Ephemeral

Inflation remains
Ephemeral in Japan
Will Suga as well?

Leadership in Japan remains a fraught situation as highlighted this week.  First, three by-elections were held over the weekend and the governing LDP lost all three convincingly.  PM Yoshihide Suga is looking more and more like the prototypical Japanese PM, a one-year caretaker of the seat.  Previous PM, Shinzo Abe, was the exception in Japanese politics, getting elected and reelected several times and overseeing the country for more than 8 years.  But, since 2000, Suga-san is the 9th PM (counting Abe as 1 despite the fact he held office at two different times).  In fact, if you remove Abe-san from the equation, the average tenor of a Japanese PM is roughly 1 year.  Running a large country is a very difficult job, and in the first year, most leaders are barely beginning to understand all the issues, let alone trying to address whichever they deem important.  In Japan, not unlike Italy, the rapid turnover has left the nation in a less favorable position than ought to have been the case.

Of course, long tenure is no guarantee of success in a leadership role, just ask BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda.  He was appointed to the role in February 2013 and has been a strong proponent of ultra-easy monetary policy as a means to stoke inflation in Japan.  The stated target is 2.0%, and for the past 8 years, the BOJ has not even come close except for the period from March 2013-March 2014 when a large hike in the Goods and Services Tax raised prices on everyday items and saw measured inflation peak at 3.7% in August.  Alas for Kuroda-san, once the base effects of the tax hike disappeared, the underlying lack of inflationary impulse reasserted itself and in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, CPI currently sits at -0.2%.

Last night, the BOJ met and left policy on hold, as expected, but released its latest economic and inflation forecasts, including the first look at their views for 2023.  Despite rapidly rising commodity prices as well as a slightly upgraded GDP growth forecast, the BOJ projects that even by 2023, CPI will only rise to 1.0%.  Thus, a decade of monetary policy largesse in Japan will have singularly failed to achieve the only target of concern, CPI at 2.0%.

Personally, I think the people of Japan should be thankful that the BOJ remains unsuccessful in this effort as the value of their savings remains intact despite ZIRP having been in place since, essentially, 1999.  While they may not be earning much interest, at least their purchasing power remains available.  But the current central bank zeitgeist is that 2.0% inflation is the holy grail and that designing monetary policy to achieve that end is the essence of the job.  The remarkable thing about this mindset is that every nation has a completely different underlying situation with respect to its demographics, debt load, fiscal accounts and growth capabilities, which argues that perhaps the one size fits all approach of 2.0% CPI may not be universally appropriate.

In the end, though, 2.0% is the only number that matters to a central banker, and for now, virtually everyone worldwide is trying to design their policy to achieve it.  As I have repeatedly discussed previously, here at home I expect that soon enough, Chairman Powell and friends will find themselves having to dampen inflation to achieve their goal, but for now, pretty much every G10 central bank remains all-in on their attempts to push price increases higher.  That means that ZIRP, NIRP and QE will not be ending anytime soon.  Do not believe the tapering talk here in the US, the Fed is extremely unlikely to consider it until late next year, I believe, at the earliest.

Delving into Japanese monetary policy seemed appropriate as central banks are this week’s story line and we await the FOMC outcome tomorrow afternoon.  In addition to the BOJ, early this morning Sweden’s Riksbank also met and left policy unchanged with their base rate at 0.0% and maintained its QE program of purchasing a total of SEK 700 billion to help keep liquidity flowing into the market.  But there, too, the inflation target of 2.0% is not expected to be achieved until 2024 now, a year later than previous views, and there is no expectation that interest rates will be raised until then.

What have these latest policy statements done for markets?  Not very much.  Overall, risk appetite is modestly under pressure this morning as Japan’s Nikkei (-0.5%) was the worst performer in Asia with both the Hang Seng and Shanghai indices essentially unchanged on the day.  I would not ascribe the Nikkei’s weakness to the BOJ, but rather to the general tone of malaise in today’s markets.  European equity markets have also been underwhelming with red numbers across the board (DAX -0.35%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.2%) albeit not excessively so.  Here, too, apathy seems the best explanation, although one can’t help but be impressed with the fact that yet another bank, this time UBS, reported significant losses ($774M) due to their relationship with Archegos.  As to US futures, their current miniscule gains of 0.1% really don’t offer much information.

Bond prices are also under very modest pressure with 10-year Treasury yields higher by 1.1bps and most of Europe’s sovereign market seeing yield rises of between 0.5bps and 1.0bps.  In other words, activity remains light as investors and traders await the word of god Powell tomorrow.

Commodity prices, on the other hand, are not waiting for anything as they continue to march higher across the board.  Oil (+0.8%) is leading the energy space higher, while copper (+1.1%) is leading the base metals space higher.  Gold and silver have also edged slightly higher, although they continue to lag the pace of the overall commodity rally.

The dollar, which had been uniformly higher earlier this morning is now a bit more mixed, although regardless of the direction of the move, the magnitude has been fairly small.  In the G10 space, the leading decliner is AUD (-0.2%) which is happening despite the commodity rally, although it is well off its lows for the session.  That said, it is difficult to get too excited about any currency movement of such modest magnitude.  Away from Aussie, JPY (-0.2%) is also a touch softer and the rest of the G10 is +/- 0.1% changed from yesterday’s closing levels, tantamount to unchanged.

EMG currencies have seen a bit more movement, but only TRY (+0.75%) is showing a substantial change from yesterday.  it seems that there is a growing belief that the tension between the US and Turkey regarding the Armenian genocide announcement by the Biden administration seems to be ebbing as Turkish President Erdogan refrained from escalating things.  This has encouraged traders to believe that the impact will be small and return their focus to the highest real yields around.  But away from the lira, gainers remain modest (KRW +0.25%, TWD +0.2%) with both of these currencies benefitting from equity inflows.  On the downside, ZAR (-0.35%) is the laggard as despite commodity price strength, focus seems to be shifting to the broader economic problems in the nation, especially with regard to a lack of power generation capacity.

Data this morning brings Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 11.8%) and Consumer Confidence (113.0), neither of which is likely to have a big impact although the Case Shiller number certainly calls into question the concept of low inflation. With the FOMC tomorrow, there are no Fed speakers today, so I anticipate a relatively dull session.  Treasury yields continue to be the underlying driver for the dollar in my view, so keep your eyes there.

Good luck and stay safe
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Not On His Watch

Rumors were rampant
Kuroda would let yields rise
Oops! Not on his watch
 
Perhaps Chairman Powell should look east for clues on how to manage bond market expectations, as his efforts yesterday can only be termed a disaster.  However, Haruhiko Kuroda was quite successful in talking down the back end of the JGB curve, and the BOJ didn’t have to spend a single dime yen. 
 
Last night, Kuroda-san was speaking to parliament on a number of issues when he was asked, point blank, if the BOJ was considering widening the yield band on 10-year JGB’s.  He replied, “Personally, I believe it’s neither necessary nor appropriate to expand the band.  There’s no change in the importance of keeping the yield curve stable at a lower level.”  And just like that, JGB yields tumbled across the board with 10-year yields falling 5bps to 0.05%.  The genesis of the question came about as rumors have been constant that during the ongoing BOJ policy review, with conclusions set to be announced later this month, the BOJ would allow a wider band around their 10-year YCC target of 0.0% as a means of steepening the yield curve to help the banking sector.  But clearly, that is not on the cards, so whatever changes may be announced next month, it seems that portion of the current policy is remaining unchanged. The market response was immediate in bond markets, but also in FX as the yen quickly fell 0.5% and is now trading at its weakest level since last June.  Perhaps what is more interesting about the yen’s move is the trajectory of its declines, which are starting to go parabolic.  Beware a much weaker yen, with a short-term test of 110 seemingly on the cards.
 
Chair Jay tried quite hard to explain
That joblessness is still the bane
Of policy goals
Thus, rising payrolls
Are needed ere rates rise again
 
But what he said, and markets heard
Was different and that is what spurred
A bond market rout
And stock buying drought
While dollar buys were undeterred
 
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Chairman Powell made his last comments yesterday before the quiet period begins ahead of the mid-March FOMC meeting.  In an interview he explained that the FOMC remains quite far from its goals of maximum employment and stable (2% inflation) prices and that they would not be altering policy until those goals are achieved.  However, he did not indicate that they would be expanding their current easy money stance, either by expanding QE or extending the tenor of purchases, and he remained sanguine when asked about the steepening of the yield curve, explaining that it was a positive sign of growth expectations.
 
Alas, it is not that simple for the Fed as they have put themselves in a very difficult position.  Financial conditions, while seemingly an amorphous term, actually has some precision.  The Chicago Fed has an index with 105 variables but Goldman Sachs has created a much simpler version with just 4 variables; riskless interest rates (10-year yields), equity valuations (S&P 500), Credit Spreads (CDX) and the exchange rate (DXY).  Directionally, conditions are tightening when yields rise, stocks fall, credit spreads widen and the dollar rises, which is exactly what is happening right now!  In fact, in the wake of the Powell comments, they all got tighter.  Now, I’m pretty sure that was not Powell’s intention, but nonetheless, it was the result. 
 
The problem Powell and the Fed have is that, like Pavlov’s dogs, markets begin to drool at the sound of a Powell speech in anticipation of further easy money to prop things up.  But the market has extended this concept to the back end of the curve, not just the front, and the Fed, unless they change policy, has far less control out there.  It was this setup that put the pressure on Powell to ease policy further, and when he did not change his tune, the market had a little fit. 
 
Now, remember, the Fed is in its quiet period for the next 12 days, 8 of which will see markets open and trading.  Markets have a history of testing the Fed when they want something, and the Fed’s reaction function, ever since Maestro Alan Greenspan was Fed Chair in 1987 during the Black Monday stock market rout, has been to flood the market with more liquidity when markets sell off.  With that in mind, I would not be surprised to see 10-year yields test 2.0% in the next two weeks as the market tries to force the Fed’s hand.  Be prepared for more volatility and tighter financial conditions as defined by the index I described above.
 
Which leads us to today’s market activity, where risk is clearly under some pressure ahead of the payroll report this morning.  In Asia, equities were broadly, but not deeply, lower (Nikkei -0.25%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai -0.1%) while in Europe, early losses every where have eased and the picture is now mixed (DAX -0.6%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.4%).  US futures, which had been in negative territory all evening have turned higher and are currently up by roughly 0.15%.
 
Bonds, however, are universally softer with yields rising everywhere (except JGB’s last night).  So, Bunds (+1.2bps), OATs (+1.5bps) and Gilts (+4.2bps) lead the yield parade higher with Treasuries currently unchanged, although this is after yesterday’s 8bp rout.  Australian ACGBs continue to sell off sharply with yields higher by another 6bps overnight which takes that move to 63bps in the past month.
 
On the commodity front, OPEC+ surprised markets yesterday by leaving production unchanged vs. an expectation that they would increase it by 1 million bpd, which resulted in a sharp rally in oil prices which has continued this morning.  WTI (+2.5%) is now above $65/bbl for the first time since October 2018.  Base metals have rallied as well while precious metals are still suffering from the higher real yields attached to higher nominal yields.
 
And finally, the dollar, which is higher vs. almost every one of its counterparts this morning, with only NOK (+0.2%) and RUB (+0.3%) benefitting from the oil rally enough to overcome the dollar’s yield effect.  But elsewhere in the G10, AUD (-0.7%) and NZD -0.75%) are leading the way lower with GBP (-0.55%) also under the gun.  Now, we are seeing yields rise in all these currencies, but a big part of this move is clearly position unwinding as the massive short dollar positions that have been evident since Q4 2020 are starting to feel more pressure and getting unwound.  The euro, too, is softer, -0.3%, which has taken it below its previous correction lows, and technically opens up a test of the 200-day moving average at 1.1825.
 
In the EMG bloc, the weakness is widespread with CE4 currencies leading the euro lower, LATAM currencies (CLP -0.65%, MXN -0.6%, BRL -0.25%) all under pressure and most APAC currencies having performed poorly overnight, including CNY (-0.3%) which fell despite the new Five Year plan forecasting GDP growth above 6.0% this year.
 
And finally, the data story where we have payrolls this morning:
 

Nonfarm Payrolls

198K

Private Payrolls

195K

Manufacturing Payrolls

15K

Unemployment Rate

6.3%

Participation Rate

61.4%

Average Hourly Earnings

0.2% (5.3% Y/Y)

Average Weekly Hours

34.9

Trade Balance

-$67.5B


Source: Bloomberg
 
The thing is, while this number usually means a lot, I think there is asymmetric risk attached today.  A weak number will not do anything, while a strong number could well see the next leg of the bond market rout and ensuing stock market weakness.  Traders, when they are in the mood to test the Fed, will jump on any excuse, and this would be a good one.
 
For right now, the dollar has the upper hand, and I see no reason for that to change until we hear something different from the Fed.  And that is two weeks away!
 
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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A Major Mistake

There once was a pundit named Fately
Who asked, is Fed policy lately
A major mistake
Or did Yellen break
The mold? If she did t’was sedately

Please sanction my poetic license by listing Janet Yellen as the primary suspect in my inquiry; it was simply that her name fit within the rhyme scheme better than her fellow central bankers, all of whom acted in the same manner. Of course, I am really discussing the group of Bernanke, Draghi, Kuroda and Carney as well as Yellen, the cabal that decided ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), NIRP (negative interest rate policy) and QE (quantitative easing) made sense.

Recently, there has been a decided uptick in warnings from pundits about how current Fed Chair, Jay Powell, is on the verge of a catastrophic policy mistake by raising interest rates consistently. There are complaints about his plainspoken manner lacking the subtleties necessary to ‘guide’ the market to the correct outcome. In this case, the correct outcome does not mean sustainable economic growth and valuation but rather ever higher equity prices. There are complaints that his autonomic methodology (which if you recall was actually instituted by Yellen herself and simply has been followed by Powell), does not take into account other key issues such as wiggles in the data, or more importantly the ongoing rout in non-US equity markets. And of course, there is the constant complaint from the current denizen of the White House that Powell is undermining the economy, and by extension the stock market, by raising rates. You may have noticed a pattern about all the complaints coming back to the fact that Powell’s policy actions are no longer supporting the stock markets around the world. Curious, no?

But I think it is fair to ask if Powell’s policies are the mistake, or if perhaps, those policies he is unwinding, namely QE and ZIRP, were the mistakes. After all, in the scope of history, today’s interest rates remain exceedingly low, somewhere in the bottom decile of all time as can be seen in Chart 1 below.

5000 yr interest rate chart

So maybe the mistake was that the illustrious group of central bankers mentioned above chose to maintain these extraordinary monetary policies for nearly a decade, rather than begin the unwinding process when growth had recovered several years after the recession ended. As the second chart shows, the Fed waited seven years into a recovery before beginning the process of slowly unwinding what had been declared emergency policy measures. Was it really still an emergency in 2015, six years after the end of the recession amid 2.0% GDP growth, which caused the Fed to maintain a policy stance designed to address a severe recession?

Chart 2

real gdp growth

My point is simply that any analysis of the current stance of the Federal Reserve and its current policy trajectory must be seen in the broader context of not only where it is heading, but from whence it came. Ten years of extraordinarily easy monetary policy has served to build up significant imbalances and excesses throughout financial markets. Consider the growth in leveraged loans, especially covenant lite ones, corporate debt or government debt, all of which are now at record levels, as key indicators of the current excesses. The history of economics is replete with examples of excesses leading to shakeouts throughout the world. The boom and bust cycle is the very essence of Schumpeterian capitalism, and as long as we maintain a capitalist economy, those cycles will be with us.

The simple fact is that every central bank is ‘owned’ by its government, and has been for the past thirty years at least. (Paul Volcker is likely the last truly independent Fed Chair we have had, although Chairman Powell is starting to make a name for himself.) And because of that ownership, every central bank has sought to keep rates as low as possible for as long as possible to goose growth above trend. In the past, although that led to excesses, the downturns tended to be fairly short, and the rebounds quite robust. However, the advent of financial engineering has resulted in greater and greater leverage throughout the economy and correspondingly bigger potential problems in the next downturn. The financial crisis was a doozy, but I fear the next one, given the massive growth in debt outstanding, will be much worse.

At that point, I assure you that the first person who will be named as the culprit for ‘causing’ the recession will be Jay Powell. My point here is that, those fingers need to be pointed at Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi, Carney and Kuroda, as it was their actions that led to the current significantly imbalanced economy. The next recession will have us longing for the good old days of 2008 right after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the political upheaval that will accompany it, or perhaps follow immediately afterwards, is likely to make what we are seeing now seem mild. While my crystal ball does not give me a date, it is becoming abundantly clear that the date is approaching far faster than most appreciate.

Be careful out there. Markets and politics are going to become much more volatile over the next several years.

One poet’s view!

Still At Its Peak

Three central bank meetings this week
Seem unlikely, havoc to wreak
When they all adjourn
Attention will turn
To joblessness, still at its peak

In the current central bank calendric cycle, the ECB meeting was the first to be completed, and last Thursday we learned virtually nothing new about Mario Draghi’s plans. The ECB is going to reduce QE further starting in October and is due to end it completely by year end. As to interest rates, ‘through summer’ remains the watchword, with markets forecasting a 10bp rate rise in either September or October of next year.

This week brings us the other three big central bank meetings, starting with the BOJ’s announcement tomorrow evening, then the FOMC on Wednesday and finally the BOE on Thursday. Going in reverse order, the market remains convinced that Governor Carney will raise rates 25bps, with a more than 80% probability priced in by futures traders. While I think it is a mistake, it does seem increasingly likely it will be the outcome. As to the Fed, there are no expectations of any policy adjustments at this meeting, and as there is no press conference following, I expect that the statement, when released Wednesday afternoon, will have little market impact.

This takes us to tomorrow evening’s BOJ meeting, which is the only one where there seems to be any real uncertainty. Last week I discussed the questions at hand which boil down to whether or not Kuroda and company have come to believe that QQE is not only ineffective, but actually beginning to have a detrimental impact on the Japanese economy. After all, they have been at it for the better part of five years and have still had zero success in achieving their 2.0% inflation goal. The three biggest problems are that Japanese banks have seen their business models decimated by increasingly narrow lending spreads; the ETF purchase program has had an increasingly large distortive impact on the Japanese stock markets as the BOJ now owns roughly 4% of all Japanese equities; and finally, the yield curve control plan has essentially broken the JGB market as evidenced by the fact that they continue to see sessions where there are actually no trades in the 10-year JGB. (Consider what would happen if there were no trades in 10-year Treasuries one day!)

With all of this as baggage, there has been increasing discussion that the BOJ may seek to tweak the program to try to make it more effective. However, they have painted themselves into a corner because if they reduce their activity in the JGB market, the market is likely to see it as a reduced commitment to QE and it is likely to result in higher yields there, which can easily lead to two separate but related outcomes. First, USDJPY is likely to fall further, as higher JGB yields lead to more interest for Japanese investors to bring their funds home. Given the disinflationary impact of a stronger currency, this would be a disaster. And second, if there is less support for JGB’s, given the fungibility of money and the open capital markets that exist, we are likely to see yields rise in US, UK, European and other developed markets. While Chairman Powell may welcome this as it will reduce concern over the Fed inverting the yield curve, the rest of the world, which retains far easier monetary policy, is likely to be somewhat less welcoming of that outcome. And this is all based on anonymous reports that the BOJ is going to make some technical adjustments to their program, not change the nature of what they are doing. So if you are looking for some fireworks this week, the BOJ is your best bet.

However, beyond the central banks, the market will turn its attention to Friday’s employment report here in the US. Last Friday saw a robust GDP report, as widely expected, and further proof of the divergence between the US and the rest of the global economy. This Friday could simply add to that impression. Here is the full listing of this week’s data, which is quite robust:

Tuesday BOJ Rate Decision -0.10% (unchanged)
  Personal Income 0.4%
  Personal Spending 0.4%
  PCE 0.1% (2.3% Y/Y)
  Core PCE 0.1% (2.0% Y/Y)
  Case-Shiller Home Prices 6.4%
  Chicago PMI 62.0
Wednesday ADP Employment 185K
  ISM Manufacturing 59.5
  ISM Prices Paid 75.8
  FOMC Rate Decision 2.00% (unchanged)
Thursday BOE Rate Decision 0.75% (+0.25%)
  Initial Claims 221K
  Factory Orders 0.7%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 190K
  Private Payrolls 185K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 22K
  Unemployment Rate 3.9%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (2.7% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.5
  Trade Balance -$46.2B
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 58.7

So, as you can see there is much to be learned this week. With the focus on the central banks and Friday’s payroll data, don’t lose sight of tomorrow’s PCE report, because remember, that is the Fed’s go-to number on inflation. Overall, looking at forecasts, things remain remarkably strong in the US economy this long into an expansion, which is something that has many folks concerned. We also continue to see important corporate earnings releases this week for Q2, which given the high profile misses we had last week, could well impact markets beyond individual equity names.

As to the dollar through all this, it is a touch softer this morning, but remains on the strong side of its recent trading range. While I still like it higher, there is so much potential new information coming this week, it is probably wisest to remain as neutral as possible for now. For hedgers, that means the 50% rule is in effect.

Good luck
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