Powell Won’t Waver

The story last quarter was prices
Would rise, leading up to a crisis
So, bond markets dropped
The dollar, she popped
And gold bugs all made sacrifices

But now a new narrative line
Explains that inflation’s benign
So, bonds are in favor
As Powell won’t waver
While dollars resume their decline

All year long the market story has been driven by the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond.  Ever since the run-off elections in Georgia in the beginning of January, market anticipation has been for significant growth in the US on the heels of increased vaccination rates and increased fiscal stimulus.  In Q1, Treasury yields rose dramatically, touching as high as 1.77% at their top toward the end of March.  Meanwhile, the dollar, which had been slated to decline all year, rallied versus every emerging market currency and all but CAD, GBP and NOK in the G10.

But, as of the first of this month, the world appears to be a different place, as Treasury bonds have rallied driving yields lower and supporting equity and commodity markets.  At the same time, the dollar has come under broad-based pressure and reversed a large portion of its Q1 gains.

Currently, the narrative appears to be along the following lines: US GDP growth in 2021 is going to be spectacular, well above 6.0% and its strongest since 1984.  Inflation, meanwhile, will print at higher levels for Q2 purely as a result of base effects, but will then resume its long-term downtrend and the Fed will be required to continue to support the economy aggressively in order to meet their goals.  By the way, the Fed’s newly articulated goal is for maximum employment, not full employment, and they have promised to become completely reactive, waiting for hard data to confirm positive results in employment and wages, before considering any efforts to rein in rising prices.

Equity markets still love the story as the implication is that interest rates will not be rising at all this year, nor next year for that matter, at least in the front end of the curve.  Treasury markets, which appeared to get a little panicked in Q1 have reverted to form and seem to be pricing one of two things; either less impressive economic growth, or anticipation that the Fed will expand QE or YCC as Powell and friends seek to prevent any significant rise in yields.  Meanwhile, the dollar is falling again, gold is rising and commodity prices (the one true constant) remain firm.

Have we reached economic nirvana?  Some skepticism might be in order given the myriad issues that can undermine this narrative.  The primary issue is, of course, another wave of Covid spreading throughout the US and the world.  As the virus mutates, it is not clear that the current vaccines are going to be effective preventatives to new strains.  While the vaccination progress in the US and UK has been excellent, with 40% and 50% of their respective populations receiving at least the first dose, the same cannot be said elsewhere in the world.  In fact, the newsworthy item of the day is that India reported 315,800 new cases just yesterday!  Alongside Brazil and Turkey, these three nations, with a combined population of nearly 1.7 billion find themselves in the midst of another serious wave of infection.  Remember that a huge part of the reopening and growth narrative is the ending of the pandemic.  It is still too early to make that claim, and so, perhaps a bit early to count the 2021 GDP growth figures as a given.

However, there is a second issue of note that cannot be ignored, and that is the inflation story.  While it is clear that the Fed has convinced themselves inflation is not a concern, that the elevated readings that are almost certain to come over the next three months will be ‘transitory’, there is a case to be made that rising inflation may have a more lasting impact.

Consider that oil prices have risen dramatically from their levels this time last year and continue to trend higher.  Now, while the Fed looks at core prices, ex food & energy, the reality is that rising energy prices feed into everyday items beyond the cost of filling your gas tank.  Given that virtually everything produced and consumed requires energy to create, eventually higher energy prices feed into the cost of all those products.  It can be even more direct for services such as shipping, where energy price surcharges are common.  But just because something is labeled a surcharge doesn’t mean it hasn’t raised the price of the item consumed.  The point is, rising energy prices and rising commodity prices in general, are leading to higher input costs which will eventually lead to higher prices.  We continue to see the evidence in data like PPI and the price indices in the PMI and ISM data.

And these are just the two largest known issues.  Less probable, but potentially highly significant, we could see increased tension in US-China relations, with a stepped-up trade war, or even a confrontation over the situation in Taiwan.  Neither can one rule out more mischief from Russia, or Middle Eastern strife that could easily impact the supply of oil and hence its price.  The point is, it seems early to declare that the worst is behind us and price securities and risk as though that is the case.

Market activity today is relatively muted as investors and traders await the latest word(s) from Madame Lagarde and the ECB.  Expectations are there will be no changes to policy, but the real hope is that she will give clearer guidance on their plans going forward.  You may recall at the last meeting they expressed some dismay that bond yields had risen as much as they had and promised to increase PEPP purchases.  Since then, while they have increased those purchases, the amount of increase has been less than impressive and yields in Europe, while not rising further, have not returned to previous lower levels.  At the same time, as US yields have fallen back more than 20bps from their recent highs, the euro (+0.2%) has resumed its climb and is back above 1.20 for the first time since early March.  One thing we know is that the ECB can ill afford a stronger euro, so some type of response may be forthcoming.

Speaking of central banks, yesterday’s big surprise came from north of the border as the Bank of Canada, while leaving policy on hold, changed their tune on the timing for the end of QE.  They brought forward their tapering timeline and the market brought forward the rate hike timeline in response.  It seems that the employment situation in Canada has returned far closer to pre-Covid levels than in the US, with more than 90% of the jobs lost having been regained.  While CAD has given up 0.1% this morning, this is after a nearly 1.0% rise yesterday in the wake of the BOC announcement.

A quick look at equity markets around the world shows that Asia had a pretty good session (Nikkei +2.4%, Hang Seng +0.5%, Shanghai -0.25%) while Europe is all green and has been steadily climbing all day (DAX +0.45%, CAC +0.6%, FTSE 100 +0.1%).  US futures, however, are ever so slightly softer, down about 0.15% across the board, although this was after solid rallies yesterday afternoon.  Meanwhile, bond markets are under the barest of pressures with yields edging higher in the US (+0.5bps) and Europe (Bunds +0.4bps, OATs +0.8bps, Gilts -0.4bps), really showing a market waiting for the next piece of data.

Energy prices are under modest pressure this morning (WTI -0.5%), as are precious metals (Au -0.3%, Ag -0.6%) and industrials (Cu 0.0%, Zn -0.2%, Al -0.2%).

It can be little surprise that the dollar is mixed this morning, given the lack of a coherent market theme, although there are some modest surprises.  NOK (+0.25%) for example is stronger in the face of weaker oil prices.  Meanwhile NZD (-0.3%) is the weak link in the G10, on the back of market internals and stop-loss selling.  EMG currencies have a few more substantial movers with RUB (+1.25%) the leading gainer by far after President Putin’s state of the nation address focused entirely on domestic issues rather than feared saber rattling.  This encouraged bond buying and strength in the ruble.  On the other end of the spectrum is TRY (-0.8%) which has seen further investor outflow after reports that the US administration is prepared to raise the issue of the Armenian genocide and put further pressure to isolate President Erdogan.  However, away from those two movers, the rest of the bloc is +/- 0.2% or less.

Aside from the ECB meeting, the US data slate brings Initial Claims (exp 610K), Continuing Claims (3.6M), Leading Indicators (1.0%) and Existing Home Sales (6.11M).  Clearly the Claims data is the most important of the bunch with a strong number possibly helping to halt the Treasury rally and potentially support the dollar.  We are in the Fed quiet period, so no speakers there.

The rest of the day will take its tone from Madame Lagarde, but if she is less than forceful, I would expect the current trend (modestly lower yields, modestly higher equities and modestly weaker dollar) to continue.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Frustrations

The global economy’s state
Continues to see growth abate
As trade between nations
Has met with frustrations
While central banks try to reflate

Markets have been extremely quiet overnight as investors and traders await the release of the US payroll report at 8:30 this morning. Expectations, according to Bloomberg, are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 85K
Private Payrolls 80K
Manufacturing Payrolls -55K
Unemployment Rate 3.6%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.4
Participation Rate 63.1%
ISM Manufacturing 48.9
ISM Prices Paid 50.0
Construction Spending 0.2%

While the GM strike has ended, it was in full swing during the survey period and explains the expected significant decline in manufacturing jobs. One other thing having a negative impact is the reduction of census workers. Given these idiosyncratic features, we must look beyond the headline number to ascertain if the employment situation remains robust, or is starting to roll over. Consider that most analysts expect that the GM strike was worth about 50K jobs and the census situation another 20K. If we add those back to the median expectation of 85K, we wind up at essentially the 3-month average of 157K. However, it is important to remember that the 1-year average is higher, 179K, which indicates that there has been an ongoing decline in new hiring for a little while now. Some of this is certainly due to the fact that, as we have heard repeatedly, finding good employees is so difficult, especially in the service industries. But certainly, the trade situation and the fact that the US economy is growing more slowly is weighing on the data as well.

The reason this is important, of course, is that the NFP report is one of the key metrics for the Fed as they try to manage monetary policy in an uncertain world. Unfortunately for them, the Unemployment Rate is backward looking data, a picture of what has been, not what is likely to be. In truth, they should be far more focused on the ISM report at 10:00. At least that has some forecasting ability.

A quick recap of this week’s central bank activity shows us that there were 3 key meetings; the Bank of Canada, who left policy unchanged but turned dovish in their statement; the FOMC, which cut rates and declared they were done cutting rates unless absolutely necessary; and the BOJ, which left policy unchanged but hinted that they, too, could be induced to easing further if things don’t pick up soon. (I can pretty much promise the BOJ that things are not going to pick up soon, certainly not inflation.) Perhaps the most interesting market response to this central bank activity was the quietest bond market rally in history, where 10-year Treasury yields are, this morning, 15bps lower than Monday’s opening. Only Canada’s 10-year outperformed that move with a 20bp decline (bond rally). Given the rate activity, it ought not be surprising that equity markets retain their bid overall. This morning, ahead of the NFP report, US futures are pointing higher and we have seen gains in Europe (FTSE, CAC, and DAX +0.33%) as well as most of Asia (Hang Seng +0.7%, Shanghai +1.0%) although the Nikkei did fall 0.3%.

And what about the dollar? Well, in truth it is doing very little this morning, with most currencies trading within a 0.20% band around yesterday’s closing levels. The one big exception has been the Norwegian krone which has rallied sharply, 0.65%, after a much better than expected Manufacturing PMI release. Interestingly, this movement has dragged the Swedish krona higher despite the fact that Sweden’s PMI disappointed, falling to 46.0. However, beyond that, there is nothing of excitement to discuss.

We hear from five Fed speakers today, starting with Vice-chairman Richard Clarida, who will be interviewed on Bloomberg TV at 9:30 this morning before speaking at 1:00 to the Japan Society. But we also hear from Dallas Fed President Richard Kaplan, Governor Randall Quarles, SF Fed President Mary Daly and NY’s John Williams before the day is out. It seems to me that the market was pretty happy with Chairman Powell’s comments and press conference on Wednesday so I expect we will see a lot of reaffirmation of the Chairman’s thoughts.

So, all in all, it is shaping up to be a pretty dull day…unless Payrolls are a big surprise. I have a funny feeling that we are going to see a much weaker number than expected based on the extremely weak Chicago PMI data and its employment sub index, as well as the fact that the Initial Claims data seems to be edging higher these days. Of course, the equity market will applaud as they will start to price in more rate cuts, but I think the dollar will suffer accordingly.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

A Christmas Election

Prime Minister Johnson’s achieved
The goal that had had him aggrieved
A Christmas election
To change the complexion
Of Parliament, so they can leave

Meanwhile today all eyes have turned
To Washington where, when adjourned,
The Fed will declare
A rate cut that they’re
Not sure’s been entirely earned

Yesterday morning the UK Labour party finally caved and agreed to an election to be held in six short weeks. Boris has got exactly what he wants, an effective second referendum on Brexit, this time with a deal in hand. At this point, the polls have him leading handily, with 38% of the vote compared to just 23% for Labour and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. But we all know that the polls have been notoriously wrong lately, not least ahead of the original Brexit referendum which was tipped for Remain by a 52-48 margin and, of course, resulted in a Leave victory by that same margin. Then Theresa May, the newly appointed PM in the wake of that surprise thought she had the support to garner a strong mandate and called an election. And she lost her outright majority leading to two plus years of pusillanimous negotiations with the EU before finally reaching a deal that was so widely despised, she lost her job to Boris. And let us not forget where the polls pointed ahead of the US elections in 2016, when there was great certainty on both sides of the aisle that President Trump didn’t stand a chance.

So, looking ahead for the next six weeks, we can expect the pound to reflect the various polls as they are released. The stronger Boris looks, meaning the more likely that his deal is ratified, the better the pound will perform. For example, yesterday, upon the news that the election was finally agreed, the pound immediately rallied 0.5%, and subsequently topped out at a 0.75% jump from intraday lows. While it ceded the last of those gains before the close yesterday, this morning it has recouped them and is currently higher by 0.25%. A Johnson victory should lead to further strength in the pound, with most estimates calling for a short-term move to the 1.32-1.35 area. However, in the event Boris is seen as failing at the polls, the initial move should be much lower, as concern over a no-deal Brexit returns, but that outcome could well be seen as a harbinger of a cancelation of Article 50, the EU doctrine that started this entire process. And that would lead to a much stronger pound, probably well north of 1.40 in short order.

With that situation in stasis for now, the market has turned its attention to the FOMC meeting that concludes this afternoon. Expectations remain strong for a 25bp rate cut, but the real excitement will be at the press conference, where Chairman Powell will attempt to explain the Fed’s future activities. At this point, many pundits are calling for a ‘hawkish’ cut, meaning that although rates will decline, there will be no indication that the Fed is prepared to cut further. The risk for Powell there is that the equity market, whose rally has largely been built on the prospect of lower and lower interest rates, may not want to hear that news. A tantrum-like reaction, something at which equity traders are quite adept, is very likely to force Powell and the Fed to reconsider their message.

Remember, too, that this Fed has had a great deal of difficulty in getting their message across clearly. Despite (or perhaps because of) Powell’s plain-spoken approach, he has made a number of gaffes that resulted in sharp market movement for no reason. And today’s task is particularly difficult. Simply consider the recent flap over the Fed restarting QE. Now I know that they continue to claim this is nothing more than a technical adjustment to the balance sheet and not QE, but it certainly looks and smells just like QE. And frankly, the market seems to perceive it that way as well. All I’m trying to point out is that you need to be prepared for some volatility this afternoon in the event Powell puts his foot back into his mouth.

As to the markets this morning, aside from the pound’s modest rally, most currencies are trading in a narrow range ahead of the FOMC meeting this afternoon, generally +/- 0.15%. We did see a bunch of data early this morning reinforcing the ongoing malaise in Europe. While French GDP data was largely as expected, Eurozone Confidence indicators all pointed lower than forecast. However, the euro has thus far ignored these signals and is actually a modest 0.1% higher as I type. And in truth, as that was the only meaningful data, other market movement has been even less impressive.

This morning we also hear from the Bank of Canada, who is expected to leave rates unchanged at 1.75%, which after the Fed cuts, will leave them with the highest policy rates in the G10. Now the economy up north has been performing quite well despite some weakness in the oil patch. Employment has risen sharply so far this year, with more than 350K jobs created. Inflation is running right around their 2.0% target and GDP, while slowing a bit from earlier in the year, is likely to hold just below potential and come in at 2.0% for the year. Over the course of the past two weeks, the Loonie has been a solid performer, rising 2.0%. If the BOC stays true, it is entirely reasonable to expect a bit more strength there.

This morning begins this week’s real data outturn with ADP Employment (exp 110K) kicking things off at 8:15, then the first look at Q3 GDP (1.6%) comes fifteen minutes later. Obviously, those are both important in their own right, but with the Fed on tap at 2:00, it would take a huge surprise in either one to move the market much. As such, I doubt we will see much of consequence until 2:00, and more likely not until Powell speaks at 2:30. Until then, things should remain sleepy. After? Who knows!

Good luck
Adf

 

Spring Next Year

Interest rates shan’t
Rise ere spring next year. But might
They possibly fall?

This morning’s market theme is that things look bad everywhere, except perhaps in the US. Starting in Tokyo, the BOJ met last night and, to no one’s surprise, left their policy rate unchanged at -0.10%. They maintained their yield curve control target of 0.00% +/- 0.20% for 10-year JGB’s and they indicated they would continue to purchase JGB’s at a clip of ¥80 trillion per year. But there were two things they did change, one surprising and one confusing.

First the surprise; instead of claiming rates would remain low for an “extended period”, the new language gave a specific date, “at least through around spring 2020”. Of course, this gives them the flexibility to extend that date specifically, implying an even more dovish stance going forward. Market participants were not expecting any change to the language, but interestingly, the yen actually rallied after the report. Part of that could be because there was significant weakness in Asian equity markets and a bit of a risk-off scenario, but I also read that some analysts see this as a prelude to tighter policy. I don’t buy the latter idea, but it does have adherents. The second thing they did, the confusing one, was they indicated they would create a lending facility for their ETF portfolio. The unusual thing here is that generally, lending securities is a way to encourage short-selling, although they did couch the idea in terms of added liquidity to the market. Given they own more than 70% of the ETF market, it is clear that liquidity must be suffering, but I wouldn’t have thought bringing short-sellers to the party would be their goal.

In South Korea, Q1 GDP shrank -0.3%, a much worse outcome than the expected 0.3% growth, and largely caused by a sharp decline in exports and IP. This is an ominous sign for the global economy, and also calls into question the accuracy of the Chinese data last week. Given the tight relationship between Korean exports and Chinese growth, something seems out of place here. The market impact was a decline in the KOSPI (-0.5%), falling Korean yields and a decline in the KRW, which fell a further 0.6% and is now at its weakest point in two years. Look for the Bank of Korea to ease policy going forward.

Turning to Europe, the Swedish Riksbank left policy rates unchanged at -0.25%, as expected, but their statement indicated that there would be no rate hike later this year, as previously expected, given the slowing growth and lack of inflation in Sweden. While I foreshadowed this earlier this week, the market response was severe, with SEK falling 1.4%, although the Swedish OMX (stock market) rallied 1% on the news. You know, bad news is good because rates remain low.

One last central bank note, the Bank of Canada has thrown in the towel on normalizing policy, dropping any reference to higher rates in the future from their statement yesterday. Upon the release of the statement, the Loonie fell a quick 1%. Although it has since recovered a bit of that, it is still lower by 0.6% from before the meeting. It seems concerns over slowing growth now outweigh concerns over excess leverage in the private sector.

The other market note was the sharp decline in Chinese stocks with the Shanghai Composite falling 2.4% as traders and investors there lose faith that the PBOC is going to continue to support the economy, especially after the better than expected GDP data last week. Even the renminbi fell, -0.3%, although it has been especially stable for the past two months as the US-China trade talks continue. Speaking of which, the next round of face-to-face talks are set to get under way shortly, but there has been little in the way of news, either positive or negative, for the past two weeks.

One other thing about which we have not heard much lately is Brexit, where the internal political machinations continue in Parliament, but as yet, there has been no willingness to compromise on either side of the aisle. Of note is that the pound continues to fall, down a further 0.2% this morning and now firmly below 1.29. While there is no doubt that the dollar is strong across the board, it also strikes that some market participants are beginning to price in a chance of a no-deal Brexit again, despite Parliament’s stated aim of preventing that. As yet, there is no better alternative.

Finally, the euro is still under pressure this morning as well, down a further 0.2% this morning, which makes 1.5% in the past week. This morning’s only data point showed Unemployment in Spain rose unexpectedly to 14.7%, another sign of slowing growth throughout the Eurozone. At this point, the ECB is unwilling to commit to easing policy much further, but with the data misses piling up, at some point they are going to concede the point. Easier money is coming to the Eurozone as well.

This morning brings Initial Claims data (exp 200K) and Durable Goods (0.8%, 0.2% ex Transport). It doesn’t seem that either of these will change any views, and as we have seen all week, I expect that Q1 earnings will be the market’s overall focus. A bullish spin will continue to highlight the different trajectories of the US and the rest of the world, and ultimately, continue to support the dollar.

Good luck
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A Lack of Pizzazz

This week, central banks, numb’ring three
Released information that we
Interpreted as
A lack of pizzazz
So, don’t look for tight policy

Yesterday’s release of the ECB Minutes from their January meeting didn’t garner nearly as much press as the FOMC Minutes on Wednesday. However, they are still important. The topic du jour was the analysis necessary to help them determine if rolling over the TLTRO’s was the appropriate policy going forward. Not surprisingly, the hawks on the committee, like Austria’s Ewald Nowotny, said there is no hurry and a decision doesn’t need to be taken until June when the first of these loans fall below twelve months in their remaining term. I am pretty sure that he is against adding any more stimulus at all. At the same time, given the recession in Italy and slowing growth picture throughout Germany and France, and given that Italian and French banks had been the first and third most active users of the financing, in the end, the ECB cannot afford to let them lapse. I remain 100% convinced that these loans will be rolled over in an effort to ‘avoid tightening financial conditions’, not in order to ease them further. However, the market impact of the Minutes was muted at best, as has been this morning’s data releases; one confirming that German GDP was flat in Q4, and more importantly, the decline in the Ifo Business Climate indicator to 98.5, its lowest level in four years. Meanwhile, Eurozone inflation remains absent from the discussion with January’s data confirmed to have declined to a 1.4% Y/Y rise. Nothing in this data indicates the ECB will tighten policy in 2019, and quite frankly, I would be shocked to see them move in 2020 as well.

The other central bank information of note was the Bank of Canada, where Governor Poloz spoke in Montreal and explained that while the current policy setting (base rates are 1.75%) remain below their range of estimates of the neutral rate (2.5%-3.5%), current conditions dictate that there is no hurry to tighten further, especially with the ongoing uncertainty emanating from the US and the overall global trade situation. So here is another central bank that had been talking up the tightening process and has now backed away.

In virtually every case, the central banks continue to hang their hats on the employment market’s strength, and the idea that a tight jobs market will lead to higher wages, and thus higher inflation. The thing is, this Phillips Curve model has two flaws; first it only relates lower unemployment to higher wages, not higher general inflation; and second, it is based on an analysis of the UK from 1861-1957, which may not actually be a relevant timeline compared to the global economy in 2019. And one other thing to remember is that employment is a lagging indicator with respect to economic signals. This means that it is backward looking and has been demonstrated to have limited predictive power. My point is that despite a clearly strong employment situation, it is still entirely possible that global growth can slow much further and much more quickly than policymakers would have you believe.

Back to the currency markets, the upshot of all the new information was that traders have essentially left both the euro and the Loonie unchanged for the past two days. In fact, they have left most currencies that way. This morning’s largest G10 mover is the pound, which just recently has extended its losses to -0.40% after it became clear that the EU was NOT going to make any concessions regarding the backstop issue as had been believed just yesterday. The latest story is that the UK is going to ask for a three-month extension, which is likely to be granted. The thing is, the problem is not going to get any easier to solve in three months’ time than it is now. This will simply extend the time of uncertainty.

Of course, the other story is the trade talks and the positive spin that we continue to hear despite the information that there remain wide differences on key issues like enforcement of any deals as well as the speed with which the Chinese are willing to open up their markets. It is all well and good for the Chinese to say they will buy more corn, or more soybeans or more oil, but while nice, those pledges don’t address the question of IP protection and state subsidies. I remain concerned that any deal, if it is brokered, will be much less impactful than is claimed. And it is quite possible that the US will not remove any of the current tariffs until they have validation that the Chinese have upheld their side of any deal. I feel like the market is far too optimistic on this subject, but then again, I am a cynic.

While FX markets have been slow to respond to these stories, we continue to see equity markets wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a deal is coming soon and there is no reason to worry. Last night, Chinese equity markets rallied sharply (Shanghai +1.9%), although the Nikkei actually slipped -0.2%. European markets this morning are higher by around 0.4%-0.5%, as they, too, seem bullish on the trade picture. Certainly, it is not based on the economic picture in the Eurozone.

But as we have seen for the past several weeks, central banks, Brexit and trade are the only stories that matter. Right now, investors and traders are giving mixed signals, with the equity markets feeling positive, but currency and bond markets much less so. My money is on the bond market vs. the stock market as having correctly analyzed the situation.

Good luck and good weekend
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