Wind At His Sails

In England and Scotland and Wales
Young Boris has wind at his sails
A thumping great win
To Labour’s chagrin
Has put Brexit back on the rails

As well, from the US, the news
Is bears need start singing the blues
The trade deal is done
At least for phase one
Thus more risk, investors did choose

An historic victory for PM Boris Johnson yesterday has heralded a new beginning for the UK. Historic in the sense that it is the largest majority in Parliament for either party since Margret Thatcher’s second term, and historic in the sense that the Labour party won the fewest seats since 1935. One can only conclude that Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of renationalization of industry and high taxes was not the direction in which the UK wants to head. Perhaps the only concern is the Scottish National Party winning 49 of the 58 seats available and will now be itching to rerun the Scottish independence referendum. But that is an issue for another day, and today is all about a huge relief rally in equities as the threat of a hard Brexit essentially disappears, while the pound has also benefitted tremendously, rising 1.7% from yesterday’s closing level and having traded almost a full percent higher than that in the early aftermath of the results. So here we are this morning at 1.3390, right at my forecast for the initial move in the event of a Johnson victory. The question of course, is where do we go from here?

Before I answer, I must also mention the other risk positive story, about which I’m sure you are already aware, the news that President Trump has signed off on terms of a phase one trade deal with China. The details thus far released indicate China has promised to buy $50 billion of agricultural products from the US, and will be more vigilant in protection of IP rights, while the US is set to reduce the tariff rates already imposed and delay, indefinitely, the tariffs that were due to come into effect this Sunday. Not surprisingly, equity markets around the world rallied sharply on this news as well while haven investments like Treasuries, Bunds and the yen (and the dollar) have all fallen.

So everyone is feeling good this morning and with good reason, as two of the major political uncertainties that have been hanging over the market have been resolved. With this in mind, we can now try to answer the question of what’s next in the FX markets.

History has shown that while macroeconomic factors have some impact on the relative value of currencies, that impact is driven by the corresponding interest rates in each nation. So a nation that has strong economic growth and relatively tighter monetary policy is likely to see a strong currency while the opposite is also true. Now this correlation is hardly perfect, and financial theory cannot be completely ignored regarding a country’s fiscal balances (current account, trade and budget), where deficits tend to lead to a weaker currency, at least in theory, and surpluses the opposite. Obviously, one need only look at the dollar these days to recognize that despite the US’s significant negative fiscal position, the dollar remains relatively quite strong.

But ever since the financial crisis, there has been another part of monetary policy that has had a significant impact on the FX market, namely QE. As I’ve written before, when the US was implementing QE’s 1, 2 and 3, the dollar fell markedly each time, by 22%, 25% and 17% over a period of 9 months, 11 months and 22 months respectively. Clearly that pattern demonstrates the law of diminishing returns, where a particular action has a weaker and weaker effect the more frequently it is used. Of course, in each of these cases, the Fed funds rate was at 0.00%, so QE was the only tool in the toolbox. This brings us to the current situation; positive interest rates but the beginning of QE4. I know that none of us think 1.5% is a robust return on our savings, but remember, US interest rates are the highest in the G10, by a lot. In addition, the economy seems to be doing pretty well with GDP ticking over above 2.0%, Unemployment at 50 year lows and wage gains solidly at 3.0% or higher. Equity markets in the US make new highs on a regular basis and measured inflation is running right around 2.0%. And yet…the Fed is clearly looking at QE despite all their protestations. Buying $60 billion per month of T-bills with the newly stated option of extending those purchases to coupons is clearly expanding the balance sheet and driving risk accumulation further. And that is QE!

So with the knowledge that the Fed is engaged in QE4, and the history that shows the dollar has fallen pretty significantly during each previous QE policy, my view is that we are about to embark on a reasonable weakening of the US dollar for the next year or so. Now, clearly the initial conditions this time are different, with positive growth and interest rates, but while that will likely limit the dollar’s decline to some extent, it won’t prevent it. If pressed, I would say that we are likely to see the dollar fall by 10% or so over the next 12-18 months. And that is regardless of the outcome of the US elections next year. In the event that we were to see a President Warren or President Sanders, I think the dollar would suffer far more aggressively, but right now, removing the effect of the election still points to a slow decline in the buck. So for receivables hedgers, it is likely to be a situation where patience is a virtue.

Turning to the data story, last night we saw the Japanese Tankan report fall to 0, below expectations of 3 and down from its previous reading of 5. But the yen’s 0.35% decline overnight has more to do with risk appetite than that particular number. However, I’m sure PM Abe and BOJ Governor Kuroda are not thrilled with the implications for the economy. Otherwise, there has been precious little else of note released leaving us to ponder this morning’s Retail Sales data (exp 0.5%, 0.4% ex Autos) and wait to hear pearls of wisdom from NY Fed President Williams at 11:00. Of course, given the fact the Fed just finished meeting and there appears very little uncertainty over their immediate future course, my guess is the only thing he can try to defend is ‘not QE’ and how they are on top of the repo situation. But today is a risk on day, so while we may not extend these movements much further, I feel we are likely to maintain the gains vs. the dollar across the board.

In a final note, this will be the last poetry until January as I will be on vacation and then will return with my prognostications for 2020 to start things off.

Good luck, good weekend and happy holidays to all
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Up, Up and Away

Said Powell, “We’re in a good place”
On growth, but we don’t like the pace
That prices are rising
And so we’re surmising
More QE’s what needs to take place

Today, then, we’ll hear from Christine
Who is now the ECB queen
This is her first chance
To proffer her stance
On policy and what’s foreseen

And finally, in the UK
The vote’s taking place through the day
If Boris does badly
Bears will sell pounds gladly
If not, it’s up, up and away

There is much to cover this morning, so let’s get right to it.

First the Fed. As universally expected they left rates on hold and expressed confidence that monetary policy was appropriate for the current conditions. They lauded themselves on the reduction in unemployment, but have clearly changed their views on just how low that number can go. Or perhaps, what they are recognizing is that the percentage of the eligible labor force that is actually at work, which forms the denominator in the unemployment rate, is too low, so that there is ample opportunity to encourage many who had left the workforce during the past decade to return thus increasing the amount of employment and likely helping the Unemployment Rate to edge even lower. While their forecasts continue to point to 3.5% as a bottom, private sector economists are now moving their view to the 3.0%-3.2% level as achievable.

On the inflation front, to say that they are unconcerned would greatly understate the case. They have made it abundantly clear that it will require a nearly unprecedented supply shock to have them consider raising rates anytime soon. However, they continue to kvetch about too low inflation and falling inflation expectations. They have moved toward a policy that will allow inflation to run higher than the “symmetric 2% target” for a while to make up for all the time spent below that level. And the implication is that if we see inflation start to trend lower at all, they will be quick to cut rates regardless of the economic growth and employment situation. Naturally, the fact that CPI printed a touch higher than expected (2.1%) was completely lost on them, but then given their ‘real-world blinders’ that is no real surprise. The dot plot indicated that they expect rates to remain on hold at the current level throughout all of 2020, which would be a first during a presidential election year.

And finally, regarding the ongoing concerns over the short term repo market and their current not-QE policy of buying $60 billion per month of Treasury bills, while Powell was unwilling to commit to a final solution, he did indicate that they could amend the policy to include purchases of longer term Treasury securities alongside the introduction of a standing repo facility. In other words, not-QE has the chance to look even more like QE than it currently does, regardless of what the Chairman says. Keep that in mind.

Next, it’s on to the ECB, which is meeting as I type, and will release its statement at 7:45 this morning followed by Madame Lagarde meeting the press at 8:30. It is clear there will be no policy changes, with rates remaining at -0.5% while QE continues at €20 billion per month. Arguably there are two questions to be answered here; what is happening with the sweeping policy review? And how will Madame Lagarde handle the press conference? Given she has exactly zero experience as a central banker, I think it is reasonable to assume that her press conferences will be much more political in nature than those of Signor Draghi and his predecessors. My fear is that she will stray from the topic at hand, monetary policy, and conflate it with her other, nonmonetary goals, which will only add confusion to the situation. That said, this is a learning process and I’m sure she will get ample feedback both internally and externally and eventually gain command of the situation. In the end, though, there is precious little the ECB can do at this point other than beg the Germans to spend some money while trying to fend off the hawks on the committee and maintain policy as it currently stands.

Turning to the UK election, the pound had been performing quite well as the market was clearly of the opinion that the Tories were going to win and that the Brexit uncertainty would finally end next month. However, the latest polls showed the Tory lead shrinking, and given the fragmentation in the electorate and the UK’s first-past-the-post voting process, it is entirely possible that the result is another hung Parliament which would be a disaster for the pound. The polls close at 5:00pm NY time (10:00pm local) and so it will be early evening before we hear the first indications of how things turn out. The upshot is a Tory majority is likely to see a further 1%-1.5% rally in the pound before it runs out of momentum. A hung Parliament could easily see us trade back down to 1.22 or so as all that market uncertainty returns, and a Labour victory would likely see an even larger decline as the combination of Brexit uncertainty and a program of renationalization of private assets would result in capital fleeing the UK ASAP. When we walk in tomorrow, all will be clear!

Clearly, those are the top stories today but there is still life elsewhere in the markets. Ffor example, the Turkish central bank cut rates more than expected, down to 12.0%, but the TRY managed to rally 0.25% after the fact. Things are clearly calming down there. In Asia, Indian inflation printed higher than expected at 5.54%, although IP there fell less than expected (-3.8%) and the currency impact netted to nil. The biggest gainer in the Far East was KRW, rising 0.65% after a strong performance by the KOSPI (+1.5%) and an analyst call for the KOSPI to rise 12% next year. But other than the won, the rest of the space saw much less movement, albeit generally gaining slightly after the Fed’s dovish stance.

In the G10, the pound has actually slipped a bit this morning, -0.2%, but otherwise, movement has been even smaller than that. Yesterday, after the Fed meeting, the dollar fell pretty sharply, upwards of 0.5% and essentially, the market has maintained those dollar losses this morning.

Looking ahead to the data today we see Initial Claims (exp 214K) and PPI (1.3%, 1.7% core). However, neither of those will have much impact. With the Fed meeting behind us, we will start to hear from its members again, but mercifully, not today. So Fed dovishness has been enough to encourage risk takers, and it looks for all the world like a modest risk-on session is what we have in store.

Good luck
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Inflation’s Not Bubbled

Ahead of the Fed’s tête-à-tête
The CPI reading we’ll get
Though Jay remains troubled
Inflation’s not bubbled
The rest of us know that’s bullshet

Yes, it is Fed day with the FOMC set to announce their policy stance at 2:00 this afternoon and Chairman Jay scheduled to meet the press at 2:30. At this point, he and his colleagues have done an excellent job of leading market expectations toward no change, with the futures market pricing in a 0.0% probability of a cut. Interestingly, there is the tiniest (just 5.8%) probability of a rate hike, although that is even less likely in my view. While there will be a great deal of interest in the dot plot, certainly there has not been enough data to change Powell’s oft-stated view that the economy and monetary policy are both in “a good place.”

What should be of greater concern to all of us, as individuals and consumers, is that there has been an increase in discussions about the Fed changing their inflation targeting regime to achieving an average inflation rate of 2.0% over time, meaning that for all the time inflation remains below target (the past 10 years), they will allow it to run above target to offset that outcome. Now, we all know that the Fed’s constant complaints about too-low inflation ring hollow in our ears every time we go to the supermarket, or even the mall (assuming anyone else still goes there) as prices for pretty much everything other than flat screen tv’s has consistently risen for years. But given the way the Fed measures such things; they continue to register concern over the lack of inflation. And remember, too, that the Fed uses PCE, Personal Consumption Expenditures, in their models, which reflects not what we pay, but the rate of change of prices at which merchants sell goods. It is a subtle difference, but the construct of PCE, with a much lower emphasis on housing, and inclusion of the costs that the government pays for things like healthcare (obviously at a lower rate than the rest of us) insures that PCE will always track lower over time. In fact, it is an open question as to whether the Fed can even achieve a higher inflation rate, however it is measured, as long as they maintain their financial repression.

All of that is a prelude to today’s CPI release, where the market is anticipating a reading of 2.0% for the headline and 2.3% for the core. Arguably, this should be an important data point for the folks in the Mariner Eccles building today, but I forecast that they will only see weakness here as noteworthy, arguing for even more stimulus. However, whatever today’s print, it will simply be background noise in the end. It would take some remarkable news to change today’s outlook.

But inflation is important elsewhere in the world as well. For example, this morning Sweden’s CPI rose to 1.8%, a tick higher than expected and basically confirmed to the market that the Riksbank, who seem desperate to exit their negative rate policy, are likely to do so at their February meeting. (Expectations for movement next week remain quite muted.) Nonetheless, the Swedish krona has been a major beneficiary in the market, rallying 0.65% vs. the dollar (0.5% vs. the euro), and is today’s top performer.

Another place we are seeing prices rise more rapidly is in Asia, specifically in both China and India. In the former, CPI rose to 4.5% in November, higher than the expected 4.3% and the highest level since January 2012. This is a reflection of the skyrocketing price of pork there as African swine fever continues to decimate the hog population. (It is this problem that is likely to help lead to a phase one trade deal as President Xi knows he needs to be able to feed his people, and US pork is available and cheap!) In India, the October data jumped to 4.62% (what precision!) and November is forecast to rise to 5.3%. Here, too, food prices are taking a toll on the price index, and we need to be prepared for the November release due tomorrow. When the October print hit the tape, the rupee gapped lower (dollar higher) by nearly 1%, and although it has been slowly clawing back those losses, another surprise on the high side could easily see a repeat.

In contrast to those countries, the Eurozone remains an NPZ (no price zone), a place where price rises simply do not occur. Now, I grant that I have not been there in some time, so cannot determine if the European measurements are reflective of most people’s experience, but certainly on a measured basis, inflation remains extremely low, hovering around 1.0% per annum throughout most of the continent. Remember, tomorrow, Christine Lagarde leads her first ECB meeting and while she has spoken about how fiscal policy needs to pick up the pace and how the ECB needs to be more focused on issues like climate change, we have yet to hear her views on what she actually was hired to do, manage monetary policy. While there is no doubt that she is an exceptional politician, it remains to be seen what kind of central banking chops she possesses. Based solely on her commentary over the years, she appears firmly in the dovish camp, but given Signor Draghi’s parting gift of a rate cut and renewed QE, it seems most likely that she will simply stay the course and exhort governments to spend more money. One thing to keep in mind is that markets have a way of testing new central bank heads early in their terms with some kind of stress. That initial response is everything in determining if said central banker will be seen as strong or weak. We can only hope that Madame Lagarde measures up in that event.

The only other story is the UK election, certainly critical, but given it takes place tomorrow, we will look to discuss outcomes then. One interesting thing was that a Yougov poll released last evening showed PM Boris and the Tories would win 339 seats, still a comfortable majority, but a smaller one than the same poll from two weeks earlier. The pound fell sharply on the news, having traded as high as 1.3215 late yesterday afternoon it was actually just above 1.3100 when I left the office. This morning, it is right in the middle at 1.3150, which is apparently where it was at 5:00 last evening as the stated movement today is virtually nil. Barring a major faux pas by either candidate at this late stage, I think we will see choppiness in the pound until the results are released, early Friday morning. While a vic(Tory) by Boris will likely see a knee-jerk response higher in the pound, I remain of the view that any rally will be modest, perhaps 1%-2% at most, and should be seen as an opportunity to add hedges for receivables hedgers.

And that’s really it for today. I would look for modest movement overall, and don’t anticipate the FOMC meeting to generate much excitement.

Good luck
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A New Paradigm

In Germany for the first time
In months, there’s a new paradigm
The pundits are cheering
A rebound that’s nearing
As data, released, was sublime

Perhaps sublime overstates the case a bit, but there is no doubt that this morning’s German ZEW data was substantially better than forecast, with the Expectations index rising to 10.7, its highest level since March 2018. This follows what seems to be some stabilization in the German manufacturing economy, which while still under significant pressure, may well have stopped declining. It is these little things that add up to create a narrative change from; Germany is in recession (which arguably was correct, albeit not technically so) to Germany has stabilized and is recovering on the back of solid domestic demand growth. On the one hand, this is good news for the global growth story, as Germany remains the fourth largest economy in the world, and if it is shrinking that bodes ill for the rest of the world. However, for all those who are desperate for German fiscal stimulus, this is actually a terrible number. If the German economy is recovering naturally, it beggars belief that they will spend any more money than currently planned.

It is important to remember that the Eurozone fiscal stimulus argument is predicated on two things: the fact that monetary policy is now impotent to help stimulate growth throughout the Eurozone; and the belief that if the German government spends more money domestically, it will magically flow through to those nations that really need help, like Italy, Portugal and Greece. Alas for poor Madame Lagarde, this morning’s data has likely lowered the probability of German fiscal stimulus even more than it was before. The euro, however, seems to like the data, edging higher by 0.15% this morning and working its way back to the levels seen just before the US payroll report turned the short-term crowd dollar bullish. There was other Eurozone data released, but none of it (French and Italian IP) was really that interesting, printing within a tick of forecasts. On the euro front, at this point all eyes are on the ECB to see what Lagarde tells us on Thursday. Remember, the last thing she wants is to come across as hawkish, in any manner, because the ECB really doesn’t need the added pressure of a strong euro weighing on already subpar inflation data.

With two days remaining before the UK election, the polls are still pointing to a strong Tory victory and a PM Boris Johnson commanding a majority of Parliament. At this point, the latest polls show the Tories with 44%, Labour with 32% and the LibDems with just 12%. The pound is higher by 0.2% on the back of this activity, despite a mildly disappointing GDP reading of 0.0% (exp 0.1%). A quick look back at recent GBP movement shows that since the election was called on October 30, the pound has rallied 1.8%. While that is a solid move, it isn’t even the largest mover during that period (NZD is higher by 2.45% since then). In fact, the pound really gained ground several weeks earlier after Boris and Irish PM Leo Varadkar had a lunch where they seemed to work out the final issues for Brexit. Prior to that, the pound had been hovering in the 1.22-1.24 area, but gained sharply in the run up to the previous Brexit deadline.

I guess the question is; just how much higher the pound can go if the polls are correct and Boris wins with a Tory majority. There are two opposing views, with some analysts calling for another solid leg higher, up toward 1.40, as the rest of the market shorts get squeezed out and euphoria for UK GDP growth starts to rebound. The other side of that argument is that the shorts have already been squeezed, hence the move from 1.22 to 1.32 in the past two months, and that though finalization of Brexit will be a positive, there are still numerous issues to address domestically that will prevent a sharp rebound in the UK economy. As I’m sure you are all aware, I fall into the second camp, but there is certainly at least a 25% probability that a larger move is in the cards. The one thing that seems clear, though, is that market implied volatility will fall sharply past the election if the Tories win as uncertainty over Brexit will recede quickly.

Turning south of the border, it seems that the USMCA is finally making its way through Congress and will be enacted shortly. The peso has been the quiet beneficiary of this news over the past week as it has rallied 2% in the past week in a very steady fashion, although so far, this morning, it is little changed. One other thing of note regarding the Mexican peso has been the move in the forward curve over the past three weeks. For example, since November 19, 1-month MXN forwards have fallen from 1030 to this morning’s 683. In the 1-year, the decline has been from 10875 to this morning’s 10075. The largest culprit here appears to be the very large long futures position, (>150K contracts) that need to be rolled over by the end of the week, but there is also a significant maturity of Mexican government bonds that will require MXN purchases. At any rate, added to the USMCA news, we have a confluence of events driving both spot and forward peso rates higher. It is not clear how much longer this will continue, so for balance sheet hedgers with short dated exposures, this is probably a great opportunity to reduce hedging costs.

Beyond these stories, there is far less of interest in the market. This morning’s US data consists of Nonfarm productivity (exp -0.1%) and Unit Labor Costs (3.4%) neither of which is likely to move the needle. This is especially so ahead of tomorrow’s FOMC meeting and Thursday’s ECB meeting and UK election. Equity markets are pointing lower this morning, but that feels more like profit taking than a change of heart, as bonds are little changed alongside oil and gold. In other words, look for more choppy markets with no direction ahead of tomorrow’s CPI data and FOMC meeting.

Good luck
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