Outmoded

In Germany prices exploded
While confidence there has eroded
Now all eyes will turn
Back home where we’ll learn
On Tuesday if QE’s outmoded

The most disturbing aspect of the inflation argument (you know, is it transitory or not) is the fact that those in the transitory camp are willing to completely ignore the damage inflation does to household budgets.  Their attitude was recently articulated by the chief European economist at TS Lombard, Dario Perkins, thusly, “There is nothing inherently dangerous about inflation settling in, say, a 3-5% range instead of the 1-2% that’s been normal for the past decade.”  He continued, “the bigger risk is that hitherto dovish central bankers lose their nerve and raise interest rates until it causes a recession, like they’ve done in the past.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.  The simple math shows that at a 2% inflation rate, the price of something rises about 22% over the course of a decade.  So, that Toyota Camry that cost $25,000 in 2011 would cost $30,475 today.  However, at a 5% inflation rate over that time, it would cost $40,725, a 63% increase.  That’s a pretty big difference.  Add in the fact that wage gains have certainly not been averaging 5% per year and it is easy to see how inflation can be extremely damaging to anybody, let alone to the average wage earner.  The point is, while to an economist, inflation appears to be an abstract concept that is simply a number input into their models, to the rest of us, it is the cost of living.  And there is nothing that indicates the cost of living will stop rising sharply anytime soon.

This was reinforced overnight when Germany released its wholesale price index, which rose 12.3% in the past twelve months.  That is the highest rate of increase since 1974 in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo.  Now fortunately, the ECB is on the case.  Isabel Schnabel, the ECB’s head of markets explained, “The prospect of persistently excessive inflation, as feared by some, remains highly unlikely.  But should inflation sustainably reach our target of 2% unexpectedly soon, we will act equally quickly and resolutely.”  You know, they have tools!

On the subject of Wholesale, or Producer, Prices, while Germany’s were the highest print we’ve seen from a major economy, recall last week that Chinese PPI printed at 9.5%, in the US it was 8.3% and even in Japan, a nation that has not seen inflation in two decades, PPI rose 5.6% last month.  It appears that the cost of making “stuff” is rising pretty rapidly.  And even if the pace of these increases does slow down, the probability of prices declining is essentially nil.  Remember, the current central bank mantra is deflation is the worst possible outcome and they will do all they can to prevent it.  All I can say is, I sure hope everyone’s wages can keep pace with inflation, because otherwise, we are all at a permanent disadvantage compared to where things had been just a year or two ago.

Well, I guess there is one beneficiary of higher inflation…governments issuing debt.  As long as inflation grows faster than the size of their debt, a government’s real obligations decline.  And you wonder why the Fed insists inflation is transitory.  Oh yeah, for all of you who think that higher inflation will lead to higher interest rates, I wouldn’t count on that outcome either.  Whether or not the Fed actually tapers, they have exactly zero incentive to raise rates anytime soon.  And as to bonds, they have shown before (post WWII) that they are willing to cap yields at a rate well below inflation if it suits their needs.  And I assure you, it suits their needs right now.

So, what will all this do to the currency markets?  As always, FX is a relative game so what matters is the degree of change from one currency to the next.  The medium-term bearish case for the dollar is that inflation in the US will run hotter than in Europe, Japan or elsewhere, while the Fed caps yields in some manner.  The resultant expansion of negative real yields will have a significant negative impact on the dollar.  This argument will fail if one of two things occurs; either other central banks shoot for even greater negative yields, or, more likely, the Fed allows the back end of the curve to rise thus moderating the impact of negative real yields.  In either case, the dollar should benefit.  In fact, this is why the taper discussion is of such importance to the FX market, tapering implies higher yields in the back end of the US yield curve and therefore an opportunity for a stronger dollar.  Remember, though, there are many moving pieces, so even if the Fed does taper, that is not necessarily going to support the dollar all that much.

Ok, let’s look at this morning’s markets, where risk is largely being acquired, although there is no obvious reason why that is the case.  Equity markets in Asia were mixed with both gainers (Nikkei +0.2%, Shanghai +0.3%) and Losers (Hang Seng (-1.5%) as the ongoing Chinese crackdown on internet companies received new news.  It seems that the Chinese government is going to split up Ant Financial such that its lending business is a separate company under stricter government control.  Ali Baba, which is listed in HK, not Shanghai, fell sharply, as did other tech companies in China, hence the dichotomy between the Hang Seng and Shanghai indices.  But excluding Chinese tech, stocks were in demand.  The same is true in Europe where the screen is entirely green (DAX +1.1%, CAC +0.8%, FTSE 100 +0.8%) as it seems there is little concern about a passthrough of inflation, but great hope that reopening economies will perform well.  US futures are also looking robust this morning, with all three major indices higher by at least 0.5% as I type.

Funnily enough, despite the risk appetite in equities, bond prices are rallying as well, with 10-year Treasury yields lower by 1.7bps, and European sovereigns also seeing modest yield declines of between 0.5 and 1.0 bps. Apparently, as concerns grow over the possibility of a technical US default due to a debt ceiling issue, the safety trade is to buy Treasuries.  At least that is the explanation being offered today.

On the commodity front, oil (WTI +0.8%) is leading the way higher although we are seeing gains in many of the industrial metals as well, notably aluminum (+1.6%), which seems to be feeling some supply shortages.  Copper (-0.45%), surprisingly, is softer on the day, but the rest of that space is firmer.  I mentioned Uranium last week, and as an FYI, it is higher by 5% this morning as more and more people begin to understand the combination of a structural shortage of the metal and the increasing likelihood that any carbonless future will require nuclear power to be far more prevalent.

Finally, the dollar is broadly, although not universally, stronger this morning.  In the G10, only NOK (+0.2%) and CAD (+0.1%) have managed to hold their own this morning on the strength of oil’s rally.  Meanwhile, CHF (-0.7%) is under the most pressure as havens lose their luster, although the rest of the bloc has only seen declines of between -0.1% and -0.3%.  In the EMG bloc, THB (-0.75%) and KRW (-0.6%) lead the way lower as both nations saw equity market outflows on weakness in Asian tech stocks.  But generally, almost all currencies here are softer by between -0.2% and -0.4%.  the exceptions are TRY (+0.3%) and RUB (+0.25%) with the latter supported by oil while the former is benefitting from hope that the central bank will maintain tight policy to fight inflation.

On the data front, we have both CPI and Retail Sales leading a busy week:

Today Monthly Budget Statement -$175B
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 99.0
CPI 0.4% (5.3% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.3% (4.2% Y/Y)
Wednesday Empire Manufacturing 18.0
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 76.4%
Thursday Initial Claims 320K
Continuing Claims 2740K
Retail Sales -0.8%
-ex auto -0.1%
Philly Fed 19.0
Friday Michigan Sentiment 72.0

Source: Bloomberg

With no recent stimulus checks, Retail Sales are forecast to suffer greatly.  Meanwhile, the CPI readings are forecast to be a tick lower than last month, but still above 5.0% for the third consecutive month.  Certainly, my personal experience is that prices continue to rise quite rapidly, and I would not be surprised to see a higher print.  Mercifully, the Fed is in its quiet period ahead of next week’s FOMC meeting, so we no longer need to hear about when anybody thinks tapering should occur.  The next information will be the real deal from Chairman Powell.

The tapering argument seems to be the driver right now, with a growing belief the Fed will reduce its QE purchases and US rates will rise, at least in the back end.  That seems to be the genesis of the dollar’s support.  As long as that attitude exists, the dollar should do well.  But if the data this week points to further slowing in the US economy, I would expect the taper story to fade along with the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Charade

The news there was movement on trade
Twixt China and us helped persuade
Investors to buy
Though prices are high
And it could well be a charade

We also learned wholesale inflation
Was lower across the whole nation
Thus fears that the Fed
Might still move ahead
Aggressively lost their foundation

The dollar is little changed overall this morning, although there are a few outlier moves to note. However, the big picture is that we remain range bound as traders and investors try to determine what the path forward is going to look like. Yesterday’s clues were twofold. First was the story that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has reached out to his Chinese counterpart, Liu He, and requested a ministerial level meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the trade situation more actively ahead of the potential imposition of tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports. This apparent thawing in the trade story was extremely well received by markets, pushing most equity prices higher around the world as well as sapping a portion of dollar strength in the FX markets. Remember, the cycle of higher tariffs leading to higher inflation and therefore higher US interest rates has been one of the factors underpinning the dollar’s broad strength.

But the other piece of news that seemed to impact the dollar was a bit more surprising, PPI. Generally, this is not a data point that FX traders care about, but given the overall focus on inflation and the fact that it printed lower than expected (-0.1%, 2.8% Y/Y for the headline number and -0.1%, 2.3% Y/Y for the core number) it encouraged traders to believe that this morning’s CPI data would be softer than expected and therefore reduce some of the Fed’s hawkishness. However, it is important to understand that PPI and CPI measure very different things in somewhat different manners and are actually not that tightly correlated. In fact, the BLS has an entire discussion about the differences on their website (https://www.bls.gov/ppi/ppicpippi.htm). The point is that PPI’s surprising decline is unlikely to be mirrored by CPI today. Nonetheless, upon the release, the dollar softened across the board.

This morning, however, the dollar has edged slightly higher, essentially unwinding yesterday’s weakness. As the market awaits news from three key central banks, ECB, BOE and Bank of Turkey, traders have played things pretty close to the vest. Expectations are that neither the BOE or the ECB will change policy in any manner, and in fact, the BOE doesn’t even have a press conference scheduled so there is likely to be very little there. As to Draghi’s presser at 8:30, assuming there is no new guidance as expected, questions will almost certainly focus on the fact that the ECB staff economists have reduced their GDP growth forecasts and how that is likely to impact policy going forward. It will be very interesting to hear Draghi dance around the idea that softer growth still requires tighter policy.

But certainly the most interesting meeting will be from Istanbul, where current economist forecasts are for a 325bp rate rise to 22.0% in order to stem the decline of the lira as well as try to address rampant inflation. The problem is that President Erdogan was out this morning lambasting higher interest rates as he was implementing new domestic rules on FX. In the past, many transactions in Turkey were denominated in either USD or EUR (things like building leases) as the financing was in those currencies, and so landlords were pushing the FX risk onto the tenants. But Erdogan decreed that transactions like that are now illegal, everything must be priced in lira, and that existing contracts need to be converted within 30 days at an agreed upon rate. All this means is that if the currency continues to weaken, the landlords will go bust, not the tenants. But it will still be a problem.

Elsewhere, momentum for a Brexit fudge deal seems to be building, although there is also talk of a rebellion in the Tory party amongst Brexit hardliners and an incipient vote of no confidence for PM May to be held next month. Certainly, if she is ousted it would throw the negotiations into turmoil and likely drive the pound significantly lower. But that is all speculation as of now, and the market is ascribing a relatively low probability to that outcome.

FLASH! In the meantime, the BOE left rates on hold, in, as expected, a unanimous vote, and the Bank of Turkey surprised one and all, raising rates 525bps to 24.0%, apparently willing to suffer the wrath of Erdogan. And TRY has rallied more than 5% on the news, and is now trading just around 6.00, its strongest level since late August. While it is early days, perhaps this will be enough to help stabilize the lira. However, history points to this as likely being a short reprieve unless other policies are enacted that will help stabilize the economy. And that seems a much more daunting task with Erdogan at the helm.

Elsewhere in the EMG bloc we have seen both RUB and ZAR continue their recent hot streaks with the former clearly rising on the back of rising oil prices while the latter is responding to a report from Moody’s that they are unlikely to cut South Africa to a junk rating, thus averting the prospect of wholesale debt liquidation by foreign investors.

As mentioned before, this morning brings us CPI (exp 0.3%, 2.8% Y/Y for headline, 0.2%, 2.4% Y/Y for core). Certainly, anything on the high side is likely to have a strong impact on markets, unwinding yesterday’s mild dollar weakness as well as equity market strength. This morning we hear from Fed governor Randy Quarles, but he is likely to focus on regulation not policy. Meanwhile, yesterday we heard from Lael Brainerd and she was quite clear that the Fed was on the correct path and that two more rate hikes this year were appropriate, as well as at least two more next year with the possibility of more than that. So Brainerd, who had been one of the most dovish members for a long time, has turned hawkish.

All in all, traders will be focused on two things at 8:30, CPI and Draghi, with both of them important enough to move markets if they surprise. However, the big picture remains one where the Fed is the central bank with the highest probability of tightening faster than anticipated, while the ECB, given the slowing data from Europe, seems like the one most likely to falter. All that adds up to continued dollar strength over time.

Good luck
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