Much Dissension

The market has turned its attention
To Draghi to see if he’ll mention
More buying of bonds
Or if he responds
To those who expect much dissension

While there were fireworks galore yesterday in London, where the UK Parliament had their last meeting before prorogation, this morning sees a much calmer market attitude overall. In brief, Boris did not fare well yesterday as he was unable to achieve his goal of a snap election while Parliament passed a law requiring him to ask for an extension on Brexit if there is no deal at the deadline. (I wonder what will happen if he simply chooses not to do so as that seems entirely feasible given the situation there). The market has absorbed the past several days’ activities with increasing amazement, but ultimately, FX traders have started to price out the probability of a hard Brexit. This is clear from the pound’s nearly 3.0% rally in the past week. While much will certainly take place during the next five weeks of prorogation, notably the party conferences, it would seem the only true surprise can be that a deal has been agreed, at which point the pound will be much higher. I don’t foresee that outcome, but it cannot be ruled out.

With Brexit on the back burner, the market is moving on to the trio of central bank meetings over the next nine days. This Thursday we hear from Signor Draghi while next week brings Chairman Powell on Wednesday and then Governor Carney on Thursday. What makes the ECB meeting so interesting is the amount of pushback that Draghi and his fellow doves have received lately from the northern European hawks. While it is never a surprise that the Germans or Austrians remain monetary hawks, it is much more surprising that Franҫois Villeroy de Galhau, the French ECB member and Governor of the Bank of France, has also been vocal in his rejection of the need for further QE at this time. The issue breaks down to whether the ECB should use its very limited arsenal early in an effort to prevent a broader economic downturn, or whether they should wait until they see the whites of recession’s eyes before acting. The tacit admission from this argument is that there is only a very limited amount of ammunition left for the ECB, despite Draghi’s continuous comments that they have many things they can do if necessary.

Unlike the FOMC or most other central banks, the ECB tries not to actually vote on policy, but rather come to a consensus. However, in this case, it may come to a vote, which would likely be unprecedented in and of itself. It would also highlight just how great the split between views remains, and implies that Madame Lagarde, when she takes the reins on November 1st, will have quite a lot of work ahead if she wants to continue along the dovish path.

In the doves’ favor is this morning’s data releases which showed French IP rebounding less than expected from last month’s disastrous reading (0.3%, -0.2% Y/Y) and Italian IP falling more sharply than expected (-0.7%). Meanwhile, after better than expected GDP data yesterday, the UK employment situation also showed a solid outcome with the Unemployment Rate falling back to 3.8% while earnings rose 4.0%, their highest rate since 2008.

And what did this do for currencies? Well, in that respect neither of these data points had much impact. The euro is lower by a scant 0.1% while the pound is essentially unchanged on the day. In fact, that is a pretty good description of the day overall, with the bulk of the G10 trading +/-0.20% from yesterday’s closing levels although the Skandies have seen more substantial weakness (SEK -0.8%, NOK -0.6%). In both cases, CPI was released at softer than expected levels (SEK 1.4%, 1.6% core; NOK 1.6%, 2.1% core) for August, which puts a crimp in the both central banks’ goal to push interest rates higher by the end of the year.

Turning to emerging markets, the largest movers have been ZAR which gained 0.5% after Factory Output fell a less than expected 1.1% and hope springs eternal for further stimulus driving bond investment. In second place was the renminbi, which has gained 0.25% overnight after the government there, in the guise of SAFE, removed barriers for investment in stocks and bonds. Clearly China has been trying to increase the importance of the renminbi within global financial markets, and allowing freer capital flow is one way to address that concern. However, this process has been ongoing for more than 20 years which begs the question, why now? It is quite reasonable to estimate that the continued pressure being applied by the US via the tariffs and trade war are forcing China to change many things that they would have preferred to keep under their own control. And while it is certainly possible they would have done this anyway, history suggests that the Chinese do not willingly reduce their control over any aspect of the economy. Just a thought. At any rate, initially this freedom is likely to see an inflow of assets as most investors and fund managers are underweight Chinese assets. The newfound ability to move funds in and out is likely to see an inflow to start, with corresponding CNY strength.

Beyond those stories though, it has been pretty dull. Treasury yields are lower by just 1bp, hardly the stuff of a risk assessment, while equity markets are slightly softer after a mixed, but basically flat, day yesterday. At this point, the market is looking toward Signor Draghi, who given futures markets are pricing a 100% chance of a 10bp cut and a 50% chance of a 20bp cut, along with a strong probability of the restarting of QE, has the chance to significantly disappoint. If that is the case, look for the euro to rally quickly, although a move of more than 1.0%-1.5% seems unlikely.

As for today, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index was released at a bit worse than expected 103.1, perhaps indicating the peak is behind us (certainly my view) and at 10:00 we see the JOLTS Job Opening report (exp 7.331M). But it is really shaping up to be a quiet one with everyone thinking about the ECB until Thursday morning.

Good luck
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Thus Far They’ve Failed

The ECB meeting today
Is forcing its members to weigh
The costs if they wait
To cut the base rate
Vs. benefits if they delay

Their problem is as things now stand
Recovery should be at hand
But thus far they’ve failed
As growth’s been curtailed
From Sicily to the Rhineland

Today brings the first of three major central bank meetings in the next six days as the ECB is currently meeting and the market awaits the outcome. Next week we will hear from both the BOJ and then the Fed, but for now all eyes are turned toward Frankfurt.

Expectations, as measured by the futures market, have moved to a 48% probability of a 10bp rate cut by the ECB this morning, although most of the punditry believe that Signor Draghi will simply lay the groundwork for a cut in September at the next meeting. The arguments for waiting are as follows: given the expectations of a Fed rate cut, with some still holding out hope for 50bps, the market benefits of cutting today would be quickly offset, and one of the few arrows the ECB still has left in its quiver would be wasted. The key benefit they are seeking is a weaker euro, and the concern is that any weakness will be short-lived, especially in the event of a 50bp cut by Powell. Of course, one need only look at the chart to see that the euro has been trending steadily lower for the past year, falling nearly 5% since last July, although as we await the meeting outcome it remains unchanged on the day. It’s not clear to me why else they would wait. After all, the data continues to point to ongoing Eurozone weakness every day. This morning’s example was the German Ifo Business Climate Index, which fell to 95.7, its lowest point since April 2013. It is becoming abundantly clear that Germany is heading into a recession and given Germany’s status as the largest economy in the Eurozone, representing nearly one-third of the total, that bodes ill for the entire bloc.

I maintain that it makes no sense to wait if they know that they will cut next month. They are far better off cutting now, maybe even by 20bps, and using September to restart QE, which is also a foregone conclusion. The funny thing about appointing Madame Lagarde, the uber dove, as the next ECB president, is that she won’t have anything to do once she sits down given the fact that all the easing tools will have been used already. Well, perhaps that is not strictly correct. Lagarde will be able to expand QE to cover, first, bank bonds and then, eventually equities.

(As an aside, for all you capitalists out there, the practice of central banks buying equities should cause great discomfort. After all, they can print as much money as they need to effectively buy ownership in all the public companies in an economy. And isn’t the definition of Socialism merely when the government owns the means of production? It seems to me that central bank equity purchases are a great leap down that slippery slope!)

At any rate, FX markets have largely been holding their breath awaiting the ECB outcome this morning. The same cannot be said of equity markets, where we continue to see records in the US, and markets in both Asia and Europe continue to rally on the idea that lower rates will continue to support stocks. At the same time, bond markets are also still on the march, with Bunds trading to yet another new low, touching -0.46% yesterday, and currently at -0.41%. Treasuries, too, remain bid, with the 10-year yield ticking slightly lower to 2.03%. And in the commodity space, oil prices are firmer after both a surprisingly large inventory draw and the ongoing issues in the Persian Gulf as the UK and Iran duke it out over captured tankers.

With the Brexit story now waiting for its next headlines, which will likely take at least a few days to arrive, and the US-China trade story awaiting next week’s meetings in Beijing, it is central banks all the way as the key market drivers for now. This morning’s Initial Claims (exp 219K) and Durable Goods (0.7%, 0.2% -ex transport) seem unlikely to be key movers.

So Mario, it’s all up to you today. How dovish Draghi sounds will be the key event for today, and likely the impetus behind movement until next Wednesday when Chairman Powell takes the spotlight. Personally, I think he will be far more dovish than the market is currently pricing and we will see the dollar rally further.

Good luck
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Laden With Fears

When lending, a term of ten years
At one time was laden with fears
But not anymore
As bond prices soar
And bond bulls regale us with cheers

Another day, another record low for German bund yields, this time -0.396%, and there is no indication that this trend is going to stop anytime soon. While this morning’s PMI Composite data was released as expected (Germany 52.6, France 52.7, Eurozone 52.2), it continues at levels that show subdued growth. And given the ongoing weakness in the manufacturing sector, the major fear of both economists and investors is that we are heading into a global recession. Alas, I fear they are right about that, and when the dust settles, and the NBER looks back to determine when the recession began, don’t be surprised if June 2019 is the start date. At any rate, it’s not just bund yields that are falling, it is a universal reaction. Treasuries are now firmly below 2.00% (last at 1.95%), but also UK Gilts (0.69%), French OATs (-0.06%) and JGB’s (-0.15%). Even Italy, where the ongoing fight over their budget situation is getting nastier, has seen its yields fall 13bps today down to 1.71%. In other words, bond markets continue to forecast slowing growth and low inflation for some time to come. And of course, that implies further policy ease by the world’s central bankers.

Speaking of which:

In what was a mini bombshell
Said Mester, it’s too soon to tell
If rates should be lowered
Since, as I look forward
My models say things are just swell

Yesterday, Cleveland Fed president Loretta Mester, perhaps the most hawkish member of the Fed, commented that, “I believe it is too soon to make that determination, and I prefer to gather more information before considering a change in our monetary-policy stance.” In addition, she questioned whether lowering rates would even help address the current situation of too-low inflation. Needless to say, the equity markets did not appreciate her comments, and sold off when they hit the tape. But it was a minor reaction, and, in the end, the prevailing wisdom remains that the Fed is going to cut rates at the end of this month, and at least two more times this year. In truth, we will learn a great deal on Friday, when the payroll report is released, because another miss like last month, where the NFP number was just 75K, is likely to bring calls for an immediate cut, and also likely to see a knee-jerk reaction higher in stocks on the premise that lower rates are always good.

The IMF leader Lagarde
(Whom Greeks would like feathered and tarred)
Come later this year
The euro will steer
As ECB prez (and blowhard)

The other big news this morning concerns the changing of the guard at the ECB and the other EU institutions that have scheduled leadership changes. In a bit of a surprise, IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, is to become the new ECB president, following Mario Draghi. Lagarde is a lawyer, not a central banker, and has no technocratic or central banking experience at all. Granted, she is head of a major supranational organization, and was French FinMin at the beginning of the decade. But all that reinforces is that she is a political hack animal, not that she is qualified to run the second most important policymaking institution in the world. Remember, the IMF, though impressive sounding, makes no policies, it simply hectors others to do what the IMF feels is correct. If you recall, when Chairman Powell was nominated, his lack of economics PhD was seen as a big issue. For some reason, that is not the case with Lagarde. I cannot tell if it’s because Powell has proven to be fine in the role, or if it would be seen as politically incorrect to complain about something like that since she ticks several other boxes deemed important. At any rate, now that politicians are running the two largest central banks (or at least will be as of November 1), perhaps we can dispel the fiction that central banks are independent of politics!

Away from the bond market, which we have seen rally, the market impact of this news has arguably been mixed. Equity markets in Asia were generally weak (Nikkei -0.5%, Shanghai -1.0%), but in Europe, investors are feeling fine, buying equities (DAX +0.6%, FTSE + 0.8%) alongside bonds. Arguably, the European view is that Madame Lagarde is going to follow in the footsteps of Signor Draghi and continue to ease policy aggressively going forward. And despite Mester’s comments, US equity futures are pointing higher as well, with both the DJIA and S&P looking at +0.3% gains right now.

Gold prices, too, are anticipating lower interest rates as after a short-term dip last Friday, with the shiny metal trading as low as $1384, it has rebounded sharply and after touching $1440, the highest print in six years, it is currently around $1420. I have to admit that the combination of fundamentals (lower global interest rates) and market technicals (a breakout above $1400 after three previous failed attempts) it does appear as though gold is heading much higher. Don’t be surprised to see it trade as high as $1700 before this rally is through.

Finally, the dollar continues to be the least interesting of markets with a mixed performance today, and an overall unchanged outcome. The pound continues to suffer as the Brexit situation meanders along and the uncertainty engendered hits economic activity. In fact, this morning’s PMI data was awful (50.2) and IHS/Markit is now calling for negative GDP growth in Q2 for the UK. Aussie data, however, was modestly better than expected helping both AUD and NZD higher, despite soft PMI data from China. EMG currencies are all over the map, with both gainers and losers, but the defining characteristic is that none of the movement has been more than 0.3%, confirming just how quiet things are.

As to the data story, this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 223K), the Trade Balance (-$54.0B), ISM Non-Manufacturing (55.9) and Factory Orders (-0.5%). While the ISM data may have importance, given the holiday tomorrow and the fact that payrolls are due Friday morning, it is hard to get too excited about significant FX movement today. However, that will not preclude the equity markets from continuing their rally on the basis of more central bank largesse.

Good luck
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