The Chinese are getting upset
Commodity prices, as yet
Continue to rise
As shrinking supplies
Now pose, to their model, a threat
So, naturally, what did they do?
They ordered state firms to eschew
As now all decisions
Will come from Beijing ‘pon review
With the FOMC meeting on virtually everyone’s mind this morning, market activity overall has been muted. However, the one place in the world that doesn’t revolve around the Fed is China, and news from there last night is quite interesting. You may recall my quick story about the Department of Price two weeks’ ago and how that ‘august’ institution warned commodity hoarders and speculators to stop what they were doing. Well, apparently, not enough people listened to those warnings as last night two more Orwellian entities in China joined the conversation regarding commodity prices. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) ordered companies under its purview, the SOE’s, to “control risks and limit their exposure to overseas commodities markets”. This was clearly the stick to accompany the carrot dangled by the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration, which has indicated it will soon release state stockpiles of copper, aluminum and zinc amongst other metals.
It is obvious that China has figured out that rising commodity prices may soon start to pass through from the factory to the consumer and drive CPI higher on the mainland. President Xi is clearly concerned that rising prices could lead to some political unrest given that the bargain he has made with his citizens is to enhance their lives economically so he can control all the levers of power. Thus, if inflation starts to rise more seriously, the population may call his leadership into question.
The problem for China, however, is that while in the past, they had been the marginal buyer of virtually all commodities as they grew their economic capacity dramatically, that situation no longer holds. Yes, they still have an impact, but in this post-Covid environment where the rest of the world is rebounding very quickly, demand for commodities outside of China is growing rapidly. But perhaps more importantly, because the previous decade saw commodity prices lag financial prices, investment in the sector was greatly reduced. This has led to reduced supplies of many critical things and now that demand is resurgent, not surprisingly the prices of copper, steel and other commodities have been rising rapidly even if China isn’t buying as much as they used to.
Adding to this dynamic is the great conundrum of ESG. On the one hand, ESG’s goals are to reduce environmental impact of economic activity which has largely played out as trying to substitute electricity for fossil fuels as a power source. On the other hand, in order to electrify economies, the amount of metals like steel and copper required to achieve the stated goals is dramatically higher than the current model. So, reducing investment in commodity producers results in much higher prices for the very commodities needed to achieve ESG goals in the long run. While this is not the only argument to rebut the Fed’s transitory inflation story, it is an important part of the inflationists’ views. China’s actions will only have a very temporary impact on the prices of the commodities in question, but the long-term demand is here to stay. Until investment in extraction of commodities increases sufficiently to bring more capacity online, odds are that commodity prices will continue to rise, whether Xi Jinping likes it or not. And if input prices continue to rise, at some point soon, so will prices of end products. We have been witnessing the beginnings of that trend, but I fear it has much further to go.
Interestingly, despite all the sturm und drang in Beijing about metals prices, after a sharp decline yesterday, this morning they are edging higher (Cu +0.2%, Al +0.1%, Fe +0.5%, Steel +2.8%) although not nearly reversing yesterday’s moves. If you ever wanted proof that China no longer calls the shots in commodities, here is exhibit A.
Today Chairman Jay will expound
On growth and its stunning rebound
But do not expect
That he will project
Some changes will shortly gain ground
The other story today, really the biggest for our session, is the FOMC meeting. Broadly speaking, expectations are that the Fed will not make any policy changes of note, although there will clearly be some tweaking to the statement. They cannot ignore the 5.0% CPI reading, I think, and they will certainly focus on the idea that the employment situation isn’t improving as rapidly as they would like. And ultimately, for now, it is the latter issue that will continue to inform policy choices. So tapering is not going to be on the menu, and when Powell is asked in the press conference, as he surely will be, I expect a response along the lines of, substantial further progress needs to be made before they will change things.
If I were to assess the risks, it feels like there is more risk of a hawkish outcome than a dovish one as the inflation story will not go away. But that implies to me that the market is according a hawkish twist some real probability, so the big surprise to markets would be if they were excessively dovish. However, I think Powell will do everything he can to be as nondescript as possible, stay on message and there will be very little movement.
A brief recap of markets overnight shows that Asian equities suffered, led by Shanghai (-1.1%). Not only are they dealing with rising commodity prices, but the data released (Retail Sales, IP and Fixed Asset Investment) all disappointed vs. expectations. China’s negativity bled into the Nikkei (-0.5%) and Hang Seng (-0.7%) as well. Europe, on the other hand, has gone nowhere ahead of the Fed, with virtually every equity index within 0.1% of yesterday’s closes. It should be no surprise that US futures markets are also essentially unchanged ahead of the Fed.
As to the bond market, we are beginning to see a touch of strength with yields declining ever so slightly. Treasuries are lower by 0.5bps, while Bunds (-1.1bps), OATs (-0.9bps) and Gilts (-0.7bps) are also performing reasonably well ahead of this afternoon’s announcements. It remains remarkable to me that with inflation rising universally, bond yields continue to ignore the situation. One has to give credit to the central banks for selling their transitory story.
In the FX markets, the picture is mixed with gainers and losers evenly split in the G10. AUD and NZD (+0.3% each) lead the way higher, although there does not appear to be a clear catalyst implying this is a positioning issue. GBP (+0.25%) has gained on the back of slightly higher than expected CPI readings (2.1% vs. 1.9% expected), as traders look for more concrete tightening of policy there. On the downside, both NOK and SEK have fallen by 0.35%, despite oil’s modest gains and a lack of other news. Again, this feels more technical than fundamental.
EMG currencies are also little changed overall, with a touch of weakness seen in the APAC bloc overnight, but only on the order of -0.1%, while RUB (+0.3%) and MXN (+0.25%) are the leaders, clearly helped by oil’s ongoing gains, but also seeming to benefit from some political stories.
Data this morning bring Housing Starts (exp 1630K) and Building Permits (1730K), but they will not be noticed with the Fed story coming later this afternoon. Yesterday’s data was mixed at best with Retail Sales disappointing for May but seeing large positive revisions in April to offset, while PPI once again printed at much higher than expected levels (6.6%). But let’s face it, today is Fed day and we are unlikely to see much movement until at least 2:00 when the statement is released if not until 2:30 when Chairman Powell starts to speak. At this time, any hawkishness is very likely to support the dollar with the opposite true as well, a dovish tilt will lead to a dollar decline.
Good luck and stay safe