues to support an early tapering of purchases.  Any interruption in the flow of money into the capital markets will be felt by both equities and bonds in the same way, they will fall in price, while the dollar is very likely to find a lot of support vs. both G10 and EMG counterparts.  As to commodities, my inclination is that the past year’s rally will pause, at the very least, but given they remain massively undervalued vs. other asset classes, they likely still have some upside.

On to today.  Overnight price action was mixed with the Nikkei (+0.5%) rising somewhat while Chinese shares (Hang Seng -0.8%, Shanghai -0.3%) were under pressure as stories about the next sectors to feel the wrath of regulators (sin stocks) were rampant with those falling and dragging the indices with them.  fortunately, they represent a much smaller portion of the market than the tech sector, so will have a smaller negative impact if that is, indeed, the situation.  Europe is mixed this morning (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.35%, FTSE 100 -0.2%) as the morning data was inconclusive and investors there are far more concerned with the Fed than anything else.  As to US futures, they are all modestly higher this morning, about 0.2%.

Bond markets are showing the difference between central bank policy this morning with Treasuries consolidating yesterday’s declines and unchanged on the day, while European sovereigns (Bunds -1.0bps, OATs -1.2bps) continue to see support from an ECB that is nowhere near tightening policy.  Gilts (+2.0bps) on the other hand, are selling off a bit as the BOE meeting, just ending, revealed several things.  First, they are prepared to go to negative interest rates if they need to.  Second, they will continue their current QE pace of £3.4 billion per week, and third, that they expect inflation to reach 4.0% in Q4 of this year.  They did, however, explain that if things proceed as expected, some tightening, read higher interest rates, may be appropriate.  while the initial move in the GBP was a sharp jump higher, it has already retraced those steps and at +0.2% is only modestly up on the day.

Commodity prices are mixed with oil consolidating after yesterday’s rout and unchanged on the day.  In fact, the same is true of precious and most base metals, as traders are trying to figure out their next move, so likely waiting for tomorrow’s data.

And the dollar, interestingly, is modestly softer vs. the G10 this morning, but that is after a strong rally yesterday in the wake of the Clarida speech.  The commodity bloc is leading the way (AUD +0.35%, NOK +0.3%, NZD +0.25%) despite the lack of commodity price action.  And this also sems to ignore the 6th lockdown in Melbourne since the pandemic began last year, as the delta variant continues to wreak havoc around the world.  The rest of the G10 though, has seen much less movement.  In the emerging markets, PHP (-1.0%) was by far the worst performer overnight as the covid caseload soared to record numbers and concerns over growth expanded.  After that, TRY (-0.6%) is the next worst, as President Erdogan came out with calls for a rate cut despite rampant inflation.  However, away from those two currencies, movement has been on the order of +/- 0.2%, indicating nothing very special.  Essentially, these markets have ignored Clarida.  One last thing to note here is yesterday, the central bank of Brazil raised its SELIC rate by 1.0% to 5.25%, as inflation is exploding there.  However while BRL has been modestly stronger over the past several sessions, this was widely priced in so there was no big movement.

Data-wise, today brings Initial Claims (exp 383K), Continuing Claims (3255K) and the Trade Balance (-$74.2B), none of which seem likely to change any opinions.  Rather, at this point, all eyes are on tomorrow’s NFP data.  We also hear from two Fed speakers, Governor Waller and Minneapolis President KashKari, who is arguably the most dovish of all.  certainly if he starts talking taper, then the die is cast.  We shall see.

As I said, if tapering is on the cards, the dollar will likely test its highs from March/April, so be prepared.

Good luck and stay safe