More Concern

The tide is beginning to turn
As hawks at the Fed slowly learn
Their earlier view
No longer rings true
So they’ve now expressed more concern

These days there are three key drivers of the market narrative as follows:

The Fed – There is no question that the tone of commentary from Fed speakers has softened over the past two weeks, certainly from the way it sounded two months ago. Back then Chairman Powell explained that the Fed Funds rate was “a long way” from neutral, implying numerous further interest rate hikes. Equity markets responded by selling off sharply and talk of a yield curve inversion leading to a recession was nonstop. Meanwhile, the dollar rose nicely vs. most of its counterparties. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to that next rate hike due next week; economic data started to soften.

Softer housing data as well as declines in production numbers and survey data like the ISM have resulted in a more cautionary stance by these same Fed members. While the doves (Kashkari, Bullard and Brainerd) had always shown some concern over the pace of rate hikes given the absence of measured inflation, the rest of the Fed were happy to hew to the Phillips curve model and assume that the exceptionally low unemployment rate would lead to much higher inflation. This latter view encouraged them to gradually raise rates in order to prevent a failure on that part of their mandate.

But whether it is a result of the sharp declines seen in equity prices, the ongoing bashing from President Trump or simply the fact that the growth picture is slowing (I certainly hope it is the last of these!), the tone from this august group is definitely less aggressive. And while yesterday Chairman Powell reiterated that the economy was “very strong” on many measures, he was also clear to indicate that there was much more uncertainty over what the future would bring. This change of tone has been well received by the punditry, and quite frankly, by markets, which saw a sharp late day equity rally sufficient to reduce early session losses to nearly flat.

The Fed’s problem is that they created a monster with Forward Guidance, which was great when it helped them to further their easing bias, but is not well suited to changes in policy. Futures markets are now pricing less than one rate hike in 2019, down from nearly three hikes just a month ago. Transitions are always the hardest times for any market and for all policymakers. It is no surprise that we have seen increased volatility across markets lately, and I expect it will continue.

Trade – The trade situation is extremely difficult to describe. In the course of a week, market sentiment has gone from euphoria over the reopening of talks between the US and China on Monday, to outright fear after the US had the CFO of one of China’s largest companies, Huawei, arrested in Canada regarding the breech of sanctions on Iran. There are two concerns over the trade issue that need to be addressed when considering its impact on markets. First is the impact on prices. Tariffs will unambiguously raise prices to someone as long as they are in place. The question is who will feel the pain. For importers, their choices are pass on the cost by raising prices, eat the cost by reducing margins or have their vendors eat the cost by renegotiating their prices. In the first case, it is a direct impact on inflation data, something that has not yet been evident. In the second case, it is a direct hit to profitability, also something that has not yet been evident, but it has been discussed by a number of CEO’s as they get asked about their business. In the third case, the US makes out well, with neither of the potential problems coming home to roost.

The second, knock-on impact is on growth. Higher prices will reduce demand and lower margins will reduce available cash flow, and correspondingly reduce the ability of companies to invest and grow. In other words, there are no short term positives to be had from the tariffs. However, if negative behavior can be changed because of their imposition, such that IP is protected and an agreement can help reduce all trade barriers, including non-tariff ones, then the ends may justify the means. Alas, I am not confident that will be the case. Looking at the market impact, theory would dictate the dollar should rise on the idea that other currencies will depreciate sufficiently to offset the tariffs and reestablish equilibrium. We have seen that in USDCNY, which has fallen about 8% from its peak in spring, nearly offsetting the 10% tariffs. Looking ahead though, if the tariff rate rises to 25%, it is harder to believe the Chinese will allow the yuan to fall that much further. For the past decade they have been fearful of allowing their currency to fall to quickly as it has led to significant capital flight, so it would be premature to expect a decline anywhere near that magnitude.

Oil – Oil prices have moved back to the top of the market’s play list as a combination of factors has lately driven significant volatility. It wasn’t that long ago that there was talk of oil getting back to $100/bbl, especially with the US sanctions on Iran being reimposed. But then political pressure from the US on Saudi Arabia resulted in a significant increase in production there, which alongside continuing growth in US production, turned fears of a shortage into an absolute oil glut. This resulted in a 33% decline in the price in less than two months’ time, with ensuing impact on petrocurrencies like CAD, RUB and MXN, as well as a significant change in sentiment regarding inflation. With global growth continuing to show signs of slowing further, it is hard to believe that oil prices will rebound anytime soon. As such, one needs to consider that those same currencies will remain under pressure going forward.

All of this leads us to today’s session where the primary focus will be on the employment report. Expectations are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 200K
Private Payrolls 200K
Manufacturing Payrolls 20K
Unemployment Rate 3.7%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.1% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Michigan Sentiment 97.0

It feels like the market is more concerned over a strong number, which might put the Fed on alert for further rate hikes. In fact, it seems like we have moved into a good news is bad situation again, at least for equities. For the dollar, though, strong data is likely to lead to support. My view is that we may start to see a softer tone from the data, which would lead to further softening in the dollar, but a rebound in stocks.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

Into the Tank

The German economy shrank
Japan’s heading into the tank
Italians declared
The budget prepared
Is gospel, and oil just sank

There are a number of stories this morning competing for market attention as investors and traders continue to try to get a reading on growth prospects going forward. Perhaps the most surprising story is that German GDP, which had been expected to print at 0.0% in Q3, actually fell -0.2%, significantly worse than expected. While every pundit and economist has highlighted that it was a confluence of one-time events that drove the data and that expectations for Q4 are far more robust, the fact remains that Q3 growth in Germany, and the whole of Europe, has been much weaker than anticipated. The euro has not benefitted from the news, falling 0.25%, and broadly continuing its recent downtrend.

Adding to the single currency’s woes is the ongoing Italian budget opera, where the EU huffed and puffed and demanded the Italians change their plans. The Italians, formally, told the EU to pound salt yesterday evening, and now the EU is at a crossroads. Either the emperor has no clothes (EU does nothing and loses its fiscal oversight capability) or is in fact well dressed and willing to flaunt it (initiates procedures to sanction and fine Italy). The problem with the former is obvious, but the problem with the latter is the potential impact on EU Parliamentary elections to be held in the spring. Attacking Italy could easily result in a far more antiestablishment parliament with many of the current leadership finding themselves in the minority. (And the one thing we absolutely know is that incumbency is THE most important aspect of leadership, right?) The point is that there are ample reasons for the euro to remain under pressure going forward.

At the same time, Japanese economic data continues to disappoint, with IP declining -2.5% Y/Y in September and Capacity Utilization falling 1.5%. At the same time, we find out that the BOJ’s balance sheet is now officially larger than the Japanese economy! Think about that, Japan’s debt/GDP ratio has long been over 200%, but now the BOJ has printed money and bought assets equivalent to the entire annual output of the nation. And despite the extraordinary efforts that the BOJ has made, growth remains lackluster and inflation nonexistent meaning the BOJ has failed to achieve either of its key aims. At some point in time, and it appears to be approaching sooner rather than later, central banks around the world will completely lose the ability to adjust market behavior through either words or action. And while it is not clear which central bank will lose that power first, the BOJ has to be the frontrunner, although the ECB is certainly trying to make a run at the title.

Meanwhile, from Merry Olde Englande we have news that a draft Brexit deal has been agreed between PM May and the EU. The problem remains that her cabinet has not yet seen nor signed off on it, and there is the little matter of getting the deal through Parliament, which will be dicey no matter what. On the one hand, it is not wholly surprising that some type of agreement was reached, but as is often the case in a situation as fraught as Brexit, nobody is satisfied, and quite frankly, it is not clear that it will gather sufficient support from either the UK Parliament, or the EU’s other nations. This is made evident by the fact that the pound has actually fallen today, -0.2%, despite the announcement. I maintain that a Brexit deal will clearly help the pound’s value, so the market does not yet believe the story. At the same time, UK inflation data was released at a softer than expected 2.4% in October, thus reducing potential pressure on the BOE to consider raising rates, even if a Brexit deal is agreed. After all, if inflation falls to 2.0%, their concerns will be much allayed.

One other story getting a lot of press has been the sharp decline in the price of oil, which yesterday fell 7.1% in the US, and is now down more than 26% since its high in the beginning of October, just six weeks ago. There is clearly a relationship between commodity prices and the dollar given the fact that most commodities are priced in dollars, and that relationship is consistently an inverse one. The question, that I have yet to seen answered effectively, is the direction of the causality. Does a stronger dollar lead to weaker commodity prices? Or do weaker commodity prices drive the dollar higher? While I am inclined to believe in the first scenario, there are arguments on both sides and no research has yet been able to answer the question effectively. However, it should be no surprise that the dollar continues to rally coincidentally with the decline in oil, and other commodity, prices.

I didn’t even get a chance to discuss the ongoing slowdown in Chinese economic growth, but we can touch on that tomorrow. As for today’s session, this morning we see the latest CPI readings (exp 0.3%, 2.5% Y/Y headline, 0.2% 2.2% core) and then as the FX market gets set to go home, Chairman Powell speaks, although it is hard to believe that his views on anything will have changed that much. In the end, the big picture remains that the dollar should continue to benefit from the Fed’s ongoing monetary policy activities as well as the self-inflicted wounds of both the euro and the yen.

Good luck
Adf