Mostly Mayhem

There once was a female PM
Whose task was the fallout, to stem,
From Brexit, alas
What then came to pass
Was discord and mostly mayhem

And so, because progress has lumbered
Theresa May’s days are now numbered
The market’s concern
Is Boris can’t learn
The problems with which he’s encumbered

In the battle for headline supremacy, at least in the FX market’s eyes, Brexit has once again topped the trade war today. The news from the UK is that PM May has now negotiated her own exit which will be shortly after the fourth vote on her much-despised Brexit bill in Parliament. The current timing is for the first week of June, although given how fluid everything seems to be there, as well as a politician’s preternatural attempts to retain power, it may take a little longer. However, there seems to be virtually no possibility that the legislation passes, and Theresa May’s tumultuous time as PM seems set to end shortly.

Of course, that begs the question, who’s next? And that is the market’s (along with the EU’s) great fear. It appears that erstwhile London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is a prime candidate to win the leadership election, and his views on Brexit remain very clear…get the UK out! In the lead up to the original March 31 deadline, you may recall I had been particularly skeptical of the growing sentiment at the time that a hard Brexit had been taken off the table. In the end, the law of the land is still for the UK to leave the EU, deal or no deal, now by October 31, 2019. It beggars belief that the EU will readily reopen negotiations with the UK, especially a PM Johnson, and so I think it is time to reassess the odds of the outcome. Here is one pundit’s view:

  May 16, 2019 May 17, 2019
Soft Brexit 50% 20%
Vote to Remain 30% 35%
Hard Brexit 20% 45%

Given this change in the landscape, it can be no surprise that the pound continues to fall. This morning sees the beleaguered currency lower by a further 0.3% taking the move this month to 3.2%. And the thing is, given the nature of this move, which has been very steady (lower in 9 of the past 10 sessions with the 10th unchanged), there is every reason to believe that this has further room to run. Very large single day moves tend to be reversed quickly, but this, my friends is what a market repricing future probability looks like. The most recent lows, near 1.25 in December look a likely target at this time.

Of course, the fact that the market seems more focused on Brexit than trade doesn’t mean the trade story has died. In fact, equity markets in Asia suffered, as have European ones, on the back of comments from the Chinese Commerce Ministry that no further talks are currently scheduled, and that the Chinese no longer believe the US is negotiating in good faith. As such, risk is clearly being reduced across the board this morning with not merely equity weakness, but haven strength. Treasury (2.37%) and Bund (-0.11%) yields continue to fall while the yen (+0.2%) rallies alongside the dollar.

In FX markets, the Chinese yuan has fallen again (-0.3%) and is now trading at 6.95, quite close to the supposed critical support (dollar resistance) level of 7.00. There continues to be a strong belief in the market, along with the analyst community, that the PBOC won’t allow the renminbi to weaken past that level. This stems from market activity in 2015, when the Chinese surprised everyone with a ‘mini-devaluation’ of 1.5% one evening in early August of that year. The ensuing rush for the exits by Chinese nationals trying to save their wealth cost the PBOC $1 trillion in FX reserves as they tried to moderate the renminbi’s decline. Finally, when it reached 6.98 in late December 2016, they changed the capital flow regulations and added significant verbal suasion to their message that they would not allow the currency to fall any further.

And for the most part, it worked for the next 15 months. However, clearly the situation has changed given the ongoing trade negotiations, and arguably given the deterioration in the relationship between the US and China. While the Chinese have pledged to avoid currency manipulation, it is not hard to argue that their current activities in maintaining yuan strength are just that, manipulation. Given the capital controls in place, meaning locals won’t be able to rush for the doors, it is entirely realistic to believe the PBOC could say something like, ‘we believe it is appropriate for the market to have a greater role in determining the value of the currency and are widening the band around the fix to accommodate those movements.’ A 5% band would certainly allow a much weaker renminbi while remaining within the broad context of their policy tools. In other words, I am not convinced that 7.00 is a magic line, perhaps more like a Maginot Line. If your hedging policy relies on 7.00 being sacrosanct, it is time to rethink your policy.

Overall, the dollar is firmer pretty much everywhere, with yesterday’s broad strength being modestly extended today. Yesterday’s US data was much better than expected as Housing starts grew 5.6% and Philly Fed printed at a higher than expected 16.6. Later this morning we see the last data of the week, Michigan Sentiment (exp 97.5). We also hear from two more Fed speakers, Clarida and Williams, although we have already heard from both of them earlier this week. Yesterday Governor Brainerd made an interesting series of comments regarding the Fed’s attempts to lift inflation, highlighting for the first time, that perhaps their models aren’t good descriptions of the economy any more. After a decade of inability to manage inflation risk, it’s about time they question something other than the market. While I am very happy to see them reflecting on their process, my fear is they will conclude that permanent easy money is the way of the future, a la Japan. If that is the direction in which the Fed is turning, it will have a grave impact on the FX markets, with the dollar likely to suffer the most as the US is, arguably, the furthest from that point right now. But that is a future concern, not one for today.

Good luck and good weekend
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“Talks” Become “War”

At what point do “talks” become “war”?
And how long can traders ignore
The signs that a truce
Are, at best, abstruse?
It seems bulls don’t care any more

So, markets continue to shine
But something’s a bit out of line
If problems have past
Then why the forecast
By bonds of a further decline

I can’t help being struck this morning by the simultaneous rebound in equity markets alongside the strong rally in bond markets. They seem to be telling us conflicting stories or are perhaps simply focusing on different things.

After Monday’s equity market rout set nerves on edge, and not just among the investor set, but also in the White House, it was no surprise to hear a bit more conciliatory language from the President regarding the prospects of completing the trade negotiations successfully. That seemed to be enough to cool the bears’ collective ardor and brought bargain hunters dip buyers back into the market. (Are there any bargains left at these valuations?) This sequence of events led to a solid equity performance in Asia despite the fact that Chinese data released last night was, in a word, awful. Retail Sales there fell to 7.2%, the lowest in 16 years and well below forecasts of 8.6% growth. IP fell to 5.4%, significantly below the 6.5% forecast, let alone last month’s 8.5% outturn. And Fixed Asset Investment fell to 6.1%, another solid miss, with the result being that April’s economic performance in the Middle Kingdom was generally lousy. We have already seen a number of reductions in GDP forecasts for Q2 with new expectations centering on 6.2%.

But the market reaction was not as might have been expected as the Shanghai composite rose a solid 1.9%. It seems that China is moving into the ‘bad news is good’ scenario, where weak data drives expectations of further monetary stimulus thus supporting stock prices. The other interesting story has been the change in tone in the official Chinese media for domestic Chinese consumption, where they have become more stridently nationalist and are actively discussing a trade “war”, rather than trade “talks”. It seems the Chinese are girding for a more prolonged fight on the trade front and are marshaling all the resources they can. Of course, at the end of the day, they remain vulnerable to significant pain if the second set of tariffs proposed by the US is enacted.

One consequence of this process has been a weakening Chinese yuan, which has fallen 2.7% since its close on Friday May 3rd, and is now at its weakest point since mid-December. At 6.9150 it is also less than 2% from the 7.00 level that has been repeatedly touted by analysts as a no-go zone for the PBOC. This is due to concerns that the Chinese people would be far more active in their efforts to protect their capital by moving it offshore. This is also the reason there are such tight capital flow restrictions in China. It doesn’t help the trade talks that the yuan has been falling as that has been a favorite talking point of President Trump, China’s manipulation of their currency.

This process has also renewed pundit talk of the Chinese selling all their Treasury holdings, some $1.1 trillion, as retaliation to US tariffs. The last idea makes no sense whatsoever, as I have mentioned in the past, if only because the question of what they will do with $1.1 trillion in cash has yet to be answered. They will still need to own something and replacing Treasuries with other USD assets doesn’t achieve anything. Selling dollars to buy other currencies will simply weaken the dollar, which is the opposite of the idea they are trying to manipulate their currency to their advantage, so also makes no sense. And finally, given the huge bid for Treasuries, with yields on the 10-year below 2.40%, it seems there is plenty of demand elsewhere.

Speaking of the Treasury bid, it seems bond investors are looking ahead for weaker overall growth, hence the declining yields. But how does that square with equity investors bidding stocks back up on expectations that a trade solution will help boost the economy. This is a conundrum that will only be resolved when there is more clarity on the trade outcome.

(Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: what if President Trump is purposely sabotaging the talks for now, seeking a sharp enough equity market decline to force the Fed to ease policy further. At that point, he can turn around and agree a deal which would result in a monster rally, something for which we can be sure he would take credit. I’m not saying it’s true, just not out of the question!)

At any rate, nothing in the past several sessions has changed the view that the trade situation is going to continue to be one of the key drivers for market activity across all markets for the foreseeable future.

After that prolonged diatribe, let’s look at the other overnight data and developments. German GDP rose 0.4%, as expected, in Q1. This was a significant uptick from the second half of last year but appears to be the beneficiary of some one-off issues, with slower growth still forecast for the rest of the year. Given expectations were built in, the fact that the euro has softened a bit further, down 0.1% and back below 1.12, ought not be too surprising. Meanwhile, the pound is little changed on the day, but has drifted down to 1.2900 quietly over the past two sessions. Despite solid employment data yesterday, it seems that traders remain unconvinced that a viable solution will be found for Brexit. This morning the word is that PM May is going to bring her thrice-defeated Brexit deal to Parliament yet again in June. One can only imagine how well that will go.

Elsewhere in the G10 we have the what looks like a risk-off session. The dollar is modestly stronger against pretty much all of that bloc except for the yen (+0.2%) and the Swiss franc (+0.1%), the classic haven assets. So, bonds (Bund yields are -0.10%, their lowest since 2016) and currencies are shunning risk, while equity traders continue to lap it up. As I said, there is a conundrum.

This morning we finally get some US data led by Retail Sales (exp 0.2%, 0.7% ex autos) as well as Empire Manufacturing (8.5), IP (0.0%) and Capacity Utilization (78.7%) all at 8:30. Business Inventories (0.0%) are released at 10:00 and we also hear from two more Fed speakers, Governor Quarles and Richmond Fed President Barkin. However, it seems unlikely that, given the consistency of message we have heard from every Fed speaker since their last meeting, with Williams and George yesterday reinforcing the idea that there is no urgency for the Fed to change policy in the near term and politics is irrelevant to the decision process, that we will hear anything new from these two.

In the end, it feels like yesterday’s equity rebound was more dead-cat than a start of something new. Risks still abound and slowing economic growth remains the number one issue. As long as US data continues to outperform, the case for dollar weakness remains missing. For now, the path of least resistance is for a mildly firmer buck.

Good luck
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Caused by the Other

With tariffs now firmly in place
The market’s been keen to embrace
The idea that Xi
And Trump will agree
To terms when they meet face-to-face

But rhetoric lately has shown
That both Trump and Xi will condone
A slowdown in trade
That both men portrayed
As caused by the other, alone

Risk is, once again, in tatters as the fallout from the US increase in tariffs starts to feed through the market. As of midnight last Thursday, US tariffs on $200 billion of goods rose to 25%. This morning, a list of the other $325 billion of goods that may be subject to tariffs will be published with a target date of 30-days before imposition. Meanwhile, China continues to try to figure out how best to respond. Their problem, in this scenario, is they don’t import that much stuff from the US, and so trying to determine what is an ‘equal’ offset is complicated. However, I am confident that within the next day or two, they will publish their response. Markets around the world have felt the fallout, with equity prices everywhere under pressure, EMG currencies, especially, feeling the heat, and Treasury bonds and German bunds remaining in vogue.

As of now, it appears the situation is unlikely to improve in the short-term. The US remains miffed that the Chinese seemingly reneged on previously agreed terms. Meanwhile, the Chinese are adamant that they will not kowtow to the US and be forced to legislate the agreed changes, instead insisting that administrative guidance is all that is needed to insure compliance with any terms. They deem this desire for a legislated outcome as impinging on their sovereignty. Once again, the issue falls back to the idea that while the US consistently accused the Chinese of IP theft and forced technology transfer, the Chinese don’t see it that way, and as such, don’t believe they need to change laws that don’t exist. Whatever the merits of either sides views, the end result is that it seems far less clear that a trade deal between the two is going to be signed anytime soon.

The markets question is just how much of this year’s global equity market rally has been driven by the assumption that trade issues would disappear and how much was based on a response to easier central bank policies. The risk for markets is not only that growth is negatively impacted, but that inflation starts to rise due to the tariffs. This would put the central banks in a tough spot, trying to determine which problem to address first. Famously, in 1979, when Paul Volcker was appointed Fed Chairman, he immediately took on inflation, raising short term interest rates significantly to slay that demon, but taking the US (and global) economy into recession as a result. It strikes me that today’s crop of central bank heads does not have the wherewithal to attack that problem in the same manner as Volcker. Rather, the much easier, and politically expedient, response will be to try to revive the economy while allowing inflation to run hot. This is especially the case since we continue to see serious discussions as to whether inflation is ‘dead’. FWIW, inflation is not dead!

At any rate, for now, the trade story is going to be the key story in every market, and the upshot is that the odds of any central bank turning more hawkish have diminished even further.

Looking at overnight activity, there was virtually no data to absorb with just Norwegian GDP growth printing slightly softer than expected, although not enough to change views that the Norgesbank is going to be raising rates next month. Broadly speaking, the dollar is quite firm, with the biggest loser being the Chinese yuan, down 0.9%, and that movement dragging down AUD (-0.45%) as a G10 proxy. But while other G10 currencies have seen more limited movement, the EMG bloc is really under pressure. For instance, MXN has fallen 0.6%, INR 0.75%, RUB, 0.5% and KRW 1.2%. All of this is trade related and is likely just the beginning of the fallout. Once China publishes its list of retaliatory efforts, I would expect further weakness in this space.

Equity markets are suffering everywhere, with Shanghai (-1.2%) and the Nikkei (-0.7%) starting the process, the DAX (-0.8%) and CAC (-0.6%) following in their footsteps and US futures pointing lower as well (both Dow and S&P futures -1.3%). Treasury yields have fallen to 2.43% and are now flat with 3-month Treasury bill rates, reigniting concerns over future US growth, and commodity prices are feeling the strain as well on overall growth concerns.

Turning to the data this week, there is a modicum of news, with Retail Sales likely to be seen as the most important:

Tuesday NFIB Business Optimism 102.3
Wednesday Retail Sales 0.2%
  -ex autos 0.7%
  Capacity Utilization 78.7%
  IP 0.1%
  Empire State Mfg 8.5
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
  Housing Starts 1.205M
  Building Permits 1.29M
  Philly Fed 9.0
Friday Michigan Sentiment 97.5

We also see the housing story and hear from another five Fed speakers across seven speeches this week. However, as we learned last week, pretty much the entire Fed is comfortable with their patient stance in the belief that growth is solid and inflation will eventually head to their target of 2.0%.

Add it all up and there is no reason to believe that the trends from last week will change, namely further pressure on equity markets and commodities, with the dollar and Treasuries the beneficiaries.

Good luck
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Waiting to See

At midnight the US imposed
The tariffs that Trump had disclosed
We’re waiting to see
How President Xi
Responds, or if China’s now hosed

It’s all about the tariffs this morning as the US increased the tariff rate on $200 billion of Chinese imports to 25% as of midnight last night. China has promised to retaliate but has not yet announced what they will do. One of the problems they have is they don’t import that much stuff from the US, so they cannot match it exactly. There was an unintentionally humorous article in Bloomberg this morning that tried to outline the ‘powerful’ tools China has to respond; namely selling US Treasuries, allowing the CNY to weaken further, or stop buying US soybeans. The humor stemmed from the fact that they basically destroyed their own arguments on the first two, leaving just the soybean restriction as potentially viable and even that is problematic.

Consider the Treasury sales first. As the Chinese own ~$1.1 trillion, if they sold a significant chunk, they would almost certainly drive US yields higher as Treasury prices fell. But two problems with this are; they would undermine the value of whatever bonds they retained and more problematically, what else would they do with the dollars? After all, the Treasury market is pretty much the only one that is large enough to handle that type of volume on a low risk basis. I guess they could convert the dollars to euros and buy Italian BTP’s (there are a lot of those outstanding) but their risk profile would get significantly worse. And of course, selling all those dollars would certainly weaken the dollar, which would not help the Chinese economy one bit.

On the flip side, allowing the renminbi to weaken sharply presents an entirely different problem, the fact that the Chinese are terrified that they would lose control of the capital flow situation if it weakened too far. Remember in 2015, when the Chinese created a mini-devaluation of just 1.5%, it triggered a massive outflow as USDCNY approached 7.00. The Chinese people have no interest in holding their assets in a sharply depreciating currency, and so were quick to sell as much as they could. The resultant capital flows cost China $1 trillion in FX reserves to prevent further weakness in the currency. Given we are only 2% below that level in the dollar right now, it seems to me the Chinese will either need to accept massive outflows and a destabilizing weakening in the renminbi, or more likely, look for another response.

The final thought was to further restrict soybean imports from the US. While the Chinese can certainly stop that trade instantly, the problems here are twofold. First, they need to find replacement supplies, as they need the soybeans regardless of where they are sourced, and second, given the Swine virus that has decimated the pig herds in China, they need to find more sources of protein for their people, not fewer. So, no pork and less soybeans is not a winning combination for Xi. The point is, while US consumers will likely feel the pressure from increased tariff rates via higher prices, the Chinese don’t have many easy responses.

And let’s talk about US prices for a moment. Shouldn’t the Fed be ecstatic to see something driving prices higher? After all, they have been castigating themselves for ‘too low’ inflation for the past seven years. They should be cheering on the President at this stage! But seriously, yesterday’s PPI data was released softer than expected (2.2%, 2.4% core) and as much as both Fed speakers and analysts try to convince us that recently declining measured inflation is transitory, the market continues to price rate cuts into the futures curve. This morning brings the CPI data (exp 2.1%, 2.1% core) but based on data we have seen consistently from around the world, aside from the oil price rally, there is scant evidence that inflation is rising. The only true exceptions are Norway, where the oil driven economy is benefitting greatly from higher oil prices, and the disasters of Argentina and Turkey, both of which have tipped into classic demand-pull inflation, where too much money is chasing too few goods.

Turning to market performance, last night saw the Shanghai Composite rally 3.1% after the imposition of tariffs, which is an odd response until you understand that the government aggressively bought stocks to prevent a further decline. The rest of Asia was mixed with the Nikkei lower by a bit and the KOSPI higher by a bit. European shares are modestly higher this morning, on average about 0.5%, in what appears to be a ‘bad news is good’ scenario. After all, French IP fell more than expected (-0.9%) and Italian IP fell more than expected (-1.4%). Yes, German Trade data was solid, but there is still scant evidence that the Eurozone is pulling out of its recent malaise so weaker data encourages traders to believe further policy ease is coming.

In the FX market, there has been relatively little movement in any currency. The euro continues to trade either side of 1.12, the pound either side of 1.30 and the yen either side of 110.00. It is very difficult to get excited about the FX market given there is every indication that the big central banks are well ensconced in their current policy mix with no changes on the horizon. That means that both the Fed and the ECB are on hold (although we will be finding out about those TLTRO’s soon) while both the BOJ and PBOC continue to ease policy. In the end, it turns out the increased tariffs were not that much of a shock to the system, although if the US imposes tariffs on the rest of Chinese imports, I expect that would be a different story.

This morning we hear from Brainerd, Bostic and Williams, although at this point, patience in policy remains the story. The inflation data mentioned above is the only data we get (although Canadian employment data is released for those of you with exposures there), and while US equity futures are tilted slightly lower at this time, it feels like the market is going to remain in the doldrums through the weekend. That is, of course, unless there is a shocking outturn from the CPI data. Or a trade deal, but that seems pretty remote right now.

Good luck and good weekend
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Growing Concern

The trade talks have taken a turn
Amidst markets growing concern
The story today
Is China won’t play
By rules which trade partners all yearn

The trade talks narrative is shifting, and markets are not taking kindly to the change. Prior assumptions had been that the talks were progressing well and that this week’s meetings in Washington were going to produce the final agreement. However, this morning the tone has changed dramatically. President Trump tweeted that the Chinese “broke the deal”, implying that items previously agreed by the two sides are no longer acceptable to China. To my reading, the key issue is the Chinese refusal to codify into law the changes being agreed regarding IP and forced technology transfer. It appears that the Chinese believe this too onerous and difficult to accomplish and instead will be giving guidance to local governments. (Perhaps somebody can explain to me how it is too onerous for a dictatorship to change its own laws.) Essentially, they want the US to trust that they will perform as expected. Simultaneously, it appears the Chinese have interpreted President Trump’s hectoring of the Fed to cut rates as an admission that the US economy is not strong, and that Trump needs to cut the deal. This has encouraged the Chinese to play hardball as they believe they have the upper hand now.

The upshot is that the odds of a successful conclusion of the talks have fallen sharply. At this point, my read is they are no more than 50:50, which is far lower than the virtual certainty the market had been pricing as recently as last Friday, and quite frankly far lower than the market is currently pricing. In fact, it is easy to make the case that at least half of the equity rebound since Christmas is due to the growing belief a trade deal would be agreed, so if that is no longer the case, a further repricing (read decline) is in the cards. As such, it should be no surprise that equities in Asia continue to retreat (Nikkei -0.95%, Shanghai -1.5%, Hang Seng 2.4%) and we are seeing weakness throughout Europe as well (DAX -0.9%, CAC -1.3%, FTSE -0.4%) given concerns that a failure in these talks will have a much wider impact spread across the investment community. Not surprisingly, US futures are pointing lower with both Dow and S&P futures -0.75% as I type.

Continuing with the risk-off theme, Treasury yields continue to decline, falling two basis points even after a very weak 10-year auction yesterday, while German bund yields have fallen another bp to -0.06%, their lowest level in two months. The flight to safety is beginning to gain some momentum here.

Finally, looking at the dollar, it should be no surprise it is having another good day. While it is little changed vs. the euro, it continues to trade near the lower end of its recent trading range. However, the pound has fallen a further 0.2% hindered not only by the modest dollar strength but by the realization that there will be no grand deal between the Tories and Labour regarding Brexit. Adding to the risk-off mood is the yen’s further appreciation, another 0.2%, taking it below 110 for the first time in three months.

In the EMG bloc, one cannot be surprised that CNY is weaker, pushing back toward 6.85 and touching its weakest level since January. On top of that, the offshore CNH is even weaker as speculation grows that a collapse in the trade talks will result in the Chinese allowing the renminbi to fall much more sharply. But it’s not just China under pressure here; we are seeing weakness in every area. For example, the Mexican peso has fallen 0.5%, Indian Rupee 0.3% and Korean won 0.85%. In other words, the carry trade is under pressure as the first investors search for a safe place to hide. Unless the talks get back on track, I expect that we will see further weakness in the EMG bloc especially.

On the data front, overnight we saw Chinese financing data which demonstrated that despite the PBOC’s efforts to add liquidity to the market, financing is not growing as rapidly as they would like. For example, New Yuan Loans increased a much less than expected CNY 1trillion (exp CNY 1.2 trillion), while Outstanding Loan Growth ebbed as well. The point is that like every other central bank, the PBOC is finding that their ability to control the economy is slipping.

This morning brings Initial Claims (exp 220K) along with the Trade Balance (-$50.2B) and PPI (2.3%, core 2.5%) all at 8:30. Also at that time, we hear from Chairman Powell, followed by speeches from Atlanta’s Rafael Bostic and Chicago’s Charles Evans later in the day. The thing is, it beggars belief that any of them are going to change their tune regarding the Fed’s patience as they watch the economy develop. At this point, the key question is, if the trade talks completely fall apart and new tariffs are imposed by both sides leading to a severe decline in the equity market, will the Fed start to contemplate cutting rates? At this point I am sure they would vehemently deny that is their thought process. But if recent history is any guide, the financialization of the US economy has forced the Fed to respond to any significant movement in the S&P. So I would answer, yes they will! But that is a story for another day. Unless there is positive news from the trade front today, look for the overnight trends to continue; weaker equities, stronger Treasuries and a stronger dollar.

Good luck
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Addiction To Debt

A policy change did beget
In China, addiction to debt
Per last night’s report
Financial support
Continues, the bulls’ views, to whet

The data from China continues to surprise modestly to the upside. Last week, you may recall, the Manufacturing PMI report printed above 50 in a surprising rebound. Last night, Q1 GDP printed at 6.4%, a tick better than expected, and the concurrent data; Fixed Asset Investment (6.3%), IP (8.5%) and Retail Sales (8.7%) all beat expectations as well. In fact, the IP data blew them away as the analyst community was looking for a reading of 5.9%. While there is some possibility that the data is still mildly distorted from the late Lunar New Year holiday, it certainly seems as though the Chinese have managed to prevent any significant further weakness in their economy.

How, you may ask, have they accomplished this feat? Why the way every government does these days. As we also learned last week, debt in China continues to grow rapidly, far more rapidly than the economy, which means that every yuan of debt buys less growth. It should be no surprise that there is diminishing effectiveness in this strategy, but it should also be no surprise that this is likely to be the way forward. In the short run, this process certainly pads the data story, helping to ensure that growth continues. However, there is a clear and measurable negative aspect to this policy.

Exhibit A is real estate. One of the areas seeing the most investment in China continues to be real estate. The problem with expanding real estate debt (it grew 11.6% in Q1 compared to 6.4% growth for GDP) is that real estate investment is not especially productive. For an economy that relies on manufacturing, productivity growth is crucial. The more money invested in real estate, the less available for improved efficiencies in the economy. Longer term this will lead to slower GDP growth in China, just as it has done in all the developed world economies. However, as politics, even in China, is based on the here and now, there is no reason to expect these policies to change. Two years ago, President Xi tried to force a crackdown on excessive debt used to finance the property bubble that had inflated throughout China. However, it is abundantly clear that the priorities have shifted to growth at all costs. At this stage, I expect that we will see consistently better numbers out of China going forward, regardless of any trade resolution. If Xi wants growth, that is what the rest of the world will see, whether it exists or not.

Turning to the FX market, this implies to me that we are about to see CNY start to strengthen further. Last night saw a 0.40% rally taking the dollar down to key support levels between 6.68-6.69. I expect that we are going to see the renminbi start a more protracted move higher and at this point would not be surprised to see the USDCNY end 2019 around 6.30. That is a significant change in my view from earlier this year, but there has also been a significant change in the policy stance in China which cannot be ignored.

Elsewhere, risk overall has been ‘on’ as investors have responded to the better than expected Chinese data, as well as the continued dovishness from the central banking community, and keep buying stocks. If you recall several weeks ago, there was a conundrum as both stocks and bonds were rallying. At the time, the view from most pundits was that the stock market was wrong and that the bond market was presaging a significant slowdown in the economy. In fact, we saw that first yield curve inversion at the time in early March. However, since then, 10-year Treasury yields have backed up by 22bps and now sit above 2.60% for the first time in a month, while stock prices have continued to rally. As such, it appears that the bond market had it wrong, not the stock market. The one caveat is that this stock market rally has been on diminishing volumes which implies that it is not that widely supported. The opposing viewpoints are the bulls believe there is a big catch up rally in the wings as those who have missed out reach peak FOMO, while the bears believe that though the rally has been substantial, it has a very weak underlying basis, and will retreat rapidly.

As to the FX market, yesterday saw dollar strength, which was a bit surprising given the weaker than expected economic data (both IP and Capacity Utilization disappointed) as well as mixed to negative earnings data from the equity market. However, this morning, the dollar has retraced those gains with the pound being the one real outlier, falling slightly amid gains in virtually every other currency, as inflation data from the UK printed softer than expected at 1.9%, thus pushing any concept of tighter policy even further into the future.

On the data front, this morning brings the Trade Balance (exp -$53.3B) and then the Fed’s Beige Book is released this afternoon. We also have two more Fed speakers, Harker and Bullard, but that message remains pretty consistent. No change in policy in the near future and all efforts to determine the best way to push inflation up to the target level. What this means in practice is that there is a vanishingly small probability that US monetary policy will tighten any further in the near future. Of course, neither will policy elsewhere tighten, so I continue to view the dollar’s prospects positively with the clear exception of the CNY as mentioned above.

Good luck
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Two Countries that Fought

There once were two countries that fought
‘bout trade as each one of them thought
The other was cheating
Preventing competing
By champions both of them sought

They sat down to seek a solution
So both could avoid retribution
But talks have been tough
And not yet enough
To get a deal for execution

The US-China trade talks continued overnight, and though progress in some areas has been made, clearly it has not yet been enough to bring in the leadership. The good news is that the talks are set to continue next week back in Washington. The bad news is that the information coming out shows that two of the key issues President Trump has highlighted, forced technology transfer and subsidies for SOE’s, are nowhere near agreement. The problem continues to be that those are pillars of the Chinese economic model, and they are going to be loath to cede them. As of this morning, increased tariffs are still on the docket for midnight, March 2, but perhaps next week enough progress will be made to support a delay.

Equity markets around the world seemed to notice that a deal wasn’t a slam dunk, and have sold off, starting with a dull session in the US yesterday, followed by weakness throughout Asia (Nikkei -1.1%, Shanghai -1.4%). Interestingly, the European markets have taken a different view of things this morning, apparently attaching their hopes to the fact that talks will continue next week, and equity markets there are quite strong (DAX +1/0%, FTSE +0.4%). And the dollar? Modestly higher at this time, but overall movement has been muted.

Asian markets also felt the impact of Chinese inflation data showing CPI fell to 1.7% last month, below expectations and another indication that growth is slowing there. However, the loan data from China showed that the PBOC is certainly making every effort to add liquidity to the economy, although it has not yet had the desired impact. As to the renminbi, it really hasn’t done anything for the past month, and it appears that traders are biding their time as they wait for some resolution on the trade situation. One would expect that a trade deal could lead to modest CNY strength, but if the talks fall apart, and tariffs are raised further, look for CNY to fall pretty aggressively.

As to Europe, the biggest news from the continent was political, not economic, as Spain’s PM was forced to call a snap election after he lost support of the Catalan separatists. This will be the nation’s third vote in the past four years, and there is no obvious coalition, based on the current polls, that would be able to form. In other words, Spain, which has been one of the brighter lights in the Eurozone economically, may see some political, and by extension, economic ructions coming up.

Something else to consider on this issue is how it will impact the Brexit negotiations, which have made no headway at all. PM May lost yet another Parliamentary vote to get the right to go back and try to renegotiate terms, so is weakened further. The EU does not want a hard Brexit but feels they cannot even respond to the UK as the UK has not put forth any new ideas. At this point, I would argue the market is expecting a delay in the process and an eventual deal of some sort. But a delay requires the assent of all 27 members that are remaining in the bloc. With Spain now in political flux, and the subject of the future of Gibraltar a political opportunity for domestic politics, perhaps a delay will not be so easy to obtain. All I know is that I continue to see a non-zero probability for a policy blunder on one or both sides, and a hard Brexit.

A quick look at the currency markets here shows the euro slipping 0.2% while the pound has edged higher by 0.1% this morning. Arguably, despite the Brexit mess, the pound has been the beneficiary of much stronger than expected Retail Sales data (+1.0% vs. exp +0.2%), but in the end, the pound is still all about Brexit. The sum total of the new economic information received in the past 24 hours reaffirms that global growth is slowing. Not only are inflation pressures easing in China, but US Retail Sales data was shockingly awful, with December numbers falling -1.2%. This is certainly at odds with the tune most retail companies have been singing in their earnings reports, and given the data was delayed by the shutdown, many are wondering if the data is mistaken. But for the doves on the Fed, it is simply another point in their favor to maintain the status quo.

Recapping, we see trade talks dragging on with marginal progress, political pressure growing in Spain, mixed economic data, but more bad news than good news, and most importantly, a slow shift in the narrative to a story of slowing growth will beget the end of monetary tightening and could well presage monetary ease in the not too distant future. After all, markets are pricing in rate cuts by the Fed this year and no rate movement in the ECB (as opposed to Draghi’s mooted rate hikes later this year) until at least 2020. The obvious response to this is…add risk!

A quick look at today’s data shows Empire State Manufacturing (exp 7.0), IP (0.1%), Capacity Utilization (78.7%) and Michigan Sentiment (94.5). We also have one last Fed speaker, Raphael Bostic from Atlanta. Virtually all the recent Fed talk has been about when to stop the balance sheet runoff, with Brainerd and Mester the latest to discuss the idea that it should stop soon. And my guess is it will do just that. I would be surprised if they continue running down the balance sheet come summer. The changes going forward will be to the composition, less mortgages and more Treasuries, but not the size. And while some might suggest that will remove a dollar support, I assure you, if the Fed has stopped tightening, no other nation is going to continue. Ironically, this is not going to be a dollar negative, either today or going forward.

Good luck and good weekend
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