Still Under Stress

As traders are forced to assess
A bond market still under stress
Today’s jobs report
Might be of the sort
That causes some further regress

Global bond markets are still reeling after the past several sessions have seen yields explode higher. The proximate cause seems to have been the much stronger data released Wednesday in the US, where the ADP Employment and ISM Non-Manufacturing reports were stellar. Adding to the mix were comments by Fed Chairman Powell that continue to sing the praises of the US economy, and giving every indication that the Fed was going to continue to raise rates steadily for the next year. In fact, the Fed funds futures market finally got the message and has now priced in about 60bps of rate hikes for next year, on top of the 25bps more for this year. So in the past few sessions, that market has added essentially one full hike into their calculations. It can be no surprise that bond markets sold off, or that what started in the US led to a global impact. After all, despite efforts by some pundits to declare that the ECB was the critical global central bank as they continue their QE process, the reality is that the Fed remains top of the heap, and what they do will impact everybody else around the world.

Which of course brings us to this morning’s jobs data. Despite the strong data on Wednesday, there has been no meaningful change in the current analyst expectations, which are as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 185K
Private Payrolls 180K
Manufacturing Payrolls 12K
Unemployment Rate 3.8%
Participation Rate 62.7%
Average Hourly Earnings (AHE) 0.3% (2.8% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Trade Balance -$53.5B

The market risk appears to be that the release will show better than expected numbers today, which would encourage further selling in Treasuries and continuation of the cycle that has driven markets this week. What is becoming abundantly clear is that the Treasury market has become the pre-eminent driver of global markets for now. Based on the data we have seen lately, there is no reason to suspect that today’s releases will be weak. In fact, I suspect that we are going to see much better than expected numbers, with a chance for AHE to touch 3.0%. Any outcome like that should be met with another sharp decline in Treasuries as well as equities, while the dollar finds further support.

Away from the payroll data, there have been other noteworthy things ongoing around the world, so lets touch on a few here. First, there is growing optimism that with the Tory Party conference now past, and PM May still in control, that now a Brexit deal will be hashed out. One thing that speaks to this possibility is the recent recognition by Brussels that the $125 trillion worth of derivatives contracts that are cleared in London might become a problem if there is no Brexit deal, with payment issues needing to be sorted, and have a quite deleterious impact on all EU economies. As I have maintained, a fudge deal was always the most likely outcome, but it is by no means certain. However, today the market is feeling better about things and the pound has responded by rallying more than a penny. The idea is that with a deal in place, the BOE will have the leeway to continue raising rates thus supporting the pound.

Meanwhile, stronger than expected German Factory orders have helped the euro recoup some of its recent losses with a 0.25% gain since yesterday’s close. But the G10 has not been all rosy as the commodity bloc (AUD, NZD and CAD) are all weaker this morning by roughly 0.4%. Other currencies under stress include INR (-0.6%) after the RBI failed to raise interest rates as expected, although they explained there would be “calibrated tightening” going forward. I assume that means slow and steady, but sounds better. We have also seen further pressure on RUB (-1.3%) as revelations about Russian hacking efforts draw increased scrutiny and the idea of yet more sanctions on the Russian economy make the rounds. ZAR (-0.75%) and TRY (-2.0%) remain under pressure, as do IDR (-0.7%) and TWD (-0.5%), all of which are suffering from a combination of broad dollar strength and domestic issues, notably weak financial situations and current account deficits. However, there is one currency that has been on a roll lately, other than the dollar, and that is BRL, which is higher by 3.4% in the past week and 8.0% since the middle of September. This story is all about the presidential election there, where vast uncertainty has slowly morphed into a compelling lead for Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing firebrand who is attacking the pervasive corruption in the country, and also has University of Chicago trained economists as his financial advisors. The market sees his election as the best hope for market-friendly policies going forward.

But for today, it is all about payrolls. Based on what we have heard from Chairman Powell lately, there is no reason to believe that the Fed is going to adjust its policy trajectory any time soon, and if they do, it is likely only because they need to move tighter, faster. Today’s data could be a step in that direction. All of this points to continued strength in the dollar.

Good luck and good weekend
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Too Arcane

The Fed took the time to explain
Why ‘Neutral’ they’ll never attain
Though theories suppose
O’er that rate, growth slows
Its measurement is too arcane

If one needed proof that Fed watching was an arcane pastime, there is no need to look beyond yesterday’s activities. As universally expected, the FOMC raised the Fed funds rate by 25bps to a range of 2.00% – 2.25%. But in the accompanying statement, they left out the sentence that described their policy as ‘accommodative’. Initially this was seen as both surprising and dovish as it implied the Fed thought that rates were now neutral and therefore wouldn’t need to be raised much further. However, that was not at all their intention, as Chairman Powell made clear at the press conference. Instead, because there is an ongoing debate about where the neutral rate actually lies, he wanted to remove the concept from the Fed’s communications.

The neutral rate, or r-star (r*) is the theoretical interest rate that neither supports nor impedes growth in an economy. And while it makes a great theory, and has been a linchpin of Fed models for the past decade at least, Chairman Powell takes a more pragmatic view of things. Namely, he recognizes that since r* cannot be observed or measured in anything like real-time, it is pretty useless as a policy tool. His point in removing the accommodative language was to say that they don’t really know if current policy is accommodative or not, at least with any precision. However, given that their published forecasts, the dot plot, showed an increase in the number of FOMC members that are looking for another rate hike this year and at least three rate hikes next year, it certainly doesn’t seem the Fed believes they have reached neutral.

The market response was pretty much as you would expect it to be. When the statement was released, and initially seen as dovish, the dollar suffered, stocks rallied and Treasury prices fell in a classic risk-on move. However, once Powell started speaking and explained the rationale for the change, the market reversed those moves and the dollar actually edged higher on the day, equity markets closed lower and Treasury yields fell as bids flooded the market.

In the end, there is no indication that the Fed is slowing down its current trajectory of policy tightening. While they have explicitly recognized the potential risks due to growing trade friction, they made clear that they have not seen any evidence in the data that it was yet having an impact. And given that things remain fluid in that arena, it would be a mistake to base policy on something that may not occur. All told, if anything, I would characterize the Fed message as leaning more hawkish than dovish.

So looking beyond the Fed, we need to look at everything else that is ongoing. Remember, the trade situation remains fraught, with the US and China still at loggerheads over how to proceed, Canada unwilling to accede to US demands, and the ongoing threat of US tariffs on European auto manufacturers still in the air. As well, oil prices have been rallying lately amid the belief that increased sanctions on Iran are going to reduce global supply. There is the ongoing Brexit situation, which appears no closer to resolution, although we did have French President Macron’s refreshingly honest comments that he believes the UK should suffer greatly in the process to insure that nobody else in the EU will even consider the same rash act as leaving the bloc. And the Italian budget spectacle remains an ongoing risk within the Eurozone as failure to present an acceptable budget could well trigger another bout of fear in Italian government bonds and put pressure on the ECB to back off their plans to remove accommodation. In other words, there is still plenty to watch, although none of it has been meaningful to markets for more than a brief period yet.

Keeping all that in mind, let’s take a look at the market. As I type (which by the way is much earlier than usual as I am currently in London) the dollar is showing some modest strength with the Dollar Index up about 0.25% at this point. The thing is, there has been no additional news of note since yesterday to drive things, which implies that either a large order is going through the market, or that short dollar positions are being covered. Quite frankly, I would expect the latter reason is more compelling. But stepping back, the euro has traded within a one big figure range since last Thursday, meaning that nothing is really going on. The same is true for most of the G10, as despite both data and the Fed, it is clear very few opinions have really changed. My take is that we are going to need to see material changes in the data stream in order to alter views, and that will take time.

In the emerging markets, we have two key interest rate decisions shortly, Indonesia is forecasts to raise their base rate by 25bps to 5.75% and the Philippines are expected to raise their base rate by 50bps to 4.50%. Both nations have seen their currencies remain under pressure due to the dollar’s overall strength and their own current account deficits. They have been two of the worst three performing APAC currencies this year, with India the other member of that ignominious group. Meanwhile, rising oil prices have lately helped the Russian ruble rebound with today’s 0.2% rally adding to the nearly 7% gains seen in the past two plus weeks. And look for the Argentine peso to have a solid day today after the IMF increased its assistance to $57 billion with faster disbursement times. Otherwise, it is tough to get very excited about this bloc either.

On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial Claims data (exp 210K), Durable Goods (2.0%, 0.5% ex transport) and our last look at Q2 GDP (4.2%). I think tomorrow’s PCE data will be of far more interest to the markets, although a big revision in GDP could have an impact. But overall, things remain on the same general trajectory, solid US growth, slightly softer growth elsewhere, and a Federal Reserve that is continually tightening monetary policy. I still believe they will go tighter than the market has priced, and that the dollar will benefit accordingly. But for now, we remain stuck with the opposing cyclical and structural issues offsetting. It will be a little while before the outcome of that battle is determined, and in the meantime, a drifting currency market is the most likely outcome.

Good luck
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Investor Frustrations

There once was a wide group of nations
Whose growth was built on weak foundations
Their policy actions
Are seen as subtractions
Increasing investor frustrations

Boy, I go away for a few days and world virtually collapses!!!

Needless to say, a lot has happened since I last wrote on Thursday, with a number of emerging market currencies and their respective equity markets really coming under pressure. It was the usual suspects; Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and China, all of whom had felt significant pressure at various times during the year. But this new wave seems a bit more stressful in that prior to the past few days, each one had experienced a problem of its own, but since Friday, markets have pummeled them all together. This appears to be the contagion that had been feared by both investors and policymakers. The thing is, the unifying theme to pretty much all these markets is the stronger dollar. As the dollar resumes its strengthening trend, both companies and governments in those nations are finding it increasingly difficult to handle their debt loads. And given the near certainty that the Fed is going to continue its steady policy tightening alongside consistently stronger US economic data, the dollar strengthening trend seems likely to remain in tact for a while yet.

Could this be one of the ‘unexpected’ consequences of ten years of QE, ZIRP and NIRP? Apparently, despite assurances from esteemed central bankers like Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi (as dovish a triumvirate as has ever been seen), there ARE negative consequences to dramatically changing the way monetary policy is handled, massively expanding balance sheets and driving real interest rates to significant negative levels. While there is no doubt that developed economy stock markets have benefitted generally, it seems like some of those risks are becoming more apparent.

These risks include things like the central bankers’ loss of control over markets. After all, markets around the world have basically danced to the tune of free money for the past decade. As that tune changes, investor behavior is sure to change as well. Another systemic risk has been the increasing inability of investors to adequately diversify their portfolios. If every market rises due to exogenous variables, like zero interest rates, then how can prudent investors manage their risk? Many took comfort in the fact that market volatility had declined so significantly, implying that systemic risk was reduced on net. However, what we have observed in 2018 is that volatility is not, in fact, dead, but had merely been anaesthetized by that free money.

The worrying thing is there is no reason to believe that this process is going to end soon. Rather, I fear that it may just be beginning. There are a significant number of excesses to wring out of the markets, and however much central bankers around the world try to prevent that from happening, they cannot hold back the tide forever. At some point, and it could be coming sooner than you think, markets are going adjust despite all the efforts of Powell, Draghi, Carney, Kuroda and their brethren. Never forget that the market is far bigger than any one nation.

We are already seeing how this can play out in some of the above-mentioned countries. Argentina, for example, has short-term interest rates of 60%, inflation of ‘only’ 31%, and therefore real interest rates are now +29%! But the economy is back in recession, having shrunk 6.7% last quarter, and the current account deficit remains a significant problem. So despite jacking rates to 60%, the currency has fallen 22% this week and 120% this year! And they are following orthodox monetary policy. Turkey, on the other hand, has been unwilling to bend to orthodoxy (when it comes to monetary policy) and has kept rates low such that real interest rates are near zero and heading negative as inflation continues its climb (17.9% in September) while rates remain on hold. So the fact that the lira is down 9% this week and 95% this year should be less surprising.

The point is that the market is losing its taste for discrimination and is beginning to treat all currencies under the rubric ‘emerging markets’ as the same. And they are selling them all. As long as the Fed continues its grind higher in rates, there is no reason to believe that this will end. And if these declines are steady, rather than sharp crashes, it will go on for a while. Chairman Powell will have no reason to stop if a few random EMG markets trend lower. If, however, the S&P 500 starts to suffer, that may be a different story, and one we will all watch with great interest!

In the meantime, turning to G10 currencies, the dollar is stronger here as well this morning, although it has fallen back from its best levels of the morning. In fact, while the pound has been consistently undermined (-0.3% today, -1.5% since Thursday) by what seems to be a worsening saga regarding Brexit, the euro has stabilized for now, although it is down about 1% since Thursday as well. Apparently, CAD is not taking the ongoing NAFTA negotiations that well, as it has fallen 2% since Thursday amid pressure on PM Trudeau to cave into US demands. The BOC meets today and while there had been previous expectations that they may raise rates, that has been pushed back to October now in view of the NAFTA process. This is despite the fact that inflation in Canada is running at 2.9%, well above target.

In the end, as long as the Fed continues along its recent path, expect market volatility to increase further, with more and more dominoes likely to fall.

As to today, the only noteworthy data is the Balance of Trade, where expectations are for a $50.3B outcome, not exactly what the president is hoping for, I’m sure. And as far as the dollar goes, there is no reason to believe that its recent strength is going to turn around anytime soon.

Good luck
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Up To New Tricks

The nation that first tried to fix
Its price target’s up to new tricks
Last night it explained
That rates would remain
Unchanged til growth, up, finally ticks

You know it has been a relatively uneventful session when the most interesting story is about New Zealand! For those with a bent toward history, it was then-RBNZ Governor Donald Brash, who in 1988 set the first inflation target for a nation, 3.0% at that time, and who was able to maintain the RBNZ’s independence from government meddling ( a new philosophy then) to help achieve that target and eventually bring interest rates down from more than 15% to low single digits. Well, last night when the RBNZ met, they left rates on hold at a record low level of 1.75%, as was universally expected, but they added a sentence to their policy statement “…that rates will remain at this level through 2019 and into 2020”, adding forward guidance to the mix and surprising markets completely. The result was that the NZD fell a bit more than 1% instantly and has continued lower to currently trade down 1.4% on the session and back to its lowest level since March 2016.

This action simply underscores the policy divergence that we have seen over the past two and a half years. Since the Fed’s first, tentative steps towards tightening in December 2015, it has been clear that the US remains ahead of the global growth cycle. And now we find ourselves in a world where several countries are trending higher (US, Canada, India, Sweden) in growth and inflation, while others are seeing the opposite outcome (China, New Zealand, Australia). Of course there are those who are in between, like the Eurozone and Japan, where they want to believe that things are getting better so they can normalize policy, but just don’t quite have the confidence yet. Maybe soon. And it is these policy differences, as well as expectations for their evolution, that will continue to be the key drivers of currencies going forward.

However, away from New Zealand, the G10 has been a dull affair. There has been limited data released and currency movement has been extremely modest, generally less than 0.1% since yesterday’s closing levels.

Emerging markets, though, have been a different story, with several of them really taking a tumble. Starting with Turkey, which has, of course, been under pressure for the past several months, last night saw yet another significant decline of 2.2%, which makes 6.5% this week and more than 50% in the past year. Additional US sanctions driven by the arrest of a US pastor in Turkey have been the recent catalyst, but the reality is that there is an increasing sense of doom attached to President Erdogan’s economic management theories, which include the idea that high interest rates cause inflation; they don’t fight it. But high inflation is what they have there, with the annual rate now running above 16% and rising. The lira has further to fall, mark my words.

Next on the list is the Russian ruble, which has recovered as I write to only be down by 0.6%, after having been lower by as much as 1.3% earlier in the session. However, this week it is lower by 4.2% and nearly 7% this month. The story here is a combination of both new US sanctions as the latest response to the poisoning of an ex Russian agent in the UK earlier this year, as well as the sharp decline in oil prices yesterday, WTI fell 3.2% after storage data indicated there was much more oil and products around than expected. The Russian economy is definitely feeling the squeeze of US sanctions and I expect that the ruble will continue to be pressured lower for a while yet.

But once we get past those currencies, there is precious little to discuss in this space as well. Which takes us to the upcoming data releases. This morning we see Initial Claims (exp 220K) and PPI (3.4%, 2.8% core) at 8:30 and then we hear from Chicago Fed president Evans at 9:30. Evans is a known dove, so the only possibility of a newsworthy event would be if he sounded hawkish. Yesterday, Richmond Fed president Barkin said it was time to get rates back to ‘normal’ and that two more hikes this year seem reasonable. While the futures market is not yet pricing in great confidence in a December move by the Fed, it seems a foregone conclusion to me.

In the end, nothing has happened to alter my views that the Fed will continue to lead the way in tighter monetary policy and that the dollar will be the main beneficiary of that action.

Good luck
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