Pundits Maligned

Phase one of the trade deal’s been signed
And though many pundits maligned
The outcome, it’s clear
That in the, term, near
Its impact on trading’s been kind

Amid a great deal of hoopla yesterday morning, President Trump signed the long-awaited phase one trade deal with China. The upshot is that the US has promised to roll back the tariffs imposed last September by 50%, as well as delay the mooted December tariffs indefinitely while the Chinese have promised to purchase upwards of $95 billion in US agricultural products over the next two years as well as agreeing to crack down on IP theft. In addition, the Chinese have committed to preventing excess weakness in the renminbi, and in fact CNY has been strengthening steadily for the past month as the negotiations came to an end. For example, this morning CNY is firmer by 0.15% and since mid-December it has rallied nearly 2.0%. Clearly there are larger trade issues outstanding between the two nations, notably forced technology transfer as well as numerous non-tariff barriers, but something is better than nothing.

Taking a step back, though, the bilateral nature of the deal is what has many pundits and economists unhappy. Certainly the economic theories I was taught, and that have been prevalent since David Ricardo first developed the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, indicate that multilateral trade is a better outcome for all concerned. Alas, the current political backdrop, where populism has exploded in response to the unequal outcomes from the globalization phenomenon of the past sixty years, has tarred multilateralism with a very bad reputation. And while it is far outside the purview of this commentary to dissect the issues, it is important to understand they exist and how they may impact markets. Given that the relative value of a nation’s currency is an important driver of trade outcomes, we cannot ignore it completely. Ultimately, as things currently stand, the market has seen this deal as a positive outcome, and risk appetite remains strong. As such, haven assets like the yen, dollar and Swiss franc are likely to remain on the back foot for the time being.

Beside the trade story, there has been scant new information on which to base trading decisions. Important data remains limited with the only notable print being German CPI at 1.5%, exactly as expected, although EU Car registrations bucked the trend and rose sharply, 21.7%, perhaps indicating we have seen a bottom on the Continent. But in reality, the market is now looking for the next big thing, and quite frankly, nobody really knows what that is. After all, the Fed has promised it is on hold, as are the ECB and BOJ, at least for the time being. Perhaps it is the BOE’s meeting in two weeks’ time, where the market continues to price in a growing probability of a rate cut. Of course, if the market is pricing it in, it is not likely to be that big a surprise, is it?

So in an uninspiring market, let’s look at what is coming up in today’s session. On the data front we see Initial Claims (exp 218K) and then Retail Sales (0.3%, 0.5% ex autos) as well as Philly Fed (3.8). Arguably, of just as much importance for the global economic outlook is tonight’s Chinese data where we will see; GDP (6.0%), Fixed Asset Investment (5.2%), Retail Sales (7.9%) and IP (5.9%). Remember, 6.0% growth has been President Xi’s target, and given the recent trajectory lower, any weaker than expected data is likely to be a risk-off sign, although it is likely to see a PBOC response in short order as well. Meanwhile, the US consumer continues to play its supporting role in the global economy, so any downside in this morning’s data is also likely to be a stock market negative.

On the speaker front, there are no Fed speakers today, although Philly’s Patrick Harker will regale us tomorrow. Later this afternoon ECB President Lagarde will be on the tape, and given she is still learning how much impact her words have on markets, there is always a chance of some unintentional excitement. Finally, yesterday, for the first time, we heard a Fed speaker explain that even though not-QE is not QE, the market may still consider it to be QE and the resulting rise in the price of risk assets may well be excessive. Dallas Fed President Kaplan is the first Fed member to publically admit that they may need to address this issue going forward. Certainly, the fact that the short-term repo program continues to be extended, and is now expected to run through April, rather than the original February completion, is an indication that the Fed still does not have control over the money markets. It is this last point which holds the potential to drive more significant market moves in the event of a communication or policy error. Just not today.

The dollar is mildly softer overall this morning, while we are seeing a very modest bias higher in equity markets around the world. Treasury yields are unchanged, just below 1.78%, and the previous narratives regarding recession probabilities and curve inversions as well as ongoing QE activities have just faded into the background. It all adds up to what is likely to be another quiet day in the FX markets, with no compelling story to drive movement.

Good luck
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Up, Up and Away

Said Powell, “We’re in a good place”
On growth, but we don’t like the pace
That prices are rising
And so we’re surmising
More QE’s what needs to take place

Today, then, we’ll hear from Christine
Who is now the ECB queen
This is her first chance
To proffer her stance
On policy and what’s foreseen

And finally, in the UK
The vote’s taking place through the day
If Boris does badly
Bears will sell pounds gladly
If not, it’s up, up and away

There is much to cover this morning, so let’s get right to it.

First the Fed. As universally expected they left rates on hold and expressed confidence that monetary policy was appropriate for the current conditions. They lauded themselves on the reduction in unemployment, but have clearly changed their views on just how low that number can go. Or perhaps, what they are recognizing is that the percentage of the eligible labor force that is actually at work, which forms the denominator in the unemployment rate, is too low, so that there is ample opportunity to encourage many who had left the workforce during the past decade to return thus increasing the amount of employment and likely helping the Unemployment Rate to edge even lower. While their forecasts continue to point to 3.5% as a bottom, private sector economists are now moving their view to the 3.0%-3.2% level as achievable.

On the inflation front, to say that they are unconcerned would greatly understate the case. They have made it abundantly clear that it will require a nearly unprecedented supply shock to have them consider raising rates anytime soon. However, they continue to kvetch about too low inflation and falling inflation expectations. They have moved toward a policy that will allow inflation to run higher than the “symmetric 2% target” for a while to make up for all the time spent below that level. And the implication is that if we see inflation start to trend lower at all, they will be quick to cut rates regardless of the economic growth and employment situation. Naturally, the fact that CPI printed a touch higher than expected (2.1%) was completely lost on them, but then given their ‘real-world blinders’ that is no real surprise. The dot plot indicated that they expect rates to remain on hold at the current level throughout all of 2020, which would be a first during a presidential election year.

And finally, regarding the ongoing concerns over the short term repo market and their current not-QE policy of buying $60 billion per month of Treasury bills, while Powell was unwilling to commit to a final solution, he did indicate that they could amend the policy to include purchases of longer term Treasury securities alongside the introduction of a standing repo facility. In other words, not-QE has the chance to look even more like QE than it currently does, regardless of what the Chairman says. Keep that in mind.

Next, it’s on to the ECB, which is meeting as I type, and will release its statement at 7:45 this morning followed by Madame Lagarde meeting the press at 8:30. It is clear there will be no policy changes, with rates remaining at -0.5% while QE continues at €20 billion per month. Arguably there are two questions to be answered here; what is happening with the sweeping policy review? And how will Madame Lagarde handle the press conference? Given she has exactly zero experience as a central banker, I think it is reasonable to assume that her press conferences will be much more political in nature than those of Signor Draghi and his predecessors. My fear is that she will stray from the topic at hand, monetary policy, and conflate it with her other, nonmonetary goals, which will only add confusion to the situation. That said, this is a learning process and I’m sure she will get ample feedback both internally and externally and eventually gain command of the situation. In the end, though, there is precious little the ECB can do at this point other than beg the Germans to spend some money while trying to fend off the hawks on the committee and maintain policy as it currently stands.

Turning to the UK election, the pound had been performing quite well as the market was clearly of the opinion that the Tories were going to win and that the Brexit uncertainty would finally end next month. However, the latest polls showed the Tory lead shrinking, and given the fragmentation in the electorate and the UK’s first-past-the-post voting process, it is entirely possible that the result is another hung Parliament which would be a disaster for the pound. The polls close at 5:00pm NY time (10:00pm local) and so it will be early evening before we hear the first indications of how things turn out. The upshot is a Tory majority is likely to see a further 1%-1.5% rally in the pound before it runs out of momentum. A hung Parliament could easily see us trade back down to 1.22 or so as all that market uncertainty returns, and a Labour victory would likely see an even larger decline as the combination of Brexit uncertainty and a program of renationalization of private assets would result in capital fleeing the UK ASAP. When we walk in tomorrow, all will be clear!

Clearly, those are the top stories today but there is still life elsewhere in the markets. Ffor example, the Turkish central bank cut rates more than expected, down to 12.0%, but the TRY managed to rally 0.25% after the fact. Things are clearly calming down there. In Asia, Indian inflation printed higher than expected at 5.54%, although IP there fell less than expected (-3.8%) and the currency impact netted to nil. The biggest gainer in the Far East was KRW, rising 0.65% after a strong performance by the KOSPI (+1.5%) and an analyst call for the KOSPI to rise 12% next year. But other than the won, the rest of the space saw much less movement, albeit generally gaining slightly after the Fed’s dovish stance.

In the G10, the pound has actually slipped a bit this morning, -0.2%, but otherwise, movement has been even smaller than that. Yesterday, after the Fed meeting, the dollar fell pretty sharply, upwards of 0.5% and essentially, the market has maintained those dollar losses this morning.

Looking ahead to the data today we see Initial Claims (exp 214K) and PPI (1.3%, 1.7% core). However, neither of those will have much impact. With the Fed meeting behind us, we will start to hear from its members again, but mercifully, not today. So Fed dovishness has been enough to encourage risk takers, and it looks for all the world like a modest risk-on session is what we have in store.

Good luck
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