Tempting the Fates

Around the world most central banks
Have, monthly, been forced to give thanks
That tempting the fates
With negative rates
Has not destroyed euros or francs

And later today we will hear
From Draghi, the man who made clear
“Whatever it takes”
Would fix the mistakes
Investors had grown, most, to fear

With Brexit on the back burner for the day, as the UK awaits the EU’s decision on how long of a delay to grant, the market has turned its attention to the world’s central banks. Generally speaking, monetary ease remains the primary focus, although there are a few banks that are bucking the trend.

Starting with the largest for today, and world’s second most important central bank, the ECB meets today in what is Mario Draghi’s final policy meeting at the helm. Given their actions last month, where they cut the deposit rate a further 10bps to -0.50% and restarted QE to the tune of €20 billion per month, there is no expectation for any change at all. In fact, the only thing to expect is more exhortations from Draghi for increasing fiscal policy stimulus by Germany and other Northern European nations that are not overly indebted. But it will not change anything at this stage, and he has already tied Madame Lagarde’s hands going forward with their most recent guidance, so this will be the farewell tour as everybody regales him for saving the euro back in 2012.

But there have been a number of other moves, the most notable being the Swedish Riksbank, which left rates unchanged, but basically promised to raise them by 25bps in December to return them to 0.00%. Apparently they are tired of negative rates and don’t want them to become habit forming. While I admire that concept, the problem they have is growth there is slowing and inflation is falling well below their target of 2.0%. The most recent reading was 1.5%, but the average going back post the financial crisis is just 1.1%. SEK gained slightly after their comments, rallying 0.15% this morning, but the trend in the krone remains lower and I think they will need to raise a lot more than 25bps to change that.

Meanwhile, other central bank activity saw Norway leave rates unchanged at 1.50% as core inflation there remains above their 2.0% target. NOK’s response was essentially nil. Indonesia cut rates by 25bps, as widely expected, its fourth consecutive rate cut, and although the rupiah is ever so slightly softer this morning, -0.2%, its performance this year has been pretty solid, having gained 2.3% YTD. Finally, the Turkish central bank cut rates by a surprising 250bps this morning, much more than the 100bps expected. If you recall, President Erdogan has been adamant that higher interest rates beget higher inflation, and even fired the previous central bank head to replace him with someone more malleable. Interestingly, a look at Turkish inflation shows that it has been falling despite (because of?) recent rate cuts. And today, despite that huge cut, the initial currency impact was pretty modest, with the lira falling 0.5% immediately, but already recouping some of those losses. And in the broader picture, the lira’s recent trend has clearly been higher and remains so after the cut.

On the data front we saw PMI data from the Eurozone and it simply reinforced the idea that the Eurozone is heading into a recession. Germany’s numbers were worse than expected (Manufacturing 41.9, Composite 48.6) which was enough to drag the Eurozone data down as well (Manufacturing 45.7, Composite 50.2). It seems clear that when Germany reports their Q3 GDP next month it will be negative and Germany will ‘officially’ be in a recession. It is data of this nature that makes it so hard to turn bullish on the single currency. Given their economic travails, the Teutonic austerity mindset, which was enshrined in law, and the fact that the ECB is essentially out of bullets, it is very difficult to have a positive view of the euro in the medium term. This morning, ahead of the ECB policy statement, the euro is little changed, and I see no reason for it to move afterwards either.

So, there was lots of central bank activity, but not so much FX movement in response. My sense is that FX traders are now going to fully turn their attention to the FOMC meeting next week, as even though a rate cut seems assured, the real question is will the Fed call a halt to the mid-cycle adjustment, or will they leave the door open to further rate cuts. The risk with the former is that the equity market sells off sharply, thus tightening financial conditions, sowing fear in Washington and forcing a reversal. However, the risk with the latter is that the Fed loses further credibility, something they have already squandered, by being proven reactive to the markets, and less concerned with the economy writ large.

For today’s session, we have the only real data of the week, Durable Goods (exp -0.7%, -0.2% ex Transport), and Initial Claims (215K) at 8:30, then New Home Sales (702K) at 10:00. We also see the US PMI data (Manufacturing 50.9, Services 51.0) although the market generally doesn’t pay much attention to this. Instead it focuses on the ISM data which won’t be released until next week.

Without any Fed speakers on the docket, once again the FX market is likely to take its cues from equities, which are broadly higher this morning after a number of better than expected earnings announcements. In this risk-on environment, I think the dollar has room to edge lower, but unless we start to see the US data really deteriorate, I have a feeling the Fed is going to try to end the rate cuts and the dollar will benefit going forward. Just not today.

Good luck
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Soon On the Way

Said Brainerd and Williams and Jay
A rate cut is soon on the way
Inflation’s quiescent
And growth’s convalescent
So easing will help save the day

We have learned a great deal this week about central bank sentiment from the Fed, the ECB, the BOE, Sweden’s Riksbank as well as several emerging market central banks like Mexico and Serbia. And the tone of all the commentary is one way; easier policy is coming soon to a central bank near you.

Let’s take a look at the Fed scorecard to start. Here is a list of the FOMC membership, voting members first:

Chairman Jerome Powell                – cut
Vice-Chair Richard Clarida             – cut
Lael Brainerd                                    – cut
Randal Quarles                                 – cut
Michelle Bowman                            – ?
NY – John Williams                           -cut
St Louis James Bullard                    – cut
Chicago – Charles Evans                  – cut
KC – Esther George                           – stay
Boston – Eric Rosengren                 – cut

Non-voting members
Philadelphia – Patrick Harker       – cut
Dallas – Robert Kaplan                    – ?
Minneapolis – Neel Kashkari         – cut 50!
Cleveland – Loretta Mester            – stay
Atlanta – Rafael Bostic                    – stay
Richmond – Thomas Barkin          – stay

While we have not yet heard from the newest Governor, Michelle Bowman, it would be unprecedented for a new governor to dissent so early in their tenure. In the end, based on what we have heard publicly from voting members, only Esther George might dissent to call for rates to remain on hold, but it is clear that at least a 25bp cut is coming at the end of the month. The futures market has priced it in fully, and now the question is will they cut 50. At this point, it doesn’t seem that likely to me, but there are still two weeks before the meeting, so plenty can happen in the interim.

But it’s not just the Fed. The ECB Minutes were released yesterday, and the telling line was there was “broad agreement” that the ECB should “be ready and prepared to ease the monetary policy stance further by adjusting all of its instruments.” It seems pretty clear to me (and arguably the entire market) that they are about to ease policy. There are many analysts who believe the ECB will wait until their September meeting, when they produce new growth and inflation forecasts, but a growing number of analysts who believe that they will cut later this month. After all, if the Fed is about to cut based on weakening global growth, why would the ECB wait?

And there were the Minutes from Sweden’s Riksbank, which were released this morning and showed that their plans for raising rates as early as September have now been called into question by a number of the members, as slowing global growth and ongoing trade uncertainties weigh on sentiment. While Sweden’s economy has performed better than the Eurozone at large, it will be extremely difficult for the Riksbank to tighten policy while the ECB is easing without a significant adjustment to the krona. And given Sweden’s status as an open economy with significant trade flows, they cannot afford for the krona to strengthen too much.

Meanwhile, Banco de Mexico Minutes showed a split in the vote to maintain rates on hold at 8.25% last month, with two voters now looking for a cut. While inflation remains higher than target, again, the issue is how long can they maintain current policy rates in the face of cuts by the Fed. Look for rate cuts there by autumn. And finally, little Serbia didn’t wait, cutting 25bp this morning as growth there is beginning to slow, and recognizing that imminent action by the ECB would need to be addressed anyway.

In fairness, the macroeconomic backdrop for all this activity is not all that marvelous. For example, just like South Korea reported last week, Singapore reported Q2 GDP growth as negative, -3.4% annualized, a much worse than expected outcome and a potential harbinger of the future for larger economies. Singapore’s economy is hugely dependent on trade flows, so given the ongoing US-China trade issues, this ought not be a surprise, but the magnitude of the decline was significant. Speaking of China, their trade data, released last night, showed slowing exports (-1.3%) and imports (-7.3%), with the result a much larger than expected trade surplus of $51B. Additionally, we saw weaker than expected Loan growth and slowing M2 Money Supply growth, both of which point to slower economic activity going forward. Yesterday’s other important economic data point was US CPI, where core surprised at 2.1%, a tick higher than expected. However, the overwhelming evidence that the Fed is going to cut rates has rendered that point moot for now. We will need to see that number move much higher, and much faster, to change any opinions there.

The market impact of all this has generally been as expected. Equity prices, at least in the US, continue to climb as investors cling tightly to the idea that lower interest rates equal higher stock prices. All three indices closed at new records and futures are pointing higher across the board. The dollar, too, has been under pressure, as would be expected given the view that the Fed is going to enter an easing cycle. Of course, while the recent trend for the dollar has been down, the slope of the line is not very steep. Consider that the euro is only about 1% above its recent cyclical lows from late April, and still well below the levels seen at the end of June. So while the dollar has weakened a bit, it is quite easy to make the case it remains within a trading range. In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, if all central banks are cutting rates simultaneously, the impact on the currency market should be quite limited, as the relative rate stance won’t change.

Finally, a quick word about Treasury bonds as well as German bunds. Both of these markets were hugely overbought by the end of last week, as investors and speculators jumped on the idea of lower rates coming soon. And so, it should be no surprise that both of these markets have seen yields back up a decent amount as those trades are unwound. This morning we see 10-year yields at 2.13% in the US and -0.21% in Germany, well off the lows of last week. However, this trade is entirely technical and at some point, when these positions are gone, look for yields on both securities to head lower again.

This morning brings just PPI (exp 1.6%, 2.2% core) which is unlikely to have much impact on anything. With no more Fed speakers to add to the mix, I expect that we will continue to see equities rally, and that the dollar, while it may remain soft, is unlikely to move too far in any direction.

Good luck and good weekend
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Spring Next Year

Interest rates shan’t
Rise ere spring next year. But might
They possibly fall?

This morning’s market theme is that things look bad everywhere, except perhaps in the US. Starting in Tokyo, the BOJ met last night and, to no one’s surprise, left their policy rate unchanged at -0.10%. They maintained their yield curve control target of 0.00% +/- 0.20% for 10-year JGB’s and they indicated they would continue to purchase JGB’s at a clip of ¥80 trillion per year. But there were two things they did change, one surprising and one confusing.

First the surprise; instead of claiming rates would remain low for an “extended period”, the new language gave a specific date, “at least through around spring 2020”. Of course, this gives them the flexibility to extend that date specifically, implying an even more dovish stance going forward. Market participants were not expecting any change to the language, but interestingly, the yen actually rallied after the report. Part of that could be because there was significant weakness in Asian equity markets and a bit of a risk-off scenario, but I also read that some analysts see this as a prelude to tighter policy. I don’t buy the latter idea, but it does have adherents. The second thing they did, the confusing one, was they indicated they would create a lending facility for their ETF portfolio. The unusual thing here is that generally, lending securities is a way to encourage short-selling, although they did couch the idea in terms of added liquidity to the market. Given they own more than 70% of the ETF market, it is clear that liquidity must be suffering, but I wouldn’t have thought bringing short-sellers to the party would be their goal.

In South Korea, Q1 GDP shrank -0.3%, a much worse outcome than the expected 0.3% growth, and largely caused by a sharp decline in exports and IP. This is an ominous sign for the global economy, and also calls into question the accuracy of the Chinese data last week. Given the tight relationship between Korean exports and Chinese growth, something seems out of place here. The market impact was a decline in the KOSPI (-0.5%), falling Korean yields and a decline in the KRW, which fell a further 0.6% and is now at its weakest point in two years. Look for the Bank of Korea to ease policy going forward.

Turning to Europe, the Swedish Riksbank left policy rates unchanged at -0.25%, as expected, but their statement indicated that there would be no rate hike later this year, as previously expected, given the slowing growth and lack of inflation in Sweden. While I foreshadowed this earlier this week, the market response was severe, with SEK falling 1.4%, although the Swedish OMX (stock market) rallied 1% on the news. You know, bad news is good because rates remain low.

One last central bank note, the Bank of Canada has thrown in the towel on normalizing policy, dropping any reference to higher rates in the future from their statement yesterday. Upon the release of the statement, the Loonie fell a quick 1%. Although it has since recovered a bit of that, it is still lower by 0.6% from before the meeting. It seems concerns over slowing growth now outweigh concerns over excess leverage in the private sector.

The other market note was the sharp decline in Chinese stocks with the Shanghai Composite falling 2.4% as traders and investors there lose faith that the PBOC is going to continue to support the economy, especially after the better than expected GDP data last week. Even the renminbi fell, -0.3%, although it has been especially stable for the past two months as the US-China trade talks continue. Speaking of which, the next round of face-to-face talks are set to get under way shortly, but there has been little in the way of news, either positive or negative, for the past two weeks.

One other thing about which we have not heard much lately is Brexit, where the internal political machinations continue in Parliament, but as yet, there has been no willingness to compromise on either side of the aisle. Of note is that the pound continues to fall, down a further 0.2% this morning and now firmly below 1.29. While there is no doubt that the dollar is strong across the board, it also strikes that some market participants are beginning to price in a chance of a no-deal Brexit again, despite Parliament’s stated aim of preventing that. As yet, there is no better alternative.

Finally, the euro is still under pressure this morning as well, down a further 0.2% this morning, which makes 1.5% in the past week. This morning’s only data point showed Unemployment in Spain rose unexpectedly to 14.7%, another sign of slowing growth throughout the Eurozone. At this point, the ECB is unwilling to commit to easing policy much further, but with the data misses piling up, at some point they are going to concede the point. Easier money is coming to the Eurozone as well.

This morning brings Initial Claims data (exp 200K) and Durable Goods (0.8%, 0.2% ex Transport). It doesn’t seem that either of these will change any views, and as we have seen all week, I expect that Q1 earnings will be the market’s overall focus. A bullish spin will continue to highlight the different trajectories of the US and the rest of the world, and ultimately, continue to support the dollar.

Good luck
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Headwinds Exist

Of late from the Fed we have heard
That “gradual” is the watchword
Though headwinds exist
The Fed will persist
Their rate hikes just won’t be deferred

It appears there is a pattern developing amongst the world’s central bankers. Despite increasing evidence that economic activity is slowing down, every one of them is continuing to back the gradual increase of base interest rates. Last week, Signor Draghi was clear in his assessment that recent economic headwinds were likely temporary and would not deter the ECB from ending QE on schedule and starting to raise rates next year. This week, so far, we have been treated to Fed speakers Charles Evans and Richard Clarida both explaining that the gradual increase of interest rates was still the appropriate policy despite indications that economic activity in the US is slowing. While both acknowledged the recent softer data, both were clear that the current policy trajectory of gradual rate hikes remained appropriate. Later this morning we will hear from Chairman Powell, but his recent statements have been exactly in line with those of Evans and Clarida. And finally, the Swedish Riksbank remains on track to raise rates next month despite the fact that recent economic data shows slowing growth and declining consumer and business confidence.

Interestingly, the San Francisco Fed just released a research paper explaining that inflation was NOT likely to rise significantly and that the increases earlier this year, which have been ebbing lately, were the result of acyclical factors. The paper continued that as those factors revert to more normal, historical levels, inflation was likely to fall back below the Fed’s 2.0% target. But despite their own research, there is no indication that the Fed is going to change their tune. In fact, the conundrum I see is that Powell’s Fed has become extremely data focused, seemingly willing to respond to short term movement in the numbers despite the fact that monetary policy works with a lag at least on the order of 6-12 months. In other words, even though the Fed is completely aware that their actions don’t really impact the data for upwards of a year, they are moving in the direction of making policy based on the idiosyncrasies of monthly numbers.

All this sounds like a recipe for some policy mistakes going forward. However, as I wrote two weeks ago, current attempts to normalize policy are very likely simply addressing previous policy mistakes. After all, the fact that pretty much every central bank in the G20 is seeking to ‘normalize’ monetary policy despite recent growth hiccups is indicative of the fact that they all realize their policies are in the wrong place for the end of the economic cycle. Belatedly, it seems they are beginning to understand that they will have very limited ability to address the next economic downturn, which I fear will occur much sooner than most pundits currently predict.

The reason I focus on the central banks is because of their outsized impact on the currency markets. After all, as I have written many times, the cyclical factor of relative interest rates continues to be one of the main drivers of FX movements. So as long as central banks are telling us that they are on a mission to raise rates, the real question becomes the relative speed with which they are adjusting policy and how much of that adjustment is already priced into the market. The reason that yesterday’s comments from Evans and Clarida are so important is that the market had begun pricing out rate hikes for 2019, with not quite two currently expected. However, if the Fed maintains its hawkish tone that implies the dollar has further room to rise.

Speaking of the dollar, despite the risk-on sentiment that has been evident in equity markets the past two sessions, the dollar continues to perform well. That sentiment seems to be driven by the idea that the Trump-Xi meeting on Saturday will produce some type of compromise and restart the trade talks. I am unwilling to handicap that outcome as forecasting this president’s actions has proven to be extremely difficult. We shall see.

Pivoting to the market today, the dollar is actually little changed this morning, with the largest G10 movement being a modest 0.3% rally in the pound Sterling. There are numerous articles describing the ongoing machinations in Parliament in the UK regarding the upcoming Brexit vote, and today’s view seems to be that something will pass. However, away from the pound, the G10 is trading within 10bps of yesterday’s close, although yesterday did see the dollar rally some 0.4% across the board. Yesterday’s US data showed that consumer confidence was slipping from record highs and that house prices were rising less rapidly than forecast, although still at a 5.1% clip. This morning brings the second look at Q3 GDP (exp 3.5%) as well as New Home Sales (575K) and the Goods Trade Balance (-$76.7B). However, Chairman Powell speaks at noon, and that should garner the bulk of the market’s attention. Until then, I anticipate very little price action in the FX markets, and truthfully in any market.

Good luck
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