Too Effing High

Said Powell, we’re going to buy
More assets in order to try
To make sure that rates
Stay where the Fed states
And stop trading too effing high

“This is not QE; in no sense is this QE!” So said Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, yesterday at a conference in Denver when describing the fact that the Fed would soon resume purchasing assets. You may recall right around the time of the last FOMC meeting, there was sudden turmoil in the Fed Funds and other short-term funding markets as reserves became scarce and interest rates rose above the Fed’s target. That resulted in the Fed executing a series of short-term reverse repos in order to make more reserves available to the banking community at large. Of course, the concern was how the Fed let itself into this situation. It seems that the reduction of the Fed balance sheet as part of the normalization process might have gone a little too far. Yesterday, Powell confirmed that the Fed was going to start buying 3-month Treasury bills to expand the size of the balance sheet and help stabilize money markets. However, he insisted that given the short-term nature of the assets they are purchasing, this should not be construed as a resumption of QE, where the Fed bought maturities from 2-years to 30-years. QE was designed to lower longer term financing rates and boost investment and correspondingly economic growth. This action is meant to increase the availability of bank reserves in the system so that no shortages appear and money markets remain stable and functioning.

As far as it goes, that makes sense given commercial banks’ regulatory needs for a certain amount of available reserves. But Powell also spoke about interest rates more generally and hinted that a rate cut was a very real possibility, although in no way certain. Of course, the market is pricing in an 80% probability of a cut this month and a 50% probability of another one in December. Certainly Powell didn’t dispute those ideas. And yet a funny thing happened in the markets yesterday despite the Fed Chairman discussing further policy ease; risk was reduced. Equity markets suffered in Europe and the US, with all major indices lower by more than 1.0% (S&P -1.5%). Treasury yields fell 3bps and the dollar rallied steadily all day along with the yen, the Swiss franc and gold.

It is the rare day when the Fed Chair talks about easing and stock prices fall. It appears that the market was more concerned with the escalation in trade war rhetoric and the apparent death of any chance for a Brexit deal, both of which have been described as key reasons for business and investor uncertainty which has led to slowing growth, than with Fed policy. And for central banks, that is a bigger problem. What if markets no longer take their cues from the central bankers and instead trade based on macroeconomic events? What will the central banks do then?

On the China front, yesterday’s White House actions to blacklist eight Chinese tech firms over their involvement in Xinjiang and the Uigher repression was a new and surprising blow to US-China relations. In addition, the US imposed visa restrictions on a number of individuals involved in that issue and has generally turned up the temperature just ahead of the next round of trade talks which are due to begin tomorrow in Washington. It has become abundantly clear that the ongoing trade war is beginning to have quite a negative impact on the US economy as well as that of the rest of the world. President Trump continues to believe that the US has the advantage and is pressing it as much as he can. Of course, Chinese President Xi also believes that he holds the best cards and so is unwilling to cave in on key issues. However, this morning there was a report that China would be quite willing to sign a more limited deal where they purchase a significantly greater amount of agricultural products, up to $30 billion worth, as well as remove non-tariff barriers against US pork and beef in exchange for the US promising not to implement the tariffs that are set to go into effect next Tuesday and again on December 15. In addition, the PBOC fixed the renminbi last night at a lower than expected 7.0728, indicating that they want to be very clear that a depreciation in their currency is not on the cards. It is not hard to view these actions and conclude that China is starting to bend a little, especially with the Hong Kong situation continuing to escalate.

It also seems pretty clear that the talks this week have a low ceiling for any developments, but my sense is some minor deal will be agreed. However, the big issues like state subsidies and IP theft are unlikely to ever be resolved as they are fundamental to China’s economic model and there are no signs they are going to change. In the end, if we do get some de-escalation of rhetoric this week, I expect risk assets to respond quite favorably, at least for a little while.

Turning to Brexit, all we have heard since yesterday’s phone call between Boris and Angela is recriminations as to who is causing the talks to fall apart. Blame is not going to get this done, and at this point, the question is, will the UK actually ask for an extension. Ostensibly, Boris is due to speak to Irish PM Varadkar today, but both sides seem pretty dug in right now. The EU demand that Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union in perpetuity appears to be a deal breaker, and who can blame them. After all, the purpose of Brexit was to get out of that customs union and be free to negotiate terms as they saw fit with other nations. However, as European economic data continues to deteriorate, the pressure on the EU to find a deal will continue to increase. While you cannot rule out a hard Brexit, I continue to believe that some type of fudge will be agreed before this is over. Yesterday the pound suffered greatly, falling below 1.22 for a bit before closing lower by 0.6%. This morning, amid a broadly weaker dollar environment, the pound is a laggard, but still marginally higher vs. the dollar, up 0.1% as I type.

The rest of the FX market was singularly unimpressive overnight, with no currency moving even 0.5% as traders everywhere await the release of the FOMC Minutes this afternoon. Ahead of the Minutes, we only see the JOLTS jobs report (exp 7.25M) which rarely matters to markets. Yesterday’s PPI data was surprisingly soft, falling -0.3% and now has some analysts reconsidering their inflation forecasts for tomorrow. Of course, quiescent inflation plays into the hands of those FOMC members who want to cut rates further. At this point, the softer dollar seems to be more of a reaction to yesterday’s strength than anything else. I expect limited movement ahead of the Minutes, and quite frankly, limited afterwards as well. Tomorrow’s CPI feels like the next big catalyst we will see.

Good luck
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Digging In Heels

In Europe they’re digging in heels
Ignoring all UK appeals.
So, Brexit is looming
With Boris assuming
They’ll blink, ratifying his deal

Brexit and the Trade Wars sounds more like a punk rock band than a description of the key features in today’s markets, but once again, it is those two stories that are driving sentiment.

Regarding the former, the news today is less positive that a deal will be agreed. A wide group of EU leaders have said Boris’s latest offering is unacceptable and that they are not willing to budge off their principles (who knew they had principles?). It appears the biggest sticking point is that the proposal allows Northern Ireland to be the final arbiter of approval over the workings of the deal, voting every four years to determine if they want to remain aligned with the EU’s rules on manufactured goods, livestock and agricultural products. This, of course, would take control of the process out of the EU’s hands, something which they are unwilling to countenance.

French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated that if they cannot agree the framework for a deal by this Friday, October 11, there would be no chance to get a vote on a deal at the EU Summit to be held next week on October 17. It appears, at this point, that the EU is betting the Benn Act, the legislation recently passed requiring the PM to ask for an extension, will be enforced and that the UK will hold a general election later this year in an attempt to establish a majority opinion there. The risk, of course, is that the majority is to complete Brexit regardless and then the EU will find itself in a worse position. All of this presupposes that Boris actually does ask for the extension which would be a remarkable climb-down from his rhetoric since being elected.

Given all the weekend machinations, and the much more negative tone about the outcome, it is remarkable that the pound is little changed on the day. While it did open the London session down about 0.35%, it has since recouped those losses. As always, the pound remains a binary situation, with a hard Brexit likely to result in a sharp decline, something on the order of 10%, while a deal will result in a similar rally. However, in the event there is another extension, I expect the market will read that as a prelude to a deal and the pound should trade higher, just not that much, maybe 2%-3%.

Otherwise, the big story is the trade war and how the Chinese are narrowing the scope of the negotiations when vice-premier Liu He arrives on Thursday. They have made it quite clear that there will be no discussion on Chinese industrial policy or subsidies, key US objectives, and that all the talks will be about Chinese purchases of US agricultural and energy products as well as attempts to remove tariffs. It appears the Chinese believe that the impeachment inquiry that President Trump is facing will force him to back down on his demands. While anything is possible, especially in politics, based on all his actions to date, I don’t think that the President will change his tune on trade because of a domestic political tempest that he is bashing on a regular basis. The market seems to agree with that view as well, at least based on today’s price action which can best be described as modestly risk-off. Treasury and Bund yields are lower, albeit only between 1-2bps, the yen (+0.1%) and Swiss franc (+0.2%) have strengthened alongside the dollar and US equity futures are pointing to a decline of 0.2% to start the session. Ultimately, this story will remain a market driver based on headlines, but it would be surprising if we hear very much before the meetings begin on Thursday.

Looking ahead to the rest of the week, the FOMC Minutes will dominate conversation, but we also see CPI data:

Today Consumer Credit $15.0B
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 102.0
  PPI 0.1% (1.8% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.3% Y/Y)
Wednesday JOLTS Job Openings 7.25M
  FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
  CPI 0.1% (1.8% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.4% Y/Y)
Friday Michigan Sentiment 92.0

Source: Bloomberg

Over the weekend we heard from both Esther George and Eric Rosengren, the two FOMC members who dissented against the rate cuts. Both said they see no reason to cut rates again right now, but if the data do deteriorate, they have an open mind about it. Meanwhile, Friday Chairman Powell gave no hints that last week’s much weaker than expected data has changed his views either. This week brings seven more Fed speakers spread over ten different events, including Chairman Powell tomorrow.

At the same time, this morning saw German Factory Orders decline a more than expected 0.6%, which makes the twelfth consecutive Y/Y decline in that series. It is unambiguous that Germany is in a recession and the question is simply how long before the rest of Europe follows, and perhaps more importantly, will any country actually consider fiscal stimulus? As it stands right now, Germany remains steadfast in their belief it is unnecessary. Maybe a hard Brexit will change that tune!

The big picture remains intact, with the dollar being the beneficiary as the currency of the nation whose prospects outshine all others in the short run. As it appears highly unlikely a trade deal will materialize this week, I see no reason for the dollar to turn around. Perhaps the only place that is not true is if there is, in fact, a break though in the UK.

Good luck
Adf

QE We’ll Bestow

The data continue to show
That growth is unhealthily slow
The pressure’s on Jay
To cut rates and say
No sweat, more QE we’ll bestow

The market narrative right now is about slowing growth everywhere around the world. Tuesday’s ISM data really spooked equity markets and then that was followed with yesterday’s weaker than expected ADP employment data (135K + a revision of -38K to last month) and pretty awful auto sales in the US which added to the equity gloom. This morning, Eurozone PMI data was putrid, with Germany’s Services and Composite data (51.4 and 48.5 respectively) both missing forecasts by a point, while French data was almost as bad and the Eurozone Composite reading falling to stagnation at 50.1. In other words, the data continues to point to a European recession on the immediate horizon.

The interesting thing about this is that the euro is holding up remarkably well. For example, yesterday in the NY session it actually rallied 0.45% as the market began to evaluate the situation and price in more FOMC rate cutting. Certainly it was not a response to positive news! And this morning, despite gloomy data as well as negative comments from ECB Vice-President Luis de Guindos (“level of economic activity in the euro area remains disappointingly low”), the euro has maintained yesterday’s gains and is unchanged on the session. At this point, the only thing supporting the euro is the threat (hope?) that the Fed will cut rates more aggressively going forward than had recently been priced into the market. Speaking of those probabilities, this morning there is a 75% probability of a Fed cut at the end of this month. That is up from 60% on Tuesday and just 40% on Monday, hence the euro’s modest strength.

Looking elsewhere, the pound has also been holding its own after yesterday’s 0.5% rally in the NY session. While I think the bulk of this movement must be attributed to the rate story, the ongoing Brexit situation seems to be coming to a head. In fact, I am surprised the pound is not higher this morning given the EU’s reasonably positive response to Boris’s proposal. Not only did the EU not dismiss the proposal out of hand, but they see it as a viable starting point for further negotiations. One need only look at the EU growth story to recognize that a hard Brexit will cause a significant downward shock to the EU economy and realize that Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker have painted themselves into a corner. Nothing has changed my view that the EU will blink, that a fudged deal will be announced and that the pound will rebound sharply, up towards 1.35.

Beyond those stories, the penumbra of economic gloom has cast its shadow on everything else as well. Government bond yields continue to decline with Treasury, Bund and JGB yields all having fallen 3bps overnight. In the equity markets, the Nikkei followed the US lead last night and closed lower by 2.0%. But in Europe, after two weak sessions, markets have taken a breather and are actually higher at the margin. It seems that this is a trade story as follows: the WTO ruled in the US favor regarding a long-standing suit that the EU gave $7.5 billion in illegal subsidies to Airbus and that the US could impose that amount of tariffs on EU goods. But the White House, quite surprisingly, opted to impose less than that so a number of European companies that were expected to be hit (luxury goods and spirits exporters) find themselves in a slightly better position this morning. However, with the ISM Non-Manufacturing data on tap this morning, there has to be concern that the overall global growth story could be even weaker than currently expected.

A quick survey of the rest of the FX market shows the only outlier movement coming from the South African rand, which is higher this morning by 0.9%. The story seems to be that after three consecutive weeks of declines, with the rand falling more than 6% in that run, there is a seed of hope that the government may actually implement some positive economic policies to help shore up growth in the economy. That was all that was needed to get short positions to cover, and here we are. But away from that story, nothing else moved more than 0.3%. One thing that has been consistent lately has been weakness in the Swiss franc as the market continues to price in yet more policy ease after their inflation data was so dismal. I think this story may have further legs and it would not surprise me to see the franc continue to decline vs. both the dollar and the euro for a while yet.

On the data front, this morning we see Initial Claims (exp 215K) and then the ISM Non-Manufacturing data (55.0) followed by Factory Orders (-0.2%) at 10:00. The ISM data will get all the press, and rightly so. Given how weak the European and UK data was, all eyes will be straining to see if the US continues to hold up, or if it, too, is starting to roll over.

From the Fed we hear from five more FOMC members (Evans, Quarles, Mester, Kaplan and Clarida), adding to the cacophony from earlier this week. We already know Mester is a hawk, so if she starts to hedge her hawkishness, look for bonds to rally further and the dollar to suffer. As to the rest of the crew, Evans spoke earlier this week and explained he had an open mind regarding whether or not another rate cut made sense. He also said that he saw the US avoiding a recession. And ultimately, that’s the big issue. If the US looks like a recession is imminent, you can be sure the Fed will become much more aggressive, but until then, I imagine few FOMC members will want to tip their hand. (Bullard and Kashkari already have.)

Until the data prints, I expect limited activity, but once it is released, look for a normal reaction, strong data = strong dollar and vice versa.

Good luck
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The Question at Hand

There is an old banker named Jay
Who’ll cut Fed Funds later today
The question at hand
Is, are more cuts planned?
Or is this the last one he’ll weigh?

Well, no one can describe the current market situation as dull, that’s for sure! The front burner is full of stories but let’s start with the biggest, the FOMC announcement and Chairman Powell’s press conference this afternoon. As of now, futures markets are fully pricing in a 25bp cut this afternoon, with a small probability (~18%) of a 50bp cut. They are also pricing in a 50% chance of a cut at the October meeting, so despite the hawkish rhetoric and relatively strong data we have seen lately, the doves are keeping the faith. In fact, it would be shocking if they don’t cut by 25bps, although I also expect the two regional Fed presidents (George and Rosengren) who dissented last time to do so again. What has become clear is that there is no overriding view on the committee. The dot plot can be interesting as well, as given there are only two meetings left this year, it will give a much better view of policy preferences. My guess is it will be split pretty evenly between one more cut and no more cuts.

Then it’s all on Chairman Jay to explain the policy thinking of the FOMC in such a way that the market accepts the outcome as reasonable, which translates into no large moves in equity or bond markets during or after the press conference. While, when he was appointed I had great hopes for his plain spoken comments, I am far less confident he will deliver the goods on this issue. Of course, I have no idea which way he will lean, so cannot even guess how the market will react.

But there’s another issue at the Fed, one that is being described as technical in nature and not policy driven. Yesterday saw a surge in the price of overnight money in the repo market which forced the Fed to execute $53 billion of repurchase agreements to inject cash into the system. It turns out that the combination of corporate tax payments in September (removing excess funds from the banking system and sending them to the Treasury) and the significant net new Treasury issuance last week that settles this week, also in excess of $50 billion, removed all the excess cash reserves from the banking system. As banks sought to continue to manage their ordinary business and transactions, they were forced to pay up significantly (the repo rate touched 10% at one point) for those funds. This forced the Fed to execute those repos, although it did not go off smoothly as their first attempt resulted in a broken system. However, they fixed things and injected the funds, and then promised to inject up to another $75 billion this morning through a second repo transaction.

It seems that the Fed’s attempt at normalizing their balance sheet (you remember the run-off) resulted in a significant drawdown in bank excess reserves, which are estimated to have fallen from $2.8 trillion at their peak, to ‘just’ $1.0 trillion now. There are a number of economists who are now expecting the Fed to begin growing the balance sheet again, as a way to prevent something like this happening again in the future. Of course, the question is, will this be considered a restarting of QE, regardless of how the Fed tries to spin the decision? Certainly I expect the market doves and equity bulls to try to spin it that way!

Ultimately, I think this just shows that the Fed and, truly, all central banks are losing control of a process they once felt they owned. As I have written before, at some point the market is going to start ignoring their actions, or even moving against them. Last week the market showed that the ECB has run out of ammunition. Can the same be said about Powell and friends?

Moving on to other key stories, oil prices tumbled ~6% yesterday as Saudi Arabia announced that 41% of their production was back on line and they expected full recovery by the end of the month. While oil is still higher than before the attacks, I anticipate it will drift lower as traders there turn their collective focus back toward shrinking growth and the potential for a global recession. Chinese data continues to look awful, Eurozone data remains ‘meh’ and last night Tokyo informed us that their trade statistics continued to deteriorate as well, with exports falling 8.2%, extending a nearly year-long trend of shrinking exports. The point is, if the global economy continues to slow, demand for oil will slow as well, reducing price pressures quite handily. In a direct response to the declining oil price we have seen NOK fall 0.5% this morning, although other traditional petrocurrencies (MXN, RUB) have shown much less movement.

On the Brexit story, Boris met with European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, and while he spun the meeting as positive, Juncker was a little less optimistic. His quote was the risk of a no-deal Brexit was now “palpable” while the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said, “nobody should underestimate the damage of a no-deal Brexit.” It should be no surprise the pound fell after these comments, but that is a very different tone to yesterday’s NY session. Yesterday, we saw the pound rally more than a penny after word got out that the UK Supreme Court justices were ostensibly very skeptical toward the government’s argument and sympathetic to the plaintiffs. The market perception seems to be that a ruling against the government will essentially take a no-deal Brexit off the table, hence the rally, but that is certainly not this morning’s tale. In the end, the pound remains binary, with a deal of any sort resulting in a sharp rally, and a hard Brexit on Halloween, causing just the opposite. The UK hearings continue through tomorrow, and there is no official timeline as to when an opinion will be released. I expect the market will continue to follow these tidbits until the announcement is made. (And for what it’s worth, my sense is the Supremes will rule against the government as based on their biographies, they all voted remain!)

Finally, a look at the overnight data shows that UK inflation fell to its lowest level, 1.7%, since December 2016. With the BOE on tap for tomorrow, it beggars belief they will do anything, especially with Brexit uncertainty so high. At the same time, Eurozone inflation was confirmed at 1.0% (0.9% core), another blow to Signor Draghi’s attempts to boost that pesky number. As such, the euro, too, is under some pressure this morning, falling 0.25% after yesterday’s broad dollar sell-off. In fact, vs. the G10, the dollar is higher across the board, although vs. its EMG counterparts it is a much more mixed picture.

Ahead of the FOMC at 2:00 we see Housing Starts (exp 1250K) and Building Permits (1300K), but they will not excite with the Fed on tap. Equity markets are modestly higher in Europe though US futures are pointing slightly lower. Overall, barring something from the UK ahead of the Fed, I expect limited activity and then…

Good luck
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Run Off The Rails

In England and Scotland and Wales
The saga has run off the rails
So Boris is gambling
A vote will keep scrambling
Dissent and extend his coattails

Meanwhile market focus has turned
To data, where much will be learned
When payrolls are shown
And if they have grown
Watch stocks rise as havens are spurned

The Brexit story remains front page news as the latest twists and turns create further uncertainty over the outcome. Boris is pushing for an election to be held on October 15 so that he can demonstrate he has a sufficient majority to exit with no deal when the EU next meets on October 17-18, thus forcing the EU’s hand. However, parliament continues to do what they can to prevent a no-deal Brexit and have passed a bill directing the PM to seek an extension if there is no deal agreed by the current Halloween deadline. With that in hand, they will agree to a vote on October 29, thus not allowing sufficient time for a new government to do anything ahead of the deadline.

But Boris, being Boris, has intimated that despite the extension bill, he may opt not to seek that extension and simply let the UK leave. That would really sow chaos in the UK as it would call into question many constitutional issues; but based on the current agreement with the EU, that action may not be able to be changed. After all, even if the EU offers the extension, the UK must accept it, which seemingly Boris has indicated he won’t. Needless to say, there is no clarity whatsoever on how things will play out at this time, so market participants remain timid. The recent news has encouraged the view that there will be no hard Brexit and has helped the pound recoup 2.0% this week. However, this morning it is slipping back a bit, -0.3%, as traders and investors are just not sure what to believe anymore. Nothing has changed my view that the EU will seek a deal and cave-in on the Irish backstop issue, especially given the continuous stream of terrible European data.

To that point, German IP was released at a much worse than expected -0.6% this morning, with the Y/Y outcome a -4.2% decline. I know that Weidmann and Lautenschlager are ECB hawks, but it is starting to feel like they are willing to sacrifice their own nation’s health on the altar of economic fundamentalism. The ECB meeting next Thursday will be keenly watched and everything Signor Draghi says at the press conference that follows will be parsed. But we have a couple of things coming before that meeting which will divert attention. And that doesn’t even count this morning’s surprise announcement by the PBOC that they were cutting the RRR by 0.5% starting September 16 in an effort to ease policy further without stoking the real estate bubble there.

So let’s look at today’s festivities, where the US payroll report is released at 8:30 and then Chairman Powell will be our last Fed speaker ahead of the quiet period and September 18 FOMC meeting. Here are the current expectations:

Nonfarm Payrolls 160K
Private Payrolls 150K
Manufacturing Payrolls 5K
Unemployment Rate 3.7%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.4

Yesterday’s ADP number was much stronger than expected at 195K, but the employment data from the ISM surveys has been much weaker so there is a wide range of estimates this month. In addition, the government has been hiring census workers, and it is not clear how that will impact the headline numbers and the overall data. I think the market might be a little schizophrenic on this number as a good number could serve to reinforce that the economy is performing well enough and so drive earning expectations, and stocks with them, higher. But a good number could detract from the ongoing Fed ease story which, on the surface, would likely be a stock market negative. In a funny way, I think Powell’s 12:30 comments may be more important as market participants will take it as the clear direction the Fed is leaning. Remember, futures are pricing in certainty that the Fed cuts 25bps at the meeting, with an 11% probability they cut 50bps! And the comments we have heard from recent Fed speakers have shown a gamut of viewpoints exist on the FOMC. Interesting times indeed! At this point, I don’t think the Fed has the gumption to stand up to the market and remain on hold, so 25bps remains the most likely outcome.

As to the rest of the world, next week’s ECB meeting will also be highly scrutinized, but lately there has been substantial pushback on market and analyst expectations of a big easing package. Futures are currently pricing in a 10bp cut with a 46% chance of a 20bp cut. Despite comments from a number of hawks regarding the lack of appetite for more QE, the majority of analysts are calling for a reinstitution of the asset purchase program as soon as October. As to the euro, while it has edged higher this week, just 0.35%, it remains in a long-term downtrend and has fallen 1.6% this month. The ECB will need to be quite surprisingly hawkish to do anything to change the trend, and I just don’t see that happening. Signor Draghi is an avowed dove, as is Madame Lagarde who takes over on November 1. Look for the rate cuts and the start of QE, and look for the euro to continue its decline.

Overall, though, today has seen a mixed picture in the FX market with both gainers and losers in G10 and EMG currencies. Some of those movements have been significant, with ZAR, for example, rallying 0.75% as investment continues to flow into the country, while CHF has fallen 0.6% as haven assets are shed in the current environment. Speaking of shedding havens, how about the 10-year Treasury, which has seen yields rebound 15bps in two days, a truly impressive squeeze on overdone buyers. But for now, things remain generally quiet ahead of the data.

Given it is Friday, and traders will want to be lightening up any positions outstanding, I expect that this week’s dollar weakness may well see a modest reversal before we go home. Of course, a surprise in the data means all bets are off. And if Powell sounds remotely hawkish? Well then watch out for a much sharper dollar rally.

Good luck
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Badly Maligned

The Chinese, now, have it in mind
That they have been badly maligned
So tariffs they hiked
Which markets disliked
Though they have not yet been enshrined

Then Powell explained pretty well
That interest rates hadn’t yet fell
As far as they might
But if we sit tight
Most things ought to turn out just swell

And after the markets had closed
The President quickly imposed
More tariffs to thwart
The Chinese report
While showing he’s just as hard-nosed

It is truly difficult to keep abreast of the pace of change in market information these days. Like so many, I yearn for the good old days when a surprising data release would change trader views and result in a market move but comments and headlines typically had limited impact. These days, by far the most important newsfeed to watch is Twitter, given President Trump’s penchant for tweeting new policy initiatives. This weekend was a perfect example of just how uncertainty has grown in markets.

A quick recap of Friday shows that the Chinese decided to respond to numerous trade provocations and announced they would be raising tariffs further on $75 billion of US imports. Not surprisingly, risk assets responded negatively and we saw equity markets around the world decline while bonds, gold and the yen all rallied. Then we heard Chairman Powell’s long-awaited speech, where he explained that while the economy is in a pretty good place, given the ongoing global weakness and uncertainties engendered by the current trade war, the Fed stood ready to ease policy further. That was enough to encourage the risk-takers and we saw equity markets rebound and bonds give up most of their gains. But just as the market was getting set to close, the President tweeted that he would be raising tariffs further in response to the Chinese action, lamenting that he hadn’t acted more aggressively initially. This, of course, turned things back around and risk was quickly jettisoned into the close, resulting in equity markets ending down more than 2.4% in the US while bonds rebounded and the dollar fell. Whew!!

But that is all old news now as the weekend’s G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, resulted in more surprises all around. The first surprise was that the US and Japan have announced they have reached a trade deal “in principal” which should open Japanese markets to US agricultural imports and prevent the imposition of further tariffs on Japanese autos. Clearly a positive. But that was not enough to turn markets around and Asian sessions started off quite negatively, following the US close and understanding that the US-China trade war was getting hotter. However, an early morning Trump tweet announced that China had called the US and asked to get back to the negotiating table, something that was neither confirmed nor denied by the Chinese, but enough information to reverse markets again. So while Asian equity markets all suffered badly (Nikkei -2.2%, Hang Seng -1.9%) Europe went from down 1% to up 0.5% pretty much across the board (UK markets are closed for a holiday, the late-August banking holiday). We also saw US futures reverse course, from -1.4% to +0.5%, and Treasuries, which had traded to new low yields for the move at 1.44%, reversed course and are now back up (prices lower) to 1.52%. However, that is still lower than Friday’s close. As well, while early on there was a brief 1bp 2yr-10-yr inversion; that has now reversed to a 1bp positive slope.

And what about the dollar through all this? Well, G10 currencies are broadly softer vs. the dollar this morning, with losses ranging from -0.2% for EUR, GBP and CAD all the way to -0.8% for SEK. Even the yen is weaker, -0.45% on the day having reversed some early session (pre-tweet) gains to levels not seen since November 2016.

Of more interest, though, is the fact that CNH has fallen to new historic lows since its creation in August 2010, touching 7.1925 before bouncing slightly, and still down nearly 1% on the day. The Chinese are potentially playing with fire as stories of capital flight increase amid the renminbi’s recent declines. Obviously, 7.00 is no longer an issue, but the key unknown is at what level will money start to leak more fiercely, something nobody knows. I must admit, I did not expect to see this type of movement so quickly, but at this point, one cannot rule out even more aggressive weakness here. Certainly the options markets are telling us that is the case with implied vols rising sharply overnight (1mo +0.6 vol) and heading back toward levels seen after the 2015 ‘mini devaluation’. In fact, not surprisingly, implied volatility is higher pretty much across the board this morning as late summer illiquidity adds to the remarkable uncertainty in markets. There’s probably a bit more boost available in implied vols, at least until the next tweet changes the situation again.

Turning to this week’s calendar, there is a fair amount of data to absorb as follows:

Today Durable Goods 1.2%
  -ex transport 0.0%
Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 2.30%
  Consumer Confidence 129.0
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Q2 GDP 2.0% (2.1% prior)
Friday Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.5%
  PCE 0.2% (1.4% Y/Y)
  Core PCE 0.2% (1.6% Y/Y)
  Chicago PMI 47.7
  Michigan Sentiment 92.3

Clearly, all eyes will be on Friday’s PCE data as that is the number the Fed watches most carefully. Remember, we have seen two successive surprising upticks in CPI inflation, so a high surprise here could have consequences regarding the future path of interest rates. At least that’s the way things used to be, these days I’m not so sure. Wednesday we hear from two Fed speakers, Barkin and Daly, but it seems unlikely either of them will swerve far from Powell’s comments as neither is particularly hawkish. Speaking of data, we did see one piece this morning, Germany’s IFO Indices with all three pieces falling much further than expected, underscoring just how weak the economy is there. My money is on a stimulus package before Brexit, but also on a hard Brexit being averted.

Recapping, barring any further twitter activity, markets are set to open optimistically, but unless we hear confirmation from the Chinese that talks are, indeed, back on, I would not be surprised to see risk ebb lower as the day progresses. This means a stronger yen, and right now, a softer dollar, at least against the G10. Versus the EMG bloc, the dollar has further room to run.

Good luck
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Lest Bubbles They Stoke

There is a fine fellow named Jay
Who not too much later today
Will take to the stage
And help us to gauge
How quickly Fed funds will decay

This week several Fed members spoke
And all of them sought to invoke
That growth is still fine
Thus they’ve drawn the line
On more cuts, lest bubbles they stoke

It is quite remarkable that despite ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, with the temperature there rising each week, as well as the countdown to Brexit getting shorter and shorter, the only thing that matters right now is Jay Powell’s speech this morning from Jackson Hole. It is the defining theme of today’s market activity.

Let me set the stage to begin: interest rate markets are pricing in a rate cut in September, another in October and then a chance of one in December with “certainty” of that third cut by March 2020. Given that GDP growth in the US is running at 2.1% annually, Retail Sales have consistently beaten expectations and are up more than 4% in the past year and the Unemployment Rate, at 3.7%, is a tick away from its post-WWII lows, three cuts seem like a lot of monetary stimulus. After all, despite the fact that the Fed watches the PCE Deflator as their inflation gauge of choice, we all know that inflation is running higher than its current reading of 1.4%. The government’s own evidence is from CPI readings which most recently showed prices rising at a 1.8% level, with the core reading there at 2.1%. And ask yourself if even that conveys the feel of inflation. My guess is: Not. Even. Close.

At any rate, that’s what the market is pricing. As NY walks in this morning, equity markets around the world have shown modest gains (US futures included), bonds are falling with 10-year Treasury yields back up to 1.64% and the dollar is stronger almost across the board. Arguably, expectations are for Powell to confirm that July was not a ‘one and done’ rate cut but rather the beginning of several insurance cuts. The fly in that ointment comes from the comments we heard yesterday from a series of regional Fed Presidents, all of whom said that they saw little reason to cut rates further at this time. Effectively their argument was that growth is solid, unemployment low and inflation pretty close to target. While all paid heed to the fact that the Fed funds rate was above the 10-year yield, they were unwilling to buy into the idea that the curve inversion was presaging a recession at this time. There is just not enough evidence to them.

With the Fed’s hawks in full flight, it will certainly be tricky for Powell to describe anything about the FOMC as coordinated. Remember, the Minutes showed us members who didn’t want to cut at all as well as members wanting to cut by 50bps. That’s a pretty wide dispersion of thought. All told, he has a pretty tough job today if he doesn’t want to spook the markets.

As I have no idea what he will say, let’s game out two different views; first he manages to surprise dovishly and second, more likely in my opinion, he disappoints and sounds more hawkish than the market (and President) wants.

Dovish Surprise – If he confirms the markets current pricing and, for example, doubles down saying QE is an effective tool and they will use it again, look for a sharp equity rally to begin with, as well as a bond rally and dollar weakness. Certainly that would be the initial price action. However, it is not clear how long that would last. After all, if the current claim is growth is solid, what is the reason for all the ‘insurance’? At some point, market participants will ask that very question, as well as, what does the Fed know that we don’t? The result would be a reversal of equity gains, although bonds would likely still rally. And the dollar? I think a rebound would be in order as well as strength in the yen and Swiss franc. However, even if he does manage to sound dovish, I don’t see the dollar falling more than 2%-3% before finding a floor. At this point, I cannot paint a scenario where the dollar enters a longer term downtrend. Overall, my unscientific odds on this outcome are less than 25%.

Hawkish Disappointment – This seems far more likely to be the outcome, if only because to my eyes, the market has really gotten ahead of itself with regard to rate cuts. Essentially, if Powell doesn’t confirm that July’s cut was the beginning of a new rate-cutting cycle, the market is going to be disappointed. If he pushes back at all, sounding more like Esther George or Eric Rosengren, the two dissenters, than James Bullard or Neel Kashkari, the 50bp advocates, the market will be REALLY disappointed.

In the first case, I expect we will see equity markets fall a percent or a bit more today, with Europe giving up its early gains and the US quite weak. Bonds are a tougher call here, although I expect that the initial price action would be for further weakness. Remember, despite the fact that yields are 15bps from the low point seen two weeks ago, they are still down 37bps this month. There is plenty of room to fall. As to the dollar, that will rally further against everything, the yen included. I would expect the euro to finally test, and break, 1.10, and we could easily see 1% weakness and more throughout the emerging markets.

If he pushes back, well today may be remembered in market history as PB (Powell’s black) Friday. Equity markets would see significant losses as all the bets on further easy policy would be shed immediately. Bonds, too, would fall sharply as the idea that the Fed would no longer need to cut rates would change the entire sentiment there. And finally, the dollar would explode higher. Any ideas that the Fed has further room to cut rates than virtually all its counterparties, a key dollar bearish thesis, would be swept away and the dollar would really appreciate sharply. Think about EUR at 1.08; GBP at 1.20 (and that’s without the Brexit story); and the yen back to 108.00. However, given the risk of this type of market disruption, I do not believe this is at all likely either. In the end, a mild disappointment seems the most likely outcome, so look for stocks to close the week on a low note and the dollar on a high note.

Before he speaks at 10:00 this morning, we do see New Home Sales (exp 647K), but quite frankly, nobody cares about that today. It is all Powell, all the time.

Good luck and good weekend
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