Doublespeak

The sitting Prime Minister, May
Heard terrible news yesterday
Her plan to promote
A Brexit deal vote
Was halted much to her dismay

This forces her, later this week
A longer extension to seek
But still the EU
Seems unlikely to
Do more than add new doublespeak

In yet another twist to the Brexit saga, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, refused to allow another vote on PM May’s deal this week. He explained that Parliamentary rules since 1604 have existed to prevent a second vote on a bill that has already been rejected unless there have been substantial changes to the bill. In this case there were no changes and PM May was simply trying to force approval based on the idea that the clock was running out of time. The pound reacted to the news yesterday by quickly dropping 0.5%, although it has since recouped 0.2% this morning.

This has put the PM in a difficult spot as she prepares to travel to the EU council meeting in Brussels later this week. Given that there is still no clarity on how the UK wants to handle things, or at least how Parliament wants to handle things, she will need to seek an extension in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit. However, the comments from several EU members, notably Germany and France, have indicated they need some sense of direction as to what the UK wants before they will agree to that extension. Remember, too, it requires a unanimous vote by the other 27 members of the EU to grant any extension. At this stage, the market is virtually certain an extension will be granted, at least based on the fact that the pound remains little changed on the day and has been able to maintain its modest gains this year. And it is probably a fair bet that an extension will be granted. But the real question is what the UK will do with the time. As of now, there is no clarity on that at all. Unless the EU is willing to change the deal, which seems unlikely, then we are probably heading for either a new general election or a new Brexit referendum, or both. Neither of these will add certainty, although the predominant view is that a new referendum will result in a decision to stay. Do not, however, ignore the risk that through Parliamentary incompetence, next week the UK exits without a deal. That risk remains very real.

One side note on the UK is that employment data released this morning continues to beat all estimates. Wages continue to rise (+3.4%) and the Unemployment Rate fell further to 3.9%. Despite a slowing economy overall, that has been one consistent positive. It has been data like this that has helped the pound maintain those gains this year.

Elsewhere the global growth story continues to suffer overall, as both China and the Eurozone continue to lag. While there was no new data from China, we did see the German ZEW survey (-3.6 up from -13.4) and the Eurozone version as well (-2.5 up from -16.6). However, at the same time, the Bundesbank just reduced their forecast for German GDP in 2019 to 0.6%, although they see a rebound to 1.7% in 2020. My point is that though things may have stopped deteriorating rapidly, they have not yet started to show a significant rebound. And it is this dearth of economic strength that will continue to prevent the ECB from tightening policy at all for quite a while to come.

A quick glance Down Under shows that optimism in the lucky country is starting to wane. Three-year Australian government bonds have seen their yield fall to 1.495%, just below the overnight rate and inverting the front of the curve there. This calls into question the RBA’s insistence that the next move will be an eventual rate hike. Rather, the market is now pricing in almost two full rate cuts this year as Australia continues to suffer from the slowing growth in China, and the world overall. While the FX impact today has been muted, just a -0.1% decline, Aussie continues to lag vs. other currencies against a dollar that has been on its back foot lately.

Speaking of the dollar, tomorrow, of course, we hear from the Fed, with a new set of economic projections and a new Dot Plot. Since there is no chance they move rates, I continue to expect the market to be focused on the balance sheet discussion. This discussion is not merely about the size of the balance sheet, and when they stop shrinking it, but also the composition and general tenor of the assets they hold. Remember, prior to the financial crisis and the utilization of QE, the Fed generally owned just short-term T-bills and maybe T-notes out to three years. But as part of their monetary policy experiment, they extended the maturities of their holdings with the average maturity now nine years. This compares to the six-year average maturity of the entire government bond issuance. The longer this average tenor, the more monetary ease they are providing to the market, so the question they need to answer is do they want to maintain that ease now or try to shorten the current maturity, so they have the opportunity to use that policy in a time of greater need. While this remains up in the air right now, whatever decision is made it will give a strong clue into the Fed’s view of the current situation and just how strongly the economy is actually performing.

This morning’s Factory Orders data (exp 0.3%) is unlikely to have a market impact of any sort. Equity markets have been muted with US futures pointing to essentially an unchanged opening. Yesterday saw limited price action, with both the dollar and equities barely changed. My sense is today will shape up the same way. Tomorrow, however, will be a different story, of that you can be sure.

Good luck
Adf

Carefully Looking Ahead

The Minutes explained that the Fed
Was carefully looking ahead
But so far it seems
The hawks’ fondest dreams
Of hiking again might be dead

As well, when it comes to the size
Of the Fed’s balance sheet, in their eyes
It’s likely to stay
Quite large like today
Not shrink while they, debt, monetize

Markets are little changed this morning after a lackluster session yesterday when the Fed released their Minutes from the January meeting. Overall, the tone of the Minutes seemed to be slightly less dovish than the tone of the Powell press conference that followed the meeting, as well as much of the commentary we have heard since then. Apparently, Cleveland’s Loretta Mester is not the only one who believes rates will need to be raised further this year, as the Minutes spoke of “several’ members with the same opinion. Of course, that was offset by “several” members who had the opposite view and felt that there was no urgency at all to consider raising rates further this year. Patience continues to be the watchword at the Mariner Eccles building, and I expect that as long as the economic data does not differ dramatically from forecasts, the Fed will be quite happy to leave rates on hold. They specifically mentioned the potential problems that could derail things like slowing global growth, a poor outcome in the US-China trade talks or a disruptive Brexit. But for now, it appears they are comfortable with the rate setting.

The balance sheet story was of even more interest to many market participants as the gradual running off of maturing securities has seemingly started to take a bite out of available liquidity in markets. And in fact, this seems to be where the Fed minutes indicated a more dovish stance in my eyes. While there is still a thought that rates might be raised later this year, it was virtually unanimous that shrinking the balance sheet will end this year, leaving the Fed with a much larger balance sheet (~$3.5-$4.0 trillion) than many had expected. Recall, prior to the financial crisis the Fed’s balance sheet was roughly $900 billion in size. To many, this is effectively a permanent injection of money into the economy and so should support both growth and inflation going forward. However, the risk is that when the next downturn arrives (and make no mistake, it Will arrive), the Fed will have less room to act to support the economy at that time. This is especially true since even with another one or two rate hikes, Fed Funds will have topped out at a much lower level than it has historically, and therefore there will be less rate cutting available as a policy tool.

Adding it up, it seems rate guidance was mildly hawkish and balance sheet guidance was mildly dovish thus leaving things largely as expected. It is no surprise market activity was muted.

This morning, as the market awaits the ECB Minutes, we see the dollar little changed overall, although there have been some individual currency movements. For example, AUD has fallen 0.7% (and dragged NZD down -0.5%) after a well-respected local economist changed his rate view to two RBA rate cuts later this year due to the rapidly weakening housing market. Prior to this, the market had anticipated no rate movement for at least another 18 months, so this served as quite a change. And all this came despite strong Australian employment data with the Unemployment rate remaining at 5.0% and job growth jumping by 39K.

Meanwhile, mixed data from Europe has leaned slightly bullish as surprisingly strong French Composite PMI data (49.9 vs 49.0 expected) offset surprisingly weak German Manufacturing PMI data (47.6 vs 49.7 expected). I guess the market already knows that Germany is slowing more rapidly than other nations in the Eurozone (except for Italy) due to the ongoing trade friction between the US and China. But despite the ongoing Gilets Jaune protests, the French economy managed to find some strength. At any rate, the euro has edged higher by 0.15% after the reports. At the same time, the pound has also rallied 0.15% after releasing the largest budget surplus on record (since 1993), and perhaps more importantly, on some apparent movement by the EU on Brexit. PM May is hinting that she may be able to get a legally binding way to end the backstop in a codicil to the Brexit negotiations, which if she can, may allow cover for the more euro skeptical members of her party to support the deal. There is no question the pound remains completely beholden to the Brexit story and will continue to do so for at least another month.

Pivoting to the trade talks, there are several stories this morning about how negotiators are preparing a number of memos on separate issues with the idea they will be brought together at the Trump-Xi meeting to be held in the next several weeks. There is no question that the market continues to view the probability of a deal as to be quite high, but I keep looking at the key issues at stake, specifically with regards to IP and the coercion alleged by US companies, and I remain skeptical that China will back away from that tactic. The Chinese do not view the world through the same eyes as the US, or the Western World at large. As per an article in the WSJ this morning, “We must never follow the Western path of constitutionalism, separation of powers and judicial independence,” Mr. Xi said in an August speech. That comment does not strike me as a basis for compromise nor enforcement of any deal that relies on those issues. But for now, the market continues to believe.

And that’s pretty much the stuff that matters today. We do get most of our data for the week this morning with Initial Claims (exp 229K), Durable Goods (1.5%, 0.3% ex transport), Philly Fed (14.0) and Existing Home Sales (5.00M). While individually, none of them have a huge impact, the suite of information if consistently strong or weak, could well lead to some movement given the broad sweep of the economy covered. There are no Fed speakers on the docket today, and so it doesn’t appear that there is much reason to expect real movement today. Equity markets around the world have seen limited movement and US futures are flat to slightly lower. Treasury yields are slightly firmer but remain at the bottom end of their recent trading range. Overall, it seems like a dull day ahead.

Good luck
Adf

 

Two Countries that Fought

There once were two countries that fought
‘bout trade as each one of them thought
The other was cheating
Preventing competing
By champions both of them sought

They sat down to seek a solution
So both could avoid retribution
But talks have been tough
And not yet enough
To get a deal for execution

The US-China trade talks continued overnight, and though progress in some areas has been made, clearly it has not yet been enough to bring in the leadership. The good news is that the talks are set to continue next week back in Washington. The bad news is that the information coming out shows that two of the key issues President Trump has highlighted, forced technology transfer and subsidies for SOE’s, are nowhere near agreement. The problem continues to be that those are pillars of the Chinese economic model, and they are going to be loath to cede them. As of this morning, increased tariffs are still on the docket for midnight, March 2, but perhaps next week enough progress will be made to support a delay.

Equity markets around the world seemed to notice that a deal wasn’t a slam dunk, and have sold off, starting with a dull session in the US yesterday, followed by weakness throughout Asia (Nikkei -1.1%, Shanghai -1.4%). Interestingly, the European markets have taken a different view of things this morning, apparently attaching their hopes to the fact that talks will continue next week, and equity markets there are quite strong (DAX +1/0%, FTSE +0.4%). And the dollar? Modestly higher at this time, but overall movement has been muted.

Asian markets also felt the impact of Chinese inflation data showing CPI fell to 1.7% last month, below expectations and another indication that growth is slowing there. However, the loan data from China showed that the PBOC is certainly making every effort to add liquidity to the economy, although it has not yet had the desired impact. As to the renminbi, it really hasn’t done anything for the past month, and it appears that traders are biding their time as they wait for some resolution on the trade situation. One would expect that a trade deal could lead to modest CNY strength, but if the talks fall apart, and tariffs are raised further, look for CNY to fall pretty aggressively.

As to Europe, the biggest news from the continent was political, not economic, as Spain’s PM was forced to call a snap election after he lost support of the Catalan separatists. This will be the nation’s third vote in the past four years, and there is no obvious coalition, based on the current polls, that would be able to form. In other words, Spain, which has been one of the brighter lights in the Eurozone economically, may see some political, and by extension, economic ructions coming up.

Something else to consider on this issue is how it will impact the Brexit negotiations, which have made no headway at all. PM May lost yet another Parliamentary vote to get the right to go back and try to renegotiate terms, so is weakened further. The EU does not want a hard Brexit but feels they cannot even respond to the UK as the UK has not put forth any new ideas. At this point, I would argue the market is expecting a delay in the process and an eventual deal of some sort. But a delay requires the assent of all 27 members that are remaining in the bloc. With Spain now in political flux, and the subject of the future of Gibraltar a political opportunity for domestic politics, perhaps a delay will not be so easy to obtain. All I know is that I continue to see a non-zero probability for a policy blunder on one or both sides, and a hard Brexit.

A quick look at the currency markets here shows the euro slipping 0.2% while the pound has edged higher by 0.1% this morning. Arguably, despite the Brexit mess, the pound has been the beneficiary of much stronger than expected Retail Sales data (+1.0% vs. exp +0.2%), but in the end, the pound is still all about Brexit. The sum total of the new economic information received in the past 24 hours reaffirms that global growth is slowing. Not only are inflation pressures easing in China, but US Retail Sales data was shockingly awful, with December numbers falling -1.2%. This is certainly at odds with the tune most retail companies have been singing in their earnings reports, and given the data was delayed by the shutdown, many are wondering if the data is mistaken. But for the doves on the Fed, it is simply another point in their favor to maintain the status quo.

Recapping, we see trade talks dragging on with marginal progress, political pressure growing in Spain, mixed economic data, but more bad news than good news, and most importantly, a slow shift in the narrative to a story of slowing growth will beget the end of monetary tightening and could well presage monetary ease in the not too distant future. After all, markets are pricing in rate cuts by the Fed this year and no rate movement in the ECB (as opposed to Draghi’s mooted rate hikes later this year) until at least 2020. The obvious response to this is…add risk!

A quick look at today’s data shows Empire State Manufacturing (exp 7.0), IP (0.1%), Capacity Utilization (78.7%) and Michigan Sentiment (94.5). We also have one last Fed speaker, Raphael Bostic from Atlanta. Virtually all the recent Fed talk has been about when to stop the balance sheet runoff, with Brainerd and Mester the latest to discuss the idea that it should stop soon. And my guess is it will do just that. I would be surprised if they continue running down the balance sheet come summer. The changes going forward will be to the composition, less mortgages and more Treasuries, but not the size. And while some might suggest that will remove a dollar support, I assure you, if the Fed has stopped tightening, no other nation is going to continue. Ironically, this is not going to be a dollar negative, either today or going forward.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf