Contrite

More stock market records were smashed
And bulls remain quite unabashed
The future is bright
With Powell contrite
As prior rate hikes are now trashed

The world is a fabulous place this morning, or at least the US is, if we are judging by the financial markets. Both the S&P 500 and NASDAQ indices made new all-time highs yesterday, with the Dow Jones scant points away from its own new record. The dollar is back to its highest point since mid-December and looks poised to rally toward levels not seen since mid 2017. Meanwhile, Treasuries remain in demand, despite all this risk appetite, as yields actually dipped yesterday and continue to hover around 2.50%. And the remarkable thing is the fact that there is no reason to believe these trends will end in the near future. After all, as we move into the heart of earnings season, the data shows that 80% of the 105 companies that have so far reported have beaten their (much reduced) estimates. Even though actual earnings growth is sparse, the fact that expectations have been reduced sufficiently to allow a no-growth result to seem bullish is the fuel for market bulls.

Beyond the earnings story, we have had a bit more positive US data, with New Home Sales rising 4.5%, instead of the expected decline. Last week we also saw strong Retail Sales data, and even though broadly speaking, the housing market seems a bit shaky, (Housing Starts and Existing Home Sales were both soft), there has been enough positive news overall to keep up momentum. And when compared to the Eurozone, where Germany’s Ifo fell to 99.2, below expectations and French Business Confidence fell to 101, its lowest point in three years, it is even clearer why the US is in favor.

Of course, there is one other reason that the US is a favored investment spot right now, the Fed. Over the course of the first four months of 2019, we have seen the Fed turn from a clear hawkish view to uber-doves. At this point, if there are two FOMC members who think a rate hike is in the cards for the rest of the year, it would be a lot. The market is still pricing in a chance of a rate cut, despite the ongoing data releases indicating things are pretty good in the US, and of course, President Trump and his staff have been consistent in their view that rates should be lower, and QE restarted. Funnily enough, given the global central bank desire to pump up inflation, and their total inability to do so for the past decade, do not be surprised to see further policy ease from the US this year. In fact, despite all the angst over Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) I would wager that before long, some mainstream economists are going to be touting the idea as reasonable and that it is going to make its way into policy circles soon thereafter.

In fact, one of the things I have discussed in the past, a debt jubilee, where debt is completely written off, seems almost inevitable. Consider how much government debt is owned by various nations’ central banks. The Fed owns $2.2 trillion, the BOJ owns ¥465 trillion (roughly $4.5 trillion) while the ECB owns €2.55 trillion (roughly $2.85 trillion). Arguably, each could make a book entry and simply destroy the outstanding debt, or some portion of it, without changing anything about the economy directly. While in the past that would have been anathema to economists, these days, I’m not so sure. And if it was done in a coordinated fashion, odds are the market response would be pretty benign. In fact, you could make the case that it would be hyper bullish, as the reduction in debt/GDP ratios would allow for significant additional policy stimulus as well as increased demand for the remaining securities outstanding. We continue to get warnings from official quarters (yesterday the IMF’s new chief economist was the latest to explain there is no free lunch) but politicians will continue to hear the siren song of MMT and will almost certainly be unable to resist the temptation.

Anyway, turning back to the FX market, the dollar has proven to be quite resilient over the past several sessions. This morning, after a rally yesterday, it is higher by another 0.2% vs. the euro. As to the pound, it has fallen steadily during the past week, a bit more than 1.2%, and though unchanged this morning, is now trading well below 1.30. Aussie fell sharply last night after inflation data disappointed on the low side and calls for rate cuts were reaffirmed. This morning, it is down 0.95% and pushing back to 0.7000, which has been a long-term support line. However, if rate cuts are coming, and China remains in the doldrums, it is hard to see that support continuing to hold.

This is not just a G10 phenomenon though, with EMG currencies also on the back foot. For instance, KRW fell 0.75% overnight and broke through key support with the dollar trading back to its highest level since mid-2017. RUB, ZAR and TRY are all lower by ~0.7% and LATAM currencies are under pressure as well.

The point is that as I have been explaining for the past months, whatever issues might exist within the US, they pale in comparison to the issues elsewhere. And looking at the economic growth momentum around the world, the US continues to lead the pack. We will get another reading on that come Friday, but until then, the data is sparse, with nothing at all released today.

I see no reason for current market trends to falter, so expect equities to rally with the dollar alongside them as international investors buy dollars in order to buy stocks. We will need something remarkably different to change this narrative, and it just doesn’t seem like there is anything on the horizon to make that happen.

Good luck
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Continue Restrained

Come autumn and next Halloween
The UK may finally wean
Itself from the bloc
To break the deadlock
But Parliament still must agree(n)

Meanwhile Signor Draghi explained
That growth would continue restrained
And Fed Minutes noted
That everyone voted
For policy to be maintained

There has been fresh news on each of the main market drivers in the past twenty-four hours, and yet, none of it has been sufficient to change the market’s near-term outlook, nor FX prices, by very much.

Leading with Brexit, there was a wholly unsatisfying outcome for everyone, in other words, a true compromise. PM May was seeking a June 30 deadline, while most of the rest of the EU wanted a much longer delay, between nine months and a year. However, French President Emanuel Macron argued vociferously for a short delay, actually agreeing with May, and in the end, Halloween has a new reason to be scary this year. Of course, nothing has really changed yet. May will still try to get her deal approved (ain’t happening); Euroskeptic Tories will still try to oust her (possible, but not soon) and Labour will push for new elections (also possible, but not that likely). The topic of a second referendum will be heard frequently, but as of right now, PM May has been adamant that none will not take place. So, uncertainty will continue to be the main feature of the UK economy. Q1 GDP looks set to be stronger than initially expected, but that is entirely due to stockpiling of inventory by companies trying to prepare for a hard Brexit outcome. At some point, this will reverse with a corresponding negative impact on the data. And the pound? Still between 1.30 and 1.31 and not looking like it is heading anywhere in the near future.

On to the ECB, where policy was left unchanged, as universally expected, and Signor Draghi remarked that risks to the economy continue to be to the downside. Other things we learned were that the TLTRO’s, when they come later this year, are pretty much the last arrow in the policy quiver. Right now, there is no appetite to reduce rates further, and more QE will require the ECB to revise their internal guidelines as to the nature of the program. The issue with the latter is that EU law prevents monetization of government debt, and yet if the ECB starts buying more government bonds, it will certainly appear that is what they are doing. This morning’s inflation data from France and Germany showed that there is still no inflationary impulse in the two largest economies there, and by extension, throughout the Eurozone.

At this point, ECB guidance explains rates will remain on hold through the end of 2019. My view is it will be far longer before rates rise in the Eurozone, until well into the recovery from the next recession. My forecast is negative euro rates until 2024. You read it here first! And the euro? Well, in its own right there is no reason to buy the single currency. As long as the US economic outlook remains better than that of the Eurozone, which is certainly the current case, the idea that the euro will rally in any meaningful way seems misguided. Overnight there has been little movement, and in fact, the euro has been trading between 1.12 and 1.1350 for the past three weeks and is currently right in the middle of that range. Don’t look for a break soon here either.

The FOMC Minutes taught us that the Fed is going to be on hold for quite a while. The unanimous view is that patience remains a virtue when it comes to rate moves. Confusion still exists as to how unemployment can be so low while inflation shows no signs of rising, continuing to call into question their Phillips Curve models. In fact, yesterday morning’s CPI showed that core inflation fell to 2.0% annually, a tick lower than expected and continuing to confound all their views. The point is that if there is no inflationary pressure, there is no reason to raise rates. At the same time, if US economic growth continues to outpace the rest of the world, there is no reason to cut rates. You can see why the market is coming round to the idea that nothing is going to happen on the interest rate front for the rest of 2019. Futures, which had priced in almost 40bps of rate cuts just last month, are now pricing in just 10bps (40% chance of one cut). Despite the ongoing rhetoric from President Trump regarding cutting rates and restarting QE, neither seems remotely likely at this juncture. And don’t expect either of his Fed nominees to be approved.

Finally, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin declared that the US and China have agreed a framework for enforcement of the trade agreement, with both nations to set up an office specifically designed for the purpose and a regular schedule of meetings to remain in touch over any issues that arise. But Robert Lighthizer, the Trade Representative has not commented, nor have the Chinese, so it still seems a bit uncertain. Enforcement is a key issue that has been unsolved until now, although IP protection and state subsidies remain on the table still. Interestingly, equity markets essentially ignored this ‘good’ news, which implies that a completed deal is already priced into the market. In fact, I would be far more concerned over a ‘sell the news’ outcome if/when a trade deal is announced. And of course, if talks break off, you can be certain equity prices will adjust accordingly.

This morning brings Initial Claims (exp 211K) and PPI (1.9%, 2.4% ex food & energy) and speeches from Clarida, Williams, Bullard and Bowman. But what are they going to say that is new? Nothing. Each will reiterate that the economy is doing well, still marginally above trend growth, and that monetary policy is appropriate. In the end, the market continues to wait for the next catalyst. In equities, Q1 earnings are going to start to be released this afternoon and by next week, it will be an onslaught. Arguably, that will drive equities which may yet impact the dollar depending on whether the earnings data alters overall economic views. In the meantime, range trading remains the best bet in FX.

Good luck
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Not Yet Inflated

Said Chairman Jay, we are frustrated
That prices have not yet inflated
So, patient we’ll be
With rates ‘til we see
More growth than now’s anticipated

The market response was confusing
With stocks up, ere taking a bruising
While Treasuries jumped
The dollar was dumped
And gold found more buyers, it, choosing

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to those bygone days of… December 2018. The market was still giddy over the recent Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU. At the same time, hopes ran high that the US-China trade war was set to be defused following a steak dinner in Argentina with President’s Trump and Xi hashing out a delay of tariff increases. And of course, the Fed had just raised the Fed Funds rate 25bps to its current level of 2.50% with plans for two or three more hikes in 2019 as the US economy continued to outperform the rest of the world. Since that time, those three stories have completely dominated the dialog in market and economic circles.

Now, here we are three months later and there has been painfully little progress on the first two stories, while the third one has been flipped on its head. I can only say I won’t be unhappy if another major issue arises, as at least it will help change the topic of conversation. But for now, this is what we’ve got.

So, turning to the Fed, yesterday afternoon, to no one’s surprise, the Fed left policy rates on hold. What was surprising, however, was just how dovish Chairman Powell sounded at the press conference, essentially declaring that there will be no more rate hikes in 2019. He harped on the fact that the Fed has been unable to push inflation to their view of stable, at 2.0%, and are concerned that it has been so long since prices were rising at that pace that they may be losing credibility. (I can assure them they are losing credibility, but not because inflation has remained low. Rather, they should consider the fact that they have ceded monetary policy to the stock market’s gyrations and how that has impacted their credibility. And this has been the case ever since the ‘Maestro’ reacted in October 1987!)

So, after reiterating their current patient stance, markets moved as follows: stocks rallied, bonds rallied, and the dollar fell. Dissecting these moves leads to the following thoughts. First stocks: what were they thinking? The Fed’s patience is based on the fact that the US economy is slowing and that the global economy is slowing even more rapidly. Earnings growth has been diminished and leverage is already through the roof (Corporate debt as %age of GDP is at record levels, above 75%, with more than half of the Investment Grade portion rated BBB, one notch from junk!) Valuations remain extremely high and history has shown that long-term returns from periods of high valuations are de minimus. Granted, by the end of the session, they did give back most of those gains, but it is difficult to see the bull case for equities from current levels given the economic and monetary backdrop. I would argue that all the best news is already in the price.

Next bonds, which rallied to the point where 10-year Treasury yields, at 2.51%, are now at their lowest level since January 2018, and back then, Fed Funds were 100bps lower. So now we have a situation where 3mo T-bills are yielding 2.45% and 10-year T-bonds are yielding 6bps more. This is not a market that is anticipating significant economic growth, rather it is beginning to look like one that is anticipating a recession in the next twelve months. (My own view is less optimistic and that we will see one before 2019 ends.) Finally, the dollar got hammered. This makes sense as, at the margin, with the Fed clearly more dovish than the market had expected, perception of policy differentials narrowed with the dollar on the losing side. So, the 0.6% slide in the broad dollar index should be no surprise. However, until I see strong growth percolating elsewhere, I cannot abandon my view the dollar will remain well supported.

Turning to Brexit, the situation seems to be deteriorating in the final days ahead of the required decision. PM May’s latest gambit to get Parliament to back her bill appears to be failing. She has indicated she will request a 3-month delay, until June 30, but the EU has said they want a shorter one, until May 23 when European parliament elections are to be held (they want the UK out so there will be no voting by UK citizens) or a much longer one so that, get this, the UK can have another referendum to reverse the process and end Brexit. It is remarkable to me that there is so much anxiety over foreign interference in local elections on some issues, but that the EU feels it is totally appropriate to tell the UK they should vote again to overturn their first vote. Hypocrisy is the only constant in politics! With all this, May is in Brussels today to ask for the delay, but it already seems like the EU is going to need to meet again next week as the UK Parliament has not formally agreed to anything except leaving next Friday. Suddenly, the prospect of that happening has added some anxiety to the heretofore smug EU leaders.

Meanwhile, the Old Lady meets today, and there is no chance they do anything. In fact, unless the UK calls off Brexit completely, they will not be tightening policy for years. Slowing growth and low inflation are hardly the recipe for tighter monetary policy. The pound has fallen 0.5% this morning as concerns over the Brexit outcome are growing and its value remains entirely dependent on the final verdict.

As to the trade story, mixed signals continue to emanate from the talks, but the good news is the talks are continuing. I remain more skeptical that there will be a satisfactory resolution but thus far, equity markets, at least, seem to believe that a deal will be signed, and all will be right with the world.

Turning away from these three stories, we have heard from several other central banks, with Brazil leaving the Selic rate on hold at 6.50%, a still historic low, with a statement indicating they are comfortable with this rate given the economic situation there. Currently there is an attempt to get a new pension bill through Congress their which if it succeeds should help reduce long-term debt implications and may open the way for further rate cuts, especially since inflation is below their target band of 4.25%-5.25%, and growth is slowing to 2.0% this year. Failure of this bill, though, could well lead to more turmoil and a much weaker BRL.

Norway raised rates 25bps, as widely expected, as they remain one of the few nations where inflation is actually above target following strong growth throughout the economy. Higher oil prices are helping, but the industrial sector is also growing, and unemployment remains quite low, below 4.0%. The Norgesbank indicated there will be more rate hikes to come this year. It should be no surprise that the krone rallied sharply on the news, rising 0.9% vs. the dollar with the prospect for further gains.

Finally, the Swiss National Bank left rates unchanged at -0.75%, but cut its inflation forecast for 2019 to 0.3% and for 2020 to 0.6%. The downgraded view has reinforced that they will be sidelined on the rates front for a very long time (and they already have the lowest policy rates in the world!) and may well see them increase market intervention going forward. This is especially true in the event of a hard Brexit, where their haven status in Europe is likely to draw significant interest, even with a -0.75% deposit rate.

On the data front today, Philly Fed (exp 4.5) and Initial Claims (225K) are all we’ve got. To my mind, the market will continue to focus on central bank policies, which given central banks’ collective inability to drive the type of economic rebound they seek, will likely lead to government bond support and equity market weakness. And the dollar? Maybe a little lower, but not for long.

Good luck
Adf

Heavy-Handed

There once was a large bloc of nations
That gathered to foster relations
On how they should trade
That they might dissuade
A conflict midst trade accusations

But slowly their mission expanded
As rules on more things they demanded
One nation resented
These unprecedented
Requests which they thought heavy-handed

This nation expressed their dissention
By voting to leave that convention
But three years have passed
And no deal’s amassed
Support so they need an extension

I apologize for the length of this morning’s ditty, but sometimes it takes more than one stanza to tell the story.

Brexit is once again the top story today, although the FOMC meeting and US-China trade talks are still in the news. With just nine days left before the UK is due to leave the EU, there is still no agreed upon deal between the two sides of the negotiation. Today, the EU has a council meeting of all its leaders and PM May will be making a speech and asking for an extension. The question has been, how long would she request? At this time, it appears it will be short, just three months, as she is seeking to get the negotiated text voted on in Parliament one more time. However, there has been pushback by several other EU members concerned that three months won’t be enough time to change anything. In fact, some EU members want a much longer delay in order to push for a second Brexit vote; you know, to get the ‘right’ answer this time. At any rate, Brexit continues to be a slow-motion train wreck and all are fascinated to watch, if not to live through its consequences.

As an aside, a conversation I had yesterday with a local who has become more engaged in politics there, indicated that there is an abject fear of leaving without a deal, and that despite the many bad things about PM May’s deal, there will be many MP’s who vote for it rather than allowing a hard Brexit. Certainly that is what May is counting on. We shall see. The FX market continues to react to the ebbs and flows of the conversation and this morning is ebbing. The pound is down 0.3% as it seems some traders are losing confidence in the outcome. As I have repeatedly said, despite the fears of a no-deal outcome, the law remains for the UK to leave next Friday whether there is a deal in place or not, and that is a non-zero probability. If that is the case, the pound will suffer greatly, especially because that is clearly not the current expectation. Hedgers be ready.

On to the FOMC, which will release their policy statement at 2:00 this afternoon, along with their latest economic projections (expected to see GDP growth lowered slightly) and the infamous dot plot. Chairman Powell had made an effort, prior to the quiet period, to minimize the importance of the dots as those projections do not contain error bars showing the level of uncertainty attached to the forecasts. But the market is still talking about them non-stop. I guess six years of harping on the importance of forward guidance, BY THE FED, has trained market participants to pay attention to forward guidance. My money remains on the idea that the median dot will be at no more rate increases this year, and a more pronounced reduction in the long-term neutral rate. However, there are a number of analysts who are warning that the dot plot could look much more hawkish, highlighting another rate hike this year and one more next year. if that is the case, I expect equity markets to suffer, as it is pretty clear the market has priced out any further rate hikes.

In addition, we cannot forget the balance sheet story, where I remain convinced that the balance sheet roll-off will be slated to end by June, and that the composition will be focused on shorter term securities. The idea that shortening the maturity profile now will result in more ammunition for fighting the next economic downturn will prove quite appealing. After all, a big fear of the Fed is the howls of protest from the Austrian school (read Congressional monetary hawks) if they restart QE during the next recession. Shortening the average maturity of holdings now will allow them to maintain the size of the balance sheet while still adding stimulus in the next downturn by extending the maturity then.

And finally, on the trade front, despite a story yesterday indicating the Chinese were backing away from earlier agreements on IP security, the US delegation of Lighthizer and Mnuchin are heading to Beijing this week, with the Chinese delegation expected to come back here the week after in the final push for a deal. Certainly, equity markets have priced in a successful deal here, and probably so has the dollar. Interestingly, Treasury markets continue to look at the world with a very different view of much slower growth now, and in the future. It appears there is a bit more skepticism by bond traders on the successful outcome of a trade deal, than that of equity traders.

Overall, the dollar is marginally firmer this morning, but as we have seen the last several days, individual currency movements have been muted. The Indian rupee continues to perform well as an equity market rally in Mumbai has drawn in foreign investment and the market increasingly prices in a Modi victory in the upcoming election, which is seen as the most economic friendly outcome available. But even there, the rupee has only rallied 0.3% this morning. Throughout the G10, movement continues to be extremely limited, with 0.1% being the extent of today’s activity (the pound excepted).

Ahead of the FOMC meeting, there is no data to be released today, and equity futures are basically flat, pointing to very modest 0.1% declines on the open. Look for very little movement until the FOMC announcement and the following press conference. And then, it will all depend on the outcome.

Good luck
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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
Adf

A Lack of Pizzazz

This week, central banks, numb’ring three
Released information that we
Interpreted as
A lack of pizzazz
So, don’t look for tight policy

Yesterday’s release of the ECB Minutes from their January meeting didn’t garner nearly as much press as the FOMC Minutes on Wednesday. However, they are still important. The topic du jour was the analysis necessary to help them determine if rolling over the TLTRO’s was the appropriate policy going forward. Not surprisingly, the hawks on the committee, like Austria’s Ewald Nowotny, said there is no hurry and a decision doesn’t need to be taken until June when the first of these loans fall below twelve months in their remaining term. I am pretty sure that he is against adding any more stimulus at all. At the same time, given the recession in Italy and slowing growth picture throughout Germany and France, and given that Italian and French banks had been the first and third most active users of the financing, in the end, the ECB cannot afford to let them lapse. I remain 100% convinced that these loans will be rolled over in an effort to ‘avoid tightening financial conditions’, not in order to ease them further. However, the market impact of the Minutes was muted at best, as has been this morning’s data releases; one confirming that German GDP was flat in Q4, and more importantly, the decline in the Ifo Business Climate indicator to 98.5, its lowest level in four years. Meanwhile, Eurozone inflation remains absent from the discussion with January’s data confirmed to have declined to a 1.4% Y/Y rise. Nothing in this data indicates the ECB will tighten policy in 2019, and quite frankly, I would be shocked to see them move in 2020 as well.

The other central bank information of note was the Bank of Canada, where Governor Poloz spoke in Montreal and explained that while the current policy setting (base rates are 1.75%) remain below their range of estimates of the neutral rate (2.5%-3.5%), current conditions dictate that there is no hurry to tighten further, especially with the ongoing uncertainty emanating from the US and the overall global trade situation. So here is another central bank that had been talking up the tightening process and has now backed away.

In virtually every case, the central banks continue to hang their hats on the employment market’s strength, and the idea that a tight jobs market will lead to higher wages, and thus higher inflation. The thing is, this Phillips Curve model has two flaws; first it only relates lower unemployment to higher wages, not higher general inflation; and second, it is based on an analysis of the UK from 1861-1957, which may not actually be a relevant timeline compared to the global economy in 2019. And one other thing to remember is that employment is a lagging indicator with respect to economic signals. This means that it is backward looking and has been demonstrated to have limited predictive power. My point is that despite a clearly strong employment situation, it is still entirely possible that global growth can slow much further and much more quickly than policymakers would have you believe.

Back to the currency markets, the upshot of all the new information was that traders have essentially left both the euro and the Loonie unchanged for the past two days. In fact, they have left most currencies that way. This morning’s largest G10 mover is the pound, which just recently has extended its losses to -0.40% after it became clear that the EU was NOT going to make any concessions regarding the backstop issue as had been believed just yesterday. The latest story is that the UK is going to ask for a three-month extension, which is likely to be granted. The thing is, the problem is not going to get any easier to solve in three months’ time than it is now. This will simply extend the time of uncertainty.

Of course, the other story is the trade talks and the positive spin that we continue to hear despite the information that there remain wide differences on key issues like enforcement of any deals as well as the speed with which the Chinese are willing to open up their markets. It is all well and good for the Chinese to say they will buy more corn, or more soybeans or more oil, but while nice, those pledges don’t address the question of IP protection and state subsidies. I remain concerned that any deal, if it is brokered, will be much less impactful than is claimed. And it is quite possible that the US will not remove any of the current tariffs until they have validation that the Chinese have upheld their side of any deal. I feel like the market is far too optimistic on this subject, but then again, I am a cynic.

While FX markets have been slow to respond to these stories, we continue to see equity markets wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a deal is coming soon and there is no reason to worry. Last night, Chinese equity markets rallied sharply (Shanghai +1.9%), although the Nikkei actually slipped -0.2%. European markets this morning are higher by around 0.4%-0.5%, as they, too, seem bullish on the trade picture. Certainly, it is not based on the economic picture in the Eurozone.

But as we have seen for the past several weeks, central banks, Brexit and trade are the only stories that matter. Right now, investors and traders are giving mixed signals, with the equity markets feeling positive, but currency and bond markets much less so. My money is on the bond market vs. the stock market as having correctly analyzed the situation.

Good luck and good weekend
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Carefully Looking Ahead

The Minutes explained that the Fed
Was carefully looking ahead
But so far it seems
The hawks’ fondest dreams
Of hiking again might be dead

As well, when it comes to the size
Of the Fed’s balance sheet, in their eyes
It’s likely to stay
Quite large like today
Not shrink while they, debt, monetize

Markets are little changed this morning after a lackluster session yesterday when the Fed released their Minutes from the January meeting. Overall, the tone of the Minutes seemed to be slightly less dovish than the tone of the Powell press conference that followed the meeting, as well as much of the commentary we have heard since then. Apparently, Cleveland’s Loretta Mester is not the only one who believes rates will need to be raised further this year, as the Minutes spoke of “several’ members with the same opinion. Of course, that was offset by “several” members who had the opposite view and felt that there was no urgency at all to consider raising rates further this year. Patience continues to be the watchword at the Mariner Eccles building, and I expect that as long as the economic data does not differ dramatically from forecasts, the Fed will be quite happy to leave rates on hold. They specifically mentioned the potential problems that could derail things like slowing global growth, a poor outcome in the US-China trade talks or a disruptive Brexit. But for now, it appears they are comfortable with the rate setting.

The balance sheet story was of even more interest to many market participants as the gradual running off of maturing securities has seemingly started to take a bite out of available liquidity in markets. And in fact, this seems to be where the Fed minutes indicated a more dovish stance in my eyes. While there is still a thought that rates might be raised later this year, it was virtually unanimous that shrinking the balance sheet will end this year, leaving the Fed with a much larger balance sheet (~$3.5-$4.0 trillion) than many had expected. Recall, prior to the financial crisis the Fed’s balance sheet was roughly $900 billion in size. To many, this is effectively a permanent injection of money into the economy and so should support both growth and inflation going forward. However, the risk is that when the next downturn arrives (and make no mistake, it Will arrive), the Fed will have less room to act to support the economy at that time. This is especially true since even with another one or two rate hikes, Fed Funds will have topped out at a much lower level than it has historically, and therefore there will be less rate cutting available as a policy tool.

Adding it up, it seems rate guidance was mildly hawkish and balance sheet guidance was mildly dovish thus leaving things largely as expected. It is no surprise market activity was muted.

This morning, as the market awaits the ECB Minutes, we see the dollar little changed overall, although there have been some individual currency movements. For example, AUD has fallen 0.7% (and dragged NZD down -0.5%) after a well-respected local economist changed his rate view to two RBA rate cuts later this year due to the rapidly weakening housing market. Prior to this, the market had anticipated no rate movement for at least another 18 months, so this served as quite a change. And all this came despite strong Australian employment data with the Unemployment rate remaining at 5.0% and job growth jumping by 39K.

Meanwhile, mixed data from Europe has leaned slightly bullish as surprisingly strong French Composite PMI data (49.9 vs 49.0 expected) offset surprisingly weak German Manufacturing PMI data (47.6 vs 49.7 expected). I guess the market already knows that Germany is slowing more rapidly than other nations in the Eurozone (except for Italy) due to the ongoing trade friction between the US and China. But despite the ongoing Gilets Jaune protests, the French economy managed to find some strength. At any rate, the euro has edged higher by 0.15% after the reports. At the same time, the pound has also rallied 0.15% after releasing the largest budget surplus on record (since 1993), and perhaps more importantly, on some apparent movement by the EU on Brexit. PM May is hinting that she may be able to get a legally binding way to end the backstop in a codicil to the Brexit negotiations, which if she can, may allow cover for the more euro skeptical members of her party to support the deal. There is no question the pound remains completely beholden to the Brexit story and will continue to do so for at least another month.

Pivoting to the trade talks, there are several stories this morning about how negotiators are preparing a number of memos on separate issues with the idea they will be brought together at the Trump-Xi meeting to be held in the next several weeks. There is no question that the market continues to view the probability of a deal as to be quite high, but I keep looking at the key issues at stake, specifically with regards to IP and the coercion alleged by US companies, and I remain skeptical that China will back away from that tactic. The Chinese do not view the world through the same eyes as the US, or the Western World at large. As per an article in the WSJ this morning, “We must never follow the Western path of constitutionalism, separation of powers and judicial independence,” Mr. Xi said in an August speech. That comment does not strike me as a basis for compromise nor enforcement of any deal that relies on those issues. But for now, the market continues to believe.

And that’s pretty much the stuff that matters today. We do get most of our data for the week this morning with Initial Claims (exp 229K), Durable Goods (1.5%, 0.3% ex transport), Philly Fed (14.0) and Existing Home Sales (5.00M). While individually, none of them have a huge impact, the suite of information if consistently strong or weak, could well lead to some movement given the broad sweep of the economy covered. There are no Fed speakers on the docket today, and so it doesn’t appear that there is much reason to expect real movement today. Equity markets around the world have seen limited movement and US futures are flat to slightly lower. Treasury yields are slightly firmer but remain at the bottom end of their recent trading range. Overall, it seems like a dull day ahead.

Good luck
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