More Duration

A governor, Fed, name of Waller
Who previously had been a scholar
Remarked that inflation
Might have more duration
Which could cause a weakening dollar

As well, he explained that his view
Was rate hikes just might soon ensue
Were that to transpire
Then yields would move higher
While equity losses accrue

In what can only be termed a bit surprising, Fed governor Chris Waller, the FOMC member with the shortest tenure, explained yesterday that he is “greatly concerned abut the upside risk that elevated inflation will not prove temporary.”  While refreshing, that is certainly a far cry from the narrative that the Fed has been pushing for many months.  Of course, if one simply looks at the inflation data, which has been trending sharply higher, it seems apparent that transitory is not an apt description.  As well, he is the first Fed member to be honest in the discussion about bottlenecks and supply chain issues as he commented, “bottlenecks have been worse and are lasting longer than I and most forecasters expected, and an important question that no one knows the answer to is how long these supply problems will persist.” [emphasis added].

During the entire ‘transitory inflation’ debate, the issue with which I most disagreed was the working assumption that these transportation bottlenecks and supply chain disruptions would quickly work themselves out.  It was as though the central bank community believed that because economic models explain that higher prices lead to increased production of those goods or services, the result was a magical appearance of additional supply to push prices back down.  Meanwhile, in the real world filled with regulations, restrictions and skill and resource mismatches and misallocations, these things can take a long time to correct themselves.  There is no little irony that government regulations regarding truck drivers have significantly reduced the supply of available truckers which has led to those very bottlenecks that are now bedeviling the economy (and government).  Alas, in the great Rube Goldberg tradition, rather than simplify processes to open up supply chains, it appears that government will be adding new regulations designed to offset the current ones which will almost certainly have other negative consequences down the road.

Finally, Governor Waller was refreshingly honest in his view of things like core inflation and trimmed-mean CPI or PCE calling them, “a way of manipulating data.”  Of course, that is exactly what they are.  Central banks have relied on these lower numbers as a rationale for continuing extraordinarily easy monetary policy despite the very clear rise in inflation.   And despite Mr Waller’s comments, the Powell/Yellen narrative remains inflation is not that high and anyway it’s transitory.

As it happens, though, the bond market seems to have been listening to Waller’s comments as it sold off pretty aggressively yesterday with yields backing up 4 basis points to their highest level since May.  While this morning Treasury yields are unchanged, it is becoming clear that a trend higher in yields is manifesting itself with the market clearly targeting the highs seen in March at 1.75%.

A fair question would be to ask if this price action is occurring elsewhere in the world and the answer would be a resounding yes.  For instance, UK Gilts, which today have actually fallen 3.1bps, are trending sharply higher over the past two months and are at their highest levels since early 2019.  Today’s UK CPI report showed inflation at 3.1%, which was a tick lower than forecast, but still well above their 2.0% target.  In addition, virtually the entire MPC has acknowledged that CPI is likely to rise above 4.0% by December with a very uncertain timeline to fall back.  Governor Bailey has made it clear that they will be raising interest rates at their next meeting in early November and there has been no pushback regarding the market pricing in 3 more rate hikes in 2022.

The upshot of all this is the carefully curated narrative by the Fed and its brethren is being destroyed by events on the ground and in addition to damage control, they are trying very hard to establish the new narrative.  However, it is not clear the market is going to be so willing to go along this time.  Too, all this price pressure is occurring with a backdrop of softening economic data, with yesterday’s Housing data the latest numbers to fall both from the previous month and below forecasts.  As I’ve written before, were I Chairman Powell, I wouldn’t accept renomination even if it is offered.  The Fed chair, when things hit the fan, will not have a very good time.

On the flip side of all this distress there is the equity market, which continues blithely along the trail of rallying on every piece of news, whether good or bad.  Now that we have entered earnings season, with expectations for a strong Q2 (after all, GDP grew at 6.8%), algorithms investors remain ready to buy more of whatever is hot.  Yesterday saw solid gains across all three US indices and we continue to see more strength than weakness overseas.  In Asia, for instance, the Nikkei (+0.15%) edged higher while the Hang Seng (+1.35%) had quite a good day although Shanghai (-0.2%) continues to suffer under the ongoing pressure from the Chinese real estate market.  Today another Chinese real estate developer, Sinic, defaulted on a bond and by the end of the week the 30-day grace period for Evergrande will end and we will see if there are more ramifications there.

As to the rest of the world, both Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC -0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.1%) and US futures are essentially flat this morning.  The investor question is, can strong earnings offset tighter monetary policy?  While we shall see over the course of the next few weeks, I suspect that a more hawkish Fed, if that is what shows up, will be very difficult to offset for the broad indices.

Commodities have taken a breather today with oil (-1.2%) and NatGas (-1.3%) slipping and dragging most other things down with them.  So, copper (-1.3%) and aluminum (-1.1%) are feeling that pain although gold (+0.7%) and silver (+1.25%) are both benefitting from either the inflation narrative or the fact that the dollar is arguably somewhat softer.

Speaking of the dollar, it is best described as mixed today, with a range of gainers and losers versus the greenback.  In the G10, NOK (-0.45%) is the worst performer, clearly suffering on the back of oil’s decline, with the pound (-0.3%) next in line after CPI printed a tick lower than expected and some thought that might dissuade the BOE from raising rates (it won’t).  But other than those two, everything else is +/- 0.15% which is indicative of nothing happening.

EMG currencies are also mixed with the biggest winners INR (+0.6%) and KRW (+0.4%) both benefitting from equity market inflows amid hopes for stronger growth.  After that, the gainers have been modest at best with nothing really standing out.  On the downside, RUB (-0.2%) following oil and CNY (-0.2%) have been the worst performers.  China is interesting as the PBOC set the fix for a much weaker than expected renminbi as it is clearly becoming a bit uncomfortable with the currency’s recent appreciation (+1.9% in past two months before last night).  Remember, for a mercantilist economy like China, excessive currency strength is an economic problem.  Look for the PBOC to continue to push against further strength.

On the data front, only the Fed’s Beige Book is released this afternoon, but we do hear from 5 more FOMC members.  Remember, nobody expected Waller’s comments to be market moving, so we must keep our antenna up for something else.

In fact, my sense is that the Fed is going to try very hard to reestablish the narrative they want regarding inflation and the future of interest rates.  That implies we are going to hear more and more from Fed speakers.  The risk is that the divide at the Fed between hawks and doves will widen to a point where no consistent narrative is forthcoming.  At that point, markets are likely to pay less attention to the comments and more to the data and expectations.  If forward guidance loses its strength, the Fed will be in a much worse position and market volatility is likely to increase substantially.  However, we have not yet reached that point.  In the meantime, the dollar is searching for its next catalyst.  Until then, consolidation of recent gains continues to be the most likely outcome.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Stop It

There are several central banks which
Are starting to look at a switch
From policy ease
To tight, if you please
As QE they now want to ditch

The Old Lady and RBA
Are two that seem ready to say
Inflation’s too high
And so we must try
To stop it ere it runs away

The dollar is under pressure this morning as investors and traders start to look elsewhere in the world for the next example of policy tightening.  The story of tapering in the US is, quite frankly, getting long in the tooth as it has been a topic of discussion for the past six months and every inflation reading points to the fact that, despite their protestations, FOMC members realize they need to do something.  But in essence, that is already a given in the market, so short of Chairman Powell explaining in his Friday appearance that the FOMC is likely to end QE entirely next month, this is no longer market moving activity.  The dollar has already benefitted from the relatively higher yields that are extant in the Treasury market, and expectations for a further run up are limited.

However, the same is not true elsewhere in the world as central bank plans are only recently crystalizing alongside the universally higher inflation prints.  So, the BOE, which has been more vocal than most, seems to be working hard to prepare markets for a rate hike and the market has taken the ball and run with it.  Thus, UK yields in the short end of the curve have moved rapidly higher with 3-year gilt yields higher by 53 basis points in the past 6 weeks and 15 bps in the past three sessions.  On Sunday we heard from BOE Governor Bailey that they will “have to act” soon to address rapidly rising inflation, and traders continue to push UK yields higher and take the pound along with it.  This morning, pound Sterling is higher by 0.75% and amongst the leading FX gainers on this ongoing activity.

Perhaps more interesting is the market reaction to the RBA Minutes last night, where discussion regarding rising real estate prices and the need to do something about them has encouraged the investment community to push yields much higher, challenging the RBA’s YCC in the 3-year AGB.  In fact, despite the RBA explicitly reiterating that conditions for raising rates “will not be met before 2024”, yields continue to rise sharply as fears that inflation will outpace current RBA expectations grow widespread.  Given this price action, one cannot be surprised that the Aussie dollar (+0.85%) has also risen quite sharply this morning.

The thing is, there are a number of conundrums here as well.  For instance, the euro is performing well this morning, up 0.4%, and there has been absolutely zero indication that the ECB is considering tighter monetary policy.  It is widely known that the PEPP will expire in March, but it is also very clear that the previous QE program, the APP, is going to be expanded and extended in some manner to make up for the PEPP.  The only question here is exactly what form it will take.  Similarly, there is no indication that the BOJ is even considering the end of QE or NIRP or YCC, yet the yen has managed to gain 0.3% this morning as well.

In fact, today’s price action is looking much more like broad-based dollar weakness abetted by some other idiosyncratic features rather than other stories driving the market.  This becomes clearer when viewing the commodity markets where virtually every commodity price is higher this morning led by oil (+1.25%), gold (+0.75%), copper (+1.15%) and aluminum (+1.6%).  Today is very much a classic risk-on type session with the dollar under pressure and other assets performing well in sync.

For instance, equity markets are in the green everywhere (Nikkei +0.65%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.7%, DAX +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.1%) with US futures also pointing higher by roughly 0.4% across the board.  At the same time, bond yields are creeping higher (Bunds +1.8bps, OATs +2.1bps, Gilts +1.8bps) as investors jettison their haven assets in order to jump on the risk bandwagon.  Treasury yields, though, are unchanged on the day although still trending higher from the levels seen late last week.

Adding it up; rising equity prices, rising commodity prices, falling bond prices, and a weaker dollar (with EMG currencies also firmer across the board) results in a clear risk-on framework.  This will warm the cockles of every central bankers’ heart as they will all see it as a vote of confidence in the job they are doing.  Whether that is an accurate representation is another question entirely, but you can’t fight the tape.  Risk is clearly in vogue today.

It is, however, worth asking if this positive attitude is misplaced.  After all, the recent data has hardly been the stuff of dreams.  Yesterday’s US releases were uniformly awful (IP -1.3%, Capacity Utilization 75.2%) with both significantly worse than forecast.  The upshot is that the Atlanta Fed GDPNow number fell to 1.165%, another step lower and an indication that despite (because of?) high inflation, growth is slowing more rapidly.  Meanwhile, Eurozone Construction Output fell -1.3% in August, continuing the down trend that began in March of this year.

I recognize it is earnings season and the initial releases for Q2 have been quite positive.  But I ask, is slowing growth and rising inflation really a recipe for continued earnings growth?  History tells us the answer is no, and I see no reason to believe this time is different.  Today’s price action seems anomalous to the big picture ideas, so be cognizant of that fact.  While markets can remain irrational longer than we can remain solvent, that does not mean it is sensible to go ‘all-in’ on risk because there is one very positive market day.  Tread carefully.

This morning’s US data brings Housing Starts (exp 1613K) and Building Permits (1680K) and that is all.  Though these are unlikely to get the market excited, we also hear from four Fed speakers, Daly, Barkin, Bostic and Waller, where efforts at recapturing the narrative will be primary.  It is growing increasingly clear that the Fed is annoyed that the persistent inflation narrative is gaining traction as it may force their hand in tightening policy before they would like.  Just remember, as important as the Fed is (and every central bank in their own economy), the market is much bigger.  And if the market determines that the Fed is no longer leading the way, or will soon need to change tack, it will force the issue.  On this you can depend.

While today everything is coming up roses, the lesson is that the Fed’s control over markets is beginning to wane.  Eventually that will be quite a negative for the dollar, but for now, despite today’s decline, I think the trend remains for a higher dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Something Awry

It’s not clear why there’s a concern
Inflation could cause a downturn
Cause stocks keep on rising
Though Jay’s emphasizing
The Fed, QE’s, set to adjourn

But still there is something awry
In how traders, every dip, buy
With growth clearly slowing
Though wages are growing
The value of stocks seems too high

One has to be remarkably impressed with the price action of risk assets these days and their ability to completely ignore growing signs that long-delayed problems are fast approaching.  The first of these problems is clearly inflation, something that has been ignored for decades by investors as long-term factors like globalization and demographics, as well as technological innovation, have served to suppress any significant inflationary impulse throughout the developed world.  Certainly, there were some EMG nations (Argentina, Venezuela, Zimbabwe) that managed to buck that trend and impose policies so horrendous as to negate the long-term benefits of stable prices, but generally speaking, inflation has not been a problem.

Then, Covid came along and the policy response was truly draconian dramatic, essentially shutting down much of the global economy for a number of months.  In hindsight, it cannot be surprising that the disruption to finely tuned supply chains that was imposed has been difficult to repair.  After all, it took years to achieve the true just-in-time nature of manufacturing and distribution across almost every industry.  While there are currently herculean efforts to get things back to the way they were, I suspect we will never again return to the previous situation.  A combination of policy decisions and population adaptations has altered the underlying framework thus there is no going back.

Consider the current energy situation (crisis?) as an example.  What is very clear now is that the price of energy is rising rapidly with both oil (+69% YTD, 0.85% today) and NatGas (+127% YTD, 1.0% today) continuing to climb with no end in sight.  Arguably, there have been a number of deliberate policy choices as well as some investing fashions which have dramatically reduced the investment in the production of these two key energy sources thus not merely reducing current supply but prospects for future supply as well.  Pressure from environmentalists to prevent this investment has done wonders for driving up prices, alas the mooted renewable replacements have yet to demonstrate their long-term effectiveness as uninterrupted power sources.  And this situation is manifest not only in the West, but in China as well, where they are currently suffering from major power shortages amid rapidly rising prices for LNG and coal as well as oil.  This morning’s WSJ has a lead article on how the rising price of NatGas is going to drive up winter heating bills substantially and the negative consequences for lower- and middle-income folks.

And yet…risk appetite remains robust.  You can tell because regardless of the news, equity prices consistently rise.  I grant it is not actually every day, but the trend remains quite clearly higher.  In traditional analysis, it would be difficult to rationalize this price movement as while the current situation may be working fine for companies, the fact is there are numerous issues that are coming, notably rising wages and a shrinking labor force, that are going to pressure margins, and arguably profits, going forward.  Clearly, however, that tradition is dead.  In its stead is the investor view that as long as the Fed keeps supplying liquidity to the markets economy, it will prevent any significant price dislocation.  Trickle Down theory remains alive and well on Wall Street.  This is evident today, where equity markets worldwide are higher, and has been evident in the fact that the recent Evergrande induced scare that resulted in a 5% correction was the first correction of that magnitude in more than a year.  The current investment zeitgeist remains; stocks only go up so buy more.  While I recognize I sound curmudgeonly on this topic, remember, reality is a b*tch and it will win out in the end.  Until then, though, it is unclear what type of catalyst is needed to change views, so risk assets are likely to remain in favor regardless of everything else.

And of course, today is a perfect example where equity markets are all green (Nikkei +1.8%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.4%) in Asia and Europe (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.4%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) as well.  Don’t worry, US futures are all pointing higher by 0.25%-0.35% at this hour, so all our 401K’s still look good.

Meanwhile, bonds are not required in a risk-on scenario so it should be no surprise that yields are rallying today with Treasuries (+3.3bps) leading the way but higher yields throughout Europe as well (Bunds +2.0bps, OATs +2.3bps, Gilts +3.7bps).  These price movements have been seen throughout the rest of the continent and in Asia last night with yields rising universally.

Commodity prices are broadly firmer, although with risk appetite robust, precious metals (Au -0.85, Ag -1.2%) are unwanted.  We discussed oil prices and we are seeing strength in the industrial metals (Cu +2.4%, Al +2.4%) as well as the Ags (corn +1.2%, wheat +1.4%, soybeans +0.7%).  In other words, risky assets are the place to be.

You should not be surprised that the dollar (and yen) are suffering on this movement given haven assets serve no purpose today!  In the G10 space, GBP (+0.6%) is leading the way higher followed by NOK (+0.55%) and then everything else is just modestly higher except JPY (-0.6%).  The sterling story seems to revolve around continued belief in BOE rate hikes coming early next year while NOK is simply following oil for now.

Of more interest, I believe, is the yen, which admittedly has been falling quite rapidly, down nearly 5% in the past three weeks, and quite frankly, shows no signs of stopping.  At this point, it doesn’t seem so much like Japanese investment outflows as it does like a speculative move that has discerned there is limited real demand for the currency.  Amazingly, last night, the new FinMin, Shunichi Suzuki, felt compelled to explain that, “stability in currencies is very important.” He further indicated that there was concern a weaker yen could cause prices to rise, especially energy prices.  Now, call me crazy but, BOJ policy for the past decade explicitly and the past three decades with less verve, has been to drive inflation higher.  Abenomics was all about achieving 2.0% inflation, something that had not been seen since before the Japanese bubble collapsed in 1989.  Now, suddenly, with inflation running at 0.2%, they are starting to get concerned that higher energy prices are going to be a problem?  Are they going to raise rates?  Are they going to intervene?  Absolutely not in either case.  Sometimes you have to wonder what animates policy maker comments.

As to EMG currencies, ZAR (+0.6%) and KRW (+0.4%) are the leaders this morning with the former benefitting from higher metals prices while the latter is responding to comments from the BOK governor that a rate hike could be coming at the November meeting.  On the downside here, TRY (-0.4%) continues to suffer from Erdogan’s capriciousness with respect to his central bankers, while THB (-0.3%) appears to be consolidating after a strong rally over the past week.

We have a bunch more data this morning led by Retail Sales (exp -0.2%, +0.5% ex autos) as well as Empire Manufacturing (25.0) and Michigan Sentiment (73.1).  There are two more Fed speakers, Bullard and Williams, but it seems unlikely that either will change the current narrative of a taper coming soon.

The reality is you can’t fight the tape.  As long as risk appetite remains buoyant, the dollar and yen are likely to remain on their back foot.  For the dollar, I see no long-term danger as I believe it will consolidate further before making its next move higher.  the yen, on the other hand, could be a bit more concerning.  If fear has gone missing, and with yields rising elsewhere in the world, a much weaker yen remains a real possibility.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Somewhat Misleading

The latest inflation’ry reading
Showed price rises kept on proceeding
But bond markets jumped
While dollars were dumped
This movement seems somewhat misleading

The two market drivers yesterday were exactly as expected, the CPI report and the FOMC Minutes.  The funny thing is it appears the market’s response to the information was contrary to what would have been expected heading into the session.

Starting with CPI, by now you are all aware that it continues to run at a much hotter pace than the Fed’s average 2.0% target.  Yesterday’s results showed the M/M headline number was a tick higher than forecast at 0.4%, as was the 5.4% Y/Y number.  Ex food & energy, the results were right on expectations at 4.0%, but that is cold comfort.  Here’s a bit of bad news though, going forward for the next 5 months, the monthly comps are extremely low, so the base effects (you remember those from last year, right?) are telling us that CPI is going to go up from here.  Headline CPI is almost certain to remain above 5.0% through at least Q1 22 and I fear beyond, especially if energy prices continue to rise.  The Social Security Administration announced that benefits would be increased by 5.9% next year, the largest increase in 20 years, but so too will FICA taxes increase accordingly.

The initial market movement on the release was perfectly logical with the dollar bouncing off its lows while Treasury yields backed up.  Given the current correlation between those two, things made sense.  However, that price action was relatively short-lived and as the morning progressed into the afternoon, the dollar started to slip along with yields.  Thus, leading up to the Minutes’ release, the situation had already turned in an unusual direction.

The Minutes explained, come November,
Or possibly late as December
The time will have come
Where QE’s full sum
Ought fade like a lingering ember

The Minutes then confirmed what many in the market had expected which was that the taper is on, and that starting in either mid-November or mid-December the Fed would be reducing its monthly asset purchases by $15 billion ($10 billion less Treasuries, $5 billion less mortgages).  This timeline will end their QE program in the middle of next year and would then open the way for the Fed to begin to raise rates if they deemed it necessary.

Oddly enough, the bond rally really took on legs after the Minutes and the dollar extended its losses.  So, while the correlation remains intact, the direction is confusing, at least to this author.  Losing the only price insensitive bond buyer while the government has so much debt to issue did not seem a recipe for higher bond prices and lower yields.  Yet here we are.  The best explanation I can offer is that investors have assessed that less QE will result in slowing growth and reduced inflationary pressures, so much so that there is the beginning of talk about a recession in the US early next year.  Alas, while I definitely understand the case for slowing growth, and have been highlighting the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow trajectory lower, there is nothing about the situation that I believe will result in lower inflation, at least not for quite a while yet.  Thus, a bond market rally continues to seem at odds with the likely future outcome.

Of course, there is one other possible explanation for this behavior.  What if, and humor me here for a moment, the Fed doesn’t actually follow through with a full tapering because equity prices start to fall sharply?  After all, I am not the only one to have noticed that the Fed’s reaction function seems to be entirely based on the level of the S&P 500.  Simply look back to the last time the Fed was trying to remove policy accommodation in 2018.  You may recall the gradual reduction in the size of their balance sheet as they allowed bonds to mature without replacing them while simultaneously, they were gradually raising the Fed funds rate.  However, by Christmas 2018, when the equity market had fallen 20% from its highs, Chairman Powell pivoted from tightening to easing policy thus driving a reversal higher in stocks.  Do you honestly believe that a man with a >$100 million portfolio is going to implement and maintain a policy that will make him poorer?  I don’t!  Hence, I remain of the belief that if they actually do start to taper, still not a given in my mind, it won’t last very long.  But for now, the bond market approves.

Thus, with visions of inflation dancing in our heads, let’s look at this morning’s market activity.  Equity markets are clearly of the opinion that everything is under control, except perhaps in China, as we saw the Nikkei (+1.5%) put in a strong performance and strength throughout most of Asia.  However, the Hang Seng (-1.4%) and Shanghai (-0.1%) were a bit less frothy.  Europe, though, is all in on good news with the DAX (+0.8%), CAC (+0.9%) and FTSE 100 (+0.7%) having very positive sessions.  This has carried over into the US futures market where all three major indices are higher by at least 0.6% this morning.

Bonds, meanwhile, are having a good day as well, with Treasury yields sliding 0.7bps after a nearly 5bp decline yesterday.  In Europe, given those markets were closed during much of the US bond rally, we are seeing a catch-up of sorts with Bunds (-3.7bps), OATs (-3.1bps) and Gilts (-1.6bps) all trading well as are the rest of Europe’s sovereign markets.

On the commodity front, pretty much everything is higher as oil (+1.25%), NatGas (+2.1%) and Uranium (+21.7%!) lead the energy space higher.  Metals, too, are climbing with gold (+0.4%), copper (+0.7%) and aluminum (+3.4%) all quite firm this morning.  Not to worry, your food is going up in price as well as all the major agricultural products are seeing price rises.

As to the dollar, it is almost universally lower this morning with only two currencies down on the day, TRY (-0.9%) and JPY (-0.15%).  The former is suffering as President Erdogan fired three more central bankers who refuse to cut interest rates as inflation soars in the country and the market concern grows that Turkey will soon be Argentina.  The yen, on the other hand, seems to be feeling the pressure from ongoing sales by Japanese investors as they seek to buy Treasury bonds with much higher yields than JGBs.  However, away from those two, the dollar is under solid pressure against G10 (SEK +0.9%, NOK +0.8%, CAD +0.55%) and EMG (THB +0.7%, IDR +0.7%, KRW +0.6%).  Broadly speaking, the story is much more about the dollar than about any of these particular currencies although commodity strength is obviously driving some of the movement as is positive news in Asia on the Covid front where some nations (Thailand, Indonesia) are easing restrictions on travel.

On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial (exp 320K) and Continuing (2.67M) Claims numbers as well as PPI (8.7%, 7.1% ex food & energy).  PPI tends to have less impact when it is released after CPI, so it seems unlikely, unless it is a big miss, to matter that much.  However, it is worth noting that Chinese PPI (10.7%) printed at its highest level since records began in 1995 while Korean import and export prices both rose to levels not seen since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.  The point is there is upward price pressure everywhere in the world and more of it is coming to a store near you.

We hear from six more Fed speakers today, but it would be quite surprising to have any change in message at this point.  To recap the message, inflation is proving a bit stickier than they originally thought but will still fade next year, they will never allow stock prices to fall, inflation expectations remain anchored and tapering will begin shortly.

While I still see more reasons for the dollar to rally than decline, I believe it will remain linked to Treasury yields, so if those decline, look for the dollar to follow and vice versa.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Prices Will Grow

As markets await CPI
It’s funny to watch the Fed try
Explaining inflation
Will lack the duration
To send expectations sky-high

But even their own surveys show
That most people already know
Inflation is here
And well past next year
The level of prices will grow

Each month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York publishes the results of a survey of consumer expectations on inflation.  Yesterday, they published the September results and, lo and behold, the data showed that 1-year inflation expectations rose to 5.31%, by far the highest point since the survey began in 2013.  The 3-year data rose to its highest ever level of 4.19%, also well above the Fed’s 2.0% target.  And yet somehow, the authors of the report explained that inflation expectations remain well anchored.  Their claim is that if you look at the 5-year expectations, they remain near the levels seen before the pandemic, indicating that there should be no concern.  I don’t know about you, but 3 years of inflation running above 4.0% seems a lot longer than transitory.

Of course, it’s not just the analysts at the NY Fed who are unwilling to admit to the increasingly obvious situation, we continue to hear the same from other officials.  For instance, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in a televised interview yesterday remarked, “I believe it’s [inflation] transitory, but I don’t mean to suggest these pressures will disappear in the next month or two.”  She then raised the specter of shortages by commenting, “There’s no reason for consumers to panic over the absence of goods they’re going to want to acquire at Christmas.”  Now, don’t you feel better?

In fairness, however, there are several Fed members who have finally admitted that the transitory emperor has no clothes.  Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic explained yesterday, “It is becoming increasingly clear that the feature of this episode that has animated price pressures – mainly the intense and widespread supply-chain disruptions – will not be brief.  By this definition, then, the forces are not transitory.”  As well, we heard from St Louis Fed President James Bullard, “I have to put some probability on a scenario where inflation stays high or even goes higher.”

At this point, it’s fair to ask, which is it?  Clearly there is a split at the Fed with some regional presidents recognizing that inflation has risen sharply and has all the appearances of being persistent, while Fed governors seem more likely to lean toward the transitory fable.  Perhaps what explains this split is the regional presidents have a far different constituency than do the Fed governors.  The Fed presidents are trying to address the issues extant in their respective geographies, so rising inflation matters to them.  Meanwhile, the governors, despite the claim that the Fed is apolitical, serve their masters in Congress and the White House, who believe they need to continue QE and ZIRP forever to continue spending money in unconscionable sums while not suffering from the slings and arrows of the bond market vigilantes.  But remember this too, every Fed governor votes at every meeting while only a handful of regional presidents vote (granted, Bostic is one of those right now.)  I fear we will continue to hear transitory for a while yet.

All this is a prelude to two key pieces of information today, this morning’s CPI release (exp 5.3% headline, 4.0% core) and the FOMC Minutes from the September meeting to be released at 2:00pm.  The one thing that has been very clear lately is that interest rate markets are beginning to buy into the persistence of inflation.  While Treasury yields have edged lower by 1.6bps this morning, in the past 3 weeks, those yields have risen 26 basis points.  And this is a global phenomenon with Bund yields, for instance, having risen 20 basis points over the same period despite a 4.1bp decline today.  Investors are starting to pressure the central bank community with respect to interest rates, driving them higher as fears of rising inflation abound worldwide.  While some, central banks have recognized the reality on the ground (Norway, New Zealand, numerous EMG nations) and others have paid lip service to the idea of raising rates (the UK, Canada), the two biggest players, the Fed and ECB, will not even discuss raising rates, although the Fed continues to tease us with talk of tapering.

However, I will ask again, do you believe the Fed will taper (tighten) policy if GDP growth is more clearly abating?  My view remains that they may actually start to taper, but that it will be a short-lived process as weak GDP growth will dissuade them from doing anything to worsen that side of the ledger.  While eventually, weaker GDP growth will result in demand destruction and reduced price pressures, that is likely to take a very long time.  Hence, the idea of stagflation remains very viable going forward.

Now it’s time to look at markets.  Equities have had a mixed session thus far with Asia (Nikkei -0.3%, Hang Seng -1.4%, Shanghai +0.4%) seeing both gainers and losers and Europe (DAX +0.7%, CAC +0.25%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) seeing similar mixed price action.  UK data showed August GDP was a tick lower than forecast and is clearly slowing from its previous pace, arguably weighing on the FTSE.  As to US futures, they are edging higher ahead of the data with gains in the 0.1%-0.3% range after yesterday’s modest declines.

We’ve already discussed bonds so a look at commodities shows that oil (-0.6%) is retreating for the moment as is NatGas (-1.5%), while we are seeing strength in gold (+0.7%) and copper (+1.7%).  In fact, the entire metals complex is stronger today as apparently, weaker energy prices are good for industrial activities.

As to the dollar, it is under some modest pressure today across the board.  In the G10, SEK (+0.35%) and CHF (+0.35%) lead the way with JPY (0.0%) the laggard.  However, there are no specific stories that seem to be driving things, rather this is a broad-based dollar correction from recent strength.  The same situation holds in the EMG bloc with ZAR (+0.75%) the leader followed by much lesser movement of KRW (+0.4%), CZK (+0.35%) and PLN (+0.35%).  The won has responded to comments from the central bank that it is closely watching the exchange rate and will not be afraid to step in if it becomes destabilized.  That is a euphemism for much weaker, as the currency had fallen nearly 9% in the previous four months.  As to the others, recent weakness seems to merely being consolidated with nothing new driving price action.

While the Fed may not care much about CPI, the rest of us do care.  And really, so do they, but it doesn’t tell their story very well.  At any rate, while it is entirely reasonable that we see a continued flatlining of price rises, the risks remain to the upside as at some point, housing inflation is going to show up in the data.  And that, my friends, is going to be significant and persistent!  Ahead of the number, don’t look for much.  If we see a high print, expect the dollar to regain this morning’s losses, though, as the market will become that much surer the taper is on its way.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Risks They Have Wrought

It’s not clear why anyone thought
The ECB ever would not
Continue to buy
More bonds as they try
To safeguard ‘gainst risks they have wrought

So, when PEPP, next March, does expire
A new plan we’ll get to admire
As Christine will ne’er
Be set to foreswear
Her drive to push bond prices higher

If ever anyone was talking their own book, it was Greek central bank president Yannis Stournaras this morning on the subject of the ECB’s potential actions post-PEPP.  “Asset purchases aim at favorable financing conditions, at smooth transition of monetary policy to prevent any kind of fragmentation in jurisdictions in the euro area.  I’m sure that the Governing Council will continue to aim at this.” [author’s emphasis] These comments were in response to a report that the ECB is considering instituting a new asset purchase program when the emergency PEPP expires in March.  This is certainly no surprise as I posited this exact outcome a month ago (Severely Distraught – Sep 7) and the idea has gained credence since then.

One of the features of the ECB’s APP (original QE program from 2015) is that they are required to purchase bonds based on the so-called capital key in order to give the illusion they are not monetizing national debt.  This means that they must buy them in proportion to the relative size of each economy.  Another feature is that the bonds they purchase must be investment grade (IG).  This rules out Greek debt which currently is rated BB-, 3 notches below IG.  The PEPP, however, given the dire emergency created by governments shutting down their economies when Covid-19 first appeared, did away with those inconveniences and was empowered to buy anything deemed necessary.  Not surprisingly, purchases of bonds from the PIGS was far above their relative economic weight which has served to narrow credit spreads across the entire continent.  If the PEPP simply expires and is not replaced, it is unambiguous that PIGS’ debt would fall sharply in price with yields rising correspondingly, and those nations would find themselves in far worse fiscal shape.  In fairness, the ECB can hardly allow that to happen to just a few nations so they will continue their PEPP purchases in some manner or other.  And I assure you they will continue to purchase Greek debt regardless of its credit rating.

It is useful to compare this future to that of the Fed, where Chairman Powell has indicated that as long as the payroll number this Friday is not a complete disaster (currently expected 500K), a reduction in the pace of QE is appropriate. On the surface, it would be quite reasonable to expect the euro to decline further given what is likely to be a divergence in relative yields.  Yesterday’s ADP Employment report (568K) was better than expected and certainly seems to be of sufficient strength to support the Chairman’s view of continued strength in the labor market.  Thus, if the Fed does begin to taper while the ECB discusses its next version of QE, I would look for the euro’s recent decline to continue.

Of course, the big question is, will the Fed continue to taper if the economic situation in the US starts to show much less impetus?  For instance, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast is estimating Q3 GDP growth at 1.333%, MUCH weaker than it had been in the past and a MUCH sharper slowdown than the Fed’s own forecasts.  While the number may well be higher than that, it does speak to a run of weaker than expected economic data in the US.  Inflation, meanwhile, shows no signs of abating soon.  The Fed looks set to find themselves in a very uncomfortable position with the following choices: tighten into slowing growth or let inflation run much hotter than targeted for much longer than anticipated.  (If I were Powell, given the trainwreck that is approaching, I don’t think I would accept the offer of reappointment should it be made!)

In sum, while the decision process in Europe is much easier with slower growth and lower inflation, extending monetary largesse still seems appropriate, in the States, some tough decisions will need to be made.  The problem is that there is not a single person in any Federal position who appears capable of making (and owning) a tough decision.  In fact, it is this lack of demonstrated decision-making prowess that leads to the idea that stagflation is the most likely outcome going forward.

But it is still a few weeks/months before these decisions will need to be made and, in the meantime, Buy Stonks!  Well, at least, that seems to be the investor mindset as fleeting fears over contagion from China Evergrande’s slow motion bankruptcy and comments from Vladimir Putin that Russia would, of course, supply the necessary NatGas for Europe, have been sufficient to remind the equity crowd that a 5% decline from an all-time high price level is an amazing opportunity to buy more stocks.  Hence, yesterday morning’s fears have abated and all is once again right with the world.

(As an aside, it strikes me that relying on a key geopolitical adversary to supply the life’s blood of your economy is a very risky strategy.  But Putin would never use this as leverage for something else, would he?  I fear it could be a very long cold winter in Europe.)

OK, with that in mind, let’s look at markets this morning.  Equity markets are green everywhere ranging from the Nikkei (+0.5%) to the Hang Seng (+3.1%) with all of Europe in between (DAX +1.2%, CAC +1.35%, FTSE 100 +1.0%) while China remains closed.  US futures are also firmer, currently pointing to a 0.75% rise on the open.

Bond markets are in pretty good shape as well.  Yesterday, after substantial early session weakness, they rebounded, and this morning are continuing on that trend.  While Treasuries are only lower by 0.2bps, in Europe we are seeing much better buying (Bunds -1.7bps, OATs -2.1bps, Gilts -1.2bps) with PIGS bonds (Italy -5.1bps, Greece -3.0bps) showing even more strength.

Commodity prices are consolidating after what has been a significant run higher with oil (-1.6%) and NatGas (-2.0%) both off highs seen yesterday morning.  Gold is unchanged on the day while copper (+1.1%) has bounced along with other base metals.  Ags, too, are a bit firmer this morning.

This positive risk attitude has seen the dollar cede some of its recent gains with AUD (+0.35%) leading the way in the G10 on the back of stronger commodity prices, followed by SEK (+0.3%) and NZD (+0.3%) both benefitting from better risk appetite as well.  Only NOK (-0.1%) is under pressure on the back of the oil price decline.  EMG currencies are universally stronger led by ZAR (+0.7%), PHP (+0.6%) and RUB (+0.5%).  ZAR is clearly benefitting from the commodity rally while PHP was higher on some positive growth comments from the central bank there.  The ruble seems to be benefitting from the view that a higher than expected CPI print there will force the central bank to raise rates more than previously anticipated.

On the data front, today brings only Initial (exp 348K) and Continuing (2762K) Claims.  Given tomorrow is payroll day, these are unlikely to move the market.  We also hear from Cleveland Fed president Mester, one of the more hawkish voices, discussing inflation, but my sense is all eyes are on tomorrow’s NFP to make sure that the taper is coming.  As such, today is likely to continue to see risk appetite with higher stock prices and a soft dollar.  But large moves seem unlikely.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Avoiding a Crash

The Chinese have taken a stand
Regarding the firm, Evergrande
They’ve added more cash
Avoiding a crash
And now feel they’ve got things in hand

So, now all eyes turn to the Fed
And tapering timing, instead
The question at hand
Is can they withstand
Slow growth while still moving ahead?

Fear was palpable on Monday as China Evergrande missed an interest payment and concerns grew that a major disruption in Chinese debt markets, with the ability to spread elsewhere, was around the corner.  Yesterday, however, investors collectively decided that the world was not, in fact, going to end, and dip buyers got to work supporting equity markets.  The buyers’ faith has been rewarded as last night, the PBOC added net CNY70 billion to the markets to help tide over financing issues.  In addition, an oddly worded statement was released that Evergrande had addressed the interest payment due tomorrow via private negotiations with bondholders.  (Critically, that doesn’t mean they paid, just that the bondholders aren’t going to sue for repayment, hence avoiding a bankruptcy filing.)  As is always the case in a situation of this nature, nothing has actually changed at Evergrande so they are still bankrupt with a massive amount of debt that they will never repay in full, but no government, whether communist or democratic, ever wants to actually deal with the problem and liquidate.  This is the enduring lesson of Lehman Brothers.

Which means…it’s Fed day!  As we all know, this afternoon at 2:00 the FOMC will release the statement with their latest views and 30 minutes later, Chairman Powell will face the press.  At this time, the topic of most interest to everyone is the timing of the Fed’s reduction in asset purchases, aka tapering.  When we last left this story (prior to the Fed’s quiet period a week and a half ago, pretty much every Fed regional president (Kashkari excluded) and a few minor governors had indicated that tapering was appropriate soon.  On the other hand, the power center, Powell, Brainerd and Williams, had said no such thing, but had admitted that the conversation had begun.

You may recall that at the August FOMC meeting, the Fed indicated that the goal of “substantial further progress” had not yet been met with regard to the maximum employment mandate, although they begrudgingly admitted that the inflation side of the coin had been achieved.  (As an aside, while there has never been an answer to the question of how long an averaging period the Fed would consider with respect to their revamped average inflation target, simple arithmetic shows that if one averages the core PCE data from May 2020 through July 2021, the result is 2.0%.  If the forecast for the August core number, to be released on October 1, is correct at 3.6%, that means that one can head back to March 2020 and still show an average of 2.0%.  And remember, core PCE is not about to collapse back down to 2.0% or lower anytime soon, so this exercise will continue to expand the averaging period.)

Current expectations are that the initial tapering will start in either November or December of this year, and certainly by January 2022.  Clearly, based on the inflation mandate, we are already behind schedule, but the problem the Fed has is that the recent growth data has been far less impressive.  The August NFP data was quite disappointing at 235K, a 500K miss to estimates.  Not only that, while the July data was strong, the June data was also a major miss, which begs the question, was July the aberration or August?  Ask yourself this, will Chairman Powell, who is up for reappointment shortly, tighten policy into an economy where employment growth is slowing?  There is every possibility that tapering is put on hold for a few more months in order to be sure that monetary stimulus withdrawal is not premature.  The fact that a decision like that will only stoke the inflationary fires further will be addressed by an even more strident statement that inflation is transitory, dammit!  My point is, it is not a slam dunk that they announce tapering today.

For a perfect example as to why this is the case, look no further than the ECB, where today we heard another ECB member, the Estonian central bank chief, explain that when the PEPP runs out in March, it would be appropriate to expand the older APP program to pick up the slack.  In other words, they will technically keep their word and let the PEPP expire, but they will not stop QE.  The Fed, ECB and BOJ have all realized that their respective economies are addicted to QE and that withdrawal symptoms will be remarkably painful, so none of them are inclined to go through that process.  Can-kicking remains these central banks’ strongest talent.

OK, to markets ahead of the Fed.  Asia was mixed as the Nikkei (-0.7%) remains under pressure, clearly unimpressed by the BOJ’s ongoing efforts which were reiterated last night after their meeting.  However, Chinese equities (Hang Seng +0.5%, Shanghai +0.4%), not surprisingly, fared better after the liquidity injection.  In Europe, it is all green as further hints that the ECB will let the PEPP lapse in name only has investors confident that monetary support is a permanent situation.  So, the DAX (+0.55%), CAC (+1.1%) and FTSE 100 (+1.2%) are all poppin’.  US futures have also gotten the message and are firmer by about 0.5% this morning.

Bond markets are ever so slightly softer with yields edging up a bit.  Treasuries have been the worst performer although yields are only higher by 1.4bps.  In Europe, Bunds are unchanged while OATs and Gilts have risen 0.5bps each.

Commodity prices, on the other hand, have performed quite well this morning with oil (WTI +1.5%) leading energy higher and base metals (Cu +2.4%, Al +1.6%, Sn +3.6%) all much firmer although gold (0.0%) is not taking part in the fun.  Ags are also firmer this morning as the commodity space is finding buyers everywhere.

The dollar is somewhat softer this morning with NOK (+0.5%) leading the G10 and the rest of the commodity bloc also strong (CAD +0.3%, AUD +0.25%, NZXD +0.25%).  The one true laggard is JPY (-0.3%) which is suffering from the lack of a need for a haven along with general malaise after the BOJ.  In the EMG space, HUF (-0.75%) is the outlier, falling after the central bank raised rates a less than expected 15 basis points after three consecutive 30 basis point hikes, and hinted that despite inflation’s rise, less hikes would be coming in the future.  Away from that, though, there is a mix of gainers and loser with the commodity bloc strong (CLP +0.45%, ZAR +0.4%, RUB +0.4%) while commodity importers are suffering (INR -0.35%, PHP -0.25%, PLN -0.2%).

Ahead of the Fed we see Existing Home Sales (exp 5.89M), but really, look for a quiet market until 2:00 and the FOMC statement.  My view is they will be less hawkish than the market seems to expect, and I think that will be a negative for the dollar, but at this point, all we can do is wait.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Far From Benign

There once was a market decline
That seemed, at the time, to consign
Investors with shares
To turn into bears
An outcome quite far from benign

But that was a long time ago
As by afternoon all the flow
Was buying the dip
Thus, proving this blip
Was not a bull market deathblow

I wonder if stock prices declining for 18 hours now counts as a correction.  What had appeared to be the beginnings of a more protracted fall in stocks turned into nothing more than a modest blip in the ongoing bull market.  Some teeth were gnashed, and some positions lightened, but by 3:15pm, it was all over with a 1.3% rebound from that time to the close.  Granted, the S&P 500 did decline 1.7% on the day, but given the substantial buying impulse seen at the end of the day, as well as the change in tone of the market narrative, it certainly feels this morning like the worst is behind us.  While China Evergrande continues to be bankrupt, the new story is that despite its large size, it is not large enough to be a real catalyst for market destruction and, anyway, the PBOC would never let things get to a point where its bankruptcy would lead to contagion elsewhere in the Chinese markets/economy.

As to the last point, be careful with your assumptions.  While this is not meant to be a prediction, consider that President Xi Jinping has spent the last year cracking down on successful firms in China as they have amassed both wealth and power, something that an autocrat of Xi’s nature cannot abide.  So, a fair question to ask is, would Xi let the Chinese economy crash in order to consolidate his power even further?  While I don’t believe he would purposely do that, I would not rule out him allowing things to unfold in a manner he sees as beneficial to his ultimate plans, thus financial distress in China could well be in our future.  And if you are Xi Jinping, the idea that Western markets would react badly to an Evergrande collapse would only be a positive.  My point is, I don’t think you can rule out other motives in this situation.

At any rate, this literally seems like ancient history at this time, with markets all in the green and the market narrative of ‘buy the dip’ proving itself once again to be the proper course of action.  Pavlov himself could not have conditioned retail investors any better than the Fed and other central banks have done over the past decade.

So, with Evergrande in the rearview mirror, the market gets to (re)turn its focus to the FOMC meeting, which begins this morning and whose outcome will be announced at 2pm tomorrow.  That means we are back to talking about tapering.  Will they, or won’t they?  And if they do, when will they start?

The market consensus is clearly that tapering is coming with about two-thirds of market economists forecasting the first reduction in asset purchases will occur in November.  While there are some differing views on how they will taper, the consensus appears to be a reduction of $10 billion of Treasuries and $5 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month until they are done.  So, eight months of reductions takes us to next June if we start in November.  Of course, this assumes that there are no interruptions, and that the Fed leadership remains intact.

First, remember, Chairman Powell’s term is up in February, and while he remains the favorite to be reappointed, it seems the most progressive wing of the Democratic party wants to see someone else, with Lael Brainerd, a current Fed governor and past Treasury Undersecretary, seen as the leading alternative.  Ms Brainerd has consistently been even more dovish than Powell, and if she were to be confirmed for the Chair, it would be easy to believe she halted any tapering at that point.  After all, if one believes in MMT, (which by all accounts Ms Brainerd embraces), why would the Fed ever stop buying Treasuries?  Again, this is not predictive, just something to keep in mind.

Second, the tapering narrative is based on the idea that economic growth coming out of the Covid recession is self-sustaining and no longer needs central bank support.  But what if the recovery is more anemic than currently forecast.  The one consistency we have seen over the course of the past months is that forecasts for economic growth in Q3 and Q4 have declined dramatically.  For instance, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast model is pointing to 3.65% currently, down from 5.3% at the beginning of the month and 7.6% just two months ago.  Shortages of certain things still abound and prices on staples like beef, pork, and poultry, continue to rise rapidly.  In short, the situation in the economy is anything but clear.

In this case, the question really becomes, will the Fed turn its attention to inflation, or will it remain focused only on unemployment?  If the inflation heat reaches too high a temperature, then it would be easy to believe tapering will occur far more rapidly.  However, if growth remains the focus, then any reason to delay tapering will be sought.  I remain in the camp that while they may initiate tapering, the Fed will be buying bonds long after June 2022.  We shall see.

A quick turn to markets shows that all is right with the world!  Stocks are almost universally higher as Asia (Hang Seng +0.5%, Shanghai +0.2%) led the beginning of the rebound although Japan (Nikkei -2.1%) was still coming to grips with yesterday’s narrative coming out of their holiday.  Europe is strongly higher this morning (DAX +1.45%, CAC +1.4%, FTSE 100 +1.15%) as fear has rapidly dissipated.  And after the worst US equity session in months, futures this morning are higher by about 0.8% across the board.

It should be no surprise that bonds are for sale this morning with yields mostly higher.   Treasury yields, which fell 6bps yesterday, have bounced slightly, up 1.7bps this morning.  European sovereigns, which saw a lesser rally yesterday have barely sold off with nothing rebounding even a full basis point.  One noteworthy outlier is Greece, whose bonds are sharply higher with 10-year yields declining 4.6bps, after Greek central bank comments that the ECB would never stop buying Greek paper.

Commodity prices are generally firmer with oil (WTI +1.2%) leading although gold (+0.2%), copper (+0.95%) and aluminum (+1.0%) are all embracing the risk rebound.

And finally, the dollar, which had rallied so sharply yesterday morning, has given back all of those gains.  NOK (+0.8%) leads the G10 charge higher with CAD (+0.5%) next in line as oil’s rebound supports both currencies.  The rest of the bloc has seen less exuberance, generally between 0.1% and 0.25%, although JPY (-0.1%) has slipped as its haven status is no longer a benefit.

EMG currencies have seen a little less dramatic movement with the leading gainer CZK (+0.3%) followed by RUB (+0.25%) with the latter benefitting from oil while the former continues to find support based on views its central bank remains hawkish enough to raise rates.  Otherwise, the gainers have been quite modest, 0.2% or less with two currencies falling on the day, ZAR (-0.2%) and PLN (-0.25%).  In both cases, it appears the concerns lie with central bank policy prospects.  However, given the modest size of the decline, it is hardly a key issue.

On the data front, this morning brings Housing Starts (exp 1550K) and Building Permits (1600K), although with the FOMC meeting in the background, neither is likely to move the needle.  And that’s really it for the day as there are no speakers.  As long as we don’t see a bombshell from Evergrande, which seems unlikely in our time zone, today feels like a quiet session with potential modest further dollar weakness.  All eyes will continue to be on tomorrow’s FOMC announcement, and, more importantly, Chairman Powell’s comments at the press conference.  Until then, slow going is likely.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Dissatisfaction

The Chinese would have us believe
Their growth targets, they will achieve
Alas, recent data
When looked at pro rata
Shows trust in their words is naïve

Meanwhile, in the UK, inflation
Is rising across that great nation
The market’s reaction
Is dissatisfaction
Thus, Gilts have seen depreciation

Just how fast is China’s GDP growing?  That is the question to be answered after last night’s data dump was distinctly worse than expected.  The big outlier was Retail Sales, which grew only 2.5% Y/Y in August, down from 8.5% in July and far below the expected 7.0% forecast.  But it was not just the Chinese consumer who slowed down their activity, IP rose only 5.3% Y/Y, again well below the July print of 6.4% and far below the forecast of 5.8%.  Even property investment was weaker than forecast, rising 10.9%, down from 12.7% in July and below the 11.3% forecast.  So, what gives?

Well, there seem to be several issues ongoing there, some of which may be temporary, like lockdowns due to the spreading delta variant of Covid, while others are likely to be with us for a longer time, notably the fallout from the bankruptcy of China Evergrande on the property market there.  The Chinese government is walking a very fine line of trying to support the economy without overstimulating those areas that tend toward speculation, notably real estate.  This is, however, extraordinarily difficult to achieve, even for a government that controls almost every lever of power domestically.  The problem is that the Chinese economy remains hugely reliant on exports (i.e. growth elsewhere in the world) in order to prosper.  So, as growth globally seems to be abating, the impact on China is profound and very likely will continue to detract from its GDP results.

Adding to the Chinese government’s difficulties is that the largest property company there, Evergrande, is bankrupt and will need to begin liquidating at least a portion of its property portfolio.  Remember, it has more than $300 billion in USD debt and the government has already said that interest and principal payments due next week will not be made.  A key concern is the prospect of contagion for other property companies in China, as well as for dollar bonds issued by other Chinese and non-US entities.  History has shown that contagion from a significant bankruptcy has the ability to spread far and wide, especially given the globalized nature of financial markets.  While we will certainly hear from Chinese officials that everything is under control, recall that the Fed assured us that the subprime crisis was under control, right before they let Lehman Brothers go under and explode the GFC on the world.  The point is, there is a very real risk that investors become wary of certain asset classes and risk overall which could easily lead to a more severe asset price correction.  This is not a prediction, merely an observation of the fact that the probability of something occurring has clearly risen.

Speaking of things rising, the other key story of the morning is inflation in the UK, which printed at 3.2%, its highest level since March 2012, and continues to trend higher.  This cannot be surprising given that inflation is rising rapidly everywhere in the world, but the difference is the BOE may have a greater ability to respond than some of its central bank counterparts, notably the Fed.  For instance, the UK debt/GDP ratio, while having risen recently to 98.8%, remains well below that of the rest of the G7, notably the Fed as the US number has risen to around 130%.  As such, markets have begun to price in actual base rate hikes by the BOE, looking for the base rate to rise to 0.50% (from 0.10% today) by the end of next year with the first hike expected in May.  While that may not seem like much overall (it is not really), it is far more than anticipated here in the US.  And remember, our CPI is running above 5.0% vs. 3.2% in the UK.

The upshot of the key stories overnight is that taking risk is becoming harder to justify for investors all over the world.  While there has certainly not yet been a defining break from the current ‘buy the dip’ mentality, fingers of instability* seem to be developing throughout financial markets globally.  The implication is that the probability of a severe correction seems to be growing, although the timing and catalyst remain completely opaque.

So, how has the most recent news impacted markets?  Based on this morning’s price action, there is clearly at least some concern growing.  For example, equity markets in Asia were all in the red (Nikkei -0.5%, Hang Seng -1.8%, Shanghai -0.2%) as the fallout of slowing Chinese growth and the China Evergrande story continue to weigh on sentiment there.  In Europe, the continent is under some pressure (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.5%) although the UK (FTSE 100 +0.1%) seems to be shaking off the higher than expected CPI readings.  As to US futures, as I type, they are currently marginally higher, about 0.2% each, but this follows on yesterday’s afternoon sell-off resulting in lower closes.  Nothing about this performance screams risk-on, although it is not entirely bad news.

The bond market seems a bit more cautious as Treasury yields have fallen further and are down 1.3bps this morning after a 4bp decline yesterday.  This is hardly the sign of speculative fever.  In Europe at this hour, yields are essentially unchanged except in Italy, where BTP yields have risen 1.6bps as concerns grow over the amount of leeway the Italian government has to continue supporting its economy.

Commodity markets show oil prices continuing to rise (WTI +1.35%) after inventory numbers continue to show drawdowns and Gulf of Mexico production remains reduced due to the recent hurricane Nicholas.  While gold prices are little changed on the day, both copper (+0.6%) and aluminum (+1.6%) are firmer on supply questions.  Certainly nothing has changed my view that the price of “stuff” is going to continue higher in step with the ongoing central bank additions of liquidity to markets and economies.

Finally, the dollar is under pressure this morning, which given the risk-off sentiment, is a bit unusual.  But against its G10 brethren, the greenback is lower across the board with NOK (+0.85%) the clear leader on the strength of oil’s rally, although we are seeing haven assets CHF (+0.4%) and JPY (+0.4%) as the next best performers.  The rest of the bloc has seen much lesser gains, but dollar weakness is clear.

The same situation obtains in the EMG markets, where the dollar is weaker against all its counterparts, although the mix of gainers is somewhat unusual.  ZAR (+0.5%) is the top performer on the back of strengthening commodity prices and it is no surprise to see RUB (+0.4%) doing well either.  But both HUF (+0.45%) and CZK (+0.4%) are near the top of the list as both have seen higher than forecast inflation readings recently and both central banks are tipped to raise rates in the next two weeks.  As such, traders are trying to get ahead of the curve there.  The rest of the bloc is also firmer, but the movement has been much less pronounced with no particular stories to note.

On the data front this morning, Empire Manufacturing (exp 17.9), IP (0.5%) and Capacity Utilization (76.4%) are on the docket, none of which are likely to change many opinions.  The Fed remains in their quiet period until the FOMC meeting next week, so we will continue to need to take our FX cues from other markets.  Right now, it appears that 10-year yields are leading the way, so if they continue to slide, look for the dollar to follow suit.

Good luck and stay safe
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*see “Ubiquity” by Mark Buchanan, a book I cannot recommend highly enough

Recalibrate

Christine said she’d recalibrate
The PEPP, but she clearly did state
No taper’s occurring
Because we’re still spurring
Inflation to reach our mandate

I felt it was important for all of us to be reminded of what tapering means, hence this definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

taper   verb

1               : to become progressively smaller toward one end
2               : to diminish gradually (emphasis added)

But perhaps there is a better source to explain Madame Lagarde’s dissembling comments yesterday; Lewis Carrol.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course, you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Apparently, Madame Lagarde was channeling Humpty Dumpty in her press conference yesterday when she said that while the ECB would be gradually reducing the rate of purchases in the PEPP program in the coming quarter, it was definitely not tapering.  One of the problems this author has with centralbankspeak is that my education taught me based on the plain meaning of the words used.  Hence, claiming that a reduced rate of purchases is not tapering is simply dishonest.  However, central bankers everywhere, led by the Fed and ECB, have come to rely on redefining terms in order to placate both of their masters, markets and governments, who frequently require opposing policies to achieve their goals.

Remember, too, what happened to Humpty Dumpty, a lesson I daresay has been lost on Powell, Lagarde and their comrades-in-arms:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

As economist Herbert Stein explained in 1986, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  Central bank balance sheets cannot grow indefinitely, at least not without other repercussions.  The most likely relief valve will be the currency, but do not be surprised if there is significant damage to all financial assets at the time investors and markets cease to accept centralbankspeak as a valid guide to the future.

Ever since the GFC, central banks around the world have been aggressively adding liquidity to economies at a far faster pace than those economies create goods and services.  For the first decade of this process, that liquidity mostly found its way into financial markets resulting in the longest bull market in history.  But lately, that liquidity has begun to seep into the real economy on the back of a massive uptick in fiscal stimulus.  The result, you may have noticed, is that financial markets have stopped rising at their previous rate, but the price of stuff you buy every day/week, has started to rise much more rapidly. It is this fact that was the genesis of the ‘transitory’ inflation story, as central banks, notably the Fed, recognize they cannot afford to be blamed for rising consumer inflation, but also cannot afford to fight inflation in the traditional manner of raising interest rates as they are terrified adjusting their current policy will result in a massive market decline.  Hence, I fear the Humpty Dumpty metaphor will wind up being very accurate.  However, he hasn’t fallen yet.

And so, Madame Lagarde did exactly what she set out to do; she was able to explain the ECB would be slowing their PEPP purchases without the market responding in a knee-jerk sell-off.  She placated the hawks on the ECB Council, and watched as Italian BTPs outperformed German bunds thus reducing pressure on the biggest potential problem in Europe.  In the end, kudos are due, at least for now.  I sure hope it lasts, but fear there is much turmoil in our future.

In the meantime, the overall market response to Lagarde has been…buy risk!  Equity markets everywhere are in the green with Asia (Nikkei +1.25%, Hang Seng +1.9%, Shanghai +0.3%) charging ahead and Europe (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) following, albeit at a bit slower rate.  US futures, after two lackluster sessions in NY, are pointing higher by 0.4% to start the day.

Of course, with risk appetites whetted, there is no need to hold havens like bonds and so prices there have fallen everywhere with corresponding rises in yields.  Treasuries (+2.9bps) are leading the way but we are seeing Europe (Bunds +1.8bps, OATs +1.9bps, Gilts +1.1bps) all under some pressure as well.  As long as risk is in the ascendancy, I expect that bond yields will continue to edge higher.

Commodity prices are also firmer this morning led by oil (+1.7%) and the entire energy complex.  But metals, too, are up, at least industrial metals with copper (+1.9%), aluminum (+1.6%) and tin (+1.2%) all much stronger and with the latter two pushing to multi-year highs.  While gold is flat on the day, and has been doing very little lately, broadly speaking, the commodity complex continues to perform well.

Finally, the dollar, not surprisingly, is under significant pressure this morning, down versus most of its G10 counterparts, notably the commodity bloc.  NZD (+0.6%), NOK (+0.45%) and AUD and CAD (+0.4%) are all looking strong today bolstered by broad dollar weakness and strong commodity price action.  On the flip side, JPY (-0.2%) is the only real decliner as haven assets are sold, although CHF is also modestly softer.  In the emerging markets, the screen is entirely green led by ZAR (+0.75%), CZK (+0.5%) and IDR (+0.35%).  Rand is clearly in thrall to commodity prices while the koruna is rallying on the back of a much higher than expected CPI print of 4.1%, which has traders looking for a central bank rate increase at the next meeting at the end of the month.  As to the rupiah, it seems this is entirely a result of the risk-on attitude in markets this morning.

On the data front, early this morning the UK released its monthly GDP print at a worse than expected 0.1%, blamed now on the increase of the delta variant.  German CPI was confirmed at 3.9% in August, and Italian IP managed to rise 0.8% in July, a bit better than expected.  Here at home we will see PPI (exp 8.2%, 6.6% ex food & energy) which will continue to challenge the transitory narrative but will not have nearly the impact of next Tuesday’s CPI release.  As well, we hear from the Cleveland Fed’s Loretta Mester this morning, but she has already explained she is ready to taper QE purchases, so unless that story changes, I don’t foresee any impact.

While the dollar is softer this morning, there is no indication it is going to decline substantially at any point in the near future.  Rather, we remain in the middle of the 1.17/1.20 trading range that has capped movement since June.  I see no reason for anything to change here and expect the week to finish in a quiet manner.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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