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
Adf

An Own Goal

So, Parliament’s taken control
Of Brexit, but can they cajole
Frau Merkel and friends
To finally bend
Or have they now scored an own goal

The one truism about the FX markets these days is that nobody has a real clue as to what is going to happen to the pound. Every day there is a different view as to whether or not there is going to be a deal or a hard Brexit, or something else. The latest machinations in the UK have changed the process there somewhat, with Parliament voting to wrest control of the negotiations from PM May’s hands and make decisions directly. The upshot of this is that tomorrow, they will vote on a series of bills that try to outline what the members would like to see in a Brexit outcome. Of course, it strikes me as fanciful that Parliament, in a few days’ time, will be able to come to agreement on something that has been this contentious for more than two years. And while everybody continues to claim there cannot be a hard Brexit, I almost think this new tactic will assure that outcome. The only thing we know for sure is that there is no majority FOR any direction. While there have been clear rejections of the PM’s negotiated deal, nobody has come up with something that the UK wants, and that might be acceptable to the EU. Remember, too, the EU has given just a two-week extension for Parliament to come up with something. In other words, this is all still a huge mess with no clear outcome. The pound, as should be expected, continues to chop back and forth as the flavor of the day indicates either a deal, or a crash. As I type, the pound has rallied slightly, up 0.2%, but it continues to trade within its recent range, and will likely do so until a decision, any decision, is taken.

The other story of note this morning is the news that the French and Chinese have signed some trade deals as Chinese President Xi wraps up his European tour. I admit I am a little confused that France is allowed to ‘negotiate’ directly with a non-EU member on trade deals as I thought that was the whole point of the EU, the same terms for everyone. At any rate, this optimism has bled into the US-China trade discussion which is set to become headline news again with Messrs. Lighthizer and Mnuchin arriving in Beijing today to resume those talks. The last we heard on this subject indicated concerns over whether the Chinese were willing to agree to some key US demands regarding IP protection and the available punishments in the event of a breach of the new rules. But, today, the glass is half full, so markets are rebounding on the idea that a deal is, in fact, near.

Turning back to yesterday’s yield curve story, while 10-year yields in the US have edged higher this morning, they remain below 3-month yields. There have been several articles recently describing why this inversion is not the same as the ones that we have seen in the past. Briefly, past inversions arose because the Fed was raising short-term rates in order to head off rising inflationary pressures that had built up during a recovery. And while in one sense, that is what seems to have happened this time, the missing ingredient has been the actual inflation. The Fed’s rate hikes over the past three years were partly in anticipation of higher inflation based on the declining unemployment rate (the misapplied Phillips Curve). But a key difference this time has been the fact that in the wake of QE, the Fed’s balance sheet is much larger, and by design, longer term rates are much lower than they might otherwise be. If the Fed did not own an extra $2.5 trillion of Treasuries, where would the 10-year yield actually trade? Arguably, far higher than 2.4%. And so, the crux of the argument that this time is different is based on that fact. Without QE, short-term rates would not yet be approaching long-term rates, and so no inversion discussions would be taking place.

The opposing view, however, is that we have continued to see weaker data in the US and throughout the world, which implies that global growth is slowing. So, inverted yield curve or not, a recession may well be coming. It is important to remember that an inverted yield curve does not cause a recession per se, it has simply been a pretty reliable indicator of upcoming recessions based on its history over the past 50 years. And, in truth, the indicator that gets the most press is the 2yr-10yr spread, which as of yet has not inverted, although remains quite close to flat at just 15bps right now.

The reason this discussion matters is it helps drive market views of the Fed’s next steps and therefore the market reactions to those steps. As I have maintained consistently, however, the US is unlikely to head into recession without dragging the rest of the world along for the ride. And correspondingly, if the rest of the world is actually headed toward a recession, the US is certainly going to see slower growth. But as this relates to the dollar’s value, there is no evidence the US is weakening faster than the EU, the UK, China or most of the rest of the world, and so as dovish as the Fed may sound, other central banks will be more dovish still. The dollar should still be the main beneficiary of this situation, especially if it includes a significant equity correction and risk-off scenario.

Turning to this morning’s story, Housing Starts (exp 1.213M), Building Permits (1.3M), Case-Shiller House Prices (4.0%) and Consumer Confidence (132.0) are on the docket as well as three Fed speakers (Harker, Evans and Daly) two of whom have already spoken overseas but whose comments have not been widely circulated yet. Overall, the dollar is slightly softer this morning, but that is after several positive sessions, so in the end, we continue to chop in our trading range waiting for the next key driver. At this point, my money is on Brexit, but you never know.

Good luck
Adf

Compromised

The punditry seemed quite surprised
That trade talks have been compromised
If President’s Xi
And Trump can’t agree
To meet, forecasts need be revised

What then, ought the future might hold?
It’s likely that stocks will be sold
And Treasuries bought
As safety is sought
Plus rallies in dollars and gold

Risk appetites have definitely diminished this morning as evidenced by yesterday’s US equity decline alongside a very weak showing in Asia overnight. The proximate cause is the news that President’s Trump and Xi are not likely to meet ahead of the March 1 deadline regarding increased tariffs on Chinese goods. And while trade talks are ongoing, with Mnuchin and Lighthizer heading to Beijing next week, it seems pretty clear that the market was counting on a breakthrough between the presidents in a face-to-face meeting. However, not unlike the intractable Irish border situation in the Brexit discussions, the question of state subsidies and IP theft forced technology transfer are fundamental to the Chinese economy and therefore essentially intractable for Xi. I have consistently maintained that the market was far too sanguine about a positive outcome in the near-term for these talks, and yesterday’s news seems to support that view.

Of course, eventually a deal will be found, it is just not clear to me how long it will take and how much pain both sides can stand. Whether or not Fed Chair Powell believes he capitulated to Trump regarding interest rates, it is clear Trump sees it in that light. Similarly, it appears the president believes he has the upper hand in this negotiation as well and expects Xi to blink. That could make for a much rockier path forward for financial markets desperate to see some stability in global politics.

The trade news was clearly the key catalyst driving equities lower, but we continue to see weakening data as well, which calls into question just how strong global growth is going to be during 2019. The latest data points of concern are Italian IP (-0.8%, exp +0.4%) and the German trade surplus falling to €13.9B from €20.4B in November. Remember, Germany is the most export intensive nation in the EU, reliant on running a significant trade surplus as part of its macroeconomic policy structure. If that starts to shrink, it bodes ill for the future of the German economy, and by extension for the Eurozone as a whole. While it cannot be too surprising that the Italian data continues to weaken, it simply highlights that the recession there is not likely to end soon. In fact, it appears likely that the entire Eurozone will be mired in a recession before long. Despite the ongoing flow of weak data, the euro, this morning, is little changed. After a steady 1.25% decline during the past week, it appears to have found a little stability this morning and is unchanged on the day.

In fact, lack of movement is the defining feature of the currency markets this morning as the pound, yen, Loonie, kiwi, yuan, rupee and Mexican peso are all trading within a few bps of yesterday’s levels. The only currency to have moved at all has been Aussie, which has fallen 0.25% on continued concerns over the growth prospects both at home and in China, as well as the ongoing softness in many commodity prices.

The other noteworthy items from yesterday were comments from St Louis Fed president Bullard that he thought rates ought to remain on hold for the foreseeable future. Granted, he has been one of the two most dovish Fed members (Kashkari being the other) for a long time, but he was clearly gratified that the rest of the committee appears to have come around to his point of view. And finally, the Initial Claims data printed at a higher than expected 234K. While in the broad scheme of things, that is still a low number, it is higher than the recent four-week average, and when looking at a chart of claims, it looks more and more like the bottom for this number is likely behind us.

A great deal has been written recently about the reliability of the change in the Unemployment rate as a signal for a pending recession. History shows that once the Unemployment rate rises 0.4% from its trough, a recession has followed more than 80% of the time. Thus far, that rate has risen 0.3% from its nadir, and if claims data continues to rise, which given recent numbers seems quite possible, the implication is a recession is in our future. The one thing we know about recessions is that the Fed has never been able to forecast their onset. Given the fact that this recovery is quite long in the tooth, at 115 months of age, it cannot be surprising that a recession is on the horizon. My concern is that the horizon is beneath our feet, not in the distance.

There is no US data to be released today although next week brings both inflation and manufacturing data. But for now, all eyes are on the deteriorating view of the trade situation, which is likely to keep pressure on equity markets (futures are currently pointing lower by 0.5%) while helping support the dollar as risk is continuously reduced.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf