It All Went to Hell

First Mario cooed like a dove
Then trade data gave things a shove
It all went to hell
As stock markets fell
While folks showed the dollar some love

It was a rocky day in markets yesterday as risk appetite was severely impaired. The ECB wound up being more dovish than many had expected by extending the guidance on interest rates and definitively rolling over the TLTRO program. And yet, this morning many analysts are complaining they didn’t do enough! The details are that interest rates will now remain where they are (-0.4% deposit rate) until at least the end of the year, well past “through the summer” as the guidance had been previously. Of course, for some time now, my own view has been that rates will remain unchanged well into 2020. In addition, the ECB said that there would be a new round of TLTRO’s initiated in September, but that the maturity of these new loans would only be two years, and the terms are not yet decided, with some indications they may not be as favorable as the current crop.

All of this followed in the wake of the ECB revising lower their 2019 GDP growth forecast from 1.7% to 1.1%. But remember, the OECD is looking for even slower growth at just 1.0%. “We never thought we were behind the curve,” said Signor Draghi, and “in any event today we are not behind the curve, for sure.” These comments are not nearly as impactful as “whatever it takes” from 2012, that’s the only thing for sure! Several other ECB members were quick to express that there was no expectation of a recession this year, but the market seems to have a less positive view. The market response to the surprisingly increased dovishness was negative across the board, with equity markets selling off in Europe (~-0.6%) and the US (-0.8%) while government bonds rallied (Treasuries -4.5bps) and the dollar strengthened materially, rising 1.2% vs. the euro.

But wait, there’s more! Overnight, Chinese trade data was released, and it turns out that exports fell -20.7% from a year ago! Now, in fairness, part of this has to do with the timing of the Chinese New Year, which was earlier this year than last, but even when stripped out of the data, the underlying trend showed a -4.7% decline. It appears that the US tariffs are really starting to bite.

Adding to the negative China sentiment were two more things. First, comments by Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to China, indicated that a trade deal was not so close (shocking!) and that the mooted meeting between President’s Trump and Xi later this month may well be postponed further. Second, in a huge surprise to Chinese investors, China Citic Securities issued a sell rating on one of the most popular stocks in the market there. The immediate response was for that particular stock, People’s Insurance Company (Group) of China, a state-owned insurer, to fall the daily 10% limit. This led the way for the Shanghai Index to fall 4.4% as investors now believe that the Chinese government is not merely willing to see equity markets fall, but actually interested in having it occur as they try to deflate the bubble that blew up during the past several months.

Needless to say, this information did not help assuage investor feelings anywhere, with the rest of Asia suffering on the day (Nikkei -2.0%, Hang Seng -1.9%) while Europe is also going down that road with the Stoxx 600 currently lower by -0.8%. And US futures? They too are under pressure, -0.4% as I type following yesterday’s -0.8% declines. [As an aside, can someone please explain to me why global index purveyors like MSCI are willing to include Chinese shares in their indices? Given the clear government market manipulation that exists there, as well as the foreign investment restrictions, the idea that they represent a true valuation of a company is laughable.]

So that is the backdrop as we head into the US session with employment data the first thing we’ll see. Expectations are currently as follows:

Nonfarm Payrolls 180K
Private Payrolls 170K
Manufacturing Payrolls 11K
Unemployment Rate 3.9%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.3% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.5
Housing Starts 1.197M
Building Permits 1.289M

The data of late has pretty consistently shown the US economy holding its own relative to everywhere else in the world. Meeting expectations today would simply reinforce that view. Now, Fed speakers this week (Brainerd, Williams and Clarida) have been consistent in their comments that given the current situation and outlook, there is no need to raise rates further. And yet, that is still relatively hawkish compared to the ECB who has actually added more stimulus. Chairman Powell speaks this afternoon as well, but it would be remarkable if he were to change the message. In the end, the relative story remains the same; the US is still the best performing economy (although it is showing signs of slowing) and the dollar is likely to continue to benefit from that reality.

Good luck and good weekend

Quite the Sensation

Economists’ latest creation
Called MMT’s quite the sensation
It claims there’s no risk
To nation or fisc
From vast monetary dilation

So, here’s the deal…apparently it doesn’t matter if economic growth is slowing around the world. It doesn’t matter if politics has fractured on both sides of the Atlantic and it doesn’t matter if the US and China remain at loggerheads over how to continue to trade with each other. None of this matters because…MMT is the new savior! Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is the newest output from our central banking saviors and their minions in the academic economic community. In a nutshell, it boils down to this; printing unlimited amounts of money and running massive budget deficits is just fine and will have no long-term negative consequences. This theory is based on the data from the past ten years, when central banks have done just that (printed enormous amounts of money) and governments have done just that (run huge deficits) and nothing bad happened. Therefore, these policymakers theorize, that nothing bad will happen if they keep it up.

Markets love this because hyper monetary and fiscal stimulus is perceived as an unambiguous positive for asset prices, especially equities, and so why would anybody argue to change things. After all, THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT he said with tongue firmly in cheek. This time is never different, and my greatest concern is that the continuing efforts to prevent any slowing of economic growth is going to lead to a situation that results in a massive correction at some point in the (probably) not too distant future. And the problem will be that central banks will have lost their ability to maintain stability as their policy tools will no longer be effective, while governments will have limited ability to add fiscal stimulus given their budget situations. But clearly, that day is not today as evidenced by the ongoing positivity evident from rising equity markets and an increasing risk appetite. Just something to keep in the back of your mind.

Said Mario after his meeting
‘This weakness should really be fleeting’
But traders believe
His view is naïve
Explains, which, why rates are retreating

It can be no surprise that the euro declined further yesterday (-0.8%), although this morning it has regained a small bit (+0.25% as I type). Not only did the PMI data disappoint completely, but Signor Draghi appears to be starting to recognize that things may not be as rosy as he had hoped. While he still held out hope that rates may rise later this year, that stance is becoming increasingly lonely. At this point, the earliest that any economist or analyst on the Street is willing to consider for that initial rate hike is December 2019 with the majority talking 2020. And of course, my view is that there will be no rate rise at all.

The problem they face is that that with rates already negative, when if the Eurozone slips into recession by the end of the year, what else can he do. Fortunately, Mario explained that the ECB still has many options in front of them, “We have lots of instruments and we stand ready to adjust them or use them according to the contingency that is produced.” The thing is, he was talking about forward guidance, more QE and TLTRO’s, all policies that are long in the tooth and appear to have lost a significant portion of their efficacy. As I have written before, Draghi will be happy to vacate his seat given the problems that are on the horizon. Though he certainly had to deal with a series of difficult issues (Eurozone debt crisis, Greek insolvency), at least he still had a full toolkit with which to work. His successor will have an empty cupboard. One last nail in the growth coffin was this morning’s Ifo data, which printed at its worst level in three years, 99.1, much lower than the expected 100.9. I would love to hear the euro bullish case, because I don’t see much there.

Away from that story, Brexit remains an ongoing market uncertainty, although it certainly appears, based on the pound’s recent trajectory, that more and more traders and investors have decided that there will be no Brexit at all. At least that’s the only thing I can figure based on what is happening in the market. On the one hand, I guess it is reasonable to assume that given all the tooth-gnashing and garment rending that we have seen, the belief is that Brexit will be so toxic as to be unthinkable. And we have begun to see some of the rest of the Eurozone members get nervous, notably Ireland which is adamant about preventing a hard border between themselves and Northern Ireland. Alas there is still no resolution as to how to police the border in the event the UK leaves. (And based on the ongoing US discussion, we know that any type of border barrier will be a waste of money!) It is not clear to me that it is viable to rule out a hard Brexit, but that is clearly what investors are beginning to do.

As to the US-China trade story, despite President Trump’s professed optimism that a deal will be done, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, indicated that we are still “miles and miles” away from a deal. And though it certainly appears that both sides are incented to solve this problem, especially given the slowing growth trajectory in both nations, it is by no means clear that will be the outcome. At least not before there is another rise in tariffs. And yet, markets are generally sanguine about the prospects of the talks failing.

So, despite potential problems, risk is in the ascendancy this morning with equity markets rising, commodities and Treasuries stable and the dollar under pressure. It is almost as if there is fatigue over the myriad potential problems and given that none of them have actually created a difficulty of note yet, investors are willing to ignore them. At least that’s my best guess.

A tour around the FX markets shows the dollar softer against most of its G10 counterparts, with JPY the only exception, further adding to the risk-on narrative, while it remains mixed vs. EMG currencies. However, overall, the tone is definitely of the dollar on its back foot. Given the ongoing US government shutdown, there is no data scheduled to be released and the Fed remains in quiet mode ahead of next week’s meeting, so unless something happens regarding trade, my money is on continued dollar weakness in today’s session as more and more investors whistle that happy tune.

Good luck and good weekend


Ill at Ease

The nation that once ruled the seas
Has lately been brought to its knees
The Minister, Prime
Has run out of time
And Parliament’s still ill at ease

In ten days, some votes will be held
As MP’s there all feel compelled
To take more control
Around the black hole
Of Brexit, so fears might be quelled

There continue to be two main stories driving markets, Brexit and the trade war between the US and China. Everything else has faded into the background amid moderating global growth and concerns of worse to come.

Starting with Brexit, in a week and a half (it’s actually 11 days, but that didn’t fit into the limerick), Parliament will be holding a series of votes to try to wrest control of the process from the government and to explain their demands on behalf of the ‘people’. Alas, what is clear is that there is no consensus on how to proceed, with a large number not wanting to go through with it at all, while others seek a hard Brexit. PM May has insisted that the vote was for leaving the EU, and that is exactly what the UK is going to do. Currently, the best idea that anybody seems to have is to seek to delay the official date for up to a year in order to come up with more support for any action at all. There is talk of holding a second referendum, talk of a snap election to help PM May win a mandate on how to proceed, and talk of a hard Brexit. The one thing that is clear is that the deal on the table will not be the roadmap, at least not as currently written.

With all that in mind, the FX market is starting to vote, and they are coming around to the idea that there will be no Brexit at all. At least that is my take on the fact that the pound has been rising steadily since the beginning of the year. While it is actually slightly softer this morning (-0.35%) on the back of weaker than expected Retail Sales figures (-0.9% in Dec), it is higher by 3.5% since January 2nd. My view that a hard Brexit will result in a much lower pound is universal, while a deal would clearly help the pound’s value. But no Brexit at all might open up a very significant rally. Remember, before the vote, the pound was trading around 1.45-1.50. Price action indicates to me that there are more and more traders and speculators who are betting on no Brexit and a sharp rebound. I will say that if there is a decision to hold a second referendum, look for the pound to rally very sharply, easily another 5%-8%, and to do so quickly. I just don’t think there will be another referendum.

As to the trade spat, the WSJ published an article of rumors and innuendo about the idea that the US is contemplating removing tariffs as a sign of good faith and a spur to help an agreement be reached. What was interesting was that at the very end of the article, it was mentioned that all of this talk was in the context of how to move the talks forward, and not an agreed plan of action. But equity markets around the world continue to look for positive catalysts and the end of the trade war would definitely fit that bill. Given the story was published late yesterday afternoon, it is no surprise that equity markets around the world have rallied, with Asia (Nikkei +1.3%, Shanghai +1.4%) and Europe (+1.0%-1.5% across the board) both performing quite well while US futures are pointing higher as well, albeit not quite as robustly (+0.4%). But the dollar has seen very little impact from this news as aside from the pound’s modest decline, it is doing very little overall.

Beyond those stories, much less of note is happening. Next week the ECB meets, and we are starting to see analysts discuss the prospects for the previously expected rate hikes later this year. Given the ongoing softness in Eurozone data, it remains hard to believe that the ECB is going to think that raising rates is the correct move. Rather, more likely will be an extension of the TLTRO’s and interest rates remaining right where they are for an extended period from here. All eyes will be on Signor Draghi’s characterization of the economy, as to whether risks are tilted to the downside or things are balanced, but even if he claims balance, the reality is the data is pointing lower. At some point, that will be acknowledged, and it will be clearer to all that policy will not tighten further in Europe for many years. In fact, it is much easier to believe that the next move will be for easier policy than tighter. And as I have continued to explain, I believe that will help the dollar overall.

As to this morning’s data, we see IP (exp 0.2%), Capacity Utilization (78.5%) and Michigan Sentiment (97.0). Canadian Inflation is also on the docket (1.7%), which hardly seems a reason to expect higher rates there. Looking ahead, there are no more Fed speakers until the meeting on the 30th as they have entered their quiet period. But the message we have received is quite clear, patience is a virtue and there will be no rate hike in either January or March. After that, if the data supports the idea that growth and inflation are picking up, I think they will move, but unfortunately, given the overall tone of data, that seems unlikely. As to the tone for today, it is hard to get too excited about the FX market without further specific news. It wouldn’t surprise to see the pound drift a bit lower as there will be some profit taking on the recent move, but for now, the dollar is likely to remain under very modest pressure overall. Especially if equities in the US perform like those elsewhere.

Good luck and good weekend