Fear Has Diminished

From Asia, last night, what we learned
Was China, the corner, has turned
The lockdowns are finished
And fear has diminished
Thus spending, in spades, has returned

The major news overnight comes from China, where the monthly release of data on IP, investment and Retail Sales showed that the Chinese economy is clearly regaining strength.  Arguably, the most noteworthy number was Retail Sales, which while still lower by -8.6% YTD, has rebounded to be 0.5% higher than August of last year.  Anecdotally, movie theaters there have seen attendance return to ~90% of pre-Covid levels, obviously far above anything seen here or in most of Europe.  In addition to the Retail Sales data, IP there rose 5.6% Y/Y and Property Investment rose a greater than forecast 4.6% on a YTD basis.  Overall, while these numbers are still well below the data China had been reporting pre-Covid, they point to Q3 GDP growth in excess of 3.0%, with some analysts now expecting GDP to grow as much as 6% in the third quarter.

With this unalloyed good economic news, it should be no surprise that the renminbi has performed well, and in fact, CNY is one of the top performers today, rising 0.5% and trading to levels not seen since May of last year.  While there are still numerous concerns regarding different aspects of China’s economy, notably that its banking sector is insolvent amid massively underreported bad loans, on the surface, things look better than almost anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps what is more surprising is that the equity market in Shanghai, which rose 0.5% overnight, did not have a better day.

Down Under, the RBA noted
That Aussie, though not really bloated
Would be better off
In more of a trough
Thus, helping growth there be promoted

Meanwhile, the Minutes of the most recent RBA meeting showed that while they couldn’t complain that the Aussie dollar was overvalued, especially given the recent rebound in commodity prices, they sure would like to see it lower to help the export sector of the economy.  However, despite reaffirming they would continue to support the economy, and that yield curve control wasn’t going anywhere, they gave no indication they were about to increase their support.  As such, AUD (+0.6%) is the top G10 performer of the session, and it is now pushing back to the 2-year highs seen earlier this month.

Turning to Europe, the two stories of note come from the UK and the ECB.  In Parliament, PM Johnson had the first reading of his bill that is set to unilaterally rewrite the Brexit deal with the EU, and it passed handily.  It appears that Boris believes he needs even more leverage to force the EU to accede to whatever demands remain in the negotiations, and he is comfortable playing hardball to achieve his ends.  The Europeans, however, continue to believe they have the upper hand and claim they are prepared to have the UK leave with no deal.  Politics being what it is, I imagine we won’t know the outcome until the last possible date, which is ostensibly next month at the EU Summit.

In the meantime, the market is starting to get concerned that a hard Brexit is back on the table and that the pound has much more to fall if that is the outcome.  While the market is not at record long GBP position levels, it is still quite long pounds.  The options market has been pricing more aggressively, with implied volatility around 12% for year-end (compared to 3-month historic volatility of just 9%) and risk reversals 2.5 points for the GBP puts.  While the pound has fallen a bit more than 4% since its peak on September 1st, it is still well above levels seen when fears of a hard Brexit were more prevalent.  As this new bill makes its way through Parliament, I suspect the pound will have further to decline.

As to the ECB, we have had yet more verbal intervention, this time from Italian Executive Board member, Fabio Panetta, who repeated that the ECB needs to remain vigilant and that though they have done a great job so far, they still may need to do more (i.e. ease further) in order to achieve their inflation goals.  The euro, however, continues to drift higher, up another 0.25% this morning, as the market appears to be preparing for a more aggressive FOMC statement and implicit further easing by the Fed.  While I believe it is too early for the Fed to more clearly outline their explicit plans on how to achieve average inflation of 2.0%, clearly there are many market participants who believe the Fed will be the most aggressive central bank going forward and that the dollar will suffer accordingly.  We shall see, but as I have repeatedly indicated, and Signor Panetta helped reiterate, the ECB will not stand idly by and allow the euro to rally unabated.

And those are really today’s stories.  Risk appetite continues to be fed by perceptions of further easy money from all central banks and we have seen equity markets continue their rebound from the short correction at the beginning of the month.  While Asia was mixed, Europe is in the green and US futures are pointing higher as well.  Treasuries are a touch lower, with yields up about 1 basis point, but the reality here is that yields have been in a very tight range for the past month.  In fact, the idea that the Fed needs to introduce yield control is laughable as it appears to already be in place.

As to the rest of the FX market, the dollar is under pressure everywhere, although Aussie and cable are the two leaders in the G10 space.  Elsewhere, there appears to be less conviction, or at least less rationale to buy the currency aggressively.  In the EMG bloc, ZAR is the leader, rising 1.2% this morning, continuing its strengthening trend that began back in August and has seen a nearly 7% appreciation in the interim.  Otherwise, there has been less excitement, with more modest gains on the back of generic USD weakness.

For today, we see Empire Manufacturing (exp 6.9) this morning as well as IP (1.0%) and Capacity Utilization (71.4%).  Alas, with the Fed meeting tomorrow and all eyes pointed to Washington, it seems unlikely that the market will respond to any of this data.  Instead, with the market clearly comfortable selling dollars right now, I see no reason for the buck to do anything but drift lower on the day.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Negative Views Have Been Banned!

It’s not clear why anyone thought
That Covid, much havoc had wrought
At least based on stocks
Who’s heterodox
Response ignores data quite fraught

Thus, once more with bulls in command
The stock market’s flames have been fanned
So, risk is appealing,
The dollar is reeling
And negative views have been banned!

Acquiring risk continues to be at the top of investor to-do lists as, once again, despite ongoing calamities worldwide, stock markets continue on their mission to recoup all the losses seen in March. It remains difficult for me to understand the idea that company valuations today should be the same as they were in February, before the global economy came to a screeching halt. Aside from the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have been thrown out of work, millions of companies will disappear forever, whether it is JC Penney (long overdue) or your favorite local bistro (a calamity if there ever was one.) The commonality between the two is that both employed people who were also consumers, and sans an income, they will be consuming much less.

Given that consumption represented more than 60% of the global economy (>68% in the US), all those companies that cater to consumers are going to find it extremely difficult to generate profits if there are no consumers. It is why the hospitality/leisure sectors of the economy have been devastated world-wide, and all the industries that service those companies, like aircraft manufacturing or construction, have also been hit so hard. If you remove the rose-tinted lenses, it appears that the ongoing risk acquisition remains painfully ignorant of the reality on the ground, and that a revaluation seems more likely than not.

One other thing to consider is this, tax rates. US equity markets have been a huge beneficiary of the tax cuts from 2018 with corporate earnings broadly exploding higher. However, even if one looks past the abyss of the next several quarters of economic destruction, it seems quite likely that we are going to see some big picture changes around the world with regard to distribution of income, i.e. higher corporate (and personal) tax rates and lower EPS. Again, my point is that even if, by 2021, economic activity returns to the level seen in 2019, the share of that value that will be attributed to the corporate sector is destined to be much lower, and with after-tax earnings declines ordained it will be extremely difficult to justify high valuations. So, yes, risk is in the ascendancy today, but it continues to feel as though its time is coming to an end.

And with that sobering thought, let us look at just how risk is performing today. Equity markets around the world followed yesterday’s modest US rally higher with both the Nikkei and Hang Seng rallying a bit more than 1.1%, although Shanghai managed only a 0.2% gain. Meanwhile, Europe is feeling quite perky this morning as funds from around the world are flowing into the single currency as well as equity markets throughout the region. The DAX is leading the way higher, up 4.0%, as plans for a mooted €100 billion government support program are all over the tape. And this is in addition to the EU plan for a €750 billion support package. Thus, talk of a cash for clunkers program is supporting the auto manufacturers, while increases in childcare subsidies and employment support are destined to help the rest of the economy.

But the rest of Europe is also rocking, with the CAC +2.2% and both Italy and Spain seeing 2.5% gains in their major indices. Surprisingly, the FTSE 100 is the laggard, up only 1.1%, as concerns over a hard Brexit start to reappear. The current thinking seems to be that even if a hard Brexit causes a poor economic outcome, Boris will be able to blame everything on Covid-19 thus hiding the costs, at least to the bulk of the population. After all, it will not be easy to disentangle the problems caused by Covid from those caused by a hard Brexit for the average bloke.

As I type, US futures are also reversing earlier losses and are now higher by roughly 0.5% across the board. Bond markets, once again, remain extremely uninteresting, at least in the 10-year sector, as yields continue to trade in narrow ranges. In fact, since mid-April, the 10-year Treasury has had a range of just 15bps top to bottom, again, despite extraordinary economic disruption. This same pattern holds true for all the haven bonds as central banks around the world control the activity there and prevent any substantial volatility. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that the signaling effect of government bond yields is diminishing rapidly. After all, what information is available regarding investor preferences if yields are pegged by the central bank?

Finally, turning to the dollar we see another day of virtually universal weakness. AUD is the top G10 performer today after the RBA appeared a tad more hawkish last night, leaving policy unchanged but also describing a wait and see approach before making any further decisions. So, while some are calling for further ease Down Under, that does not appear to be on the cards for now. NOK is next on the list, rallying 0.65% as oil prices continue their strong performance of the past 6 weeks. Then comes the pound, up 0.6% this morning after a more than 1% rally yesterday. This is far more perplexing given the growing concerns over a hard Brexit, which will almost certainly result in the pound declining sharply. Remember, as it currently stands, if there is no agreement between the UK and EU by the end of June to extend the current trade negotiations, then a deal must be done by December 31, 2020 or it’s a hard Brexit. Discussions with traders leads me to believe that we have seen a massive short squeeze in the pound vs. both the euro and the dollar. If this is the case, then we are likely looking at some pretty good levels for hedgers to take advantage.

In the EMG space, the board is almost entirely green as well, with IDR (+1.35%) atop the list with MYR (+1.0%) and MXN (+0.9%) following close behind. The rupiah has gained as Indonesia is preparing plans to reopen the economy as soon as they can, deciding that the economic devastation is worse than the disease. Meanwhile, both MYR and MXN are beneficiaries of the oil rally with the ruble (+0.65%) not far behind. In fact, the entire space save the TWD (-0.15%) is firmer this morning. As an aside, TWD seems to be feeling a little pressure from the ongoing US-China trade spat, but despite its modest decline, it has been extremely stable overall.

There is no US data on the schedule for today, so FX markets will continue to take their cues from equities. At this point, that still points in the direction of a weaker dollar as risk continues to be acquired. Despite the currency rallies we have seen in the past weeks, most currencies are still lower vs. the greenback YTD. If you are convinced that the worst is behind us, then the dollar has further to fall. But any reversion to a risk-off sentiment is likely to see the dollar reassert itself, and potentially quite quickly.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Our Fears

Said Powell, it may take two years
Ere Covid’s impact finally clears
All central banks pleaded
More spending is needed
But really, it’s down to our fears

Fed Chairman Powell continues to be the face of the global response to the Covid-19 economic disruption. Last night, in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast nationwide, he said, “Assuming there’s not a second wave of the coronavirus, I think you’ll see the economy recover steadily through the second half of this year. For the economy to fully recover, people will have to be fully confident, and that may have to await the arrival of a vaccine.” He also explained that the Fed still has plenty of ammunition to continue supporting the economy, although he was clear that fiscal policy had a hugely important role to play and would welcome further efforts by the government on that score. Tomorrow, he will be testifying before the Senate Banking Committee where the Republican leadership has indicated they would prefer to wait and watch to see how the CARES act has fared before opting to double down.

In the meantime, it does appear that the spread of the virus has slowed more substantially. In addition, we continue to see more state governors reopening parts of their local economies on an ad hoc basis. And globally, restrictions are being lifted throughout Europe and parts of Asia as the infection curve truly seems to be in decline. It is this latter aspect that seems to be the current theory as to why there will be a V-shaped recovery which is supporting equity markets globally.

But when considering the prospects of a V, it is critical to remember this important feature of the math behind investing. A 10% decline requires an 11.1% recovery just to return to the previous level. And as the decline grows in size, the size of the recovery needs to be that much larger. For instance, the Atlanta Fed’s latest GDPNow forecast is calling for a, very precise, 42.81% contraction in Q2. If that were to come to pass, it means that a recovery to the previous level will require a 74.8% rebound! While the down leg of this economic contraction is clearly shaped like the left-hand side of a V, it seems highly unlikely that the speed of the recovery will approach the same pace. The final math lesson is that if Q3 were to rebound 42.81%, it would still leave the economy at just under 82% of its previous level. In other words, still in depression.

However, math is clearly not the strong suit of the investment community these days, as once again this morning, we continue to see a strong equity market performance. In fact, we have seen a strong performance in equities, bonds, gold, oil, and virtually everything else that can be bought. One explanation for this behavior would be that investors are concerned that the current QE Infinity programs across nations are going to debase currencies everywhere and so the best solution is to own assets with a chance for appreciation. While historically, the flaw in that theory would be the bond market, which should be selling off dramatically on this sentiment, it seems that the knowledge that central banks are going to continue to mop up all the excess issuance is seen as reason enough to continue to hold fixed income. With that in mind, I would have to characterize today’s session is a risk grab-a-thon.

The Brits and the EU have met
With no progress really made yet
The British are striving
To just keep trade thriving
The EU’s a different mindset

Meanwhile, remember Brexit? With all the focus on Covid, it is not surprising that this issue had moved to the back of the market’s collective consciousness. It has not, however, disappeared. If you recall, the terms of the UK exit were that a deal needs to be reached by the end of this year and that if there is to be another extension, that must be agreed by the end of June. Well, it seems that Boris is sticking to his guns that he will not countenance an extension and has instructed his negotiators to focus on a trade deal only. The EU, however, apparently still doesn’t accept that Brexit occurred and is seeking a deal that essentially requires the UK to remain beholden to the European Court of Justice as well as to adhere to all EU conditions on issues like the environment and diversity. The result is that the negotiations have become a game of chicken with a very real, and growing, probability that we will still have the feared hard Brexit come December. In a funny way, Covid could be a blessing for PM Johnson’s Brexit strategy, because given the negative impact already in play, at the margin, Brexit is not likely to make a significant difference. Arguably, it is the growing realization that a hard Brexit is back on the table that has undermined the pound’s performance lately. Despite a marginal 0.1% gain this morning, the pound is the worst performing G10 currency this month, down about 4.0%. At this time, I see no reason for the pound to reverse these losses barring a change in the tone of the negotiations.

As to this morning’s session, the overall bullish tone to most markets has left the dollar on the sidelines. It is firmer against some currencies, weaker vs. others with no clear patterns, and in truth, most movement has been limited. The biggest gainer today has been RUB, which has rallied 1.0% on the strength of oil’s 8% rally. In fact, oil is back over $30/bbl for the first time in two months. Not surprisingly we are seeing strength in MXN (+0.75%) and ZAR (+0.65%) as well on the same commodity rally story. On the flipside, APAC currencies were the main losers with MYR (-0.5%) and INR (-0.45%) the worst of the bunch as Covid infections are making a comeback in the area. In the G10 bloc, NOK (+0.75%) and AUD (+0.7%) are the leaders as they, too, benefit most from commodity strength.

On the data front, last night saw Japanese GDP print at -3.4% annualized, confirming the technical recession that has begun there. (Remember, Q4 was a disaster, -7.3%, because of the imposition of the national sales tax increase.) Otherwise, there were no hard data points from Europe at all. Looking ahead to this week, it is a muted schedule focused on housing.

Tuesday Housing Starts 923K
  Building Permits 1000K
Wednesday FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Initial Claims 2.425M
  Continuing Claims 23.5M
  Philly Fed -40.0
  Leading Indicators -5.7%
  Existing Home Sales 4.30M

Source: Bloomberg

In truth, with the market still reacting to Powell’s recent comments, and his testimony on Tuesday, as well as comments from another six Fed members, I would argue that this week is all about them. For now, the V-shaped rebound narrative continues to be the driver. If the Fed speakers start to sound a bit less optimistic, that could bode ill for the bulls, but likely bode well for the dollar. If not, I imagine the dollar will remain under a bit of pressure for now.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Leavers Cheer

The Governor, in his last meeting
Said data, of late, stopped retreating
There’s no reason why
We need to apply
A rate cut as my term’s completing

Yet all the news hasn’t been great
As Eurozone stats demonstrate
Plus Brexit is here
And though Leavers cheer
The impact, growth, will constipate

Yesterday saw a surprising outcome from the BOE, as the 7-2 vote to leave rates on hold was seen as quite a bit more hawkish than expected. The pound benefitted immensely, jumping a penny (0.65%) in the moments right (before) and after the announcement and has maintained those gains ever since. In fact, this morning’s UK data, showing growth in Consumer Credit and Mortgage Approvals, has helped it further its gains, and the pound is now higher by 0.2% this morning. (As to the ‘before’ remark; apparently, the pound jumped 15 seconds prior to the release of the data implying that there may have been a leak of the news ahead of time. Investigations are ongoing.) In the end, despite the early January comments by Carney and two of his comrades regarding the need for more stimulus, it appears the recent data was sufficient to convince them that further stimulus was just not necessary.

Of course, that pales in comparison, at least historically, with today’s activity, when at 11:00pm GMT, the UK will leave the EU. With Brexit finally completed all the attention will turn to the UK’s efforts to redefine its trading relationship with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the question at hand is whether UK growth will benefit in the short-term, or if we have already seen the release of any pent-up demand that was awaiting this event.

What we do know is that Q4 was not kind to the Continent. Both France (-0.1%) and Italy (-0.3%) saw their economies shrink unexpectedly, and though Spain (+0.5%) continues to perform reasonably well, the outcome across the entire Eurozone was the desultory result of 0.1% GDP growth in Q4, and just 1.0% for all of 2019. Compare that with the US outcome of 2.1% and it is easy to see why the euro has had so much difficulty gaining any ground. It is also easy to see why any thoughts of tighter ECB policy in the wake of their ongoing review make no sense at all. Whatever damage negative rates are doing to the Eurozone economies, especially to banks, insurance companies and pensions, the current macroeconomic playbook offers no other alternatives. Interestingly, despite the soft data, the euro has held its own, and is actually rallying slightly as I type, up 0.1% on the day.

It may not seem to make sense that we see weak Eurozone data and the euro rallies, but I think the explanation lies on the US side of the equation. The ongoing aftermath of the FOMC meeting is that analysts are becoming increasingly dovish regarding their views of future Fed activity. It seems that, upon reflection, Chairman Powell has effectively promised to ease policy further and maintain a more dovish overall policy as the Fed goes into overdrive in their attempts to achieve the elusive 2.0% inflation target. I have literally seen at least six different analyses explaining that the very modest change in the statement, combined with Powell’s press conference make it a lock that ‘lower for longer’ is going to become ‘lower forever’. Certainly the Treasury market is on board as 10-year yields have fallen to 1.55%, a more than 40bp decline this month. And this is happening while equity markets have stabilized after a few days of serious concern regarding the ongoing coronavirus issue.

Currently, the futures market is pricing for a rate cut to happen by September, but with the Fed’s policy review due to be completed in June, I would look for a cut to accompany the report as they try to goose things further.

Tacking back to the coronavirus, the data continues to get worse with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. The WHO finally figured out it is a global health emergency, and announced as much yesterday afternoon. But I fear that the numbers will get much worse over the next several weeks. Ultimately, the huge unknown is just how big an economic impact this will have on China, and the rest of the world. With the Chinese government continuing to delay the resumption of business, all those global supply chains are going to come under increasing pressure. Products built in China may not be showing up on your local store’s shelves for a while. The market response has been to drive the prices of most commodities lower, as China is the world’s largest commodity consumer. But Chinese stock markets have been closed since January 23, and are due to open Monday. Given the price action we have seen throughout the rest of Asia when markets reopened, I expect that we could see a significant downdraft there, at least in the morning before the government decides too big a decline is bad optics. And on the growth front, initial estimates are for Q1 GDP in China to fall to between 3.0% and 4.0%, although the longer this situation exists, the lower those estimates will fall.

Turning to this morning’s activity, we see important US data as follows:

Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 0.3%
Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
Chicago PMI 48.9
Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg

Arguably, the PCE number is the most important as that is what is plugged into Fed models. Yesterday’s GDP data also produces a PCE-type deflator and it actually fell to 1.3%. If we see anything like that you can be certain that bonds will rally further, stocks will rally, and rate cut probabilities will rise. And the dollar? In that scenario, look for the dollar to fall across the board. But absent that type of data, the dollar is likely to continue to take its cues from the equity markets, which at the moment are looking at a lower opening following in Europe’s footsteps. Ultimately, if risk continues to be jettisoned, the dollar should find its footing.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

Things Are Just Grand

Said Chairman Jerome yesterday
The message I’d like to convey
Is things are just grand
And we’re in command
While keeping recession at bay

As New York walks in this morning, markets look quite similar to where traders left them yesterday. After more record highs in the US equity markets, futures are essentially flat. European equity markets are +/- 0.1% and even Asian markets only moved +/-0.3% overnight. Bond markets are also little changed, with 10-year Treasury yields less than 1bp lower than yesterday’s close, while Germany’s bund is a full 1bp lower. In other words, we’ve seen very little movement there either. Finally, FX markets are entirely within a 0.3% range of yesterday’s closing levels, in both the G10 and EMG blocs, with a pretty even mix of gainers and losers.

The three headlines that have garnered the most commentary are regarding our three favorite topics of late; the Fed, trade and Brexit. In order this is what we learned. Chairman Powell spoke yesterday evening and told us the economy’s glass was not merely half full, but much more than that due to the Fed’s policy decisions. He reiterated that policy rates are appropriate for now and as a group, the FOMC sees no reason to change them unless something untoward appears suddenly on the horizon. And, in fairness, the horizon looks pretty clear. We continue to see mixed, but decent, data overall in the US, which has shown that ongoing weakness in the manufacturing sector has not spilled over into the consumer sector…yet. And perhaps it never will. Without a shock event of some sort (collapse of the trade talks, Chinese intervention in Hong Kong, or something equally serious) it is hard to argue with Jay’s conclusion that US interest rates are on hold for the foreseeable future. With that news, I wouldn’t have changed my position views either.

Moving on to the trade situation, things appear to be moving in the right direction as some comments from the Chinese side pointed to modest further progress on tariffs and what levels are appropriate at this point in time. I find it interesting that the US has been far less forthcoming on the issue of late, which is certainly out of character for the President. While I may be reading too much into this subtle shift in communication strategy, it appears that the Chinese are truly keen to get this deal done which implies that they are feeling a lot of pain. Arguably, the ongoing crisis in Chinese pork production is one area where the US has a significantly stronger hand to play, and one where China is relatively vulnerable. At any rate, despite more positive comments, it has not yet been enough to move markets.

Finally, the only market which has responded to news has been the British pound, which has ‘tumbled’ 0.25% after two polls released in the US showed that the Tory lead over Labour has fallen to 42%-33% from what had appeared to be a double digit lead last week. With both major parties having issued their election manifestos, at this point the outcome seems to be completely reliant on electioneering, something at which Boris seems to have the edge. In the end, I continue to expect that the Tories win a comfortable majority and that Brexit goes ahead on January 31. However, two things to remember are that polls, especially lately, have been notoriously poor predictors of electoral outcomes, and Boris clearly has the capability of saying something incredibly stupid to submarine his chances.

Looking at a range of potential outcomes here, I think the pound benefits most from a strong Tory victory, as it would remove uncertainty. In the event of a hung Parliament, where the Tories maintain the largest contingent but not a majority, that seems like a recipe for a much weaker pound as concerns over a hard Brexit would reignite. Finally, any situation where Jeremy Corbyn is set to lead the UK is likely to see the pound sell off sharply on the back of swiftly exiting capital. Corbyn’s platform of renationalization of private assets will not sit well with investors and the move lower in the pound will be swift and sharp. However, I think this is an extremely low probability event, less than 5% probability, so would not be focusing too much on that outcome.

And that’s really all that has moved markets today and not that much quite frankly. On the data front, we see the Advanced Goods Trade balance (exp -$71.0B), Case Shiller Home Prices (3.25%), New Home Sales (705K) and Consumer Confidence (127.0). Quite frankly, none of these are likely to be market movers.

Today’s story is far more likely to be about liquidity evaporating as the day progresses ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday in the US. Trading desks will be at skeleton staff tomorrow and Friday, so given it is effectively month-end today, make sure to take advantage of the liquidity available. The benefit is the quiet market price action should allow excellent execution.

Good luck
Adf

 

Quite a Breakthrough

Is stealing IP now taboo?
If so that is quite a breakthrough
Now maybe Phase One
Can finally be done
Or is this just more déjà vu?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before; a phase one trade deal is really close! For the umpteenth time in the past six months, this is the story driving markets this morning, although, in fairness, today’s version may have a bit more substance to it. That substance comes from an announcement by China that they are going to institute penalties on IP theft and potentially lower the threshold for considering criminal punishments for those convicted of the crime. This, of course, has been one of the key US demands in the negotiations thus far and the fact that the Chinese have conceded the argument is actually quite a big deal. Recall, if you will, that when this entire process started, the Chinese wouldn’t even admit that the practice was ongoing. Now they are considering enshrining the criminality of these actions into law. That is a huge change. Perhaps the current US stance in the negotiations is beginning to bear fruit.

Given this positive turn in the discussions, it should be no surprise that risk assets are in demand today and we are seeing equity markets rally around the world. Overnight in Asia, we saw strength across the board (Nikkei +0.8%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.7%) and we are seeing solid gains in Europe as well (DAX +0.4%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.8%). The two outliers, Hong Kong and London have additional positive stories to boot. In Hong Kong the weekend’s local council elections resulted in the highest turnout in years and not surprisingly, given the ongoing protests for democracy, the pro-democracy candidates won 85% of the seats. HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam was quick to respond by explaining the government will listen carefully to the public on this issue. One other aspect of the elections was that they were completely peaceful, with no violence anywhere in the city this weekend, a significant difference to recent activity there, and that was also seen as a risk positive outcome.

Meanwhile, in the UK, PM Boris Johnson released his election manifesto and it was far more sensible than his predecessor’s attempt three years ago. While it included spending promises on infrastructure and increased hiring of nurses for the National Health Service, there were few other spending categories. Of course, he did remind everyone that a Tory majority will allow him to deliver Brexit by January 31 and he assured that the trade deal would be complete by the end of 2020. The latest polls show that the Tories lead 42% to 30% for Labour with the rest still split amongst minor players. Also, a Datapraxis study shows that on current form, the Tories will win 349 of the 650 seats in Parliament, a solid majority that will allow Boris to implement his policies handily. Given this news less than three weeks from the election, investors and traders are becoming increasingly bullish on the outcome and the pound has benefitted accordingly this morning, rising 0.3%. Now, it is still well below the levels seen last month, when it briefly peeked over 1.30 in the euphoria that Boris was going to get Brexit done by October 31. But, it is today’s clear winner in the G10 space.

Away from the pound, the rest of the G10 space has been quite dull, with the euro slipping a scant 0.1% after German IFO data showed that while the economy may not be getting worse, it is not yet getting much better. In keeping with the equity driven risk-on theme, the yen is softer this morning as well, -0.2%, but that is entirely risk related.

Turning to the EMG space, there has been a touch more activity but still nothing remarkable. On the positive side we see CLP rising 0.7% which has all the earmarks of a position consolidation after a very troubled couple of weeks. There has been no specific news although a background story has been focused on shifts in the local pension scheme. It seems there are five funds, labeled A through E with A the most aggressive, invested 60% in international equities, while E is the most conservative, investing 92% in local fixed income assets. It seems that in the wake of the protests, there was a substantial shift into the A fund, which has outperformed given the peso’s weakness. However, it now appears that local investment advisors are highlighting the benefits of the E fund which will result in CLP purchases and corresponding CLP strength. This is certainly consistent with the idea that risk is back in vogue so perhaps we have seen the worst in CLP. But otherwise, nothing much of interest here either.

During this holiday shortened week, we actually get a decent amount of data with most of it released Wednesday morning.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.30%
  New Home Sales 707K
  Consumer Confidence 127.0
Wednesday Initial Claims 221K
  Q3 GDP 1.9%
  Durable Goods -0.8%
  -ex Transport 0.1%
  Chicago PMI 46.9
  Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Core PCE 0.1% (1.7% Y/Y)
  Fed’s Beige Book  

Source: Bloomberg

In addition to this, where my sense is the market will be most focused on the Personal Income and Spending data, we hear from Chairman Powell later this evening. While it is always an event when a Fed chair speaks, it seems pretty unlikely that we are going to learn anything new here. At this stage, it has been made quite clear that the Fed is on hold for the foreseeable future. If that is not the message, then you can look for market fireworks.

So the session today is shaping up to be risk focused which means that away from the yen and maybe Swiss franc, I expect the dollar to be softer rather than firmer.

Good luck
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The Senate’s Blackball

Near China, an island quite small
Has led to the latest downfall
In equity prices
Because of their crisis
As well as the Senate’s blackball

Risk is decidedly off this morning as equity markets around the world are under pressure and bond markets rally strongly. Adding to the mix is a stronger dollar and Japanese yen as well as an uptick in gold prices. The proximate cause of this angst was the unanimous voice vote in the Senate last night to pass legislation requiring an annual review of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the US, something that was heretofore permanently granted in 1992. The new legislation requires Hong Kong to remain “sufficiently autonomous” in order to maintain that status, which is arguably quite a nebulous phrase. Nonetheless, the Chinese response was immediate, threatening unspecified retaliation if the bill becomes law and calling it illegal and an intrusion in domestic Chinese affairs. While the bill must still be reconciled with a similar House version, that seems likely to be fairly easy. The real question is how the president will manage the situation given the fragility of the ongoing trade talks. Thus far, he has not made his views known, but they would appear to be in sympathy with the legislation. And given the unanimity of voting in both chambers, even a presidential veto would likely be overturned.

Given this turn of events, it should be no surprise that risk is under pressure this morning. After all, the promise of a trade deal has been supporting equity and other risk markets for the past six weeks. This is the first thing that could clearly be seen to cause a complete breakdown in the discussions. And if the trade negotiations go into hibernation, you can be sure that risk assets have much further to fall. You can also be sure that the developing narrative that European weakness is bottoming will also disappear, as any increase in US tariffs, something that is still scheduled for the middle of next month, would deal a devastating blow to any nascent recovery in Europe, especially Germany. The point is, until yesterday, the trade story was seen as a positive catalyst for risk assets. Its potential unwinding will be seen as a clear negative with all the risk-off consequences that one would expect.

Beyond the newly fraught trade situation, other market movers include, as usual, Brexit and the Fed. In the case of the former, last night saw a debate between PM Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn where Boris focused on reelection and conclusion of the Brexit deal he renegotiated. Meanwhile, Jeremy asked for support so that he could renegotiate, yet again, the deal and then put the results to a referendum in six months’ time. The snap polls after the debate called it a draw, but the overall polls continue to favor Boris and the Tories. However, the outcome was enough to unnerve Sterling traders who pushed the pound lower all day yesterday and have continued the process today such that we are currently 0.6% below yesterday’s highs at 1.2970. It seems pretty clear that in the event of an upset victory by Corbyn, the pound would take a tumble, at least initially. Investors will definitely run from a country with a government promising a wave of nationalization of private assets. Remember what happened in Brazil when Lula was elected, Mexico with AMLO and Argentina with Fernandez a few months ago. This would be no different, although perhaps not quite as dramatic.

As to the Fed, all eyes today are on the release of the FOMC Minutes from the November meeting where they cut rates by 25bps and essentially told us that was the end of the ‘mid-cycle adjustment’. And, since then, we have heard from a plethora of Fed speakers, all explaining that they were comfortable with the current rate situation relative to the economy’s status, and that while they will respond if necessary to any weakening, they don’t believe that is a concern in the near or medium term. In fact, given how much we have heard from Fed speakers recently, it is hard to believe that the Minutes will matter at all.

So reviewing market activity, G10 currencies are all lower, save the yen, which is basically unchanged. The weakest link is NOK, which is suffering on the combination of risk aversion and weak oil prices (+0.4% today but -4.0% this week). But the weakness is solid elsewhere, between 0.2% and 0.5%. In the EMG bloc, CLP is once again leading the way lower, down 1.0% this morning after a 2.0% decline yesterday, with spot pushing back toward that psychological 800 level (currently 795). But pretty much every other currency in the bloc is lower as well, somewhere between 0.2% and 0.4%, with just a few scattered currencies essentially unchanged on the day.

And that really describes what we have seen thus far today. With only the FOMC Minutes on the docket, and no other Fed speakers, my take is the FX market will take its cues from the broader risk sentiment, and the dollar is in a position to reverse its losses of the past week. Barring a shocking change of view by Congress, look for a test of 1.10 in the euro by the end of the week.

Good luck
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Centrists’ Dismay

In three weeks and some the UK
Will head to the polls and convey
To markets worldwide
If Brexit’s the side
They favor, to centrists’ dismay

In London today, and all week actually, the Confederation of British Industry is having their annual conference. As such, both Boris and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will be addressing the largest UK trade association to describe their views of the future based on an electoral victory on December 12. In brief, Boris is promising certainty with regard to Brexit as well as some tax cuts and spending on goodies. Meanwhile, Corbyn is promising to nationalize certain industries (British Telecom to give “free” high speed internet access to everyone in the country and the National Energy Grid to force more green activity and decisions) in order to achieve his party’s goal of poverty equality for all.

However, the weekend’s polls show that Boris is expanding his lead with the average result now showing the Tories with 42%, Labour with 30%, the LibDems at 14% and the rest of the assorted parties making up the balance. Arguably, the biggest weekend news was that every Tory running for a seat has signed a pledge to support the Brexit deal if elected. In essence, the Tories are leading and projected to get a majority, and they have pledged to complete Brexit. The market response has been pretty positive, at least the FX market, with the pound rallying a further 0.5% this morning after having rallied 1.0% last week. In fact, at 1.2950, we are pushing back to the highs seen in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit deal changes. As I have maintained since the election was called, I expect Boris to win and Brexit to go ahead shortly thereafter. At this point, it certainly seems like the UK will be out of the EU by the current January 31 deadline. As to the pound, I think we can see a move to 1.32-1.34, but probably not much more at this point. We will need to see significant progress on the ensuing trade agreement with the EU to see much further strength.

Other weekend news of note showed that the PBOC cut its seven-day repo rate by 5bps, to 2.50%, which despite the tiny movement cheered both traders and investors. Later this week, they will reveal the 1-year Loan Prime Rate, which is their new benchmark interest rate, and anticipation has grown they will be reducing that as well. The lesson here is that managing inflation, which has been rising rapidly due to the explosive growth in food, notably pork, prices, is a secondary concern. Instead, due to the fact that the economy is slowing even more rapidly, as evidenced by last week’s terrible Retail Sales and IP numbers, the PBOC’s marching orders are clearly to support GDP growth. Remember, despite the fact that President Xi is president for life, if GDP growth slows and unemployment rises, he will have some serious problems. In fact, it is this situation which has most pundits certain that a trade deal with the US will get signed. Both presidents need a win, and this is a relatively easy one for both.

Speaking of the trade deal, there was a high-level conversation over the weekend, between Liu He and the tag team of Mnuchin and Lighthizer, and both sides indicated progress continues to be made. That said, there is no indication that an agreement on where the presidents will meet to sign a deal has been reached, let alone an actual agreement on the deal. So, much remains to be done before this process is finished, but I am confident that we will read a string of positive tweets on a regular basis beforehand. Meanwhile, the PBOC’s modest rate cut had only a minor impact on the renminbi, which continues to trade just below (dollar above) the 7.00 level. Until a deal is finalized, it is hard to make a case for a large movement.

One last noteworthy item is from South Africa, where S&P has changed its outlook to negative from neutral. This is often a precursor for a ratings cut, and given S&P already has the country firmly in junk territory, at BB, Moody’s decision to maintain its investment grade rating last month seems more and more out of place. The rand is under pressure this morning, down 0.4%, although it remains closer to the top of its recent trading range than the bottom. What that means is there is ample opportunity for the rand to decline more sharply if there is any hint that Moody’s is going to move. The problem for South Africa is that if Moody’s changes them to junk, the nation’s debt will fall out of the MSCI global bond index and there could be as much as $15 billion of net sales. The rand would not receive that warmly, and a quick move back to the 15.50 level is to be expected in that case.

And those are the big stories this morning. Generally, I would characterize the markets as in a modest risk-on mode, with the dollar slightly softer, the yen and Swiss franc as well, while Treasury yields have edged higher and equity markets have edged higher as well. But, overall, it is pretty dull.

Looking ahead to the data releases this week, there is nothing of major consequence with Housing the focus:

Tuesday Housing Starts 1320K
  Building Permits 1381K
Wednesday FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Philly Fed 6.0
  Initial Claims 218K
  Leading Indicators -0.2%
  Existing Home Sales 5.49M
Friday Michigan Sentiment 95.7

While we do see the Minutes on Wednesday, given the onslaught of Fed speakers and consistency of message we have received since the last meeting, it seems hard to believe that we will learn anything new. One thing to watch closely is the Initial Claims data, which last week printed at 225K, higher than expected and where another higher than expected print could easily kick off a narrative of slowing employment, something that has much larger implications. There are a few Fed speakers, with uber-hawk Loretta Mester regaling us twice this week, although, again, it seems we have already heard everything there is to hear.

So today is shaping up to be quiet, with the modest risk-on behavior likely to continue to soften the dollar. We will need something bigger (e.g. a successful trade deal confirmed by both sides) in order to shake things up in my view.

Good luck
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Employment Unstressed

The jobs report Friday impressed
With growth in employment unstressed
As well, Friday’s quotes
From Fed speakers’ throats
Explained how their policy’s best

As is evidenced by the fact that the stock market in the US continues to trade to new all-time highs on a daily basis, the Fed is doing an incredible job…just ask them! Friday we learned that both the economy and monetary policy are “in a good place” according to vice-chairman Richard Clarida. Governor Randall Quarles used the same terms as did NY Fed President John Williams, who added, “…the economy is strong,” as well to the mix. At least they are all singing from the same hymnal. So, following a much better than expected payrolls report Friday morning, with the headline number not only beating expectations handily (128K vs. 85K), but the previous two months’ data were revised higher by a further 95K, the Fed is patting themselves on the back.

Adding to the overall joy in markets is the apparent thaw in the US-China trade talks, where it appears that a small, ‘phase one’ deal is pretty much agreed with both sides simply trying to find a place to sign it now that the APEC conference in Chile has been canceled due to local violent protests. And of course, the other big uncertainty, Brexit, has also, apparently, become less risky as the amended deal agreed by Boris and the EU has put to rest many fears of a hard Brexit. While the UK is currently engaged in a general election campaign cum second Brexit referendum, the smart money says that Boris will win the day, Parliament will sign the deal and the next steps toward Brexit will be taken with no mishaps.

Who knows, maybe all of these views are absolutely correct and global growth is set to rebound substantially driving stocks to ever more new highs and allowing central banks around the world to finally unwind some of their ‘emergency’ measures like ZIRP, NIRP and QE. Or…

It is outside the realm of this morning note to opine on many of these outcomes, but history tells us that everything working out smoothly is an unlikely outcome.

Turning to the market this morning shows us a dollar that is marginally firmer despite a pretty broad risk-on feeling. As mentioned above, equity markets are all strong, with Asia closing higher and almost every European market higher by more than 1.0% as I type. US futures are pointing in the same direction following on Friday’s strong performance. Treasury yields are also higher as there is little need for safety when stock prices are flying, and we are seeing gains in oil and industrial metals as well. All of which begs the question why the dollar is firm. But aside from the South African rand, which has jumped 1.5% this morning after Moody’s retained its investment grade rating on country bonds, although it did cut its outlook to negative, there are more currencies lower vs. the dollar than higher.

One possible explanation is the Fed’s claim that they have ended their mid-cycle adjustment and that US rates are destined to remain higher than those elsewhere in the world going forward. It is also possible that continued weak data elsewhere is simply undermining other currencies. For example, Eurozone final PMI’s were released this morning and continue to show just how weak the manufacturing sector in Europe remains. Given the fact that the ECB is basically out of bullets, and the fact that the Germans and Dutch remain intransigent with respect to the idea of fiscal stimulus, a weak currency is the only feature that is likely to help the ECB achieve its inflation target. However, as we have seen over the past many years, the pass-through of a weak currency to higher inflation is not a straightforward process. While I do think the dollar will continue its slow climb higher, I see no reason for the pace of the move to have any substantive impact on Eurozone CPI.

Meanwhile, the G10 currency under the most pressure today is the pound, which has fallen 0.2%, and while still above 1.29, seems to have lost all its momentum higher as the market tries to assess what will happen at the election six weeks hence. While I continue to believe that Boris will win and that the negotiated deal will be implemented, I have actually taken profits on my personal position given the lack of near-term momentum.

Looking ahead to this week, the data picture is far less exciting than last, although we do have the BOE meeting on Thursday to spice things up, as well as a raft of Fed speakers:

Today Durable Goods -1.1%
  -ex transport -0.3%
  Factory Orders -0.4%
Tuesday Trade Balance -$52.5B
  JOLTS Job Openings 7.088M
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 53.4
Wednesday Nonfarm Productivity 0.9%
  Unit Labor Costs 2.2%
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Consumer Credit $15.05B
Friday Michigan Sentiment 95.5

Source: Bloomberg

As all of this data is second tier, it is hard to get too excited over any of it, however, if it demonstrates a pattern, either of weakness or strength, by the end of the week we could see some impact. Meanwhile, there are nine Fed speakers slated this week, but given the consistency of message we heard last week, it seems hard to believe that the message will change at all, whether from the hawks or doves. At this point, I think both sides are happy.

Putting it all together, I would argue that the dollar is more likely to suffer slightly this week rather than strengthen as risk appetite gains. But it is hard to get too excited in either direction for now.

Good luck
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Get Out of My Face!

“The economy’s in a good place”
Which means we can slacken the pace
Of future rate cuts
No ifs, ands or buts
So Donald, ‘get out of my face’!

Reading between the lines of yesterday’s FOMC statement and the Powell press conference, it seems abundantly clear that Chairman Powell is feeling pretty good about himself and what the Fed has achieved. He was further bolstered by the data yesterday which showed GDP grew at a 1.9% clip in Q3, far better than the expected 1.6% pace and that inflation, as measured by the GDP deflator, rose 2.2%, also clearly around the levels that the Fed seeks. In other words, although he didn’t actually say, ‘mission accomplished’, it is clearly what he wants everybody to believe. The upshot is that he was able to convince the market that the Fed has no more reason to cut rates anytime soon. But more importantly from a market perspective, he explained at the press conference that the bar was quite high for the Fed to consider raising rates again. And that was all he needed to say for equity markets to launch to yet another new high, and for the dollar, which initially had rallied on the FOMC statement, to turn tail and fall pretty sharply. And the dollar remains under pressure this morning with the euro rising a further 0.15%, the pound a further 0.45% and the yen up 0.5%.

Of course, the pound has its own drivers these days as the UK gears up for its election on December 12. According to the most recent polls, the Tories lead the race with 34%, while Labour is at 26%, the Lib-Dems at 19% and the Brexit party at 12%. After that there are smaller parties like the DUP from Northern Ireland and the Scottish National Party. The most interesting news is that the Brexit party is allegedly considering withdrawing from a number of races in order to allow the Tories to win and get Brexit completed. And after all, once Brexit has been executed, there really is no need for the Brexit party, and so its voting bloc will have to find a home elsewhere.

Something that has been quite interesting recently is the change in tone from analysts regarding the pound’s future depending on the election. While on the surface it seems that the odds of a no-deal Brexit have greatly receded, there are a number of analysts who point out that a strong showing by the Brexit party, especially if Boris cannot manage a majority on his own, could lead to a much more difficult transition period and bring that no-deal situation back to life. As well, on the other side of the coin, a strong Lib-Dem showing, who have been entirely anti-Brexit and want it canceled, could result in a much stronger pound, something I have pointed out several times in the past. Ultimately, though, from my seat 3500 miles away from the action, I sense that Boris will complete his takeover of the UK government, complete Brexit and return to domestic issues. And the pound will benefit to the tune of another 2%-3% in that scenario.

The recent trade talks, called ‘phase one’
According to both sides are done
But China’s now said
That looking ahead
A broad deal fails in the long run

A headline early this morning turned the tide on markets, which were getting pretty comfortable with the idea that although the Fed may not be cutting any more, they had completely ruled out raising rates. But the Chinese rained on that parade as numerous sources indicated that they had almost no hope for a broader long-term trade deal with the US as they were not about to change their economic model. Of course, it cannot be a surprise this is the case, given the success they have had in the past twenty years and the fact that they believe they have the ability to withstand the inevitable economic slowdown that will continue absent a new trading arrangement. Last night, the Chinese PMI data released was much worse than expected with Manufacturing falling to 49.3 while Services fell to 52.8, both of which missed market estimates. However, the latest trade news implies that President Xi, while he needs to be able to feed his people, so is willing to import more agricultural products from the US, is also willing to allow the Chinese economy to slow substantially further. Interestingly, the renminbi has been a modest beneficiary of this news rallying 0.15% on shore, which takes its appreciation over the past two months to 2.1%. Eventually, I expect to see the renminbi weaken further, but it appears that for now, until phase one is complete, the PBOC is sticking to its plan to keep the currency stable.

Finally, last night the BOJ left policy unchanged, however, in their policy statement they explicitly mentioned that they may lower rates if the prospect of reaching their 2% inflation goal remained elusive. This is the first time they have talked about lowering rates from their current historically low levels (-0.1%) although the market response has been somewhat surprising. I think it speaks to the belief that the BOJ has run out of room with monetary policy and that the market is pricing in more deflation, hence a stronger currency. Of course, part of this move is related to the dollar’s weakness, but I expect that the yen has further to climb regardless of the dollar’s future direction.

In the EMG bloc there were two moves of note yesterday, both sharp declines. First Chile’s peso fell 1.5% after President Sebastian Pinera canceled the APEC summit that was to be held in mid-November due to the ongoing unrest in the country. Remember, Chile is one of the dozen nations where there are significant demonstrations ongoing. The other big loser was South Africa’s rand, which fell 2.9% yesterday after the government there outlined just how big a problem Eskom, the major utility, is going to be for the nation’s finances (hint: really big!). And that move is not yet finished as earlier this morning the rand had fallen another 1.1%, although it has since recouped a portion of the day’s losses.

On the data front, after yesterday’s solid GDP numbers, this morning we see Personal Income (exp 0.3%); Personal Spending (0.3%); Core PCE (0.1%, 1.7% Y/Y); Initial Claims (215K) and Chicago PMI (48.0). And of course, tomorrow is payroll day with all that brings to the table. For now, the dollar is under pressure and as there are no Fed speakers on the docket, it appears traders are either unwinding old long dollar positions, or getting set for the next wave of weakness. All told, it is hard to make a case for much dollar strength today, although strong data is likely to prevent any further weakness.

Good luck
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