Doves Are in Flight

Our central bank’s doves are in flight
As this week the Fed will rewrite
Their previous view
That one hike or two
Was needed to make things alright

Instead as growth everywhere slows
More policy ease they’ll propose
Perhaps not QE
But all will agree
The balance sheet’s size reached its lows

If you were to throw a dart at a map of the world, whichever country you hit would almost certainly be in the midst of easing monetary policy (assuming of course you didn’t hit the ocean.) It is virtually unanimous now that the next move in interest rates is going to be lower. In fact, there are only two nations that are poised to go the other way, Norway and Hong Kong. The former because growth there continues to motor along and, uniquely in the world, inflation is above their target range, most recently printing at 2.6%. The latter is actually under a different kind of pressure, draining liquidity from its economy as there has been a huge inflow of funds driving rates down and pressuring the HKD to the bottom of its band. But aside from those two, its easy money everywhere. Last week the ECB surprised the market by announcing the implementation of a new round of TLTRO’s, rather than just talking about the idea. That was a much faster move than the market had anticipated.

This week it is the Feds turn, where new forecasts and a new dot plot are due. It is widely assumed that economic forecasts will be marked lower given the slowing data picture that has emerged in the US, with the most notable data point being the 20K rise in NFP last month, well below the 180K expected. As such, and given the change in rhetoric since the last dot plot was revealed in December, it is now assumed that the median expectation for FOMC members will be either zero or one rate hikes this year, down from two to three. My money is on zero, with only a few of the hawks (Mester and George) likely to still see even one rate hike in the future.

To me, however, the market surprise will come with regard to the balance sheet reduction that has been ongoing for the past two years. What was “paint drying” in October, and “on autopilot” in December is going to end by June! Mark my words. It is already clear that the Fed wants to stop tightening policy, and despite the claims that the slow shrinkage of the balance sheet would have a limited impact, it is also clear that the impact of reducing reserves has been more than limited. In a similar vein to the ECB acting instead of talking about TLTRO’s last week, look for the Fed to stop the shrinkage by June. There is no right answer to the question, how large should the Fed’s balance sheet be? Instead, it is always seen as a range. However, given the current desire to stop the tightening, why would they wait any longer? If I’m wrong it is because they could simply stop at the end of this month and be done with it, but that might send a panicky message, so June probably fits the bill a bit better.

This is going to hit the market in a very predictable way; a weaker dollar, stronger stocks and stronger bonds. The stock story is easy, as less tightening will continue to be perceived as a boon to earnings and eventually to the economy. Funnily enough, the message to the bond market is likely to be quite different. With 10-year yields already below 2.60% (2.58% this morning), news that the Fed is more concerned about growth is likely to drive inflows, and maybe even help the curve invert. Remember, short end rates are already 2.50%, so it won’t take much to get to an inversion. As to the dollar, while everybody is in easing mode, the new information that the Fed is taking another step will be read as quite dovish and force more long dollar positions to be covered. In the end, I maintain that the situation in the Eurozone remains worse than that in the US, but the timing of announcements and perception of surprise is going to drive the short-term price activity.

Elsewhere in markets, while the China trade talks remain a background story for now, Brexit is edging ever closer. There is still no clear outcome there, although PM May is apparently going to try to get her deal through Parliament again this week. You have to admire her tenacity, if not her success. But here’s an interesting tidbit that hasn’t been widely reported: the vote last week by Parliament to prevent a no-deal Brexit wasn’t binding! In other words, absent an agreed delay by the rest of the EU, Brexit is still going to happen at the end of the month, deal or no deal. Again, my point is that the probability of a no-deal Brexit remains distinctly non-zero, and the idea that the pound has reflected Brexit risk at its current level of 1.32 is laughable. If they can’t figure it out, the pound will go a LOT lower.

Of course, today, there is virtually nothing going on in the FX markets, with G10 currencies all within 0.1% of their closing levels on Friday. Even the EMG bloc has seen limited movement with the Indian rupee the only currency to have moved more than 0.5% all day. The rupee’s strength has been evident over the past three weeks as recent fiscal stimulus has attracted significant investment inflows. But beyond that, nothing.

Away from the Fed, this week is extremely quiet on the data front as well:

Tuesday Factory Orders 0.3%
Wednesday FOMC Interest Rate 2.50%
Thursday Initial Claims 225K
  Philly Fed 4.5
Friday Existing Home Sales 5.10M

And that’s it. After the Fed meeting, there is only one speech scheduled, Raphael Bostic on Friday, but given that Powell will be all over the air on Wednesday, it is unlikely to matter much. So this week shapes up as a waiting game, nothing until the FOMC on Wednesday, and then react to whatever they do. Look for quiet FX markets until then.

Good luck
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Doves Will Despise

Come two o’clock later today
The Fed will attempt to convey
How high rates may rise
Though doves will despise
The idea that more’s on the way

Ahead of the conclusion of the FOMC meeting today, very little has happened in the FX markets, and in fact, in most markets. At this point, given the fact that the Fed remains one of the key drivers to global monetary policy, and the still significant concern that the ongoing divergence in Fed policy with that of the rest of the world can have negative consequences, pretty much every investor is awaiting the Fed statement and Chairman Powell’s press conference. It is a foregone conclusion that they will raise the Fed Funds rate by 25bps to 2.00% – 2.25%.

So the big question is just what the dot plot will look like, especially since today is the first time we will see their 2021 forecasts. Economists and analysts have slowly accepted that the Chairman is on a mission here, and that rates are going to continue to rise by 25bps every quarter at least through June 2019. That would put Fed Funds at 2.75% – 3.00%, a level that is currently seen as ‘neutral’. But what is still uncertain is how the Fed itself expects the economy to evolve beyond the end of the previous forecast period. Any indication that their models point to faster growth would be quite surprising and have a market impact. In fact, the most recent Fed forecasts have been for the economy to peak soon and begin to slow back to a 2.0% GDP growth rate by 2020. It is changes in this trajectory that will be of the most interest. That and Chairman Powell’s comments and answers at the press conference. But at this point, all we can do is wait.

Looking around the rest of the world, we see that central banks everywhere continue to have their policy dictated by the Fed. Two examples are Indonesia and the Philippines, both of whom are expected to raise rates this week (Indonesia by 25bps, Philippines by 50bps) as both of these nations continue to run current account deficits and have seen their currencies erode in value faster than any of their Asian peers other than India. The nature of these two countries, which is quite common in the emerging market sphere, is that currency weakness passes through quickly to higher inflation, and so the dollar strength that we have seen since the beginning of Q2 has already had a significant impact. It is this issue that has prompted a number of emerging market central bankers to caution Chairman Powell of the negative consequences of the current Fed policy trajectory. However, Powell has dismissed these out of hand and the Fed continues on its course.

The other notable movement in the EMG bloc was in Argentina, where the central bank president resigned after just three months on the job. Luis Caputo was both liked and respected by markets and the FX market responded by pushing the peso lower by 2.5% on the news. Of course, in the broad scheme of things, this is not very much compared to the currency’s 50% decline this year.

Pivoting to the G10, FX movement has been modest overall, with the biggest movers AUD and NZD, both of which seem to be benefitting from the recent revival in commodity prices. There has been no new Brexit news and so the pound remains relatively unscathed. Meanwhile, after Monday’s excitement in the euro following Signor Draghi’s “relatively vigorous” comments, it seems that ECB member Peter Prâet was trotted out to explain that there was no change in the committee’s view and that rates would not be rising until much later next year. Ultimately, however, the euro is essentially unchanged on the day, with the market having drawn that conclusion shortly after the comments were made.

Yesterday’s US data showed that Consumer Confidence was approaching all time highs but House prices seemed to display some weakness. This is the perfect mix for the Fed, lessening price pressures along with optimism on economic growth. I assure you this will not deter the Fed from continuing on its path. Before the FOMC meeting ends this afternoon, New Home Sales data will print, expected to be 630K, which looks right about in line with the longer term trend, albeit showing some softness from the situation earlier this year.

I see no reason to expect that the market will move significantly before the FOMC, and of course, can only watch with the rest of the market to see what actually comes from the meeting as well as what the Chairman says. Until then, look for a quiet session.

Good luck
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Money More Dear

Next week, though it’s certainly clear
The Fed will price money more dear
The dollar’s incurred
Some selling and spurred
More weakness than seen since last year

The dollar remains under pressure this morning with a number of stories having a separate, but a cumulative impact on the buck. For example, overnight we learned that New Zealand’s GDP grew 1.0% in Q2, higher than the expected 0.7% outcome, and sufficient to get investors and traders to consider that the RBNZ, which just last month promised to maintain record low interest rates until at least 2020, may wind up raising rates sooner than that. A surprise of this nature usually leads to currency strength and so it is this morning with NZD higher by 0.8%.

Or consider the UK, where Retail Sales data surprised one and all by rising 0.3% in August (3.3% Y/Y), a much better performance than expected. This was enough to overcome the ongoing Brexit malaise and drive the pound higher by 0.7% and back to its highest level in two months. In truth, this is somewhat surprising given the quite disappointing outcome from the EU meeting Wednesday night in Brussels. Rather than more positive remarks about the viability of a deal being completed, we heard more of the hard-core negativity from the French and Irish, basically saying if the UK doesn’t cave, then there will be no deal. This is certainly not a welcome outcome, especially since there are only 190 days until Brexit will occur, deal or no. Meanwhile, PM May continues to fight a rearguard action against the avid pro-Brexiters in her party in order to retain her position.

Logically, I look at the situation and believe there is no real chance of a satisfactory deal being agreed on time. Frankly, the Irish border issue is intractable in my view. But given that this is entirely about politics, and the Europeans and British are both famous for kicking the can down the road, I suspect that something along the lines of a pure fudge, with neither side agreeing anything, will be achieved in order to prevent a complete disaster. However, there is a very real probability that the UK will simply leave the EU with no deal of any sort, and if that is the case, the initial market reaction will be for a sharp sell-off in the pound.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the little Eurozone data released was on the soft side, the euro has managed to continue its recent rally and is higher by 0.4% as I type. This seems more of a piece with the general dollar weakness that we have witnessed the past two sessions than anything else.

Another potential conundrum is US interest rates, where 10-year Treasury yields jumped to 3.08% yesterday, their highest level since early May, and now gathering momentum for the breakout that many pundits have been expecting for a while. Remember, short Treasury futures are one of the largest positions in the market. This thought process has been led by two concurrent features; the Fed continues to raise short term rates while the Treasury, due to increased fiscal policy stimulus and a growing budget deficit, will be forced to increase the amount of debt issued. When this is wrapped up with the fact that the Fed is reducing the size of its balance sheet, thus removing the one true price-insensitive bid from the market, it seemed a recipe for much higher 10-year yields. The fact that we remain at 3.08% nine months into the year is quite surprising, at least to me. But it is entirely possible that we see a much more aggressive sell-off in Treasuries going forward, especially if the Fed tweaks their message next week to one that is more hawkish.

In this context, let me give a concrete example of just how important the central bank message really is. This morning, Norgesbank raised interest rates in Norway by 25bps, as was universally expected. This was the first time in 7 years they raised rates, and are doing so because the economy there is expanding rapidly while inflation moves closer to their target. But in their policy discussion, they reduced the forecast pace of future interest rate hikes, surprising everyone, and the result was a sharp decline in NOK. Versus the euro it fell more than 1%, which translated into a 0.7% decline vs. the dollar. The point is the market is highly focused on the policy statements as well as the actual moves.

This is equally true, if not more so, with regard to the Fed. Current expectations are that the Fed will raise rates 25bps next week and another 25bps in December. Where things get cloudier is what next year will look like, and how fast they will continue to tighten policy. It is for this reason that next week’s meeting is so widely anticipated, because the Fed will release its updated dot plot, the effective forecasts of each Fed member as to where Fed funds will be at various points in the future. If the dot plot implies higher rates than the last iteration in June, you can expect the dollar to benefit from the outcome. Any implication of a slower pace of rate hikes will certainly undermine the dollar.

In the end, the mixture of new information has been sufficient to push the dollar lower by 0.3% when looking at the broad dollar index. Interestingly, despite its recent weakness, it remains within the trading range that has defined its movement since it stopped appreciating in April. Frankly, I expect this range trading to continue unless the Fed significantly changes its tune.

This morning brings a bit more data with Initial Claims (exp 210K) and Philly Fed (17.0) due at 8:30 while Existing Home Sales (5.35M) are released at 10:00. Yesterday’s housing data was mixed with New Home Sales rising more than expected, but Building Permits plunging. And remember that both of those data points tend to have a great deal of volatility. With that in mind, looking at the longer term trend shows that while Housing Starts seem to be rebounding from a bad spot, the trend in Permits is clearly downward, which doesn’t speak well for the housing market in the medium term.

In the end, as I wrote yesterday, continued modest dollar weakness seems the most likely outcome for now, but I suspect that we are coming to the end of this soft patch, and that the dollar will find its legs soon. I remain confused as to why there is so much bullishness attached to the Eurozone economy given the data continues to underperform. And there is no indication that the ECB is going to suddenly turn truly hawkish. Current levels strike me as attractive for dollar buyers.

Good luck
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