Still Great Disorder

While PM May fought off defeat
The Brexit debate’s incomplete
There’s still great disorder
O’er the Irish border
And angst for the man in the street

Was it much ado about nothing? In the end, PM May won the no-confidence vote, but in a singularly unimpressive manner with more than one-third of the Conservative MP’s voting against her. The upshot is that while she cannot be challenged again for another year, it clarified the strength of the opposition to her handling of the Brexit negotiations. At the same time, the EU has reiterated that the deal, as negotiated, represents all they are willing to offer. May’s strategy now seems to be to delay any vote until such time that the choice is clearly binary; accept the deal or exit with no deal. Despite the increasingly dire warnings that have come from the BOE and some private forecasters, I have lost my faith in the idea that a deal would be agreed. If this is the case, the impact on the pound is going to be quite negative for some time. Over the past two days, the pound has rallied 1.3% although it remains quite close to its post vote lows. However, in the event of a hard Brexit, look for the pound to test its historic lows from 1985, when it traded at approximately 1.05.

As to the rest of the market, it is central bank day in Europe with the Norgebank leaving rates on hold but promising to raise them in Q1; the Swiss National Bank leaving rates on hold and describing the necessity of maintaining a negative interest rate spread vs. the euro as the Swiss economy slows and inflation along with it; and, finally, the market awaits the ECB decision, where Signor Draghi is universally expected to confirm the end of QE this month. One of the interesting things about Draghi’s actions is that he is set to end QE despite his own internal forecasts, which, according to ‘sources’ are going to be reduced for both growth and inflation in 2019. How, you may ask, can a central banker remove policy accommodation despite weakening data? Arguably the answer is that the ECB fears the consequences of going back on its word more than the consequences of implementing the wrong policy. In any event, look for Draghi to speak of transient and temporary causes to the reduced forecasts, but express optimism that going forward, Eurozone growth is strong and will be maintained as inflation edges toward their target of just below 2.0%.

Of greater consequence for the euro this morning, which has rallied a modest 0.1%, is the news from Italy that they have adjusted their budget forecasts to expect a very precise 2.04% deficit in 2019, down from the previous budget deficit forecast of 2.4%. Personally I question the changes other than the actual decimal place on the forecast, but the market has accepted them at face value and we have seen Italian assets rally, notably 10-year BTP’s where yields have fallen 10bps and the spread with German bunds has fallen a similar amount. While the situation in France does not seem to have improved very much, the market is clearly of the view that things in Europe are better than they were last week. However, caution is required in accepting that all the issues have been adequately addressed. They have not.

In the end, though, despite these important issues, risk sentiment continues to be broadly driven by the trade situation between the US and China. Helping that sentiment this morning has been the news that China just purchased several million tons of US soybeans for the first time since the trade tussle began. That has encouraged investors to believe that a truce is coming, and with it, a resumption of the previous regime of steadily increasing global growth. Caution is required here, as well, given the still nascent level of discussions and the fact that the US negotiators, LIghthizer and Navarro, are known trade hawks. While it would certainly be better for all involved if an agreement is reached, it is far from certain that will be the case.

Recapping, the dollar has been under pressure this morning on the basis of a broad view of a better risk environment across markets. These include PM May’s retaining her seat, movement on the Italian budget issue and positive signs from the US-China trade conflict. And yet the dollar is only softer by some 0.1% or so, on average. Nothing has changed my view that the underlying fundamentals continue to favor the greenback.

Pivoting to the emerging markets, INR has performed well again, rallying 0.3% overnight which makes more than 1% this week while nearly erasing the losses over the past month. It appears that investors have taken a new view on the necessity of an independent central bank. Recall that the RBI governor stepped down on Monday as he was at odds with the government about the path of future policy, with ex-governor Patel seeking to maintain tighter money and address excess leverage and non-performing loans, while the government wanted easy money and fast growth in order to be reelected. The replacement is a government hack that will clearly do PM Modi’s bidding and likely cut rates next. Yet, market participants are rewarding this action as evidenced not only by the rupee’s rally, but also by the performance of the Indian stock market, which has led APAC markets higher lately. To this observer, it appears that this short term gain will be overwhelmed by longer term losses in both equities and the currency, if monetary policy falls under the government’s thumb. But right now, that is not the case, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see movement in this direction elsewhere as governments try to maintain economic growth at all costs. This is a dangerous precedent, but one that is ongoing nonetheless.

Yesterday’s CPI data was right in line with expectations at 2.2% for both headline and core, and the market had limited response. This morning brings only Initial Claims (exp 225K) and then the monthly Budget Figures are released this afternoon (exp -$188B). In other words, there is limited new information due once we hear from Signor Draghi. As long as there is a broad risk-on consensus, which appears to be the case, look for the dollar to remain under pressure. But I continue to see this as a short-term phenomenon. At some point, the market will recognize that the rest of the world is going to halt any efforts at tightening policy as global growth slows, and that will help support the dollar.

Good luck
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Toadies Galore

There once was a time in the past
When jobs like PM were a blast
With toadies galore
And laws you’d ignore
While scheming, all foes, to outlast

But these days when leading a nation
The role has outgrown bloviation
Consider Ms. May
Who just yesterday
Was subject to near ruination

Well, Brexit managed to not be the headline story for the several days between the time the current deal was tentatively agreed with the rest of the EU and the scheduled vote by the House of Commons to approve said deal. During that period, PM May made the rounds to try to sell her deal to the people of the UK. Alas, apparently she’s not a very good saleswoman. Under extreme duress, yesterday she indefinitely delayed the vote that was originally to be held this evening. Amid jeering from the floor of the House of Commons, she tried to make her case, but was singularly unable to do so. As has been the problem all along, the Irish border issue remains intractable with the opposing goals of separating the two nations legally and, more importantly, for customs purposes, while not installing a border between the two. As it currently stands, I will argue there is no compromise solution that is viable. One side is going to have to accept the other side’s demands and frankly, that doesn’t seem very likely. The upshot is that the market has once again begun to assume a no-deal Brexit with all the hyperbolic consequences that entails. And the pound? It was not a happy day if you were long as it fell 2% at its worst point, although only closed down by about 1.5%. This morning, it has regained a further 0.4%, but remains near its weakest levels since April 2017. Unless you believe in miracles (and in fairness there is no better time to do so than this time of year), my strong belief is the UK is going to exit the EU with nothing in place. The pound has further to fall, so hedgers beware.

Let’s pivot to the euro for a moment and discuss all the benefits of the single currency. First, there is the prospect of its third largest trading partner, the UK, leaving the fold and suddenly imposing tariffs on those exports. Next we have France literally on fire, as the gilets jaunes continue to run riot throughout the country while protesting President Macron’s mooted fuel tax increase. In the end, that seems to have been pulled and now he is offering tax cuts! Fiscal probity has been tossed aside in the name of political expediency. Thirdly, we have the ongoing Italian opera over the budget. The antiestablishment coalition government remains adamant that it is going to inject fiscal stimulus to the country, which is slipping into recession as we speak, but the EU powers-that-be are chuffed by the fact that the Italian budget doesn’t meet their criteria. In fact, those same powers continue down the road of seeking to impose fines on Italy for the audacity of trying to manage their own country. (Will someone please explain to me why when the French make outlandish promises that will expand their budget deficit, the EU remains mum, but when the Italians do so, it is an international crisis?)

At the same time as all of this is ongoing, the ECB is bound and determined to end QE this month and keeps talking about starting to normalize interest rates next autumn. Whistling past the graveyard anyone? When three of the four biggest nations in the EU are under significant duress, it seems impossible to consider that owning the euro is the best position. While it is clear that the situation in the US is not nearly as robust as had been believed just a month ago, and the Fed seems to be responding to that by softening their tone; at some point, the ECB is going to recognize that things in the Eurozone are also much worse, and that talk of tightening policy is going to fade from the scene. Rather, the discussion will be how large to make the new TLTRO loan program and what else can the ECB do to help support the economy since cutting rates seems out of the question given the starting point. None of that is priced into the market right now, and so as that unfolds, the euro will fall. However, in today’s session, the euro has recouped about half its losses from yesterday, rebounding by 0.4% after a more than 0.8% decline Monday. As much as there is a building discussion over the impending collapse of the dollar, it continues to seem to me that there are much bigger problems elsewhere in the world, which will help the dollar retain its haven status.

Away from those two stories, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Reserve Bank of India’s widely respected governor, Urjit Patel, resigned suddenly Monday evening leading to a 1.5% decline in the rupee and a sharp fall in Indian equity markets Tuesday. But then, results from recent local elections seemed to shift toward the ruling BJP, instilling a bit more confidence that PM Modi will be able to be reelected next year. Given the perception of his market/business friendliness, that change precipitated a sharp reversal in markets with the rupee actually rallying 0.9% and Indian equity markets closing higher by 0.6%.

In fact, despite my warnings above, the dollar is under pressure across the board this morning while global equity markets are looking up. It seems there was a call between the US and China restarting the trade negotiation process, which was taken by investors as a sign that all would be well going forward. And while that is certainly encouraging, it seems a leap to believe a solution is at hand. However, there is no question the market is responding to that news as equity markets in Europe are all higher by between 1.0% and 2.0%, US equity futures are pointing to a 1% gain on the open, government bonds are softer across the board and the dollar is down. Even commodities are playing nice today with most rallying between 0.5%-1.0%. So everyone, RISK IS ON!!

Turning to the data story, first let me say that the euro has been helped by a better than expected German ZEW Index (-17.5 vs. exp -25), while the pound has benefitted from a modestly better than expected employment report, with Average earnings rising 3.3% and the Employment Change jumping 79K. At the same time, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index was just released at a worse than expected 104.8, indicating that the peak may well be behind us in the US economy. At 8:30 we see PPI data (exp 2.5%, 2.6% core) however, that tends not to be a significant market mover. Rather, today is shaping up as a risk-on day and unless there is a change in the tone of the trade talks, there is no reason to believe that will change. Accordingly, for hedgers, take advantage of the pop in currencies as the big picture continues to point toward eventual further dollar strength.

Good luck
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