Well Calibrated

Our policy’s “well calibrated”
Though some of us are still frustrated
It’s time to resort
To fiscal support
Since our balance sheet’s so inflated

While market activity has been relatively benign this morning, there are two stories that have consistently been part of the conversation; the FOMC Minutes and the latest trade information. Regarding the former, it seems there was a bit more dissent than expected regarding the Fed’s last rate cut, as while there were only two actual dissenters, others were reluctant rate cutters. With that said, the term “well calibrated” has been bandied about by more than one Fed member as a description of where they see policy right now. And this aligns perfectly with the idea that the Fed is done for a while which is what Powell signaled at the press conference and what essentially every Fed speaker since has confirmed. Regarding the balance of risks, despite what has been a clear uptick in investor sentiment over the past month, the Fed continues to point to asymmetry with the downside risks being of more concern. Recall, the futures markets are not looking for any policy adjustments at the December meeting, and in fact, are pricing just a 50% chance of a cut by next June. One final thing, the feeling was unanimous on the committee that there was no place for negative interest rates in the US. If (when) the economic situation deteriorates that much, they were far more likely to utilize policies like yield curve control (we know how well that worked for Japan) and forward guidance rather than taking the leap to negative rates.

Ultimately, the market read the Minutes and decided that while the Fed is on hold, the next move is far likelier to be a rate cut than a rate hike and thus yesterday’s early risk-off attitude was largely moderated by the end of the day. In fact, this morning, we are seeing a nascent risk-on view, although given how modest movement has been in any market; I am hesitant to describe it in that manner.

The other story that reinserted itself was the US-China trade negotiations, where Chinese vice –premier Liu He, the chief negotiator, explained that he was “cautiously optimistic” about progress and that he invited Messr’s Mnuchin and Lighthizer to Beijing next week to continue the dialog. While he admitted that he was confused about US demands, it does appear that the Chinese are pretty keen to get a deal done.

One other wrinkle is the fact that the Hong Kong support bill in Congress has been approved virtually unanimously, and all indications are that President Trump is going to sign it. While it is clear the Chinese are not happy about that, it seems a bit of an overreaction. After all, the bill simply says that Hong Kong’s special economic status will be reviewed annually, and that any direct military intervention would be met with sanctions. I have to believe that if the PLA did intervene directly to quell the unrest, even without this law in place, the US would respond in some manner that would make the Chinese unhappy. As to an annual review, the onus is actually on the US, although it could certainly add a new pressure point on China in the event they decide to convert from ‘one country, two systems’, to ‘one country, one system’. My take on the entire process is the Chinese are feeling more and more pressure on the economy because of the current tariff situation, and realize that they need to change that situation, hence the new invitation to continue the talks.

With that as our backdrop, a look at markets this morning shows the dollar is very modestly softer pretty much across the board. The largest gainer overnight has been the South African rand, which has rallied 0.5% ahead of the SARB meeting. While markets are generally expecting no policy changes, yesterday’s surprisingly low CPI data (3.7%, exp 3.9%) has some thinking the SARB may cut rates from their current 6.5% level and help foster further investment. On the flip side, South Korea’s won has been the big loser, falling 0.7% overnight after export data showed a twelfth consecutive month of declines and implied prospects for a pickup are limited. Arguably South Korea has been the nation most impacted by the US-China trade war. And one last thing, the Chilean peso, which has been under significant pressure for the past two weeks, is once again opening weaker, down 0.4% to start the day. In the past two weeks the peso has tumbled nearly 7%, and this despite the fact that the Chilean government has been extremely responsive to the protest movement, agreeing to rewrite the constitution to address many of the concerns that have come to light.

As to the G10, there is nothing to discuss. Movement has been extremely modest and data has been limited. Perhaps the one interesting item is that Jeremy Corbyn has released the Labour manifesto for the election and it focuses on raising taxes in numerous different ways and on numerous different parties. Certainly in the US that is typically not the path that wins elections, but perhaps in the UK it is different. At any rate, the market seems to think that this will hurt Corbyn’s chances, something it really likes, and the pound has edged up 0.25% this morning.

On the data front, this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 218K), Philly Fed (6.0), Leading Indicators (-0.1%) and finally Existing Home Sales (5.49M). Of this group, I expect that Philly Fed is the most likely to have an impact, but keep an eye on the claims data. Remember, last week it jumped to 225K, its highest since June, and another high print may start to indicate that the labor market, one of the key pillars of economic support, is starting to strain a little. We also hear from two Fed speakers, the hawkish Loretta Mester and the dovish Neal Kashkari, but again, it feels like the Fed is pretty comfortably on hold at this point.

Lacking a catalyst, it seems to me that the dollar is likely to have a rather dull session. Equity futures are pointing ever so slightly lower, but are arguably unchanged at this point. My sense is that this afternoon, markets will be almost exactly where they are now…unchanged.

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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