Hawks Would Then Shriek

Lagarde and Chair Powell both seek
Consensus, when later this week
Their brethren convene
While doves are still keen
To ease more, though hawks would then shriek

Markets are relatively quiet this morning as investors and traders await three key events as well as some important data. Interestingly, neither the Fed nor ECB meetings this week are likely to produce much in the way of fireworks. Chairman Powell and his minions have done an excellent job convincing market participants that the temporary cyclical adjustment is finished, that rates are appropriate, and that they are watching everything closely and prepared to act if necessary. Certainly Friday’s blowout NFP data did not hurt their case that no further easing is required. By now, I’m sure everyone is aware that we saw the highest headline print since January at 266K, which was supported by upward revisions of 41K to the previous two months’ data. And of course, the Unemployment Rate fell to 3.5%, which is back to a 50-year low. In fact, forecasts are now showing up that are calling for a 3.2% or 3.3% Unemployment Rate next November, which bodes well for the incumbent and would be the lowest Unemployment Rate since 1952!

With that as the economic backdrop in the US, it is hard for the doves on the Fed to make the case that further easing is necessary, but undoubtedly they will try. In the meantime, ECB President Lagarde will preside over her first ECB meeting where there are also no expectations for policy changes. Here, however, the situation is a bit tenser as the dramatic split between the hawks (Germany, the Netherlands and Austria) and the doves (Spain, Portugal and Italy) implies there will be no further action anytime soon. Madame Lagarde has initiated a policy review to try to find a consensus on how they should proceed, although given the very different states of the relevant economies, it is hard to believe they will agree on anything.

Arguably, the major weakness in the entire Eurozone construct is that the lack of an overarching continent-wide fiscal authority means that there is no easy way to transfer funds from those areas with surpluses to those with deficits. In the US, this happens via tax collection and fiscal stimulus agreed through tradeoffs in Congress. But that mechanism doesn’t exist in Europe, so as of now, Germany is simply owed an extraordinary amount of money (~€870 billion) by the rest of Europe, mostly Italy and Spain (€810 billion between them). The thing is, unlike in the US, those funds will need to be repaid at some point, although the prospects of that occurring before the ECB bails everyone out seem remote. Say what you will about the US running an unsustainable current account deficit, at least structurally, the US is not going to split up, whereas in Europe, that is an outcome that cannot be ruled out. In the end, it is structural issues like this that lead to long term bearishness on the single currency.

However, Friday’s euro weakness (it fell 0.45% on the day) was entirely a reaction to the payroll data. This morning’s 0.15% rally is simply a reactionary move as there was no data to help the story. And quite frankly, despite the UK election and pending additional US tariffs on China, this morning is starting as a pretty risk neutral session.

Speaking of the UK, that nation heads to the polls on Thursday, where the Tories continue to poll at a 10 point lead over Labour, and appear set to elect Boris as PM with a working majority in Parliament. If that is the outcome, Brexit on January 31 is a given. As to the pound, it has risen 0.2% this morning, which has essentially regained the ground it lost after the payroll report on Friday. At 1.3165, its highest point since May 2019, the pound feels to me like it has already priced in most of the benefit of ending the Brexit drama. While I don’t doubt there is another penny or two possible, especially if Boris wins a large majority, I maintain the medium term outlook is not nearly as robust. Receivables hedgers should be taking advantage of these levels.

On the downside this morning, Aussie and Kiwi have suffered (each -0.2%) after much weaker than expected Chinese trade data was released over the weekend. Their overall data showed a 1.1% decline in exports, much worse than expected, which was caused by a 23% decline in exports to the US. It is pretty clear that the trade war is having an increasing impact on China, which is clearly why they are willing to overlook the US actions on Hong Kong and the Uighers in order to get the deal done. Not only do they have rampant food inflation caused by the African swine fever epidemic wiping out at least half the Chinese hog herd, but now they are seeing their bread and butter industries suffer as well. The market is growing increasingly confident that a phase one trade deal will be agreed before the onset of more tariffs on Sunday, and I must admit, I agree with that stance.

Not only did Aussie and Kiwi fall, but we also saw weakness in the renminbi (-0.15%), INR (-0.2%) and IDR (-0.2%) as all are feeling the pain from slowing trade growth. On the plus side in the EMG bloc, the Chilean peso continues to stage a rebound from its worst levels, well above 800, seen two weeks ago. This morning it has risen another 0.85%, which takes the gain this month to 4.8%. But other than that story, which is really about ebbing concern after the government responded quickly and positively to the unrest in the country, the rest of the EMG bloc is little changed on the day.

Turning to the data this week, we have the following:

Tuesday NFIB Small Business Optimism 103.0
  Nonfarm Productivity -0.1%
  Unit Labor Costs 3.4%
Wednesday CPI 0.2% (2.0% Y/Y)
  -ex Food & Energy 0.2% (2.3% Y/Y)
  FOMC Rate Decision 1.75%
Thursday ECB Rate Decision -0.5%
  PPI 0.2% (1.2%)
  -ex Food & Energy 0.2% (1.7%)
  Initial Claims 215K
Friday Retail Sales 0.4%
  -ex autos 0.4%

Source: Bloomberg

While there is nothing today, clearly Wednesday and Thursday are going to have opportunities for increased volatility. And the UK election results will start trickling in at the end of the day on Thursday, so if there is an upset brewing, that will be when things are first going to be known.

All this leads me to believe that today is likely to be uneventful as traders prepare for the back half of the week. Remember, liquidity in every market is beginning to suffer simply because we are approaching year-end. This will be more pronounced next week, but will start to take hold now.

Good luck
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A Paean to John Maynard Keynes

The positive vibe still remains
Encouraging stock market gains
Likewise bonds are sold
With dollars and gold
In paeans to John Maynard Keynes

As the market walks in ahead of today’s jobs report, once again poor data has been set aside and the equity bulls are leading the parade to acquire more risk assets. Stock markets are rallying, bond markets selling off and there is pressure on gold and the dollar. Granted, the moves have not been too large, but the reality is that the default market activity is to buy stocks regardless of valuation.

Let’s start with a quick look at current data expectations:

Nonfarm Payrolls 183K
Private Payrolls 179K
Manufacturing Payrolls 40K
Unemployment Rate 3.6%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.4
Michigan Sentiment 97.0

Source: Bloomberg

These are all pretty good numbers, and if the forecasts are right, it would certainly reinforce the idea that the US economy is ticking over nicely. Of course, the problem is that we have seen some pretty bad data in the past week which may call this evaluation into question. Recall Monday’s terrible ISM Manufacturing data, as well as Wednesday’s double whammy of ISM Non-Manufacturing and ADP Employment, both of which sharply disappointed. While yesterday’s Durable Goods was right on the mark, I would argue that based on the data seen this week, the US economy is clearly slowing down into the fourth quarter.

Adding to the general gloom is the data we have seen from elsewhere, notably Europe, where this morning’s German IP report (-1.7%) was the worst monthly print since April and took the year on year decline to -5.3%, the slowest pace since the financial crisis in 2009! Remember, Factory orders in Germany were awful yesterday, and the PMI data, while not as bad as expected regarding manufacturing, was much worse than expected in the service sector. The point is Europe is clearly not going to be driving the global economy higher anytime soon.

And of course, the other main engine of growth, China, has continued to present a picture of an economy in slow decline with excess leverage and financial bubbles still abundant, and with a central bank that is having trouble deciding which problem to address, excess leverage or slowing growth.

With this as a starting point, it is easy to see why there are so many bears in the market. But there is an antidote to this unrequited bearishness…the Fed! While Chairman Powell has repeatedly explained that the FOMC’s current practice of purchasing $60 billion per month of Treasury bills is NOT QE, it is certainly QE. And remember, the Fed is not just purchasing T-bills, they are also adding liquidity through overnight, weekly and monthly repo operations on a regular basis. In fact, they are taking all the collateral offered and lending money against it, not even targeting an amount they want to add. It certainly appears that they are simply adding as much liquidity to the markets as possible to prevent any of those bears from gaining traction. So in reality, it is no real surprise that risk assets remain in demand.

In fact, the Fed’s ongoing active stance in the money markets has me reconsidering my long-held views on the dollar’s future. The macroeconomic story remains, in my estimation, a USD positive, but one need only look at the dollar’s performance during QE1, QE2 and QE3 where we saw dollar declines of 22%, 25% and 16% respectively to force one to reconsider those views. ‘Not QE’ could easily undermine the dollar’s strength and perhaps, despite the ECB’s ongoing efforts, drive the dollar much lower. In conversations with many clients, I have been hard pressed to come up with a scenario where the dollar falls sharply, short of another shocking US electoral outcome where, as a nation we vote for left wing populism, à la Senator Warren or Senator Sanders, rather than our current stance of right wing populism. However, if the Fed maintains its current stance, expanding the balance sheet and adding liquidity with abandon to the money markets, there is every reason to believe that the dollar will suffer. After all, we continue to run a massive current account deficit, alongside our trade and budget deficits, and we are flooding the markets with newly issued Treasury debt. At some point, and perhaps in the not too distant future, the market may well decide the US dollar is no longer the haven asset that it has been in the past. In any case, while I consider the issues, it would be sensible, in my estimation, for hedgers to consider them as well.

And with that cheery thought, let us look forward to this morning’s market activity. My sense is that the combination of modestly higher than expected Initial Claims data during the survey week, as well as weak ISM employment sub-indices, and of course, the weak ADP number, will result in a disappointing outcome today. I fear that we could see something as low as 100K, which could see a knee-jerk reaction lower in the dollar as expectations ratchet up for more Fed monetary ease.

One other thing to keep in mind is that as we approach year-end, market liquidity starts to dry up. There should be no problems today, nor next week, I expect, but after that, trading desks see staffing thin out for vacations and risk appetite for the banks shrinks significantly. Nobody wants to risk a good year, and nobody will overcome a bad one in the last week of the year. So to the extent possible, I strongly recommend taking care of year end activity by the end of next week for the best results.

Good luck and good weekend
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No Panacea

Fiscal stimulus
Is no panacea, but
Welcome nonetheless

At least by markets
And politicians as well
If it buys them votes!

Perhaps the MMTer’s are right, fiscal rectitude is passé and governments that are not borrowing and spending massive amounts of money are needlessly harming their own countries. After all, what other lesson can we take from the fact that Japan, the nation with the largest debt/GDP ratio (currently 236%) has just announced they are going to borrow an additional ¥26 trillion ($239 billion) to spend in support of the economy, and the market response was a stock market rally and a miniscule rise in JGB yields of just 1bp. Meanwhile, the yen is essentially unchanged.

Granted, despite the fact that this equates to nearly 5% of the current GDP, given JGB interest rates are essentially 0.0% (actually slightly negative) it won’t cost very much on an ongoing basis. However, at some point the question needs to be answered as to how they will ever repay all that debt. It seems the most likely outcome will be some type of explicit debt monetization, where the BOJ simply tears up maturing bonds and leaves the cash in the economy, thus reducing the debt and maintaining monetary stimulus. However, macroeconomic theory explains following that path will result in significant inflation. And of course, that’s the crux of the MMT philosophy, print money aggressively until inflation picks up.

The thing is, every time this process has been followed in the past, it basically destroyed the guilty country. Consider Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe and even Venezuela today as three of the most famous examples. And while inflation in Japan is virtually non-existent right now, that does not mean it cannot rise quite rapidly in the future. The point is that, currently, the yen is seen as a safe haven currency due to its strong current account surplus and the fact that its net debt position is not terribly large. But the further down this path Japan travels, the more likely those features are to change and that will be a distinct negative for the currency. Of course, this process will take years to play out, and perhaps something else will come along to change the trajectory of these long term processes, but the idea that the yen will remain a haven forever needs to be constantly re-evaluated. Just not today!

In the meantime, markets remain in a buoyant mood as additional comments from the Chinese that both sides remain in “close contact”, implying a deal is near, has the bulls ascendant. So Tuesday’s fears are long forgotten and equity markets are rallying while government bond yields edge higher. As to the dollar, it is generally on its back foot this morning as well, keeping with the theme that risk is ‘on’.

Looking at specific stories, there are several of note today. Overnight, Australia released weaker than expected GDP figures which has reignited the conversation about the RBA cutting rates in Q1 and helped to weaken Aussie by 0.3% despite the USD’s overall weakness. Elsewhere in the G10, British pound traders continue to close out short positions as the polls, with just one week left before the election, continue to point to a Tory victory and with it, finality on the Brexit issue. My view continues to be that the market is buying pounds in anticipation of this outcome, and that once the election results are final, there will be a correction. It is still hard for me to see the pound much above 1.34. However, there are a number of analysts who are calling for 1.45 in the event of a strong Tory majority, so be aware of the differing viewpoints.

On the Continent, German Factory Order data disappointed, yet again, falling 0.4% rather than rising by a similar amount as expected. This takes the Y/Y decline to 5.5% and hardly bodes well for a rebound in Germany. However, the euro has edged higher this morning, up 0.15% and hovering just below 1.11, as we have seen a number of stories rehashing the comments of numerous ECB members regarding the idea that negative interest rates have reached their inflection point where further cuts would do more harm than good. With the ECB meeting next Thursday, expectations for further rate cuts have basically evaporated for the next year, despite the official guidance that more is coming. In other words, the market no longer believes the ECB can will ease policy further, and the euro is likely edging higher as that idea makes its way through the market. Nonetheless, I see no reason for the euro to trade much higher at all, especially as the US economy continues to outperform the Eurozone.

In the emerging markets, the RBI surprised the entire market and left interest rates on hold, rather than cutting by 25bps as universally expected. The rupee rallied 0.35% on the news as the accompanying comments implied that the recent rise in inflation was of more concern to the bank than the fact that GDP growth was slowing more rapidly than previously expected. In a similar vein, PHP is stronger by 0.5% this morning after CPI printed a bit higher than expected (1.3%) and the market assumed there is now less reason for the central bank to continue its rate cutting cycle thus maintaining a more attractive carry destination. On the other side of the ledger, ZAR is under pressure this morning, falling 0.5% after data releases showed the current account deficit growing more rapidly than expected while Electricity production (a proxy for IP) fell sharply. It seems that in some countries, fiscal rectitude still matters!

On the data front this morning, we see Initial Claims (exp 215K), Trade Balance (-$48.5B), Factory Orders (0.3%) and Durable Goods (0.6%, 0.6% ex transport). Yesterday we saw weaker than expected US data (ADP Employment rose just 67K and ISM Non-Manufacturing fell to 53.9) which has to be somewhat disconcerting for Chairman Powell and friends. If today’s slate of data is weak, and tomorrow’s NFP report underwhelms, I think that can be a situation where the dollar comes under more concerted pressure as expectations of further Fed rate cuts will build. But for now, I am still in the camp that the Fed is on hold, the data will be mixed and the dollar will hold its own, although is unlikely to rally much from here for the time being.

Good luck
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No Longer Appealing

Today pound bears seem to be feeling
That shorts are no longer appealing
The polls keep on showing
The Tory lead growing
Look for more complaining and squealing

As well, from the trade front we’ve heard
That progress has not been deterred
Some sources who know
Say Phase One’s a go
With rollbacks the latest watchword

Yesterday was so…yesterday. All of that angst over the trade deal falling apart after President Trump indicated that he was in no hurry to complete phase one has completely disappeared this morning after a story hit the tape citing ‘people familiar with the talks’. It seems that the president was merely riffing in front of the cameras, but the real work has been ongoing between Mnuchin, Lighthizer and Liu He, and that progress is being made. Naturally, the market response was to immediately buy back all the stocks sold yesterday and so this morning we see equity markets in Europe higher across the board (DAX +1.1%, CAC +1.3%) and US futures pointing higher as well (DJIA +0.5%, SPY +0.45%). Alas, that story hit the tape too late for Asia, which was still reeling from yesterday’s negative sentiment. Thus, the Nikkei (-1.1%), Hang Seng (-1.25%) and Shanghai (-0.25%) all suffered overnight.

At the same time, this morning has seen pound Sterling trade to its highest level since May as the latest polls continue to show the Tory lead running around twelve percentage points. Even with the UK’s first-past-the-poll electoral system, this is seen as sufficient to result in a solid majority in Parliament, and recall, every Tory candidate pledged to support the withdrawal agreement renegotiated by Boris. With this in mind, we are witnessing a steady short squeeze in the currency, where the CFTC statistics have shown the size of the short Sterling position has fallen by half in the past month. As a comparison, the last time short positions were reduced this much, the pound was trading at 1.32 which seems like a pretty fair target for the top. Quite frankly, this has all the earmarks of a buy the rumor (Tory victory next week) sell the news (when it actually happens) situation. In fact, I think the risk reward above 1.30 is decidedly in favor of a sharper decline rather than a much stronger rally. Again, for Sterling receivables hedgers, I think adding to positions during the next week will be seen as an excellent result.

Away from the pound, however, the dollar is probably stronger rather than weaker this morning. One of the reasons is that after the euro’s strong performance on Monday, there has been absolutely no follow-through in the market. Remember, that euro strength was built on the back of the dichotomy of slightly stronger than expected Eurozone PMI data, indicating stabilization on the Continent, as well as much weaker than expected US ISM data, indicating things here were not so great after all. Well, this morning we saw the other part of the PMI data, the Services indices, and across all of the Eurozone, the data was weaker than expected. This is a problem for the ECB because they are building their case for any chance of an eventual normalization of policy on the idea that the European consumer is going to support the economy even though manufacturing is in recession. If the consumer starts backing away, you can expect to see much less appealing data from the Eurozone, and the euro will be hard-pressed to rally any further. As I have maintained for quite a while, the big picture continues to favor the dollar vs. the rest of the G10 as the US remains the most robust economy in the world.

Elsewhere in the G10, Australia is today’s major underperformer as the day after the RBA left rates on hold and expressed less concern about global economic issues, they released weak PMI data, 49.7, and saw Q3 GDP print at a lower than expected 0.4%. The point here is that the RBA may be trying to delay the timing of their next rate cut, but unless China manages to turn itself around, you can be certain that the RBA will be cutting again early next year.

In the EMG bloc, the biggest loser was KRW overnight, falling 0.6% on yesterday’s trade worries. Remember, the positive story didn’t come out until after the Asian session ended. In fact, the won has been falling pretty sharply lately, down 3.5% in the past month and tracking quickly toward 1200. However, away from Korea, the EMG space is looking somewhat better in this morning’s risk-on environment with ZAR the big gainer, up 0.5%. What is interesting about this result is the South African PMI data printed at 48.6, nearly a point worse than expected. But hey, when risk is on, traders head for the highest yielders they can find.

Looking to this morning’s US session, we get two pieces of data starting with ADP Employment (exp 135K) at 8:15 and then ISM Non-Manufacturing at 10:00 (54.5). Quite frankly, both of these are important pieces of data in my mind as the former will be seen as a precursor to Friday’s NFP report and the latter will be scrutinized to determine if Monday’s ISM data was a fluke, or something for more concern. The ISM data will also offer a direct contrast to the weak Eurozone PMI data this morning, so a strong print is likely to see the euro head back toward 1.10.

And that’s really it today. Risk is back on, the pound is rolling and whatever you thought you knew from yesterday is ancient history.

Good luck
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Started To Fade

On Monday, the data released
Showed growth in the US decreased
As well, hope ‘bout trade
Has started to fade
And snow overwhelmed the Northeast

In a word, yesterday sucked. At least that’s the case if you were bullish on essentially any US asset when the session started. Early equity market gains were quickly reversed when the ISM data printed at substantially worse than expected levels. Not only did the headline release (48.1) miss expectations, which was biased toward a modest improvement over the October readings, but all of the sub-indices along with the headline number actually fell further from October. Arguably the biggest concern came from the New Orders Index which printed its lowest level (47.2) since the financial crisis. Granted, this was the manufacturing sector and manufacturing represents only about 12% of the US economy, but still, it was a rout. The juxtaposition with the green shoots from Europe was not lost on the FX market either as the dollar fell sharply across the board. In fact, the euro had its best day since early September, rallying 0.6%.

This morning, the situation hasn’t improved either, as one of the other key bullish stories for equity sentiment, completion of the phase one trade deal with China, was dealt a blow when President Trump explained that he was in no hurry to complete the deal and would only do so when he was ready. In fact, he mused that it might be better to wait until after the 2020 elections before agreeing a deal with China, something that is clearly not priced into the market. When those comments hit the tape, US equity futures turned around from small gains to losses on the order of 0.3%. Bullishness is no fun yet.

Perhaps it’s worth a few moments to consider the essence of the bullish US case and determine if it still holds water. Basically, the broad consensus has been that despite its sluggish pace, growth in the US has been more robust than anywhere else in the developed world and that with the FOMC having added additional stimulus via 75 bps of interest rate cuts and, to date, $340 billion in non-QE QE, prospects for continued solid growth seemed strong. In addition, the tantalizing proximity of that phase one trade deal, which many had assumed would be done by now or certainly by year end, and would include a reduction in some tariffs, was seen as a turbocharger to add to the growth story.

Now, there is no doubt that we have seen some very positive data from the US, with Q3 GDP being revised higher, the housing market showing some life and Retail Sales still solid. In fact, last week’s data releases were uniformly positive. At the same time, the story from Europe, the UK, China and most of the rest of the world was of slowing or non-existent growth with central banks having run out of ammunition to help support those economies and a protracted period of subpar growth on the horizon. With this as a backdrop, it is no surprise that US assets performed well, and that the dollar was a key beneficiary.

However, if that narrative is going to change, then there is a lot of price adjustment likely to be seen in the markets, which arguably are priced for perfection on the equity side. The real question in the FX markets is, at what point will a risk-off scenario driven by US weakness convert from selling US assets, and dollars by extension, to buying US dollars in order to buy US Treasuries in a flight to safety? (There is a great irony in the fact that even when the US is the source of risk and uncertainty, investors seek the safety of US Treasury assets.) At this point, there is no way to know the answer to that question, however, what remains clear this morning is that we are still in the sell USD phase of the process.

With that in mind, let’s look at the various currency markets. Starting with the G10, Aussie is one of the winners after the RBA left rates on hold, as widely expected, but sounded less dovish (“global risks have lessened”) than anticipated in their accompanying statement. Aussie responded by rallying as much as 0.65% initially, and is still higher by 0.35% on the day. And that is adding to yesterday’s 0.85% gain taking the currency higher by 1.2% since the beginning of the week. While the longer term trend remains lower, it would not be a surprise to see a push toward 0.70 in the next week or so.

The other major winner this morning is the British pound, currently trading about 0.4% higher after the latest election poll, by Kantar, showed the Tories with a 12 point lead with just nine days left. Adding to the positive vibe was a modestly better than expected Construction PMI (45.3 vs. 44.5 expected) perhaps implying that the worst is over.

Elsewhere in the G10, things have been far less interesting with the euro maintaining, but not adding to yesterday’s gains, and most other currencies +/- a few bps on the day. In the EMG bloc, the noteworthy currency is the South African rand, which has fallen 0.55% after a much worse than expected Q3 GDP release (-0.6% Q/Q; 0.1% Y/Y). The other two losing currencies this morning are KRW and CNY, both of which have suffered on the back of the Trump trade comments. On the plus side, BRL has rallied 0.4% after its Q3 GDP release was better than expected at +0.6% Q/Q. At least these moves all make sense with economic fundamentals seeming to be today’s driver.

And that’s really it for the day. There is no US data this morning, although we get plenty the rest of the week culminating in Friday’s payroll report. Given the lack of economic catalysts, it feels like the dollar will remain under general pressure for the time being. The short term narrative is that things in the US are not as good as previously had been thought which is likely to weigh on the buck. But for receivables hedgers, this is an opportunity to add to your hedges at better levels in quiet markets. Take advantage!

Good luck
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A Future Quite Bright

The data from China last night
Implied that growth might be all right
The PMI rose
And everyone knows
That points to a future quite bright!

Is it just me? Or does there seem to be something of a dichotomy when discussing the situation in China? This morning has a decidedly risk-on tone as equity markets in Asia (Nikkei +1.0%, Hang Seng +0.4%, Shanghai +0.15%) rallied after stronger than expected Chinese PMI data was released Friday night. For the record, the official Manufacturing PMI rose to 50.2, its first print above 50.0 since April, while the non-Manufacturing version rose to 54.4, its highest print since March. Then, this morning the Caixin PMI data, which focuses on smaller companies, also printed a bit firmer than expected at 51.8. These data releases were sufficient to encourage traders and investors to scoop up stocks while they dumped bonds. After all, everything is just ducky now, right?

And yet…there are still two major issues outstanding that have no obvious short-term solution, both of which can easily deteriorate into a much worse situation overall. The first, of course, is the trade fiasco situation, where despite comments from both sides that progress has been made, there is no evidence that progress has been made. At least, there is no timeline for the completion of phase one and lately there has been no discussion of determining a location to sign said deal. Certainly it appears that the current risk profile in markets is highly dependent on a successful conclusion of these talks, at least as evidenced by the fact that every pronouncement of an impending deal results in a stock market rally.

The second issue is the ongoing uprising in Hong Kong. China has begun to use stronger language to condemn the process, and is extremely unhappy with the US for passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last week. However, based on China’s response, we know two things: first that completing a trade deal is more important than words about Hong Kong. This was made clear when the “harsh” penalties imposed in the wake of the Act’s passage consisted of sanctions on US-based human rights groups that don’t operate in China and the prevention of US warships from docking in Hong Kong. While the latter may seem harsh, that has already been the case for the past several months. In other words, fears that the Chinese would link this law to the trade talks proved unfounded, which highlights the fact that the Chinese really need these talks to get completed.

The second thing we learned is that China remains highly unlikely to do anything more than complain about what is happening in Hong Kong as they recognize a more aggressive stance would result in much bigger international relationship problems. Of course, the ongoing riots in Hong Kong have really begun to damage the economy there. For example, Retail Sales last night printed at -24.3%! Not only was this worse than expected, but it was the lowest in history, essentially twice as large a decline as during the financial crisis. GDP there is forecast to fall by nearly 3.0% this year, and unless this is solved soon, it seems like 2020 isn’t going to get any better. But clearly, none of the troubles matter because, after all, PMI rose to 50.2!
Turning to Europe, PMI data also printed a hair better than expected, but the manufacturing sector remains in dire straits. Germany saw a rise to 44.1 while France printed at 51.7 and the Eurozone Composite at 46.9. All three were slightly higher than the flash data from last week, but all three still point to a manufacturing recession across the continent. And the biggest problem is that the jobs sub-indices were worse than expected. At the same time, Germany finds itself with a little political concern as the ruling coalition’s junior partner, the Social Democrats, just booted out their leadership and replaced it with a much more left wing team who are seeking changes in the coalition agreement. While there has been no call for a snap election, that probability just increased, and based on the most recent polls, there is no obvious government coalition with both the far left and far right continuing to gain votes at the expense of the current government. While this is not an immediate problem, it cannot bode well if Europe’s largest economy is moving toward internal political upheaval, which means it will pay far less attention to Eurozone wide issues. This news cannot be beneficial for the euro, although this morning’s 0.1% decline is hardly newsworthy.

Finally, with less than two weeks remaining before the British (and Scottish, Welch and Northern Irish) go to the polls, the Conservatives still hold between a 9 and 11 point lead, depending on which poll is considered, but that lead has been shrinking slightly. Pundits are quick to recall how Theresa May called an election in the wake of the initial Brexit vote when the polls showed the Tories with a large lead, but that she squandered that lead and wound up quite weakened as a result. At this point, it doesn’t appear that Boris has done the same thing, but stranger things have happened. At any rate, the FX market appears reasonably confident that the Tories will win, maintaining the pound above 1.29, although unwilling to give it more love until the votes are in. I expect that barring any very clear gaffes, the pound will range trade ahead of the election and in the event of a Tory victory, see a modest rally. If we have a PM Corbyn, though, be prepared for a pretty sharp decline.

Looking ahead to this week, we have a significant amount of US data, culminating in the payroll report on Friday:

Today ISM Manufacturing 49.2
  ISM Prices Paid 47.0
  Construction Spending 0.4%
Wednesday ADP Employment 140K
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 54.5
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Trade Balance -$48.6B
  Factory Orders 0.3%
  Durable Goods 0.6%
  -ex Transport 0.6%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 190K
  Private Payrolls 180K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 40K
  Unemployment Rate 3.6%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.4
  Michigan Sentiment 97.0

Source: Bloomberg

As we have seen elsewhere around the world, the manufacturing sector in the US remains under pressure, but the services sector remains pretty robust. But overall, if the data prints as expected, it is certainly evidence that the US economy remains in significantly better shape than that of most of the rest of the world. And it has been this big picture story that has underpinned the dollar’s strength overall. Meanwhile, with the Fed meeting next week, they are in their quiet period, so there will be no commentary regarding policy until the next statement and press conference. In fact, next week is set to be quite interesting with the FOMC, the UK election and then US tariffs slated to increase two weeks from yesterday.

And yet, despite what appear to be numerous challenges, risk remains the primary choice of investors. As such, equities are higher and bonds are selling off although the dollar remains stuck in the middle for now. We will need to get more news before determining which way things are likely to break for the buck in the near term.

Good luck
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The Final Throes

Trump said that he now could disclose
Trade talks have reached “the final throes”
We soon will reveal
A fabulous deal
Designed to increase our trade flows

Imagine, for a moment, that you are the leader of the largest nation (by population) on earth and that you run the place with an iron grip. (Or at least you continue to imply to the outside world that is the case.) Imagine, also, that your only geopolitical rival, with far fewer people but far more money, has completely changed the ground rules regarding how business will be transacted going forward, totally upsetting intricately created supply chains that have been hugely profitable and beneficial to your country over the past two decades. And finally, imagine that for the past eighteen months, a series of unforeseen events (increasingly violent protests in a recalcitrant province, devastating epidemic of a virus decimating your nation’s protein supply, etc.) have combined with the rule changes to significantly slow your economy’s growth rate. (Remember, this growth rate is crucial to maintaining order in your nation.) What’s a despot leader to do?

It can be no real surprise that the US and China are moving closer to completing a phase one trade deal because the importance of completing said deal has grown on both sides of the table. We saw evidence of this earlier in the week when the Chinese changed their tune on IP theft; an issue they had previously maintained did not exist, but are now willing to codify as criminal. And with every lousy piece of Chinese data (last night Industrial Profits fell 9.9%, their largest decline since 2011 and further evidence of the slowing growth trajectory on the mainland) the pressure on President Xi increases to do something to arrest the decline. Meanwhile, though the US economy seems to be ticking along reasonably well (at least according to every Fed speaker and as evidenced by daily record high closings in the US equity markets) the other issues in Washington are pushing on President Trump to make a deal and score a big win politically.

With this as a backdrop, I expect that we will continue to hear positive comments regarding the trade deal from both sides and that prior to the December 15 imposition of new tariffs by the US, we will have something more concrete, including a timetable to sign the deal. And so, there is every reason to believe that risk appetite will continue to be whetted and that equity markets will continue to perform well through the rest of 2019 and arguably into the beginning of 2020.

It is easy to list all the concerns that exist for an investor as they are manifest everywhere. Consider: excess corporate leverage, a global manufacturing recession, anemic global growth, $14 trillion of negative yielding debt globally, and, of course, the still unresolved US-China trade issues and crumbling of seventy years of globalization infrastructure. And that doesn’t even touch on the non-financial, but still economic issues of wealth and income inequality and the growing number of protests around the world by those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder (Chile, Colombia, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Lebanon, and even Hong Kong and France’s gilets jaunes). And yet, risk appetite remains strong.

The point I am trying to make is that there is quite a dichotomy between financial market, specifically equity market, behavior and the economic and political situation around the world. The question I would ask is; how long can this dichotomy be maintained? Every bear’s fear is that there will be some minor catalyst that has an extremely outsized impact on risk pricing causing a significant decline. Bears constantly point to all those things mentioned above, and more, and are firm in their collective belief that the central bank community, which may be the only thing holding risk asset prices higher, is running out of ammunition. Certainly I agree with the latter point, they are running out of ammunition, but as Lord John Maynard Keynes was reputed to have said, “Markets can remain irrational far longer than you can remain solvent.”

As of right now, there is no evidence that any of the above mentioned issues are relevant to market pricing decisions. So what is relevant? Based on the almost complete lack of price movement in the FX market for the past several sessions, I would say nothing is relevant. Every day we walk in and the euro or the yen or the pound or the renminbi is within a few basis points of the previous day’s levels. Trading appetite has diminished and implied volatility continues to track to new lows almost daily. In fact, especially for those hedgers who are paying significantly to manage balance sheet risks, it almost seems like it is not worth the money to continue doing so. But I assure you that it is worth the cost. This is not the first time we have seen an extended period of market malaise in FX (2007-8 and 2014 come to mind) and in both those cases we saw a significant rebound in activity in the wake of a surprising catalyst (financial crisis, oil market crash). Do not be caught out when the current market attitude changes.

With that, rather long-winded, opening, a look at markets today shows that every G10 currency is within 15bps of yesterday’s closing levels. And those levels were similarly close to the previous day’s levels. There has been a distinct lack of data, and really very little commentary by central bank officials. Even in the emerging markets, activity generally remains muted. I will grant that the Chilean peso (-0.6%) has been a dog lately, but that is entirely related to the ongoing protests in that country and the fact that investors are exiting rapidly. But elsewhere, movement remains less than 0.3% except for in South Africa, where the rand has actually gained 0.5% as demand increases for their bond issuance today. In a world where a third of sovereign debt carries negative interest rates, 8% and 9% coupons are incredibly attractive!

On the data front, with Thanksgiving tomorrow, we see a ton of stuff today:

Initial Claims 221K
Q2 GDP 1.9%
Durable Goods -0.9%
-ex Transport 0.1%
Chicago PMI 47.0
Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 0.3%
Core PCE 0.1% (1.7% Y/Y)
Fed’s Beige Book  

We should certainly learn if the growth trajectory in the US remains solid before the morning is over, and I expect that the dollar may respond accordingly, with strong data supporting the greenback and vice versa. But the thing is, given the holiday tomorrow, liquidity will be somewhat impaired, especially this afternoon. So if you still have things that you need to get done in November, I cannot stress strongly enough that executing early today is in your best interest.

Overall, the dollar continues to hold its own despite the risk-on attitude, but I have a feeling that is because we are seeing international investors buy dollars to buy US equities. At this point, there is no reason to believe that process will change, so I like the dollar to continue to edge higher over time.

Good luck and have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday
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