FOMC Tryst

While problems in China persist
And risk is still on the blacklist
More talk is now turning
To Powell concerning
Tomorrow’s FOMC tryst

The coronavirus remains the primary topic of conversation amongst the economic and financial community as analysts and pundits everywhere are trying to estimate how large the impact of this spreading disease will be on economic output and growth. The statistics on the ground continue to worsen with more than 100 confirmed deaths from a population of over 4500 confirmed cases. I fear these numbers will get much worse before they plateau. And while I know that science and technology are remarkable these days, the idea that a treatment can be found in a matter of weeks seems extremely improbable. Ultimately, this is going to run its course before there is any medication available to address the virus. It is this last idea which highlights the importance of China’s actions to prevent travel in the population thus reducing the probability of spreading. Unfortunately, the fact that some 5 million people left the epicenter in the past weeks, before the problem became clear, is going to make it extremely difficult to really stop its spread. Today’s news highlights how Hong Kong and Macau are closing their borders with China, and that there are now confirmed cases in France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the US as well as many Asian nations.

With this ongoing, it is no surprise that risk appetite, in general, remains limited. So the Asian stock markets that were open last night, Nikkei (-0.6%), KOSPI (-3.1%), ASX 200 (-1.35%) all suffered. However, European markets, having sold off sharply yesterday, have found some short term stability with the DAX unchanged, CAC +0.15% and FTSE 100 +0.2%. As to US futures, they are pointing higher at this hour, looking at 0.2%ish gains across the three main indices.

Of more interest is the ongoing rush into Treasury bonds with the 10-year yield now down to 1.57%, a further 3bp decline after yesterday’s 7bp decline. In fact, since the beginning of the year, the US 10-year yield has declined by nearly 40bps. That is hardly the sign of strong growth in the underlying economy. Rather, it has forced many analysts to continue to look under the rocks to determine what is wrong in the economy. It is also a key feature in the equity market rally that we have seen year-to-date, as lower yields continue to be seen as a driver of the TINA mentality.

But as I alluded to in my opening, tomorrow’s FOMC meeting is beginning to garner a great deal of attention. The first thing to note is that the futures market is now pricing in a full 25bp rate cut by September, in from November earlier this month, with the rationale seeming to be the slowing growth as a result of the coronavirus’s spread will require further monetary stimulus. But what really has tongues wagging is the comments that may come out regarding the Fed’s review of policy and how they may adjust their policy toolkit going forward in a world of permanently lower interest rates and inflation.

One interesting hint is that seven of the seventeen FOMC members have forecast higher than target inflation in two years’ time, with even the most hawkish member, Loretta Mester, admitting that her concerns over incipient inflation on the back of a tight labor market may have been misplaced, and that she is willing to let things run hotter for longer. If Mester has turned dovish, the end is nigh! The other topic that is likely to continue to get a lot of press is the balance sheet, as the Fed continues to insist that purchasing $60 billion / month of T-bills and expanding the balance sheet is not QE. The problem they have is that whatever they want to call it, the market writ large considers balance sheet expansion to be QE. This is evident in the virtual direct relationship between the growth in the size of the balance sheet and the rally in the equity markets, as well as the fact that the Fed feels compelled to keep explaining that it is not QE. (For my money, it is having the exact same impact as QE, therefore it is QE.) In the end, we will learn more tomorrow afternoon at the press conference.

Turning to the FX markets this morning, the dollar continues to be the top overall performer, albeit with today’s movement not quite as substantial as what we saw yesterday. The pound is the weakest currency in the G10 space after CBI Retailing Reported Sales disappointed with a zero reading and reignited discussion as to whether Governor Carney will cut rates at his last meeting on Thursday. My view remains that they stay on the sidelines as aside from this data point, the recent numbers have been pretty positive, and given the current level of the base rate at 0.75%, the BOE just doesn’t have much room to move. But that was actually the only piece of data we saw overnight.

Beyond the pound, the rest of the G10 is very little changed vs. the dollar overnight. In the EMG bloc, we saw some weakness in APAC currencies last night with both KRW and MYR falling 0.5%, completely in sync with the equity weakness in the region. On the positive side this morning, both CLP and RUB have rallied 0.5%, with the latter benefitting on expectations Retail Sales there rose while the Chilean peso appears to be seeing some profit taking after a gap weakening yesterday morning.

Yesterday’s New Home Sales data was disappointing, falling back below 700K despite falling mortgage rates. This morning we see Durable Goods (exp 0.4%, -ex Transport 0.3%), Case Shiller Home Prices (2.40%) and Consumer Confidence (128.0). At this stage of the economic cycle, I think the confidence number will have more to tell us than Durable Goods. Remarkably, Confidence remains quite close to the all-time highs seen during the tech bubble. But it bodes well for the idea that any slowdown in growth in the US economy is likely to be muted. In the end, while the US economy continues to motor along reasonably well, nothing has changed my view that not-QE is going to undermine the value of the dollar as the year progresses.

Good luck
Adf

Truly a Curse

In China, it’s gotten much worse
This virus that’s truly a curse
How fast will it spread?
And how many dead?
Ere treatment helps it to disperse.

Despite the fact that we have two important central bank meetings this week, the Fed and the BOE, the market is focused on one thing only, 2019-nCoV, aka the coronavirus. The weekend saw the number of confirmed infections rise to more than 2800, with 81 deaths as of this moment. In the US, there are 5 confirmed cases, but the key concern is the news that prior to the city of Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) #fom locked down, more than 5 million people left town at the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday. While I am not an epidemiologist, I feel confident in saying that this will seem worse before things finally settle down.

And it’s important to remember that the reason the markets are responding has nothing to do with the human tragedy, per se, but rather that the economic impact has the potential to be quite significant. At this point, risk is decidedly off with every haven asset well bid (JPY +0.35%, 10-year Treasury yields -7bps, gold +0.8%) while risk assets have been quickly repriced lower (Nikkei -2.0%, DAX -2.0%, CAC -2.1%, FTSE 100 -2.1%, DJIA futures -1.4%, SPX futures -1.4%, WTI -3.0%).

Economists and analysts are feverishly trying to model the size of the impact to economic activity. However, that is a Sisyphean task at this point given the combination of the recency of the onset of the disease as well as the timing, at the very beginning of the Lunar New year, one of the most active commercial times in China. The Chinese government has extended the holiday to February 2nd (it had been slated to end on January 30th), and they are advising businesses in China not to reopen until February 9th. And remember, China was struggling to overcome a serious slowdown before all this happened.

It should be no surprise that one of the worst performing currencies this morning is the off-shore renminbi, which has fallen 0.8% as of 7:00am. In fact, I think this will be a key indicator of what is happening in China as it is the closest thing to a real time barometer of sentiment there given the fact that the rest of the Chinese financial system is closed. CNH is typically a very low volatility currency, so a movement of this magnitude is quite significant. In fact, if it continues to fall sharply, I would not be surprised if the PBOC decided to intervene in order to prevent what it is likely to believe is a short-term problem. There has been no sign yet, but we will watch carefully.

And in truth, this is today’s story, the potential ramifications to the global economy of the spreading infection. With that in mind, though, we should not forget some other featured news. The weekend brought a modestly surprising outcome from Italian regional elections, where Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the League, could not overcome the history of center-left strength in Emilia-Romagna and so the current coalition government got a reprieve from potential collapse. Salvini leads in the national polls there, and the belief was if his party could win the weekend, it would force the governing coalition to collapse and new elections to be held ushering in Salvini as the new PM. However, that was not to be. The market response has been for Italian BTP’s (their government bonds) to rally sharply, with 10-year yields tumbling 18bps. This has not been enough to offset the risk-off mentality in equity markets there, but still a ray of hope.

We also saw German IFO data significantly underperform expectations (Business Climate 95.9, Expectations 92.9) with both readings lower than the December data. This is merely a reminder that things in Germany, while perhaps not accelerating lower, are certainly not accelerating higher. The euro, however, is unchanged on the day, as market participants are having a difficult time determining which currency they want to hold as a haven, the dollar or the euro. Elsewhere in the G10, it should be no surprise that AUD and NZD are the laggards (-0.85% and -0.65% respectively) as both are reliant on the Chinese economy for economic activity. Remember, China is the largest export destination for both nations, as well as the source of a significant amount of inbound tourism. But the dollar remains strong throughout the space.

Emerging markets are showing similar activity with weakness throughout the space led by the South African rand (-1.0%) on the back of concerns over the disposition of state-owned Eskom Holdings, the troubled utility, as well as the general macroeconomic concerns over the coronavirus outbreak and its ultimate impact on the South African economy. Meanwhile, the sharp decline in the price of oil has weighed on the Russian ruble, -0.9%.

As I mentioned above, we do have two key central bank meetings this week, as well as a significant amount of data as follows:

Today New Home Sales 730K
  Dallas Fed Manufacturing -1.8
Tuesday Durable Goods 0.5%
  -ex Transport 0.3%
  Case Shiller Home Prices 2.40%
  Consumer Confidence 128.0
Wednesday Advance Goods Trade Balance -$65.0B
  FOMC Rate Decision 1.75% (unchanged)
Thursday BOE Rate Decision 0.75% (unchanged)
  Initial Claims 215K
  GDP (Q4) 2.1%
Friday Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
  Chicago PMI 49.0
  Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg
Regarding the BOE meeting, the futures market is back to pricing in a 60% probability of a rate cut, up from 47% on Friday, which seems to be based on the idea that the coronavirus is going to have a significant enough impact to require further monetary easing by central banks. As to the Fed, there is far more discussion about what they may be able to do in the future as they continue to review their policies, rather than what they will do on Wednesday. Looking at the spread of data this week, we should get a pretty good idea as to whether the pace of economic activity in the US has changed, although forecasts continue to be for 2.0%-2.5% GDP growth this year.

And that’s really it for the day. Until further notice, the growing epidemic in China remains the number one story for all players, and risk assets are likely to remain under pressure until there is some clarity as to when it may stop spreading.

Good luck
Adf

Throw Her a Bone

Next week at the ECB meeting
We’re sure to hear Christine entreating
The whole Eurozone
To throw her a bone
And spend more, lest growth start retreating

In England, though, it’s now too late
As recent releases all state
The ‘conomy’s slowing
And Carney is knowing
Come month end he’ll cut the base rate

The dollar is finishing the week on a high note as it rallies, albeit modestly, against virtually the entire G10 space. This is actually an interesting outcome given the ongoing risk-on sentiment observed worldwide. For instance, equity markets in the US all closed at record highs yesterday, and this morning, European equities are also trading at record levels. Asia, not wanting to be left out, continues to rally, although most markets in APAC have not been able to reach the levels seen during the late 1990’s prior to the Asian crisis and tech bubble. At the same time, we continue to see Treasury and Bund yields edging higher as yield curves steepen, another sign of a healthy risk appetite. Granted, commodity prices are not uniformly higher, but there are plenty that are, notably iron ore and steel rebar, both crucial signals of economic growth.

Usually, in this type of market condition, the dollar tends to decline. This is especially so given the lack of volatility we have observed encourages growth in carry trades, with investors flocking to high yield currencies like MXN, IDR, BRL and ZAR. However, it appears that at this juncture, the carry trade has not yet come back into favor, as that bloc of currencies has shown only modest strength, if any, hardly the signal that investor demand has increased.

This leaves us with an unusual situation where the dollar is reasonably well-bid despite the better risk appetite. Perhaps investors are buying dollars to jump on board the US equity train, but I suspect there is more to the movement than this. Investigations continue.

Narrowing our focus a bit more, it is worthwhile to consider the key events upcoming, notably next week’s ECB and BOJ meetings and the following week’s FOMC and BOE meetings. Interestingly, based on current expectations, the Fed meeting is likely to be far less impactful than either the ECB or BOE.

First up is the BOJ, where there is virtually no expectation of any policy changes, and in fact, that is true for the entire year. With the policy rate stuck at -0.10%, futures markets are actually pricing in a 5bp tightening by the end of the year. Certainly, Japan has gone down the road of increased fiscal stimulus, and if you recall last month’s outcome, the BOJ essentially admitted that they would not be able to achieve their 2.0% inflation target during any forecastable timeline. With that is the recent history, and given that inflation remains either side of 1.0%, the BOJ is simply out of bullets, and so will not be doing anything.

The ECB, however, could well be more interesting as the market awaits their latest thoughts on the policy review. Madame Lagarde has made a big deal about how they are going to review procedures and policy initiatives to see if they are designed to meet their goals. Some of the things that have been mooted are a change in the inflation target from “close to but below 2.0%” to either a more precise target or a target range, like 1.5% – 2.5%. Of even more interest is the fact that they have begun to figure out that their current inflation measures are inadequate, as they significantly underweight housing expense, one of the biggest expenses for almost every household. Currently, housing represents just 4% of the index. As a contrast, in the US calculation, housing represents about 41% of the index! And the anecdotes are legion as to how much housing costs have risen throughout European cities while the ECB continues to pump liquidity into markets because they think inflation is missing. Arguably, that has the potential to change things dramatically, because a revamped CPI calculation could well inform that the ECB has been far too easy in policy and cause a fairly quick reversal. And that, my friends, would result in a much higher euro. Today however, the single currency has fallen prey to the dollar’s overall strength and is lower by 0.25%.

As I mentioned, I don’t think the FOMC meeting will be very interesting at all, as there is a vanishingly small chance they change policy given the economy keeps chugging along and inflation has been fairly steady, if not rising to their own 2.0% target. The BOE meeting, however, has the chance to be much more interesting. This morning’s UK Retail Sales data was massively disappointing, with December numbers printing at -0.8%, -0.6% excluding fuel. This was hugely below the expected outcomes of +0.8% and +0.6% respectively. Apparently, Boris’s electoral victory did not convince the good people of England to open their wallets. And remember, this was during Christmas season, arguably the busiest retail time of the year. It can be no surprise that the futures market is now pricing a 75% chance of a rate cut and remember, earlier this week we heard from three different BOE members that cutting rates was on the table. The pound, which has been rallying for the entire week has turned around and is lower by 0.2% this morning with every chance that this slide continues for the next week or two until the meeting crystalizes the outcome.

The other noteworthy news was Chinese data released last night, which showed that GDP, as expected, grew at 6.0%, Retail Sales also met expectations at 8.0%, while IP (+6.9%) and Fixed Asset Investment (+5.4%) were both a bit better than forecast. The market sees this data as proof that the economy there is stabilizing, especially with the positive vibe of the just signed phase one trade deal. The renminbi has benefitted, rallying a further 0.3% on the session, and has now gained 4.6% since its weakest point in early September 2019. This trend has further to go, of that I am confident.

On the data front this morning, we have Housing Starts (exp 1380K), Building Permits (1460K), IP (-0.2%), Capacity Utilization (77.0%), Michigan Sentiment (99.3) and JOLT’s Job Openings (7.25M). So plenty of news, but it is not clear it is important enough to change opinions in the FX market. As such, I expect that today’s dollar strength is likely to continue, but certainly not in a major way.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

What’s Most Feared

For almost two days it appeared
That havens were to be revered
But with rates so low
Investors still know
That selling risk is what’s most feared

By yesterday afternoon it had become clear that market participants were no longer concerned over any immediate retaliation by Iran. While there have been a number of comments and threats, the current belief set is that anything that occurs is far more likely to be executed via Iranian proxies, like Hezbollah, rather than any direct attack on the US. And so as the probability of a hot war quickly receded in the minds of the global investment community, all eyes turned back toward what is truly important…central bank largesse!

As I briefly mentioned yesterday, there was a large gathering of economists, including many central bankers past and present, this past weekend in San Diego. The issue that seemed to generate the most interest was the idea of negative interest rates and whether their implementation had been successful, and more importantly, whether they ever might appear as part of the Fed’s policy toolkit.

Chairman Powell has made clear a number of times that there is no place for negative rates in the US. This sentiment has been echoed by most of the current FOMC membership, even the most dovish members like Kashkari and Bullard. And since the US economy is continuing to grow, albeit pretty slowly, it seems unlikely that this will be more than an academic exercise anytime soon. However, a paper presented by some San Francisco Fed economists described how negative rates would have been quite effective during the throes of the financial crisis in 2008-2009, and that stopping at zero likely elongated the pain. Ironically, former Fed chair Bernanke also presented a paper saying negative rates should definitely be part of the toolkit going forward. This is ironic given he was the one in charge when the Fed went to zero and had the opportunity to go negative at what has now been deemed the appropriate time. (Something I have observed of late is that former Fed chairs are quite adept at describing things that should be done by the Fed, but were not enacted when they were in the chair. It seems that the actuality of making decisions, rather than sniping from the peanut gallery, is a lot harder than they make out.)

At any rate, as investors and analysts turn their focus away from a potential war to more mundane issues like growth and earnings, the current situation remains one of positive momentum. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the central bank community is not about to start tightening policy anytime soon. In fact, arguably the question is when the next bout of policy ease is implemented. The PBOC has already cut the RRR, effective yesterday, and analysts everywhere anticipate further policy ease from China going forward as the government tries to reignite higher growth. While Chairman Powell has indicated the Fed is on hold all year, the reality is that they are continuing to regrow the balance sheet to the tune of $60 billion / month of outright purchases as well as the ongoing repo extravaganza, where yesterday more than $76 billion was taken up. And although this is more of a stealth easing than a process of cutting interest rates, it is liquidity addition nonetheless. Once again, it is this process, which shows no signs of abating, which leads me to believe that the dollar will underperform all year.

Turning to today’s session we have seen equity markets climb around the world following the US markets’ turn higher yesterday afternoon. Bond prices are little changed overall, with 10-year Treasury yields right at 1.80%, and both oil and gold have edged a bit lower on the day. Certainly, to the extent that there was fear of a quick reprisal from Iran, the oil market has discounted that activity dramatically.

Meanwhile, the dollar is actually having a pretty good session today, rallying against the entire G10 space despite some solid data from the Eurozone, and performing well against the bulk of the EMG bloc. The dollar’s largest gains overnight have come vs. the Australian dollar, which is down nearly 1.0% this morning after weak employment data (ANZ Job Adverts -6.7%) reignited fears that the RBA was going to be forced to cut rates further in Q1. But the greenback has outperformed the entire G10 space. The other noteworthy data were Eurozone Retail Sales (+1.0%) and CPI (+1.3% headline and core) with the former beating expectations but the latter merely meeting expectations and the core data showing no impetus toward the ECB’s ‘just below 2.0%’ target. Alas, the euro is lower by 0.15% this morning, dragging its tightly linked EEMEA buddies down by at least that much, and in some cases more. Finally, the pound has dipped 0.3%, but given the dearth of data, that seems more like a simple reaction to its inexplicable two-day rally.

In the EMG space, APAC currencies were the clear winners, with CNY rallying 0.5% as investment flows picked up with one of this year’s growing themes being that China is going to rebound sharply, especially with the trade situation seeming to settle down. It can be no surprise that both KRW and IDR, both countries that rely on stronger Chinese growth for their own growth, have rallied by similar amounts this morning. Meanwhile, EEMEA currencies have been under pressure, as mentioned above, despite the little data released (Hungarian and Romanian Retail Sales) being quite robust.

As to this morning’s session we get our first data of the week with the Trade Balance (exp -$43.6B), ISM Non-Manufacturing (54.5) and Factory Orders (-0.8%). Mercifully, there are no Fed speakers scheduled, so my sense is the market will be focused on the ISM data as well as the equity market. As things currently stand, it is all systems go for a stock market rally and assuming the ISM data simply meets expectations, the narrative is likely to shift toward stabilizing US growth. Of course, with the Fed pumping money into the economy in the background, that should be the worst case no matter what. FWIW it seems the dollar’s rally is a touch overdone here. My sense is that we are going to see it give back some of this morning’s gains as the session progresses.

Good luck
Adf

 

Well Calibrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck
Adf

 

Get Out of My Face!

“The economy’s in a good place”
Which means we can slacken the pace
Of future rate cuts
No ifs, ands or buts
So Donald, ‘get out of my face’!

Reading between the lines of yesterday’s FOMC statement and the Powell press conference, it seems abundantly clear that Chairman Powell is feeling pretty good about himself and what the Fed has achieved. He was further bolstered by the data yesterday which showed GDP grew at a 1.9% clip in Q3, far better than the expected 1.6% pace and that inflation, as measured by the GDP deflator, rose 2.2%, also clearly around the levels that the Fed seeks. In other words, although he didn’t actually say, ‘mission accomplished’, it is clearly what he wants everybody to believe. The upshot is that he was able to convince the market that the Fed has no more reason to cut rates anytime soon. But more importantly from a market perspective, he explained at the press conference that the bar was quite high for the Fed to consider raising rates again. And that was all he needed to say for equity markets to launch to yet another new high, and for the dollar, which initially had rallied on the FOMC statement, to turn tail and fall pretty sharply. And the dollar remains under pressure this morning with the euro rising a further 0.15%, the pound a further 0.45% and the yen up 0.5%.

Of course, the pound has its own drivers these days as the UK gears up for its election on December 12. According to the most recent polls, the Tories lead the race with 34%, while Labour is at 26%, the Lib-Dems at 19% and the Brexit party at 12%. After that there are smaller parties like the DUP from Northern Ireland and the Scottish National Party. The most interesting news is that the Brexit party is allegedly considering withdrawing from a number of races in order to allow the Tories to win and get Brexit completed. And after all, once Brexit has been executed, there really is no need for the Brexit party, and so its voting bloc will have to find a home elsewhere.

Something that has been quite interesting recently is the change in tone from analysts regarding the pound’s future depending on the election. While on the surface it seems that the odds of a no-deal Brexit have greatly receded, there are a number of analysts who point out that a strong showing by the Brexit party, especially if Boris cannot manage a majority on his own, could lead to a much more difficult transition period and bring that no-deal situation back to life. As well, on the other side of the coin, a strong Lib-Dem showing, who have been entirely anti-Brexit and want it canceled, could result in a much stronger pound, something I have pointed out several times in the past. Ultimately, though, from my seat 3500 miles away from the action, I sense that Boris will complete his takeover of the UK government, complete Brexit and return to domestic issues. And the pound will benefit to the tune of another 2%-3% in that scenario.

The recent trade talks, called ‘phase one’
According to both sides are done
But China’s now said
That looking ahead
A broad deal fails in the long run

A headline early this morning turned the tide on markets, which were getting pretty comfortable with the idea that although the Fed may not be cutting any more, they had completely ruled out raising rates. But the Chinese rained on that parade as numerous sources indicated that they had almost no hope for a broader long-term trade deal with the US as they were not about to change their economic model. Of course, it cannot be a surprise this is the case, given the success they have had in the past twenty years and the fact that they believe they have the ability to withstand the inevitable economic slowdown that will continue absent a new trading arrangement. Last night, the Chinese PMI data released was much worse than expected with Manufacturing falling to 49.3 while Services fell to 52.8, both of which missed market estimates. However, the latest trade news implies that President Xi, while he needs to be able to feed his people, so is willing to import more agricultural products from the US, is also willing to allow the Chinese economy to slow substantially further. Interestingly, the renminbi has been a modest beneficiary of this news rallying 0.15% on shore, which takes its appreciation over the past two months to 2.1%. Eventually, I expect to see the renminbi weaken further, but it appears that for now, until phase one is complete, the PBOC is sticking to its plan to keep the currency stable.

Finally, last night the BOJ left policy unchanged, however, in their policy statement they explicitly mentioned that they may lower rates if the prospect of reaching their 2% inflation goal remained elusive. This is the first time they have talked about lowering rates from their current historically low levels (-0.1%) although the market response has been somewhat surprising. I think it speaks to the belief that the BOJ has run out of room with monetary policy and that the market is pricing in more deflation, hence a stronger currency. Of course, part of this move is related to the dollar’s weakness, but I expect that the yen has further to climb regardless of the dollar’s future direction.

In the EMG bloc there were two moves of note yesterday, both sharp declines. First Chile’s peso fell 1.5% after President Sebastian Pinera canceled the APEC summit that was to be held in mid-November due to the ongoing unrest in the country. Remember, Chile is one of the dozen nations where there are significant demonstrations ongoing. The other big loser was South Africa’s rand, which fell 2.9% yesterday after the government there outlined just how big a problem Eskom, the major utility, is going to be for the nation’s finances (hint: really big!). And that move is not yet finished as earlier this morning the rand had fallen another 1.1%, although it has since recouped a portion of the day’s losses.

On the data front, after yesterday’s solid GDP numbers, this morning we see Personal Income (exp 0.3%); Personal Spending (0.3%); Core PCE (0.1%, 1.7% Y/Y); Initial Claims (215K) and Chicago PMI (48.0). And of course, tomorrow is payroll day with all that brings to the table. For now, the dollar is under pressure and as there are no Fed speakers on the docket, it appears traders are either unwinding old long dollar positions, or getting set for the next wave of weakness. All told, it is hard to make a case for much dollar strength today, although strong data is likely to prevent any further weakness.

Good luck
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A Christmas Election

Prime Minister Johnson’s achieved
The goal that had had him aggrieved
A Christmas election
To change the complexion
Of Parliament, so they can leave

Meanwhile today all eyes have turned
To Washington where, when adjourned,
The Fed will declare
A rate cut that they’re
Not sure’s been entirely earned

Yesterday morning the UK Labour party finally caved and agreed to an election to be held in six short weeks. Boris has got exactly what he wants, an effective second referendum on Brexit, this time with a deal in hand. At this point, the polls have him leading handily, with 38% of the vote compared to just 23% for Labour and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. But we all know that the polls have been notoriously wrong lately, not least ahead of the original Brexit referendum which was tipped for Remain by a 52-48 margin and, of course, resulted in a Leave victory by that same margin. Then Theresa May, the newly appointed PM in the wake of that surprise thought she had the support to garner a strong mandate and called an election. And she lost her outright majority leading to two plus years of pusillanimous negotiations with the EU before finally reaching a deal that was so widely despised, she lost her job to Boris. And let us not forget where the polls pointed ahead of the US elections in 2016, when there was great certainty on both sides of the aisle that President Trump didn’t stand a chance.

So, looking ahead for the next six weeks, we can expect the pound to reflect the various polls as they are released. The stronger Boris looks, meaning the more likely that his deal is ratified, the better the pound will perform. For example, yesterday, upon the news that the election was finally agreed, the pound immediately rallied 0.5%, and subsequently topped out at a 0.75% jump from intraday lows. While it ceded the last of those gains before the close yesterday, this morning it has recouped them and is currently higher by 0.25%. A Johnson victory should lead to further strength in the pound, with most estimates calling for a short-term move to the 1.32-1.35 area. However, in the event Boris is seen as failing at the polls, the initial move should be much lower, as concern over a no-deal Brexit returns, but that outcome could well be seen as a harbinger of a cancelation of Article 50, the EU doctrine that started this entire process. And that would lead to a much stronger pound, probably well north of 1.40 in short order.

With that situation in stasis for now, the market has turned its attention to the FOMC meeting that concludes this afternoon. Expectations remain strong for a 25bp rate cut, but the real excitement will be at the press conference, where Chairman Powell will attempt to explain the Fed’s future activities. At this point, many pundits are calling for a ‘hawkish’ cut, meaning that although rates will decline, there will be no indication that the Fed is prepared to cut further. The risk for Powell there is that the equity market, whose rally has largely been built on the prospect of lower and lower interest rates, may not want to hear that news. A tantrum-like reaction, something at which equity traders are quite adept, is very likely to force Powell and the Fed to reconsider their message.

Remember, too, that this Fed has had a great deal of difficulty in getting their message across clearly. Despite (or perhaps because of) Powell’s plain-spoken approach, he has made a number of gaffes that resulted in sharp market movement for no reason. And today’s task is particularly difficult. Simply consider the recent flap over the Fed restarting QE. Now I know that they continue to claim this is nothing more than a technical adjustment to the balance sheet and not QE, but it certainly looks and smells just like QE. And frankly, the market seems to perceive it that way as well. All I’m trying to point out is that you need to be prepared for some volatility this afternoon in the event Powell puts his foot back into his mouth.

As to the markets this morning, aside from the pound’s modest rally, most currencies are trading in a narrow range ahead of the FOMC meeting this afternoon, generally +/- 0.15%. We did see a bunch of data early this morning reinforcing the ongoing malaise in Europe. While French GDP data was largely as expected, Eurozone Confidence indicators all pointed lower than forecast. However, the euro has thus far ignored these signals and is actually a modest 0.1% higher as I type. And in truth, as that was the only meaningful data, other market movement has been even less impressive.

This morning we also hear from the Bank of Canada, who is expected to leave rates unchanged at 1.75%, which after the Fed cuts, will leave them with the highest policy rates in the G10. Now the economy up north has been performing quite well despite some weakness in the oil patch. Employment has risen sharply so far this year, with more than 350K jobs created. Inflation is running right around their 2.0% target and GDP, while slowing a bit from earlier in the year, is likely to hold just below potential and come in at 2.0% for the year. Over the course of the past two weeks, the Loonie has been a solid performer, rising 2.0%. If the BOC stays true, it is entirely reasonable to expect a bit more strength there.

This morning begins this week’s real data outturn with ADP Employment (exp 110K) kicking things off at 8:15, then the first look at Q3 GDP (1.6%) comes fifteen minutes later. Obviously, those are both important in their own right, but with the Fed on tap at 2:00, it would take a huge surprise in either one to move the market much. As such, I doubt we will see much of consequence until 2:00, and more likely not until Powell speaks at 2:30. Until then, things should remain sleepy. After? Who knows!

Good luck
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