Much Could Be Gained

Today’s jobs report is the theme
About which most traders will scheme
If strong, bulls will buy
Just like last July
If weak, you can bet they’ll all scream

But yesterday there was some news
About a Fed President’s views
Ms. Mester explained
That much could be gained
If price hikes the Fed could perfuse

Yes folks, it’s payrolls day so let’s get that out of the way quickly. Here are the current consensus estimates as per Bloomberg:

Nonfarm Payrolls 145K (whisper 125K)
Private Payrolls 130K
Manufacturing Payrolls 3K
Unemployment Rate 3.7%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (3.2% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.4
Participation Rate 63.2%
Trade Balance -$54.5B

Census hiring explains the relatively wide gap between nonfarm and private payrolls, and it is important to understand that these numbers represent a downtick from the trends we have seen during the past several years. But it is also important to remember that a nonfarm number greater than 100K is deemed sufficient to prevent the Unemployment Rate from rising as population growth in the US slows. Given how poor the data has been this week, while official forecasts at most institutions haven’t fallen much, the trading community is definitely looking for a weaker number.

In the event the data is weak, I expect the dollar to decline as the market starts to price in more than a 25bp cut for the end of this month (currently an 85% probability), but I think the initial reaction to equities could be a rally as the reflex of lower rates leading to higher stock prices kicks in. Alas, for stock bulls, I fear the situation is starting to turn to the data is getting weak enough to indicate an imminent recession which will not be good for equity markets. Of course, a strong print should see both the stock market and the dollar rally, while Treasuries sell off. As an aside, 10-year Treasury yields have fallen 37 basis points since September 13! That is a huge move and a very good indicator of just how quickly sentiment has shifted regarding the Fed’s activity later this month.

But there was something else yesterday that I think was not widely noticed, yet I believe is of significant importance. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, one of the two most hawkish members of the FOMC (KC’s Esther George is the other) spoke yesterday and said she thought, “adopting a band for the Fed’s inflation objective makes sense for communications reasons, as it allows some scope to run inflation a bit higher in the band during good times while allowing the target for price gains to be lower during downturns when interest rates are near zero.” This is hugely significant because if a Fed hawk is now comfortable allowing inflation to run above target, something that hawks specifically fight, it means that the FOMC is much more dovish than previously assumed. And that means that we are likely to head toward ZIRP much sooner than many had thought.

This is clearly an impediment to further dollar strength, as one of the pillars of the strong dollar view has been the idea that the FOMC would maintain relatively tighter monetary policy than other central banks. Of course, as we have already seen, other central banks are not sitting around, waiting for Godot, but acting aggressively already. For example, after the RBA cut rates last week, last night the Reserve Bank of India cut rates by 25bps while lowering GDP forecasts. As inflation remains modest in India, you can bet that there will be further cuts to come. The FX impact was on a day when the dollar lost ground against virtually all EMG counterparts, INR actually weakened by 0.15%.

Away from these stories, Brexit is still Brexit with Boris flitting around Europe trying to close the loop. Though not yet able to get a deal agreed in Brussels, he seemingly is having success at home in getting enough of Parliament to back him to get his deal passed. And that is important for the EU, because given the previous failure of Teresa May to get her deal passed, the EU is wary that anything to which they agree will still be voted down. But if Boris can show his deal will get enacted in the UK, it would be a powerful argument for the EU to blink.

And that’s really it folks. The dollar is generally softer this morning against both G10 and EMG currencies with KRW the biggest gainer (+0.8%) on excitement over prospects for the Fed to cut rates which encouraged profit taking after a two-week 2+% decline. But it’s all about payrolls this morning. We do hear from three more Fed speakers today, with Chairman Jay on the hustings in Washington this afternoon. That will give the market plenty of time to have absorbed the data.

For my money, I fear a much worse NFP number, something on the order of 50K. The data has been too weak to expect something much better in my view.

Good luck and good weekend
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No Magical Date

March 1st is no magical date
Said Trump, while investors fixate
On whether a deal
On trade will be sealed
By then, or if tariffs can wait

After a day where there was mercifully little discussion of the ongoing trade negotiations, they have come back to the fore. Yesterday, President Trump indicated that the March 1st deadline for a deal was now far more flexible than had previously been indicated. Based on the reports that there has been substantial progress made so far, it seems a foregone conclusion that tariffs will not be rising on March 2nd. However, key issues remain open, notably the question of forced technology transfer and IP theft. Of course, as the Chinese maintain that neither one of those things currently occur, it is difficult for them to accept a resolution and change their methods. On the flip side, both Trump and Xi really need a deal to remove a major economic concern as well as to demonstrate their ability to help their respective nations.

One of the things that appears to be on the agenda is a Chinese pledge to maintain a stable yuan going forward, rather than allowing the market to determine its value. Looking back, it is ironic that the IMF allowed the yuan to join the SDR in 2016 to begin with, given that it continues to lack a key characteristic for inclusion in the basket; the ability to be “freely usable” to make payments for international transactions. And while the PBOC had been alleging that they were slowly allowing more market influence on the currency in their efforts to internationalize it, the results of the trade talks seem certain to halt whatever progress has been made and likely reverse some portion of it. It should be no surprise that the yuan strengthened on the back of these reports with the currency rallying 0.8% since yesterday morning. If currency control is part of the deal, then my previous views that the renminbi will weaken this year need to be changed. Given the continued presence of financial controls in China, if they choose to maintain a strong CNY, they will be able to do so, regardless of what happens in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, away from the trade saga, the ongoing central bank activities remain the top story for markets. This has been made clear by comments from several central bankers in the past 24 hours. First, we heard from Cleveland Fed President Mester who, unlike the rest of the speakers lately, indicated that she expects rates to be higher by the end of the year. her view is that 3.00% is the neutral rate and that while waiting right now makes sense, the growth trajectory she expects will require still higher rates. However, while the FX market paid her some attention, it is not clear that the equity market did. Two things to note are that she is likely the most hawkish member of the Fed to begin with, and she is not a voting member this year, so will not be able to express her views directly.

Remember, too, that at 2:00 this afternoon, the FOMC Minutes of the January meeting will be released. Market participants and analysts are all very interested to see the nature of the conversation that led to the remarkable reversal from ‘further rate hikes are likely, to ‘patience is appropriate for now’ all while economic data remained largely unchanged. Until that release, most traders will be reluctant to add to any positions and movement is likely to be muted.

Across the pond, ECB Member Peter Praet continues to discuss the prospect of rolling over TLTRO’s which begin coming due in June of next year. Remember, one of the key issues for the Eurozone banks who availed themselves of this funding is that once the maturities fall below one year, it ceases to be considered long term funding and impacts bank capital ratios. Banks will then either have to call in loans that were made on the basis of this funding, or raise loan interest rates, or see their profits reduced as they pay more for their capital. None of these situations will help Eurozone growth. So, despite claims that banks must stand on their own, and TLTRO’s will only be rolled over if there is a monetary policy case to be made, the reality is that it is quite clear the ECB will roll these loans over. If they don’t, it will require the restarting of asset purchases or some other easing measure.

Once again, I will highlight that given the current growth and inflation trajectories in the Eurozone, there is a vanishingly small probability that the ECB will allow policy to get tighter than its current settings, and a pretty large probability that they will ease further. This will not help the euro regardless of the Fed’s actions. Yesterday saw the euro rally on the back of the updated trade story, but that has been stopped short as the market begins to accept the idea that the ECB is not going to tighten policy at all. Thus, this morning, the euro is unchanged.

The final story of note is, of course, Brexit, where the most recent word is that PM May is seeking to get a subtle change in the EU stance on the backstop plan thus allowing a new vote, this time with a chance of passing. The pro-Brexit concern is that the current form of the backstop will force the UK to be permanently attached to the EU’s trade regime with no say in the matter, exactly the opposite of what they voted for. May is meeting with EU President Juncker today, and it is quite possible that the EU is starting to feel the pressure of the ramifications of a no-deal Brexit and getting concerned. The Brexit outcome remains highly uncertain, but the FX implications remain the same; a Brexit deal will help the pound rally initially, while a no-deal Brexit will see a sharp decline in Sterling. Yesterday there was hope for the deal and the pound rallied. This morning, not so much as the pound has given back half the gain and is down 0.2% on the day.

Elsewhere, the dollar has been mixed with gainers and losers in both the G10 and the EMG blocs as everybody awaits the Minutes, which is the only data for the day. It is hard to believe there will be much movement ahead of them, and afterwards, it will depend on what they say.

Good luck
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