A Half Point’s Preferred

Said Williams, the Fed must be swift
When acting if growth is adrift
The market inferred
A half point’s preferred
Which gave all stock markets a lift

If there was any doubt that markets are still entirely beholden to the Fed, they should have been removed after yesterday’s price action. First, recall that a number of emerging market central banks cut interest rates, some in a complete market surprise (South Korea), while others were anticipated (Indonesia, South Africa, Ukraine) and yet all of those currencies strengthened on the day. It is always curious to me when a situation like that occurs, as it forces a deeper investigation as to the market drivers. But this investigation was pretty short as all the evidence pointed in one direction; the Fed. Yesterday afternoon, NY Fed President John Williams gave an, ostensibly, academic speech about how central banks should respond to economic weakness and highlighted that they should act quickly and aggressively in such cases. Notably, he said, “take swift action when faced with adverse economic conditions” and “keep interest rates lower for longer.” The market interpretation of those comments was an increased expectation for a 50bp rate cut by the Fed at the end of the month. Stocks reversed early losses, bonds rallied, with yields falling 4bps and the dollar fell as much as 0.5%. While a spokesperson for the NY Fed made a statement later trying to explain that Williams’ speech was not about policy, just academic research, the market remained convinced that 50bps is coming to a screen near you on July 31! We shall see.

The problem with the 50bp theme is that the economic data of late has actually been generally, although not universally, better than expected. Consider that last week, both core CPI (2.1%) and PPI (2.3%) printed a tick higher than expectations; Retail Sales were substantially stronger at 0.4% vs. the 0.1% expected; and both the Empire State and Philly Fed indices printed stronger than expected at 4.3 and 21.8 respectively. Also, the jobs report at the beginning of the month was much stronger than expected. Of course, there have been negatives as well, with IP (0.0%), Housing Starts (-0.9%) and Building Permits (-6.1%) all underperforming. In addition, we cannot forget the situation elsewhere in the world, where China printed Q2 GDP at 6.2%, its lowest print in the 27 years they have been releasing quarterly data, while Eurozone data continues to suffer as well. The implication is that if you assume there is a case for a rate cut at all, the case for a 50bp rate cut relies on much thinner gruel.

At this point, even if we continue to see stronger than expected US data, I believe that Powell and company are locked into a rate cut. Given that futures markets have fully priced that in, as well as the fact that the equity markets are unquestionably counting on that cut, disappointment would serve to truly disrupt markets, potentially impinging on financial conditions and certainly draw the ire of the White House. None of these consequences seem worthwhile for the potential benefit of leaving 25bps of dry powder in the magazine. Add to this the fact that we have heard from several Fed members; Bostic, Kaplan and George, none of whom are enthused about a rate cut at all. Now, of those three, only Esther George is a current voter, but one dissenting vote will not be enough to sway a clearly dovish FOMC. Add it all up and I think we see 25bps when the dust settles. Of course, if that’s the case, it is entirely realistic to see equity prices ‘sell the news’ unless Powell is hyper dovish in the press conference.

And in truth, that is the entire story today. Virtually every story in the financial press focuses on rate cuts, whether the question about the Fed, or the discussion of all the other central banks that have already acted. There is an ongoing argument about whether the ECB actually cuts rates next week, or if they simply prepare the market for a cut in September and the reinstitution of QE in January. Most analysts are opting for the latter, believing that Signor Draghi will wait and see, but if they know they are going to cut, why wait? I think there is a much better chance of immediate action than is being priced into the market.

On the Brexit front, the voting by Tory members continues, and by all accounts, Boris is still in the lead and due to be the next PM. That will continue to pressure the pound, as unless there is further movement by the EU, the chances of a no-deal Brexit will continue to rise. In fact, next week will be quite momentous as we hear from the ECB and get the UK voting results on Thursday.

Away from these stories, most things fall into the background. For example, China Minsheng Group, a major Chinese conglomerate, is defaulting on a $500 million bond repayment due in August. Clearly, this is not a positive event, but more importantly speaks to two specific issues, the lack of US dollar liquidity available in emerging markets as well as the true nature of the slowdown in the Chinese economy. This will be used as further ammunition for the camp that believes the Chinese significantly overstate their economic data.

Turning to this morning’s activity, the only data point is the Michigan Sentiment data (exp 98.5) and we get one more Fed speech, from uber-dove James Bullard. The dollar is stronger today, after yesterday’s afternoon selloff, having risen 0.35% vs. the euro and with gains also against the yen (0.3%), Aussie (0.25%) and most emerging market currencies (MXN 0.3%, ZAR 0.6%, CNY 0.1%). My sense is that yesterday afternoon’s price action was a bit overdone on the dollar, and so we will see more of that unwound ahead of the weekend. Look for modest further USD strength.

Good luck and good weekend
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Half Has Allure

The Fed Reserve Chairman named Jay
Is tasked, market fears, to allay
He did it in spades
Explaining that trade
And Brexit, could possibly weigh

On growth in the US this year
And so he implied cuts were near
A quarter seems sure
But half has allure
Since price rises never appear

Every market story today is the same story; the Fed is going to cut rates at the end of the month. In fact, the only mystery at this point is whether it will be the 25bps that is currently fully priced in by the futures market, or if the Fed will jump in with a 50bp cut. Every market around the world has felt the impact of this story and will continue to do so until the actual cut arrives.

The knock-on effects have been largely what would be expected from a lower rate environment. For example, equity prices have risen almost everywhere, closing at new record highs in the US yesterday and trading in the green throughout Asia overnight and Europe today. The dollar has fallen back, much to President Trump’s delight I’m sure, giving up some of its recent gains with declines of 0.5% vs. the euro, 0.6% vs. the pound and 0.7% vs. the yen. Emerging market currencies have also rallied a bit with, for example, BRL rising 1.3%, ZAR 1.8% and KRW up 0.8%. Even CNY has rallied slightly, +0.25%, although as we already know, its volatility is managed to a much lower level than other currencies.

Bond markets, on the other hand, have not demonstrated the same exuberance as stocks, commodities (gold +2.0%) or currencies today as they had clearly anticipated the news last week. If you recall, Bunds had traded to new record lows last week, touching -0.41% before reversing course, and are now “up” to a yield of -0.31%. And 10-year Treasuries, after trading to 1.935% a week ago, have since reversed course, picking up nearly 12bps at one point, although have given back a tick this morning. In fact, many traders have been looking at the market technicals and see room for bond yields to trade higher in the short-term, although the long-term trend remains for lower yields.

But those are simply the market oriented knock-on effects. There will be other effects as well. For example, it is now patently clear that a new central bank easing cycle is unfolding. We already knew the ECB was preparing to cut, and you can be sure they will both cut rates and indicate a restarting of QE at their next meeting on July 25. Meanwhile, by that date, Boris Johnson is likely to be the new UK PM which means that the BOE is going to need to prepare for a hard Brexit in a few months’ time. Part of that preparation is going to be lower interest rates and possibly the restarting of QE there as well. In fact, this morning, Governor Carney was on the tape discussing the issues that will impact the UK in the event of a hard Brexit, including slowing growth, lower confidence and weakness in markets. Japan? Well, they never stopped easing, but are likely to feel a renewed sense of urgency to push harder on that string, especially if USDJPY starts to fall more substantially. And finally, of the major economies, China will also certainly be looking to ease monetary policy further as growth there continues to lag desired levels and the trade situation continues to weigh on sentiment. The biggest problem the PBOC has is they have no sure-fire way to cut rates without quickly reinflating the leverage bubble they have been working to reduce for the past three years.

And of course, away from the major central banks, you can be sure that we are going to see easier monetary policy pretty much everywhere else in the world. This is especially true throughout the emerging markets, the countries that have suffered the most from the combination of higher US rates and a stronger dollar.

The irony of all this is that, as RBA Governor Lowe pointed out two weeks ago when they cut rates, if everybody cuts rates at the same time, one of the key transmission mechanisms, a weaker currency, is likely to have far less impact because the relative rate structure will remain the same. This is the reason that the dollar is likely to come under pressure in the short-run, because the Fed has more room to cut rates than most other central banks. But in the end, if everybody reaches ZIRP, currency valuations will need to be decided on other criteria with macroeconomic performance likely to be a key driver. And in the end, the dollar still comes up looking like the best bet.

And that’s really it. Every story is about the Fed cutting rates and how it will impact some other country, market, company, policy, etc.. Brexit is hanging out there, but until the new PM is named, nothing is going to change. The trade talks have restarted, but there is no conclusion in sight. Granted, several individual currencies have suffered of their own accord lately, notably MXN which fell more than 2.0% on Monday after the FinMin resigned due to philosophical differences with President AMLO, and TRY, which fell a similar amount at the end of last Friday after President Erdogan fired the central bank president and replaced him with someone more likely to cut rates. But those are special situations, and in truth, a good deal of those losses have been mitigated by the Fed story. As I said, it is all one story today.

Looking ahead to today’s market, we see our only important data point of the week, CPI (exp 1.6%, 2.0% core) and we also get Initial Claims (223K). But Chairman Powell testifies in front of the Senate today, and we hear from Williams, Bostic, Barkin, Kashkari and Quarles before the day is through as well. Given the Minutes released yesterday indicated a majority of FOMC members were ready to cut this month, it will be interesting to see how dovish this particular group sounds today, especially in the wake of the Chairman’s comments yesterday. Overall, I think the bias will be more dovish, and that the dollar probably has a bit further to fall before it is all over.

Good luck
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Loosen the Screws

Said President Trump, come next week
That he and Xi are set to speak
Meanwhile he complains
The euro remains
Too weak, and a boost there he’ll seek

But that was all yesterday’s news
Today Jay will offer his views
On whether the Fed
Is ready to shred
Its old plans and loosen the screws

ECB President Draghi once again proved his mettle yesterday by managing to surprise the market with an even more dovish set of comments when he spoke at the ECB gathering in Sintra, Portugal. Essentially, the market now believes he promised to cut interest rates further and restart QE soon, despite the fact that rates in the Eurozone remain negative and that the ECB has run up against their self-imposed limits regarding percentage of ownership of Eurozone government bonds. In other words, once again, Draghi will change the rules to allow him to go deeper down the rabbit hole otherwise, these days, known as monetary policy.

Markets were Europhoric, on the news, with equities on the Continent all rising 1.5% or so, while government bond yields fell to new lows. German Bund yields touched a new, all-time, low at -0.326%, but we also saw French OAT yields fall to a record low of 0.00% in the 10-year space. In fact, all Eurozone government bonds saw sharp declines in yields. For Draghi, I’m sure the most gratifying result was that the 5 year/5 year inflation swap contract rebounded from 1.18%, up to 1.23%, still massively below the target of “close to, but below, 2.0%”, but at least it stopped falling. In addition, the euro fell, closing the day lower by 0.2% and back below the 1.12 level, and we also saw gold add to its recent gains, as lower interest rates traditionally support precious metals prices.

US markets also had a big day yesterday with both equity and bond markets continuing the recent rally. Clearly, the idea that the ECB was ready to add further stimulus was a key driver of the move, but that news also whetted appetites for today’s FOMC meeting and what they will do and say. Adding fuel to the equity fire was President Trump’s announcement that he would be meeting with Chinese President Xi at the G20 next week, with plans for an “extended meeting” there. This has created the following idea for traders and investors; global monetary policy is set to get much easier while the trade war is soon coming to an end. The combination will remove both of the current drags on global economic growth, so buy risky assets. Of course, the flaw in this theory is that if Trump and Xi come to terms, then the trade war, which has universally been blamed for the world’s economic troubles, will no longer be weakening the economy and so easier monetary policy won’t be necessary. But those are just details relative to the main narrative. And the narrative is now, easy money is coming to a central bank near you, and that means stocks will rally!

Let’s analyze that narrative for a moment. There is a growing suspicion that this is a coordinated attempt by central bankers to rebuild confidence by all of them easing policy at the same time, thus allowing a broad-based economic benefit without specific currency impacts. After all, if the ECB eases, and so does the Fed, and the BOJ tonight, and even the BOE tomorrow, the relative benefits (read declines) to any major currency will be limited. The problem I have with the theory is that coordination is extremely difficult to achieve out in the open, let alone as a series of back room deals. However, it does seem pretty clear that the data set of late is looking much less robust than had been the case earlier this year, so central bank responses are not surprising.

And remember, too, that BOE Governor Carney keeps trying to insist that UK rates could rise in the event of a smooth Brexit, although this morning’s CPI data printed right on their target of 2.0%, with pipeline pressures looking quite subdued. This has resulted in futures markets pricing in rate cuts despite Carney’s threats. This has also helped undermine the pound’s performance, which continues to be a laggard, even with yesterday’s euro declines. The fact that markets are ignoring Carney sets a dangerous precedent for the central banking community as well, because if markets begin to ignore their words, they may soon find all their decisions marginalized.

So, all in all, the market is ready for a Fed easing party, although this morning’s price action has been very quiet ahead of the actual news at 2:00 this afternoon. Futures markets are currently pricing a 23% chance of a rate cut today and an 85% chance of one in July. One thing I don’t understand is why nobody is talking about ending QT this month, rather than waiting until September. After all, the balance sheet run-off has been blamed for undermining the economy just as much as the interest rate increases. An early stop there would be seen as quite dovish without needing to promise to change rates. Just a thought.

And really, these are the stories that matter today. If possible, this Fed meeting is even more important than usual, which means that the likelihood of large movement before the 2:00pm announcement is extremely small. There is no other data today, and overall, the dollar is ever so slightly softer going into the announcement. This is a reflection of the anticipated easing bias, but obviously, it all depends on what the Chairman says to anticipate the next move.

Good luck
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Oy Vey!

The jobs report was quite the dud
And traders began smelling blood
If Powell and friends
Would not make amends
Then stocks would be dragged through the mud

Then later, down Mexico’s way
The tariff dispute went away
At least for the moment
Though Trump could still foment
More problems by tweeting, oy vey!

This morning, despite the confusion
The outcome’s a foregone conclusion
Stock markets will rise
While bonds scrutinize
The data, and fight the illusion

I’m not even sure where to start this morning. Friday’s market activity was largely as I had forecast given the weak payrolls report, just a 75K rise in NFP along with weaker earnings numbers, leading to a massive increase in speculation that the Fed is going to cut, and cut soon. In fact, the probability for a June cut of 25bps is now about 50/50, with a full cut priced in for the July meeting and a total of 70bps of cuts priced in for the rest of 2019. Equity markets worldwide have rallied on the weak data as a new narrative has developed as follows: weaker US growth will force the Fed to ease policy sooner than previously forecast and every other central bank will be forced to follow suit and ease policy as well. And since the reaction function for equity markets has nothing to do with economic activity, being entirely dependent on central bank largesse, it should be no surprise that stock markets are higher everywhere. Adding to the euphoria was the announcement by the Trump administration that those potential Mexican tariffs have been suspended indefinitely after progress was made with respect to the ongoing immigration issues at the US southern border.

This combination of news and data was all that was needed to reverse the Treasury market rally from earlier in the week, with 10-year yields higher by 5bps this morning, and the dollar, which had fallen broadly on Friday, down about 0.6% across the board after the payroll report, has rebounded against most of its counterpart currencies. The one outlier here is the Mexican peso, which after the tariff threat had fallen by nearly 3%, has rebounded and is 2.0% higher vs. the dollar this morning.

To say that we live in a looking glass world where up is down and down is up may not quite capture the extent of the overall market confusion. One thing is certain though, and that is we are likely to continue to see market volatility increase going forward.

Let’s unpack the Fed portion of the story, as I believe it will be most helpful in trying to anticipate how things will play out going forward. President Trump’s threats against Mexico really shook up the market but had an even bigger impact on the Fed. Consider, we have not heard the word ‘patient’ from a Fed speaker since Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester used the word on May 3rd. When the FOMC minutes were released on May 22, the term was rampant, but the world had changed by then. In the interim, we had seen the US-China trade talks fall apart and an increase in tariffs by both sides, as well as threats of additional actions, notably the banning of Huawei products in the US and the restriction of rare earth metals sales by China. At this point, the trade situation is referred to as a war by both sides and most pundits. We have also seen weaker US economic activity, with Retail Sales and Housing data suffering, along with manufacturing and production. While no one is claiming we are in recession yet, the probabilities of one arriving are seen as much higher.

The result of all this weak data and trade angst was a pretty sharp sell-off in the equity markets, which as we all know, seems to be the only thing that causes the Fed to react. And it did so again, with the Fed speakers over the past two weeks highlighting the weakening data and lack of inflation and some even acknowledging that a rate cut would be appropriate (Bullard and Evans.) This drove full on speculation that the Fed was about to ease policy and futures markets have now gone all-in on the idea. It would actually be disconcerting if the Fed acted after a single poor data point, so June still seems only a remote possibility, but when they meet next week, look for a much more dovish statement and for Chairman Powell to be equally dovish in the press conference afterward.

And remember, if the Fed is turning the page on ‘normalization’ there is essentially no chance that any other major central bank will be able to normalize policy either. In fact, what we have heard from both the ECB’s Draghi and BOJ’s Kuroda-san lately are defenses of the many tools they still have left to utilize in their efforts to raise inflation and inflationary expectations. But really, all they have are the same tools they’ve used already. So, look for interest rates to fall further, even where they are already negative, as well as more targeted loans and more QE. And the new versions of QE will include purchases that go far beyond government bonds. We will see much more central bank buying of equities and corporate bonds, and probably mortgages and municipals before it is all over.

Ultimately, the world has become addicted to central bank policy largesse, and I fear the only way this cycle will be broken is by a crisis, where really big changes are made (think debt jubilee), as more of the same is not going to get the job done. And that will be an environment where havens will remain in demand, so dollars, yen, Treasuries and Bunds, and probably gold will all do quite well. Maybe not immediately, but that is where we are headed.

Enough doom and gloom. Let’s pivot to the data story this week, which is actually pretty important:

Today JOLTs Jobs Report 7.479M
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz 102.3
  PPI 0.1% (2.0% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.3% Y/Y)
Wednesday CPI 0.1% (1.9% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.1% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 216K
Friday Retail Sales 0.7%
  -ex autos 0.3%
  IP 0.1%
  Capacity Utilization 78.7%
  Michigan Sentiment 98.1

Clearly CPI will be closely watched, with any weakness just fanning the flames for rate cuts sooner. Also, after the weak NFP report Friday, I expect closer scrutiny for the Initial Claims data. This has been quite steady at low levels for some time, but many pundits will be watching for an uptick here as confirmation that the jobs market is starting to soften. Finally, Retail Sales will also be seen as important, especially given the poor outcome last month, which surprised one and all.

Mercifully, the Fed is in its quiet period ahead of their meeting next week, so we won’t be hearing from them. Right now, however, the momentum for a rate cut continues to build and stories in the media are more about potential weakness in the economy than in the strength that we had seen several months ago. If the focus remains on US economic activity softening, the dollar should come under pressure, but once we see that spread to other areas, notably the UK and Europe, where they had soft data this morning, I expect those pressures to equalize. For today, though, I feel like the dollar is still vulnerable.

Good luck
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