Nothing to Fear

There is an old banker named Jay
Who, later, this St Patrick’s Day
Will tell us that rates
Right here in the States
Won’t change ‘til the jobless get pay

Inflation is nothing to fear
As there’s no sign it will appear
But should it arise
More tools he’ll devise
To kill it by end of this year

Welcome to Fed day folks, with the eyes of all market participants anxiously awaiting the stilted prose that is presented every six weeks.  At this point, there is no concern that the Fed is going to actually change policy as it stands, rather the anticipation is all about what they imply about the future path of activity.

Generally, the Fed statement will start off discussing the nature of the economy and their subjective assessment before going on to describe the actions they are taking.  As this is a quarter-end meeting, their team of PhD’s will have produced new economic forecasts, which based on the recently passed stimulus bill, as well as the recent trend of improving economic activity, is likely to highlight real GDP growth in 2021 of at least 5.0%.  There are many calls on the Street for growth rates topping 7% this year, so 5% would hardly be seen as aggressive.  In addition, while the Fed is acutely aware that inflation numbers are going to rise in the near-term, as the base effects of last year’s Covid inspired economic disaster will now form the comparison, we have consistently heard that any inflation will be transitory and so is of no concern at this time.

The question is, how will they justify continued ZIRP and QE with GDP growth of 5% or more?  And, the answer is that Chair Powell will simply focus on the unemployment situation and once again explain that until those 10 million jobs that were lost to Covid are regained, the Fed will be striving to achieve maximum employment.  It is doubtful there will be any mention of rising yields in the statement, but you can be sure that the first question in the press conference will take up the subject, as will a number of others.

The other thing we get at this quarter-end meeting is the latest dot plot, which is a compilation of each of the FOMC members’ views of where interest rates will be over the next 3 years as well as in the ‘long run’.  The median outcome for each year has become the key statistic and last time it showed that rates were not expected to rise until after 2023, although the longer term view was that 2.5% was likely over time.  However, currently the market is pricing a 0.25% rate hike by December 2022 and two more in 2023 which is far more than the Fed had indicated.  Of great interest to all will be whether this view is changing at the Fed, and some tightening is expected prior to 2023.  Certainly, the bond market is pushing that narrative, with yields continuing to press higher (10-year treasuries are +3bps this morning and, at 1.65%, trading at a new high for the move.)

Remember, too, that prior to the Fed’s quiet period, when the bond market was selling off and yields rising, Powell and friends showed insouciance over the issue, declaring it a vote of confidence in the economy.  At least two weeks ago, there was little concern over rising yields and how they might impact the Fed’s efforts to stimulate further job growth.  Is that still the case?  Since Powell last spoke, the 10-year yield has risen another 9 basis points and shows no signs, whatsoever, of stopping soon.

So, there you have it, the Fed needs to walk that fine line of explaining things are getting better but there is no reason for them to stop providing stimulus.  History has shown that the market reaction comes from the press conference, not the statement, as the nuance of some comment or answer to a question can easily be misinterpreted by market players, and more importantly these days, by algorithms.  FWIW, I anticipate that Powell will continue to slough off any concerns about rising yields and a steepening yield curve and remain entirely focused on the front end.  While I expect several more ‘dots’ to highlight a rise in rates, it would truly be shocking if the median changed.  And in the end, if the Fed looks comfortable with rising yields, they will continue to rise, and with them, I would look for the dollar to follow.

Ahead of the news, markets have been in a holding pattern.  In Asia, the major equity markets were essentially unchanged overnight, with no movement of even 0.05%.  European bourses are generally ever so slightly softer this morning (CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.3%) although the DAX (+0.1%) has managed to eke out a gain so far.  As to US futures, they too are mixed, with NASDAQ futures (-0.5%) amongst the worst performing of all markets today, although the other two main indices are little changed.

Not only are Treasury yields higher, but we are seeing that price action throughout Europe, with Bunds (+1.9bps), OATs (+2.0bps) and Gilts (+3.3bps) all following the Treasury market.  Either inflation concerns are starting to pick up, or belief in a rebound is starting to pick up, although given the continuation of lockdowns in Europe, and their recent extensions, the latter seems like a harder story to swallow.

Commodity prices are softer pretty much across the board, with oil (-1.15%) leading the way, although weakness in both the base and precious metals is evident as well as in the agricultural space.  And lastly, the dollar is beginning to edge higher as I type, although not by any significant amounts.  In the G10 space, AUD (-0.35%), SEK (-0.3%) and CHF (-0.3%) are the leading decliners although one would be hard pressed to find a fundamental rationale for the movement.  With all eyes on the Fed, essentially all movement so far has been position adjustments amid much lighter than normal trading activity.

In the Emerging markets, RUB (-1.25%) is the weakest of the bunch after a surprising comment by President Biden hit the tape, “Biden says he thinks Putin is a killer.”  Them’s fightin’ words, and it would not be surprising to see an escalation of a war of words going forward, although it is not clear this would impact any currency other than the ruble.  Beyond that, MXN (-0.5%) is the next worst performer, arguably following oil as well as the growing concerns that rising inflation in emerging markets is going to force policy tightening and slowing growth.  This evening, the Banco do Brazil will be announcing their policy with the market anticipating a 0.50% rate hike, the first of many as inflation there continues to run higher than target.  This is being seen as a harbinger of other central bank actions, where they will be forced to fight inflation at the expense of economic activity, and that typically is negative for a currency at the beginning of the battle.

On the data front, today brings Housing Starts (exp 1560K) and Building Permits (1750K) ahead of the FOMC decision this afternoon.  While those numbers are a bit softer than last month, the longer-term trend remains firmly upward.  And then it’s the Fed and Mr Powell’s comments that will drive everything.  Ahead of the Fed, I anticipate limited movement overall, but my expectations are that Powell will continue to ignore rising yields and focus strictly on the front end of the curve as well as the unemployment situation.  If the stories about Secretary Yellen being unconcerned about rising yields are correct, and they are quite believable, then look for the curve to steepen further, and the dollar to test key resistance levels against most of its counterparts.

Good luck and stay safe

Risk is in Doubt

The chatter before the Fed met
Was Powell and friends were all set
To ease even more
Until they restore
Inflation to lessen the debt

And while Jay attempted just that
His efforts have seemed to fall flat
Now risk is in doubt
As traders clear out
Positions from stocks to Thai baht

Well, the Fed meeting is now history and in what cannot be very surprising, the Chairman found out that once you have established a stance of maximum policy ease, it is very difficult to sound even more dovish.  So, yes, the Fed promised to maintain current policy “…until labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment and inflation has risen to 2 percent and is on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”  And if you really parse those words compared to the previous statement’s “…maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals”, you could make the case it is more dovish.  But the one thing at which market participants are not very good is splitting hairs.  And I would argue that is what you are doing here.  Between the old statement and Powell’s Jackson Hole speech, everybody already knew the Fed was not going to raise rates for a very long time.  Yesterday was merely confirmation.

In fact, ironically, I think the fact that there were two dissents on the vote, Kaplan and Kashkari, made things worse.  The reason is that both of them sought even easier policy and so as dovish as one might believe the new statement sounds, clearly some members felt it could be even more dovish than that.  At the same time, the dot plot added virtually nothing to the discussion as the vast majority believe that through 2023 the policy rate will remain pegged between 0.00%-0.25% where it is now.  Also, while generating inflation remains the animating force of the committee, according to the Summary of Economic Projections released yesterday, even their own members don’t believe that core PCE will ever rise above 2.0% and not even touch that level until 2023.

Add it all up and it seems pretty clear that the Fed is out of bullets, at least as currently configured with respect to their Congressional mandate and restrictions.  It will require Congress to amend the Federal Reserve Act and allow them to purchase equities in order to truly change the playing field and there is no evidence that anything of that nature is in the cards.  A look at the history of the effectiveness of QE and either zero or negative interest rates shows that neither one does much for the economy, although both do support asset markets.  Given those are the only tools the Fed has, and they are both already in full use (and not just at the Fed, but everywhere in the G10), it is abundantly clear why central bankers worldwide are willing to sacrifice their independence in order to cajole governments to apply further fiscal stimulus.  Central banks seem to have reached the limit of their capabilities to address the real economy.  And if (when) things turn back down, they are going to shoulder as much blame as elected officials can give with respect to who is responsible for the bad news.

With that as background, let’s take a peek at how markets have responded to the news.  Net-net, it hasn’t been pretty.  Equity markets are in the red worldwide with losses overnight (Nikkei -0.7%, Hang Seng -1.6%, Shanghai -0.4%) and in Europe (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.8%, FTSE 100 -1.0%).  US futures are pointing lower after equity markets in the US ceded all their gains after the FOMC and closed lower yesterday.  At this time, all three futures indices are lower by about 1.0%.

Meanwhile, bond markets, which if you recall have not been tracking the equity market risk sentiment very closely over the past several weeks, are edging higher, at least in those markets truly seen as havens.  So, Treasury yields are lower by 2bps, while German bunds and French OATS are both seeing yields edge lower, but by less than one basis point.  However, the rest of the European government bond market is under modest pressure, with the PIGS seeing their bonds sell off and yields rising between one and two basis points.  Of course, as long as the ECB continues to buy bonds via the PEPP, none of these are likely to fall that far in price, thus yields there are certainly capped for the time being.  I mean even Greek 10-year yields are 1.06%!  This from a country that has defaulted six times in the modern era, the most recent being less than ten years ago.

Finally, if we look to the FX markets, it can be no surprise to see the dollar has begun to reverse some of its recent losses.  Remember, the meme here has been that the Fed would be the easiest of all central banks with respect to monetary policy and so the dollar had much further to fall.  Combine that with the long-term theme of macroeconomic concerns over the US twin deficits (budget and current account) and short dollars was the most popular position in the market for the past three to four months.  Thus, yesterday’s FOMC outcome, where it has become increasingly clear that the Fed has little else to do in the way of policy ease, means that other nations now have an opportunity to ease further at the margin, changing the relationship and ultimately watching their currency weaken versus the dollar.  Remember, too, that essentially no country is comfortable with a strong currency at this point, as stoking inflation and driving export growth are the top two goals around the world.  The dollar’s rebound has only just begun.

Specifically, in the G10, we see NOK (-0.5%) as the laggard this morning, as it responds not just to the dollar’s strength today, but also to the stalling oil prices, whose recent rally has been cut short.  As to the rest of the bloc, losses are generally between 0.15%-0.25% with no specific stories to drive anything.  The exception is JPY (+0.2%) which is performing its role as a haven asset today.  While this is a slow start, do not be surprised to see the dollar start to gain momentum as technical indicators give way.

Emerging market currencies are also under pressure this morning led by MXN (-0.7%) and ZAR (-0.6%).  If you recall, these have been two of the best performing currencies over the past month, with significant long positions in each driving gains of 5.3% and 7.1% respectively.  As such, it can be no surprise that they are the first positions being unwound in this process.  But throughout this bloc, we are seeing weakness across the board with average declines on the order of 0.3%-0.4%.  Again, given the overall risk framework, there is no need for specific stories to drive things.

On the data front, yesterday’s Retail Sales data was a bit softer than expected, although was generally overlooked ahead of the FOMC.  This morning saw Eurozone CPI print at -0.2%, 0.4% core, both still miles below their target, and highlighting that we can expect further action from the ECB.  At home, we are awaiting Initial Claims (exp 850K), Continuing Claims (13.0M), Housing Starts (1483K), Building Permits (1512K) and the Philly Fed index (15.0).

Back on the policy front, the BOE announced no change in policy at all, leaving the base rate at 0.10% and not expanding their asset purchase program.  However, in their effort to ease further they did two things, explicitly said they won’t tighten until there is significant progress on the inflation goal, but more importantly, said that they will “engage with regulators on how to implement negative rates.”  This is a huge change, and, not surprisingly the market sees it as another central bank easing further than the Fed.  The pound has fallen sharply on the news, down 0.6% and likely has further to go.  Last night the BOJ left policy on hold, as they too are out of ammunition.  The fear animating that group is that risk appetite wanes and haven demand drives the yen much higher, something which they can ill afford and yet something which they are essentially powerless to prevent.  But not today.  Today, look for a modest continuation of the dollar’s gains as more positions get unwound.

Good luck and stay safe