Buying Will Stop

It seems nearly every day now
Some Fed members make the same vow
First buying will stop
Next Fed funds will pop
Then asset run-off we’ll allow

Thus far markets have been subdued
Though some players now have construed
That buying the dip
Has lost all its zip
While selling all rallies is shrewd

Another day, another series of Fed speakers explaining that inflation is the primary focus, that when QE stops in March it may (read will) be appropriate to raise the Fed Funds rate by 0.25% and that the Fed has powerful tools to prevent inflation from getting out of hand.  While it is encouraging that they have finally figured out inflation is a problem, the fact that they still don’t understand it is a problem of their own making is somewhat disconcerting.  However, moving in the right direction is clearly a positive.

So, after Brainerd, Waller, Barkin and Evans all basically said the same thing, here is what we know.  It seems a virtual certainty that the Fed Funds rate will be raised at the March meeting with a very high likelihood of at least two more hikes as the year progresses.  Mr Waller even suggested more than four total this year, although that is clearly a minority view, right now, on the FOMC.  The problem is that 25 basis point increments every 12 weeks is not going to make much of a dent in inflation running at 7.0%.  And, even if inflation falls back down to 4.0%, it will still take more than three years for the Fed to even reach a point where real yields are back to 0.0%.   Not only that, when Waller was asked about 0.50% increments, he dismissed the idea as being destabilizing for markets.  (Yet again we can read between the lines and recognize that preventing an equity market decline remains the Fed’s primary focus regardless of recent comments on inflation.)

But back to the real yield story.  It is important to understand that negative real yields are not a bug in their plans, they are the feature.  Negative real yields are the only way for the US (and every overly indebted nation) to reduce the value of their debt without a technical default.  The Fed knows this playbook from their actions in the wake of WWII, where they capped yields at 2.50% and inflation ran at 10.0%.  A few years later, the debt/GDP ratio had fallen from 125% to 35% and the country’s finances were back in order.  That process worked then because the US economy dominated the global economy and essentially everything was manufactured here.  Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in the ensuing 80 years, it is not clear that the citizenry in the US will be quite as patient this time, but that is almost certainly the Fed’s plan.

If we assume that real yields are set to remain negative for a long time into the future, what are the likely impacts going to be?  First and foremost, real assets like commodities and real estate should perform well and maintain their value if not appreciate.  Bonds, on the other hand, will have a tougher time, although there are many things which may help support them, not least of which would be a reversal of policy by central banks.  Equities are going to find themselves segregated into companies that have businesses and are profitable and those that have benefitted from the ongoing monetary largesse of the central banks and may find that funding their businesses will get more difficult.  In other words, credit is going to matter going forward in this environment.  Finally, the dollar’s behavior will be contingent on just how other nations approach the real yield question.  For those countries that follow sound money policies, and seek to end financial repression, their currencies should benefit.  However, all signs are pointing, at this time, to the fact the US will not be considering sound money policies as they are short-term politically unpalatable, and the dollar will underperform going forward.  I apologize for the dour message on a Friday, but the constant Fed blather becomes difficult to tune out after a while.

Ok, here’s what we have seen overnight.  Yesterday’s tech rout in the US took equity markets lower across the board and that was followed in Asia as well (Nikkei -1.3%, Hang Seng -0.2%, Shanghai -1.0%).  Europe, too, is in the red with fairly solid declines in the DAX (-0.6%) and CAC (-0.6%) although the FTSE 100 (-0.1%) is outperforming after November GDP data showed surprisingly strong growth in the UK across both manufacturing and services. Meanwhile, US futures are hovering either side of unchanged although NASDAQ futures have recently turned down a bit more aggressively.

An interesting feature of today’s price action is that not only are stocks being sold, but so are bonds, and everywhere.  Treasury yields are higher by 3.0bps, although that is simply unwinding yesterday’s rally where yields fell a similar amount.  European sovereigns are also selling off with yields higher across the board (Bunds +2.4bps, OATs +2.4bps, Gilts +2.8bps).  While the positive news from the UK seems a rationale for the Gilt market, German GDP actually fell in Q4 bringing their Y/Y number down to 2.7% and one would have thought that might support Bunds.

Where, you may ask, are investors hiding if they are selling both stocks and bonds?  Commodities are looking better this morning with oil (+0.7%) continuing its recent rally although NatGas (-2.6%) remains beholden to the winter weather.  A warmer day here in the Northeast is undermining the price.  Precious metals (Au +0.1%, Ag +0.2%) are both on the right side of unchanged and most industrial metals are doing well (Cu -0.7%, Zn +1.9%, Sn +2.3%).  Agricultural prices are also beholden to the weather so are seeing a mixed bag this morning.

Finally, the dollar is mixed this morning, with an equal set of gainers and losers in both the G10 and EMG blocs.  JPY (+0.3%) is the leader in the clubhouse as the very obvious risk-off sentiment is encouraging repatriation of funds while AUD (-0.3%) is the laggard, seemingly on the back of the hawkish Fed comments (or perhaps on the fact that Novak Djokovic will not be playing in the Australian Open after all!)  In the emerging markets RUB (-0.6%) is the worst performer on the back of fears of further sanctions as the Ukraine situation continues to escalate, while INR (-0.35%) has also suffered overnight, this more on the talk of Fed hawkishness.  However, after those two, decliners have moved very little, certainly not enough to make a case about anything in particular.  On the plus side, CLP (+0.5%) and ZAR (+0.4%) are the leaders.  The peso is following yesterday’s strength with more as traders anticipate more hawkishness from the central bank while the rand is trading on the back of some key technical levels having been breached and pointing to yet more strength short-term.

Data this morning brings Retail Sales (exp -0.1%, +0.1% ex autos) as well as IP (0.2%), Capacity Utilization (77.0%) and Michigan Sentiment (70.0).  Yesterday’s PPI data did nothing to dispel the idea that inflation is well entrenched in the US economy regardless of what Fed members say in testimony or commentary.

Using the dollar index (DXY) as a proxy, the dollar has fallen 1.5% since this time last week.  Heading into this year, dollar bullishness was rampant as expectations for much tighter Fed policy were seen as likely to push the dollar higher.  However, the early price action is beginning to dispel that notion.  I have a feeling that we are going to see investors sell dollar rallies at the same time they sell equity rallies.  This is a huge sentiment change from the previous “buy the dip” mentality that had been prevalent since Ben Bernanke first introduced QE all those years ago.  Caveat emptor is the new watchword, for both stocks and the dollar.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe

A Touch of Despair

The Beige Book detected the fact
That bottom lines all have been whacked
As wages explode
While growth, somewhat, slowed
Inflation, it seems, ain’t abstract

Meanwhile we heard from a vice-Chair
Whose words had a touch of despair
It seems he now thinks
There just might be links
Twixt QE and price everywhere

Chairman Powell’s comments due tomorrow are taking on much greater importance than just a few days ago as the Fed narrative is seemingly in the middle of a change.  While many have been willing to dismiss the fact that the regional Fed presidents have been more hawkish lately, leading the charge for the beginning of tapering, the Fed governors had been far more sanguine on the subject, at least until very recently.  Tuesday, we heard from Governor Waller about his concerns that inflation could be more persistent, especially if one looked at the headline measures as he dismissed the other measures as efforts at manipulation.  Yesterday it was vice-Chair Quarles’ turn to put the market on notice that inflation’s persistence has begun to become troublesome and while he still felt price pressures would abate next year, his level of confidence in that forecast was clearly declining.  Both of them hinted at the possible need for rate hikes sooner than previously expected.

Yesterday, too, the release of the Fed’s Beige Book presented a clear picture of two issues: wages were rising rapidly, and growth was slowing.  The problem stems from the fact that despite wage increases of 20% or more, companies are still having a problem staffing up to desired levels and that has led to reduced output.  It has also led to business after business explaining that they would be raising prices to offset increased costs for not just wages, but raw materials and shipping.  In your Economics 101 textbook (likely Samuelson’s) this was the very definition of a wage-price spiral.

It is this recent hawkish turn by several Fed governors that brings even greater attention to Chairman Powell’s comments tomorrow.  The market is already assuming that tapering will begin next month, but the question remains, will the Fed be able to continue along that line if economic activity continues to slide?  I raise this issue because after Tuesday’s weaker than expected housing data, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow indicator has fallen to 0.533% for Q3.  And that’s an annual rate, down from Q2’s 6.8% GDP growth.  It appears the Fed may have a difficult decision to make in the near future; fight rapidly rising inflation or fight rapidly slowing growth. As I’ve written before, stagflation is a b*tch.

Adding to the economic problems is the continued slowing of growth in China where ongoing power shortages combined with a resurgence of Covid related shutdowns and the implosion of China Evergrande have resulted in the slowest, non-Covid, growth in decades.  At the same time, the PBOC continues to drain liquidity from the economy in an effort to reduce leverage which has the effect of further slowing activity there.  Given China has been the global growth engine for at least the past decade, a slowdown there means we are going to see slower activity everywhere else.  Alas, for the central banking community, it is not clear that will help price pressures abate, not as long as energy and raw material prices continue to rise.

Summing it all up shows that growth worldwide is falling from Q2’s peak while price pressures are flowing from commodities to shipping and now wages.  All this is occurring with interest rates broadly at their lowest levels in history. (I know some countries have raised rates a bit, but the reality is there is far less room to ease policy than tighten overall.)  Given this backdrop, it remains amazing to me that equity markets worldwide have been able to continue to perform well.  And yet, they continue to do so broadly, albeit not last night.  However, I believe that interest rate markets are beginning to recognize that the future may not be so rosy as we are seeing yields continue to climb and inflation breakevens rise to levels not seen in nearly a decade.  Remember, there is no perpetual motion machine and no free lunch.  Central banks have spent the entire post GFC period continually supporting markets while allowing significant imbalances to develop across all segments of the economy and, ironically, markets.  I have often said the Fed’s biggest problem will arrive when they announce a policy change and the market ignores the announcement.  I fear that time is growing much nearer.

With those cheery thoughts to support us, let’s take a look at the overnight session.  It seems that risk is having a bit of a struggle today with most of Asia (Nikkei -1.9%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai +0.2%) under pressure and Europe (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.4%, FTSE 100 -0.6%), too, having difficulty this morning.  US futures are also pointing lower, -0.3% or so across the major ones, which implies pressure at the opening at the very least.  China continues to be a drag on the global markets as other Chinese real estate companies are starting to fall and the word is Evergrande’s sales have fallen 97%.  I guess buying from a bankrupt company is not that attractive a proposition.

In a bit of a surprise, European sovereign bond yields are rising this morning (Bunds +1.6bps, OATs +1.2bps, Gilts +3.7bps) as ordinarily one would expect a rush into safe havens when risk is on the run.  However, as the EU begins another summit, it is likely to simply highlight the ongoing problems across the continent, notably in energy, and that seems to be sapping confidence from investors.  Treasury yields are very marginally softer on the day, so far, but with more and more Fed members talking up inflation worries, I expect they are likely to continue to rise for a while yet.

Commodity markets are under pressure today as well with oil (WTI -0.8%) and NatGas (-1.7%) leading the way, but weakness, too, in copper (-2.9%), aluminum (-0.3%) and all the main agriculturals (soy -0.7%, wheat -0.7%, corn -0.5%).  By contrast, gold’s unchanged price is looking good!

As to the dollar, it is broadly, though not universally, stronger this morning.  In the G10, AUD (-0.3%) and NZD (-0.3%) lead the way down with the rest of the commodity bloc also suffering a bit.  On the plus side, JPY (+0.25%) is the only gainer, which given equity price action seems pretty standard.  In the emerging markets, TRY (-2.4%) is the outlier after the central bank cut interest rates by 2.0%, double the expected outcome, to 16.0%, despite inflation running at 19.6% in September.  You may recall that President Erdogan fired several central bankers last week as they were clearly not willing to do his bidding.  There is nothing promising about the lira these days.  Aside from that, the rest of the space is softer led by ZAR (-0.7%) on weaker commodity prices, and PLN (-0.4%) as investors’ concerns grow that the EU is going to try to punish Poland for its recent court ruling that said EU law does not reign supreme in Poland.  Other movers have been less significant but are spread across all three geographies.

On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial (exp 297K) and Continuing (2548K) Claims numbers as well as Philly Fed (25.0), Leading Indicators (+0.4%) and Existing Home Sales (6.09M).  Of this group, I expect the Philly number will give the most information, but in truth, I believe traders and investors are more interested in hearing from Chris Waller again as well as NY Fed president Williams this morning to try to get any more information about the evolving Fed story.

Broadly speaking, I believe the US interest rate story continues to underpin the dollar and I see nothing to change that view.  The dollar has been trending higher since summer and while the last week has seen marginal dollar softness, I believe it is merely a good time to take advantage and buy dollars for receivables hedgers.

Good luck and stay safe