Said Powell, you all would be wrong,
Til progress moves further along,
On jobs and inflation
To think there’s causation
For us to change our dovish song
I challenge anyone to put forward the name of a central bank board member, from any major central bank, who is anything but dovish. Once upon a time there was a spectrum of views ranging from neo-Keynesians, who believed it was the central bank’s job to continually support economic activity to the Austrian scholars, who believed that the less central bank activity, the better. The neo-Keynesians pushed to maintain the lowest interest rates possible to encourage capital investment and by extension further economic growth. They were far less concerned with price implications and far more concerned with the employment situation. The Austrians were highly focused on price stability and believed that stable prices allowed people to have the confidence to create products and services demanded by the public, which would drive economic growth. And there was a great middle with central bankers adhering to some of those views, but willing to be pragmatic.
But that is all ancient history now as there is only one type of central banker left in the world, the uber-dove. Literally, every comment made by any central banker, whether from the Fed, the ECB, the BOJ, the BOE or anyplace else, describes the need, not only for ongoing easy money, but for massive fiscal stimulus as well. There isn’t even a lone, voice in the wilderness, arguing the other side anymore. The financialization of economies, which itself is the result of more than a decade of easy money, has resulted in an evolution of views. In essence, interest rates, per se, are not the focus, but financial conditions. And one of the key variables in every central bank measure of financial conditions is the price of the stock market indices. A higher stock market means easier money, in this model, and so leads to further growth. I fear they have the causality backwards (easy money leads to a higher stock market), but my views don’t matter. Even formerly staunch monetary hawks, notably the Bundesbankers, are all-in for more stimulus and see no reason to consider any potential negative consequences of these actions.
This was made clear once again yesterday by comments from Lagarde, Powell and Bailey, all of whom continue to explain that their respective central bank will do whatever is necessary to support the economy, and, oh by the way, more fiscal stimulus is necessary as they can’t do it all by themselves. While current central bank messaging tells us rates will remain low until at least 2023, look for that terminal date to continue to get pushed back. We have already seen this play out for the ECB, where in 2018, they tried to explain that rates would begin to normalize by the end of 2020. We all know that never happened. Now they claim when the PPE uses up its authorization in 2022, that will be enough. But it won’t. They will simply expand and extend the terms again. Here at home, we have already heard from numerous Fed speakers that if inflation were to rise to 2.5% or 3.0%, they wouldn’t be concerned. And Powell, yesterday, was clear that more fiscal stimulus was needed to help the economy, and that the Fed would be adding even more liquidity until “substantial further progress” is made toward their goals.
So, what does this mean for markets? It means that the inflation of asset price bubbles will continue, and that when looking at foreign exchange, the question will be which nation will maintain the easiest (or tightest) relative policy. The broad view remains the Fed has more firepower than any other central bank, which is a key reason so many (present company included) believe the dollar will eventually decline. But it will not be without a fight. No other country believes they can afford for their own currency to appreciate or they won’t be able to achieve their goals. Perhaps the real question is, what will be the catalyst to stop the flow of easy money? And truthfully, I cannot see one on the horizon. Traditionally, it would have been a rise in inflation, but that would be warmly welcomed by the current central bank heads, so there is really nothing left.
But perhaps, we are seeing a bit of fatigue on investors’ parts, as the trend higher in asset prices seems to have stalled for a time. Certainly, there has been no decline of note, but it is not racing up like it had previously. Does this mean the end is near? I doubt it. But remember this, when the last black swan appeared, Covid, central banks, notably the Fed, had some monetary policy room to adjust rates and try to address the problem. When that next rare black avian appears, with rates already at zero or negative throughout the G10, what do they do next?
And on that cheery thought, let’s take a quick tour of what has been a pretty dull overnight session, where the Lunar New Year has begun to be celebrated. In Asia, only the Hang Seng (+0.45%) was open with Japan closed for Coming of Age day, and Shanghai celebrating New Year’s. PS, the Chinese celebration lasts for a full week. In Europe, stocks started off mixed, but have edged higher over the past few hours with the DAX (+0.6%) leading the way followed by the FTSE 100 (+0.1%) and finally the CAC essentially unchanged on the day. US futures markets are all higher, led by the NASDAQ (+0.5%) with the other two key indices up around 0.3%.
Bond markets, despite the growing positivity in stocks, are pretty healthy today as well. Perhaps the never-ending promises by central bankers to continue to buy bonds is helping. So, while Treasury yields are essentially unchanged, in Europe, Bunds, OATs and Gilts have all seen yields decline by about 2.3 basis points, and that price action is consistent across the smaller markets as well.
Oil (-0.7%) is lower today for a true change of pace, as it has rallied for the previous eight consecutive sessions. Arguably, this is simply a trading pause, as there is no news of note that would drive the market. Meanwhile, gold is unchanged on the day, although there is strength in the base metals space while ags remain mixed.
As to the dollar, it is under very modest pressure this morning, with AUD (+0.35%) the leading gainer in the G10 after mildly positive comments from the Treasury Secretary there. But away from this, no other currency has moved even 0.2%, indicating there is nothing happening. In the emerging markets, LATAM currencies are the leaders (CLP +0.8%, BRL +0.6%, MXN +0.5%) although don’t count out ZAR (+0.75%) either. The ZAR story is a response to much better than expected mining production data while CLP has seen investor inflows into the bond market increase and Brazil is benefitting from a bill just passed granting autonomy to the central bank. Be careful on MXN, as Banxico meets today and is expected to cut interest rates again, with a 25bp cut priced into the market, but some looking for more.
On the data front, yesterday’s CPI data was a bit softer than forecast, but didn’t seem to have much impact on the markets, although the dollar did edge lower after the release. This morning, Initial Claims (exp 760K) and Continuing Claims (4.42M) are all we get and there are no Fed speakers slated. So, on this snowy day in the northeast, I would look for the dollar to remain rangebound as it seeks its next catalyst. To my eyes, the correction appears to be over, but we will need something else to get the dollar selling bandwagon rolling again.
Good luck and stay safe