QE is Our Fate

The Fed Chair, a banker named Jay
Will meet with his comrades today
Though no one expects
A change, it’s what’s next
That has traders set to make hay

Will guidance be tied to the rate
Of joblessness? Or will they state
Inflation is key
And ‘til there we see
Advances, QE is our fate

Today’s primary feature in the markets is the FOMC meeting where at 2:00 they will release their latest policy statement, and then at 2:30 Chairman Powell will hold a virtual press conference. As is often the case, market activity ahead of the meeting is muted as investors and traders are wary of taking on new positions ahead of a possible change in policy.

However, the punditry is nearly unanimous in its belief that there will be no policy changes today, and that the statement will be nearly identical to the previous version, with just some updates relating to the data that has been released since then. The big question is whether or not Chairman Powell will give an indication of what the next steps by the Fed are likely to be.

A quick review of the current policy shows that the Fed has a half dozen lending programs outstanding, which they extended to run through the end of 2020 in an announcement yesterday, and which are focused on corporate bonds, both IG and junk, municipal securities and small business loans. Of course, they continue to buy both Treasury and mortgage-backed securities as part of their more ordinary QE measures. And the Fed Funds rate remains at the zero bound. Consensus is that none of this will change.

The problem for the Fed is, short of simply writing everyone in the country a check (which is really fiscal policy) they are already buying all the debt securities that exist. While eventually, they may move on to purchasing equities, like the BOJ or SNB, at this point, that remains illegal. So, the thinking now goes that Forward Guidance is the most likely next step, essentially making a set of promises to the market about the future of policy and tying those promises to specific outcomes in the economic data. Given their mandate of full employment and stable prices, it is pretty clear they will tie rate movements to either the Unemployment Rate or the inflation rate. You may recall in the wake of the GFC, then Chairman Bernanke did just this, tying the eventual removal of policy accommodation to the Unemployment Rate. Alas, this did not work as well as the Fed had hoped. The first problem was that as the unemployment rate declined, it did not lead to the expected rise in inflation, so the Fed kept having to move its target lower. This did not inspire credibility in the central bank’s handling of the situation, nor its models. But the bigger problem is that the market became addicted to ZIRP and QE, and when Bernanke mentioned, off hand, in Congressional testimony, that some day the Fed would start to remove accommodation, he inspired what is now called the ‘Taper Tantrum’ where 10-year Treasury yields rose 1.3% in just over three months

You can be certain that Powell does not want to set up this type of situation, but, if anything, I would argue the market is more addicted to QE now than it was back then. At any rate, given the Fed’s need to show they are doing something, you can be sure that tied forward guidance is in our future. The question is, to what statistic will they tie policy? It is here where the pundits differ. There is a range of guesses as follows: policy will be unchanged until, 1) inflation is steadily trending to our 2.0% target, 2) inflation reaches out 2.0% target, or 3) inflation spends time above our 2% target in an effort to ‘catch up’ for previous low readings. This in order of most hawkish to least. Of course, they could focus on the Unemployment rate, and choose a level at which they believe full employment will be reached and thus start to pressure inflation higher.

The problem with the inflation target is that they have been trying to achieve their 2.0% target, based on core PCE, and have failed to do so consistently for the past 10 years. It is not clear why a claim they are going to continue to maintain easy money until they reach it now, let alone surpass that target, would have any credibility. On the Unemployment front, given what are certainly dramatic changes in the nature of the US economy in the wake of Covid-19, it beggars belief that there is any confidence in what the appropriate level of full employment is today. Again, it is hard to believe that their models have any semblance of accuracy in this area either.

And one other thing, most pundits don’t anticipate the announcement of new forward guidance until the September meeting, so this is all anticipation of something unlikely to occur for a while yet. But, as a pundit myself, we do need to have something to discuss on a day when markets remain uninteresting.

So, let’s take a quick look at today’s market activities. Equity markets remain mixed with both gainers (Shanghai +2.1%) and losers (Nikkei -1.2%) in Asia and in Europe (CAC +0.7%, DAX 0.0%, Italy -0.8%). US futures are edging higher, but not with any enthusiasm. Bond markets are all within a basis point of yesterday’s closing levels, although Treasuries did rally in the mild risk-off session we saw Tuesday with 10-year yields back below 0.60%. Yesterday, gold had a wild day, making new highs early in the overnight session and falling back 4% in NY before rebounding to close at $1960/oz. This morning it is little changed, but the trend remains higher.

Finally, the dollar is softer this morning, although yesterday saw a mixed session. The pound (+0.25%) has been a steady performer lately and is pressing toward 1.30 for the first time since early March, pre-Covid. While there was UK data on lending and money supply, this movement appears to be more technical in nature, with the added benefit that the dollar remains under pressure against all currencies. Elsewhere in the G10, oil’s strength this morning is helping NOK (+0.5%), while the rest of the bloc is just marginally firmer vs. the dollar.

In the emerging markets, the big winner today was THB (+0.8%) where the central bank is trying to make a change in the local gold market. Interestingly, gold traded in baht is a huge market, and one where the recent flows have resulted in excess baht strength. As such, the central bank is trying to change the market into a USD based gold market, which should remove upward pressure from the currency. But away from that, while the bulk of the bloc is firmer, the movement is 0.3% or less, hardly the stuff of dreams, and with no coherent message other than the dollar is soft.

And that’s really it for the day. There is no data of note to be released and so all eyes are on the FOMC. My money is on inflation based forward guidance, likely the most dovish type shooting for above target outcomes, but not to be put in place until September. And that means, the dollar’s recent downtrend is likely to continue to be the situation for the immediate future.

Good luck and stay safe
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Dreams All Come True

The Minutes explained that the Fed
Was actively looking ahead
Twixt yield curve control
And guidance, their goal
Might not be achieved, so they said

This morning, though, payrolls are due
And traders, expressing a view
Continue to buy
Risk assets on high
Here’s hoping their dreams all come true!

In the end, it can be no surprise that the Fed spent the bulk of their time in June discussing what to do next. After all, they had to be exhausted from implementing the nine programs already in place and it is certainly reasonable for them to see just how effective these programs have been before taking the next step. Arguably, the best news from the Minutes was that there was virtually no discussion about negative interest rates. NIRP continues to be a remarkable drag on the economies of those countries currently caught in its grasp. We can only hope it never appears on our shores.

Instead, the two policies that got all the attention were forward guidance and yield curve control (YCC). Of course, the former is already part of the active toolkit, but the discussion focused on whether to add an outcome-based aspect to their statements, rather than the more vague, ‘as long as is necessary to achieve our goals of stable prices and full employment.’ The discussion centered on adding a contingency, such as; until inflation reaches a certain level, or Unemployment falls to a certain level; or a time-based contingency such as; rates will remain low until 2023. Some would argue they already have that time-based contingency in place, (through 2022), but perhaps they were leading up to the idea it will be longer than that.

The YCC discussion focused on research done by their staff on the three most well-known instances in recent history; the Fed itself from 1942-1951, where they capped all rates, the BOJ, which has maintained 10-year JGB yields at 0.0% +/- 0.20%, and the RBA, which starting this past March has maintained 3-year Australian yields at 0.25%. As I mentioned last week in “A New Paradigm” however, the Fed is essentially already controlling the yield curve, at least the front end, where movement out to the 5-year maturities has been de minimis for months. Arguably, if they are going to do something here, it will need to be in the 10-year or longer space, and the tone of the Minutes demonstrated some discomfort with that idea.

In the end, my read of the Minutes is that when the FOMC meets next, on July 29, we are going to get a more formalized forward guidance with a contingency added. My guess is it will be an Unemployment rate contingency, not a time contingency, but I expect that we will learn more from the next set of Fed speakers.

Turning to today, as the market awaits the latest payroll report, risk assets continue to be on fire. The destruction in so many areas of the economy, both in the US and around the world, is essentially being completely ignored by investors as they continue to add risk to their portfolios amid abundant central bank provided liquidity. Here are the latest median forecasts as compiled by Bloomberg for today’s data:

Nonfarm Payrolls 3.06M
Private Payrolls 3.0M
Manufacturing Payrolls 438K
Unemployment Rate 12.5%
Average Hourly Earnings -0.7% (5.3% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Participation Rate 61.2%
Initial Claims 1.25M
Continuing Claims 19.0M
Trade Balance -$53.2B
Factory Orders 8.7%
Durable Goods 15.8%
-ex Transport 6.5%

Because of the Federal (although not bank) holiday tomorrow, the report is being released this morning. It will be interesting to see if the market responds to the more timely Initial Claims data rather than the NFP report if they offer different messages. Remember, too, that last month’s Unemployment rate has been under much scrutiny because of the misclassification of a large subset of workers which ultimately painted a better picture than it might otherwise have done. Will the BLS be able to correct for this, and more importantly, if they do, how will the market interpret any changes. This is one reason why the Initial and Continuing Claims data may be more important anyway.

But leading up to the release, it is full speed ahead to buy equities as yesterday’s mixed US session was followed by strength throughout Asia (Nikkei +0.1%, Hang Seng +2.85%, Shanghai +2.1%) and in Europe (DAX +1.6%, CAC +1.3%, FTSE 100 +0.6%). US futures are also higher, between 0.4%-0.8%, to complete the virtuous circle. Interestingly, once again bond yields are not trading true to form on this risk-on day, as yields in the US are flat while throughout Europe, bond yields are declining.

But bonds are the outlier here as the commodity space is seeing strength in oil and metals markets and the dollar is under almost universal pressure. For example, in the G10, NZD is the leading gainer, up 0.6%, as its status as a high beta currency has fostered buying interest from the speculative crowd betting on the recovery. But we are also seeing NOK and SEK (both +0.5%) performing well while the euro (+0.3%) and the pound (+0.3%) are just behind them. The UK story seems to be about the great reopening that is due to occur starting Saturday, when pubs and restaurants as well as hotels are to be allowed to reopen their doors to customers. The fear, of course, is that this will foster a second wave of infections. But there is no doubt there is a significant amount of pent up demand for a drink at the local pub.

In the EMG bloc, the ruble is today’s winner, rising 1.2% on the back of oil’s continued rebound. It is interesting, though, as there is a story that Saudi Arabia is having a fight with some other OPEC members, and is close to relaunching a full-scale price war again. It has been the Saudis who have done the lion’s share of production cutting, so if they turn on the taps, oil has a long way to fall. Elsewhere in the space, INR (+0.8%) and ZAR (+0.75%) are having solid days on the back of that commodity strength and recovery hopes. While the bulk of the space is higher, IDR has had a rough session, in fact a rough week, as it has fallen another 0.65% overnight which takes its loss in the past week near 2.0%. Infection rates continue to climb in the country and investors are becoming uncomfortable as equity sales are growing as well.

So, this morning will be a tale of the tape. All eyes will be on the data at 8:30 with the odds stacked for a strong risk session regardless of the outcome. If the data shows the recovery is clearly strengthening, then buying stocks makes sense. On the other hand, if the data is disappointing, and points to a reversal of the early recovery, the working assumption is the Fed will come to the rescue quite quickly, so buying stocks makes sense. In this worldview, the dollar is not seen as critical, so further dollar weakness could well be in our future.

Good luck and stay safe
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