Problem’s Aplenty

Two stories have traders’ attention
The first showed the Fed’s apprehension
That their preferred path
Was earning the wrath
Of markets, thus causing dissention

The other is that the G20
(According to the cognoscenti)
May let Xi explain
A trade war’s insane
Since both men have problems aplenty

Once again the market has narrowed its focus on two things only, in this case the Minutes from the November FOMC meeting and the upcoming dinner between Presidents Trump and Xi at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. It seems that traders in virtually every market are taking their cues from these stories.

Starting with the Minutes, it is clear that the Fed finds itself at an inflection point in their policymaking with the easy part now behind them. Up until September, it was evident that policy was extremely accommodative, and the Fed’s goal of gradually reducing that accommodation was easy to achieve, hence the steady pace of a 25bp rate hike every other meeting. However, despite the fact that nobody actually knows where the neutral rate of interest (also known as r*) is, it is apparent that the current Fed funds rate is much closer to that mythical rate than it used to be. Hence the dilemma. How much further should the Fed raise rates, and at what pace? The last thing they want is to raise rates sufficiently to slow the economy into a recession. But they also remain quite wary of policy settings that are too easy, since that could lead to financial instability (read bubbles) and higher inflation. This is why they get paid the big bucks!

Signals from the US economy lately have been mixed, with the housing market slowing along with auto sales, but general consumer confidence and spending remaining at very high levels. Underpinning the latter is the ongoing strength in the labor market, where the Unemployment rate remains near 50 year lows of 3.7%. There is a caveat with the labor market though, and that is the Initial Claims data, which had been trending lower consistently for the past nine years, but has suddenly started to tick higher over the past month. While this could simply be a temporary fluctuation based on changes in seasonal adjustments, it could also be the proverbial canary in the coalmine. We will have a better sense next Friday, when the November NFP report is released, but based on the recent Initial Claims data, a soft employment report is entirely within reason.

The upshot is that the Fed is no longer certain of its near term rate path which means that many of the investing memes of the past ten years, notably buy-the-dip, may no longer make sense. Instead, the volatility that we have seen lately across all markets is likely to be with us going forward. But remember, too, that volatility is a market’s natural habitat. It has been the extreme monetary policies of central banks that have moderated those natural movements. And as central banks back away from excessive monetary ease, we should all expect increased volatility.

The second story is the upcoming meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi tomorrow night. Signals from Trump going into the meeting have been mixed (aren’t all his signals mixed?) but my take is that sentiment is leaning toward at least a pause in any escalation of the trade war, with the true optimists expecting that concrete progress will be made toward ending the tariffs completely. Color me skeptical on the last part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a temporary truce is called and negotiations restarted as both men are under increasing domestic pressure (China’s PMI just fell to 50.0 last night indicating the economy there is slowing even more rapidly than before) and so a deal here would play well both on a political level, as well as to markets in each country. And when the needs of both parties are aligned, that is when deals are made. I don’t think this will end the tension, but a reduction in the inflammatory rhetoric would be a welcome result in itself.

Recapping the impact of the two stories, the fact that the Fed is no longer inexorably marching interest rates higher has been seen as quite the positive for equities, and not surprisingly a modest negative for the dollar. Meanwhile, optimism that something positive will come from the Trump-Xi dinner tomorrow has equity bulls licking their collective chops to jump back into the market, while FX traders see that as a dollar negative. In other words, both of the key stories are pointing in the same direction. That implies that prices already reflect those views, and that any disappointment will have a more significant impact than confirmation of beliefs.

As it happens, the dollar is actually a bit firmer this morning, rallying vs. most of its G10 counterparts, but only on the order of 0.2%. The pound remains under pressure as traders continue to try to handicap the outcome of the Parliamentary vote on Brexit on December 11, and the signs don’t look great. Meanwhile, the euro has softened after weaker than expected CPI data (headline 2.0%, core 1.0%) and continued weak growth data are making Signor Draghi’s plans to end QE next month seem that much more out of touch.

This morning brings a single data point, Chicago PMI (exp 58.0) as well as a speech from NY Fed President John Williams. However, at this point, given we have heard from both the Chairman and vice-Chairman already this week, it seems unlikely that Williams will surprise us with any new views. Remember, too, that Powell testifies to Congress next week, so we will get to hear an even more detailed discussion on his thinking on Tuesday. Until then, it seems that the dollar will continue its recent range trading. The one caveat is if there truly is a breakthrough tomorrow night in Buenos Aires, we can expect the dollar to respond at the opening in Asia Sunday night. But for today, it doesn’t feel like much is on the cards.

Good luck and good weekend
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There Is No Plan B

Said Europe, “there is no Plan B”
This deal is the best that you’ll see
Opponents keep saying
The deal is dismaying
Because it cedes full sovereignty

It turns out last week was quite a difficult one in markets, with equity prices around the world under significant pressure as concerns continue to grow regarding growth prospects everywhere. In fact, for the first time we heard Fed Chair Jay Powell moderate his description of the US economy’s growth trajectory. It seems that the clear slowing in the housing sector combined with less positive IP and Durable Goods data has been enough to alert the Fed to the possibility that all may not be right with the world. While there is no indication that the Fed will delay its December rate hike, questions about 2019’s rate path have certainly been debated more aggressively with the consensus now believing that we can see a pause before just two more rate hikes next year. With the Powell Fed indicating that they are truly data dependent (as opposed to the Yellen Fed which liked the term, but not the reality), if we continue to see slowing US growth, then it is quite reasonable to expect a shallower trajectory of rate hikes in the US.

But that was last week’s news and as the new week begins, the biggest story is that the EU has agreed the terms of the Brexit negotiations that were just completed two weeks ago. The entire process now moves on to the next stage, where all 28 parliaments need to approve the deal. Given the terms of the deal, which has the opportunity to lock the UK into the EU’s customs union with no say in its evolution, it would be surprising if any of the other 27 members reject the deal. However, it remains unclear that the deal will be accepted by the UK parliament, where PM May does not hold a majority and rules because of a deal with the Northern Irish DUP. Of course the irony here is that Northern Ireland is the area of greatest contention in the deal, given the competing desires of, on the one hand, no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and on the other hand, the desire to be able to separate the two entities for tariff and immigration purposes.

At this stage, it seems there is at best a fifty-fifty chance that the deal makes it through the UK parliament, as the opposition Labour Party has lambasted the deal (albeit for different reasons) in the same manner as the hard-line Brexiteers. But political outcomes rarely follow sound logic, and so at this point, all we can do is wait until the vote, which is expected to be on December 12. What we do know is that the FX market is not sold on the deal’s prospects as despite the announcement by the EU, the pound has managed to rally just 0.25% today and remains, at 1.2850, much closer to the bottom of its recent trading range than the top. I continue to believe that a no vote will be tantamount to a hard Brexit and that the pound will suffer further from here in that event. However, if parliament accepts the deal, I would expect the pound to rally to around1.35 initially, although its future beyond that move is likely to be lower anyway.

Last week’s risk-off behavior led to broad-based dollar strength, with the greenback rallying on the order of 1.0% against both its G10 and major EMG counterparts. While that movement pales in comparison to the rout in equity markets seen last week, it was a consistent one nonetheless. This morning, though, the dollar is under a modicum of pressure as the fear evident last week has abated.

For example, despite softer than expected German IFO data (102.0 vs. exp 102.3), the euro has rallied 0.25% alongside the pound. A big part of this story seems to be that the Italians have made several comments about a willingness to work with a slightly smaller budget deficit in 2019 than the 2.4% first estimated. While the euro has clearly benefitted from this sentiment, the real winner has been Italian debt (where 10-year BTP’s are 17bps lower) and Italian stocks, where the MIB is higher by 2.7%. In fact, that equity sentiment has spread throughout the continent as virtually every European market is higher by 1% or more. We also saw strength in APAC equity markets (Nikkei +0.75%, Hang Seng +1.75%) although Shanghai didn’t join in the fun, slipping a modest 0.15%. The point is that market sentiment this morning is clearly far better than what was seen last week.

Looking ahead to the data this week, the latest PCE data is due as well as the FOMC Minutes, and we have a number of Fed speakers, including Chairman Powell on Wednesday.

Tuesday Case-Shiller Home Prices 5.3%
  Consumer Confidence 135.5
Wednesday Q3 GDP 3.5%
  New Home Sales 578K
Thursday Initial Claims 219K
  Personal Income 0.4%
  Personal Spending 0.4%
  PCE 0.2% (2.1% Y/Y)
  Core PCE 0.2% (1.9% Y/Y)
Friday Chicago PMI 58.3

In addition to Powell, we hear from NY Fed President Williams as well as Vice-Chairman Richard Clarida, both of whom will be closely watched. Given the recent change in tone to both the US data (slightly softer) and the comments from Fed speakers (slightly less hawkish), I think the key this week will be the Minutes and the speeches. Investors will be extremely focused on how the evolution in the Fed’s thinking is progressing. But it is not just the Fed. Remember, the ECB has promised to end QE come December despite the fact that recent data has shown slowing growth in the Eurozone.

The greatest fear central bankers currently have is that their economy rolls into a recession while interest rates are already at “emergency” levels and monetary policy remains extremely loose. After all, if rates are negative, what can they do to stimulate growth? This has been one of the forces driving central bankers to hew to a more hawkish line lately as they are all keen to get ahead of the curve. The problem they face collectively is that the data is already beginning to show the first indications of slowing down more broadly despite the continuation of ultra easy monetary policy. In the event that the global economy slows more rapidly than currently forecast, there is likely to be a significant increase in market volatility across equities, bonds and currencies. In this case, I am not using the term volatility as a euphemism for declines, rather I mean look for much more intraday movement and much more uncertainty in expectations. It is this scenario that fosters the need for hedgers to maintain their hedge programs at all times. Having been in the markets for quite a long time, I assure you things can get much worse before they get better.

But for today, there is no reason to believe that will be the case, rather the dollar seems likely to drift slightly lower as traders position for the important stuff later this week.

Good luck
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Propense to Inveigh

The Minutes released yesterday
Had not very much new to say
Rates will keep on rising
And assets downsizing
Despite Trump’s propense to inveigh

The market reaction was swift
With 10-years receiving short shrift
The stock market fell
(Was this its death knell?)
While dollars received quite a lift!

And here I thought the FOMC Minutes would be dull and boring with limited market impact. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While the text itself was as dry as usual, it seems the market read between the lines and gleaned the following: interest rates are going to go higher for a while yet, a longer time than previously considered.

Arguably the biggest change in the September FOMC statement was the removal of the sentence regarding policy being accommodative. Chairman Powell focused on this at the ensuing press conference, and has commented on it since then as well. The gist of his message has been that since the dividing line between accommodative and not accommodative is so uncertain (r* is immeasurable) and that it is not likely to be stationary either, there is no way the Fed can be certain they have reached that target. Given that premise, describing their policy as accommodative seemed to express too much precision in something that is extremely uncertain.

However, the compilation of views from the Minutes seemingly showed a larger group of members sounding hawkish. In the end, the market read this to mean that the Fed was going to be raising rates at least another 100bps before they stop. Consider that if they act every quarter through the end of 2019, raising rates 25bps each time, Fed Funds is going to be in a range of 3.25%-3.50% at the end of next year. And while that is still low on a historic basis, it is much higher than markets have seen in more than a decade. Based on what we have heard from the ECB and BOJ, it is also much higher than their cash rates are going to be at that time. In fact, it is quite possible that in both those cases, cash rates will still be 0.00% or negative at the end of next year.

If you play out that scenario, it cannot be very surprising that the dollar was a beneficiary of the release of the Minutes. So yesterday’s 0.6% decline in the euro makes a great deal of sense. In fact, the dollar index performed in exactly the same manner, rising 0.6% on the day. And one thing to keep in mind is that Fed funds futures markets are still pricing in only a 25% probability that rates will be that high at the end of next year. If the Fed stays the course, and there is no reason yet to believe they won’t, that market will need to adjust, and other markets will adjust accordingly.

So a quick recap of the G10 currencies showed that the dollar performed will against all of them yesterday, but has since ceded some of that ground in what appears to be a short-term trading effect. So this morning’s 0.15% rise in the euro, or 0.1% rise in the pound hardly seems compelling.

But there was another story of note yesterday as well, the US Treasury issued its semiannual report on currencies and, once again, did not find China a currency manipulator by its legal definition. This cannot be a real surprise because despite the President’s constant complaints, according to the law, a country can only be designated a manipulator if three conditions are met; consistent currency intervention, running a large trade surplus with the US and running a large current account surplus overall. In fact, China has not been actively intervening on a net basis in the FX markets, and its overall current account surplus has actually fallen to near flat, although obviously it continues to run a large surplus with the US.

Recent price action in USDCNY had been extremely stable, with the PBOC seeking to maintain very modest volatility and expressly saying that they would not be using the exchange rate as a ‘weapon’ in trade. But interestingly, last night, after the release of the Treasury report, the PBOC fixed CNY at its weakest level in nearly two years and the renminbi fell 0.25%. As well, Chinese stock markets continued their recent declines, with Shanghai falling another 2.9% and now trading at its lowest point since December 2014. Concerns are growing that the Chinese economy may be slowing faster than anticipated and this is also being reflected in commodity prices, where base metals have been falling along with oil. (Oil also suffered because of the ongoing inventory build in the US, which when combined with fears over slowing global growth have been sufficient to add a little caution to all those claims that $100 oil was returning soon.)

And those were the big stories yesterday. The US data was surprisingly weak, with both Housing Starts and Building Permits falling and coming in well short of expectations. But this market is far more focused on the Fed and its perceived intentions than on a piece of data. That tells me that this morning’s Initial Claims (exp 212K) and Philly Fed (20.0) are unlikely to move markets. Of more interest may be speeches by two Fed speakers, Bullard and Quarles, especially if they delve into more detail of their policy expectations.

Equity futures are pointing lower, and Treasury yields have maintained yesterday’s gains and are back at 3.20%. My sense is that risk is being reduced across the board here, thus driving both stocks and bonds lower at the same time. If that is true, then look for further commodity price weakness and the dollar to retain its recent gains.

Good luck
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A Source of Great Strains

Inflation in England is easing
Which most people there find quite pleasing
But Brexit remains
A source of great strains
As Europe continues its squeezing

Yesterday’s broad equity market rally brought relief to most investors as it allayed concerns that the end was nigh. While many continue to be bullish, there is no doubt that there is rising concern about the idea that the good times will eventually end. In the wake of yesterday’s rally, however, fears have abated somewhat and market chatter is now focused on more mundane things like data and the FOMC Minutes.

With that in mind, the most noteworthy data overnight was the UK Inflation report that showed that CPI rose only 2.4%, well below expectations of a 2.6% rise, and seemingly indicating that earlier fears of stagflation in the UK economy were widely overblown. In fact, both sides of that equation, GDP growth and inflation are moving in the preferred direction, with GDP outperforming while CPI is underperforming. This situation will reduce pressure on the Old Lady with regards to policy moves as the necessity of hiking rates in an environment where price rises are moderating is quite limited. Thus it should be no surprise that the pound is under modest pressure today, falling 0.3% in the wake of the data release. However, in the broad scheme of things, the pound remains little changed from its level back in June and July.

Ultimately, while the monthly data releases are important, all eyes remain on the Brexit situation and estimates of how and when things there will be settled. The latest news is that the currently mooted plan, essentially splitting Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, at least from a commerce perspective, does not have support in Parliament. At the same time, the Europeans believe they retain the upper hand in the negotiation as EU President Donald Tusk has called for PM May to come forward with some new creative solutions, implying it is her problem, not theirs. It is almost as though the EU doesn’t want to work at solving the problem at all. There is a big EU meeting today and tomorrow but right now, there doesn’t appear to be anything new to discuss, and while negotiations are ongoing, the issue is likely insoluble. After all, the competing demands are to prevent any visible customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland while insuring that customs and duties are charged for all products that cross that border. As I have written many times, I expect there will be a fudge solution that doesn’t solve the problem but more likely kicks the can down the road for a few years. However, each day that passes increases the probability that there is no solution and the result is short-term chaos in markets and a much weaker pound. The risk/reward in the pound argues to maintain a net short position, as any potential gains are likely to be small relative to any potential losses depending on the actual outcome.

Away from the Brexit story, however, there is precious little else happening in the G10 bloc. Eurozone CPI was released right on the money, with the headline confirmed at 2.1%, but core remains a full percentage point below that. There is no indication that the ECB is going to change their policy stance at this point, and so look for QE to end in December while interest rates remain unchanged for at least another nine months following that. The euro has edged lower in recent trading, but the 0.2% decline is hardly enough to change any opinions, and as I mentioned yesterday, the bigger picture shows that it has barely budged over the course of the past five months. As to other currencies in the bloc, the RBA Minutes highlighted that low interest rates were likely to be maintained for another few years as the Unemployment Rate drifts lower, but there is, as yet, no evidence of rising wage pressures. Aussie seems likely to remain under broad pressure, especially as the US continues to tighten policy.

Turning to the EMG bloc, Chinese data last night showed that the money supply was continuing its steady 8.3% growth and that far from austerity, new loans continue to be made at a solid clip. It is quite clear that the PBOC is easing policy while trying to use regulatory tools to prevent additional liquidity moving into real estate where they continue to try to deflate a bubble. So far, it has been working for them. In the meantime, the renminbi continues to trade around 6.92, making no move toward the feared 7.00 level, but also not showing signs of strength. It is becoming quite clear, however, that outbound capital flows are starting to increase as for the third month running, China’s holdings of US Treasuries have fallen, this time by about $6 billion. Ignore all that you hear about China using Treasuries as a weapon; they have no alternative place to park their cash. Rather, the most likely explanation for a reduction in holdings is that they have been selling dollars in the FX market and need to sell Treasuries to get those dollars to deliver.

And those are really the big stories of the day. Yesterday’s US data was solid with IP growing 0.3% and Capacity Utilization running at 78.1%, largely as expected. This morning brings Housing Starts (exp 1.22M) and Building Permits (1.278M), and then this afternoon at 2:00 we see the FOMC Minutes. Given how much we have already heard from Fed speakers since the meeting, it strikes me that there is very little new information likely to appear. However, there are those who are looking for more clarity on the ongoing discussion about the neutral rate and where it is, as well as how important a policy tool it can be.

Equity futures have turned lower as I type, now down 0.2% while Treasury yields seem to have found a new home in the 3.15%-3.20% range. Arguably, today’s big risk is that the equity market resumes last week’s sharp declines and risk is jettisoned. However, that doesn’t appear that likely to me, rather a modest decline and limited impact on the FX market seems more viable for today.

Good luck
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Wanton Cries

The Minutes served to reinforce
The Fed is remaining on course
Next month rates will rise
Amid wanton cries
By doves, though the hawks will endorse

One of the reasons that I have become a fan of Jerome Powell is that he is willing to speak truth to power. And even though he sits in one of the most powerful chairs in the world, I would contend that he faces a much greater power every day; a legacy of Fed Chairs who carefully cultivated the impression that they alone could turn the dials and knobs of policy properly and with precision. Reality has shown that despite excellent PR work on behalf of Fed Chairs, they were no better at forecasting the economy’s future than anyone else, and in fact, were considerably worse than numerous Wall Street analysts. This difference in approach by Powell vs. his predecessors is made crystal clear in this quote from the Minutes released yesterday afternoon: “A number of participants emphasized the considerable uncertainty in estimates of the neutral rate of interest, stemming from sources such as fiscal policy and large-scale asset purchase programs. Against this background, continuing to provide an explicit assessment of the federal funds rate relative to its neutral level could convey a false sense of precision.” [My emphasis.] It is little things like this that give me hope Chairman Powell will maintain the humility necessary to be effective in his role.

At any rate, the upshot of the Minutes was that growth was continuing apace, the trade situation, while not yet causing significant problems, has the potential to do so in the future and impact policy decisions, but raising rates in September is baked in the cake. There was some discussion of weakness in emerging markets, but this was also seen as insufficient to change the trajectory of US growth, and therefore the current policy settings. In other words, the Minutes simply reiterated what we already knew, until potential problems become real ones, Fed Funds are going higher.

It can be no surprise that the dollar gained in the wake of the release, but also no surprise that the movement has been muted. Although peak to trough, the euro fell some 0.5%, it rebounded and is now only modestly softer than yesterday’s post-Minutes closing level. As I have maintained all along, all eyes are on tomorrow’s speech by Chairman Powell, as it will give us a chance to learn something new, rather than rehash what we gleaned three weeks ago.

Surveying markets this morning, the broad dollar index is a touch higher, +0.1%, but that is a mixture of a wide array of movements by individual currencies. For example, the euro has fallen back below 1.16 this morning, also down 0.1%, despite (because of?) seemingly positive Flash PMI data, which showed the Eurozone Composite PMI rising to a less than expected 54.4. Growth estimates for Q3 remain at 0.4%, but of course annualized that number becomes just 1.6%, unimpressive when compared to the US current growth trajectory. The pound is tracking the euro as a lack of supportive news and ongoing concerns over Brexit continue to weigh on the currency. The largest G10 mover was AUD, falling 0.7% despite a lack of obvious catalysts. No data was released and no comments of substance made, although local politics has put PM Turnbull on the defensive despite continued strong performance in the Australian economy. Perhaps, Aussie’s decline is related to that.

Turning to the emerging markets, the picture is one of mostly weaker currencies with the notable exception of the Russian ruble, which gained 0.4% on the back of modest strength in oil prices. Otherwise, we have seen broad-based dollar strength here with CNY having fallen 0.4% as tariffs on an additional $16 billion of goods went into effect at midnight last night. Other EMG decliners include KRW (-0.9%); ZAR (-0.6%) and INR (-0.4%). In fact, the odd thing is that the dollar index isn’t higher than it is given the uniformity of movement.

As to this morning’s data releases, Initial Claims (exp 215K) and New Home Sales (645K) are on the docket. Yesterday’s Existing Home Sales disappointed slightly, printing at 5.34M, a 0.7% decline from last month and softer than the 5.4M expected. Not only did the number of homes sold disappoint, but also the median price fell, perhaps indicating that the housing market may well have peaked. Another data point to monitor on the economy, and more importantly as to future Fed actions.

It appears that excess long dollar positions may have finally been wrung from the market after six consecutive days of a falling dollar. With all eyes turning toward Jackson Hole tomorrow and Chairman Powell’s speech, I expect that today will continue to see consolidation, likely with modest further USD strength. But until Powell speaks, it is hard to know just how hawkish or dovish he is feeling right now. My advice is to use a day like today, when markets are quiet, to manage risks ahead of tomorrow, where the opportunity for larger movement is clear.

 

Good luck
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