Congressional Sloth

The Chairman is set to appear
Near Mnuchin, and both will make clear
Congressional sloth
Is killing off growth
Thus, action’s required this year

The subtext, though, is that the Chair
Has realized his cupboard is bare
No ammo remains
To prop up the gains
That stocks have made ‘midst much fanfare

Yesterday’s risk-off session may well have set the tone for the week, as there has been precious little rebound yet seen.  In addition to the virus story, and the news of large bank misdeeds, the US election story remains a critical factor, although at this point, any impact remains difficult to discern.  The one thing that is quite clear is that there is a very stark choice between candidates.  Given the prevailing meme that it is going to be a very close election, and the outcome could be in doubt for weeks following November 3rd, and assuming that the market response will be quite different depending on who eventually wins, one cannot blame traders and investors for omitting the issue from their current calculations.  While eventually, there is likely to be a significant market response, at this point, it seems there is little to be gained by positioning early.

In the meantime, however, the current administration continues to seek to do what it thinks best for the economy, and today we will get to hear from Chairman Powell, as well as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, in Congressional testimony.  As is always the case in these situations, the text of Powell’s speech has been pre-released and it continues to focus on the one (apparently only) thing that is out of his control, more fiscal stimulus.  In his opening remarks he will describe the economy as improving but with still many problems ongoing.  He will also explain that monetary stimulus needs the help of fiscal stimulus to be truly effective.  In other words, he will explain that the Fed is now ‘pushing on a string’ and if Congress doesn’t enact new stimulus measures, there is little the Fed will be able to do to achieve their statutory goals.  Of course, he won’t actually use those words, but that will be the meaning.  It is abundantly clear that the Fed’s ability to support the real economy, as opposed to financial markets, has reached its end.

However, it is not just the Fed that has reached its limit, essentially every G10 central bank has reached the limit of effective central banking.  It has been argued, and I agree with the sentiment, that the difference between ‘normal’ positive interest rates and the zero and negative rates we currently see around the world is similar to the difference between Newtonian and Quantum mechanics in Physics.  In the positive rate environment, things are exactly as they seem.  Investment decisions are based on estimated returns, and risk of repayment is factored into the rate charged. There is a concept called the time value of money, where one dollar today is worth more than that same dollar in the future.  It is the basis on which Economics, the subject, was formulated.  This is akin to Newton’s well-known laws like; Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by another force.  They are even, dare I say, intuitive.

But in the zero (or negative) interest rate world, investment decisions are completely different.  First, the time value of money doesn’t make sense as it becomes, a dollar today is worth less than a dollar in the future.  As well, the addition of forward guidance is self-defeating.  After all, if they know that interest rates are going to remain zero for the next three years, what is the hurry for a company to borrow money now? Especially given the extreme lack of demand for so many products.  Instead, managements have realized that there is no need to worry about increasing production, they will always be able to do that when demand increases.  Rather, their time can be better spent reconfiguring their capital structure to reduce equity (lever up) and show ever increasing EPS growth without risking a poor investment decision.  This is akin to the difficulty in understanding the quantum realm, where uncertainty reigns (thank you Heisenberg) and the accuracy of measuring the position (EPS) and momentum (growth) of a particle are inversely related.

The problem is that central bankers are all Newtonians (or Keynesians), and so simply plug zero and negative numbers into their models and expect the same reactions as when they plug in positive numbers. And the output is garbage, which is a key reason they have been unable to stimulate economic activity effectively.  Alas, as long as problems persist, central bankers will feel compelled to “do something” when doing nothing may be the best course of action.  In the end, look for more monetary stimulus as it is the only tool they have.  Unfortunately, its effectiveness has been diminished to near zero, like their interest rates.

In the meantime, a look around markets shows that risk is neither off nor on this morning, but mostly confused.  Asian equity markets followed yesterday’s US losses, with declines of around 1% in those markets open.  (The Nikkei remained closed).  But European bourses have turned modestly higher on the day as the results of some regional elections in Italy have been taken quite positively.  There, the League’s Matteo Salvini lost seats to the current government, thus reducing the probability of a toppling government and easing pressure on Italian assets.  In fact, the FTSE MIB is the leading gainer today, higher by 1.2%, but we also see the DAX (+1.0%) and CAC (+0.5%) shaking off early losses to turn up.  US futures are mixed at this time, although well off the lows seen during the Asia session.

In the bond market, yesterday saw Treasury yields decline about 3 basis points amidst the ongoing risk reduction, but this morning, prices are edging lower and the yield has backed up just about 1bp.  In Europe, things have been much more interesting as Italian BTP’s have rallied sharply during the day, with yields now down 3.5 basis points, after opening with a similar sized rise in yields.  Bunds, meanwhile, are selling off a bit, as fears of an eruption of Italian trouble recede.

And finally, the dollar, which had been firmer much of the evening, is now ceding much of those gains, and at this hour I would have to describe as mixed.  In the G10, NOK (-0.5%) remains under the most pressure as oil prices continue to soften and there is now a controversy brewing with respect to the investment strategy of the Norwegian oil fund.  But away from NOK, the G10 is +/- 0.15%, which means it is hard to describe the situation as significant.

In the emerging markets, ZAR (+1.1%) continues to be the most volatile currency around, with daily movements in excess of 1%.  It has become, perhaps, the best sentiment gauge out there.  When investors are feeling good, ZAR is in demand, and it is quick to be sold in the event that risk is under pressure.  CNY (+0.45%) is the next best performer.  This is at odds with what appears to be the PBOC’s intentions as they set the fix at a much weaker than expected 6.7872, or 0.4% weaker than yesterday.  It seems the PBOC may be getting concerned over the speed with which the renminbi has been rising, as in the end, they cannot afford for the currency to appreciate too far.  On the red side of the ledger, KRW and IDR both fell 0.6% last night as risk mitigation was the story at the time.

Aside from Chairman Powell speaking today, we also see Existing Home Sales (exp 6.0M), which if it reaches expectations would be the highest print since 2007.  If risk is back in vogue, then I would look for the dollar to continue to edge lower.  And you can be sure that Chairman Powell will not do anything to upset that apple cart.

Good luck and stay safe
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Pure Satisfaction

This weekend the data released
From China showed growth had increased
The market’s reaction
Was pure satisfaction
With short sellers all getting fleeced

Remember all those concerns over slowing growth around the world as manufacturing data kept slipping to recession-like numbers? Just kidding! Everything in the world is just peachy. At least that seems to be the take from equity markets this morning after Chinese PMI data this weekend surprised one and all by showing a significant rebound. The ‘official’ Manufacturing PMI printed at 50.5, up from 49.2 in February and well above the consensus forecast of 49.5. More importantly, it was on the expansion side of the 50.0 boom/bust line. The non-manufacturing number printed at 54.8, also higher than February (54.3) and consensus expectations of 54.1. Then last night, the Caixin data was released and it, too, showed a much better reading at 50.8, up from 49.9 and above consensus expectations of 50.1. And that’s all it took to confirm the bullish case for equity markets with the Nikkei rising 1.4% and Shanghai up 2.6%. In fairness, we also heard soothing words from Chinese Vice-premier Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator, that he was optimistic a deal would soon be reached, perhaps when he is back in Washington later this week.

What makes this so interesting is that European markets are all rallying as well, albeit not quite as robustly (DAX +1.1%, CAC +0.5%) despite weaker than forecast PMI data there. In fact, German Manufacturing PMI fell to 44.1, its lowest level since July 2012 during the European bond crisis, while the French also missed the mark at 49.7. However, it is becoming evident that we are fast approaching the bad news is good phenomenon we had seen several years ago. You may recall that this is the theory that weak economic data is actually good for equity prices because the central banks will ease policy further, thus increasing inequality and making the rich richer helping to support equity market valuations by adding further liquidity to the system.

It cannot be surprising that in this risk-on festival, the dollar has suffered overnight, falling between 0.2% and 0.5% vs. its G10 counterparts and by similar numbers vs. most of the EMG bloc. In fact, the two notable decliners beyond the dollar have been; TRY, currently down 0.6% (although that is well off its worst levels of -2.0%) after local elections over the weekend showed President Erdogan’s support in the major cities in Turkey has fallen substantially; and the yen, which given the risk-on mindset is behaving exactly as expected. In addition, 10-year Treasury yields have backed up to 2.44% and are no longer inverted vs. the 3-month T-bill, after spending all of last week in that situation.

What should we make of this situation? Is everything in the economy turning better and Q4 simply an aberration? Or is this simply the lash hurrah before the coming apocalypse?

On the positive side is the fact that last year’s efforts by central banks around the world to ‘normalize’ monetary policy is clearly over. ZIRP is the new normal, and quite frankly, it looks like the Fed is going to start heading back in that direction soon. Certainly, the market believes so. And as long as free money exists in the current low inflation environment, equity markets are going to be the main beneficiaries.

On the negative side, the number of red flags raised in the economy continues to increase, and it seems hard to believe that economic growth can continue unabated overall. For example, auto manufacturing has been declining rapidly and the housing market continues to slow sharply. These are two of the largest and most important industries in the US economy, and contraction in either will reduce growth. We are looking at contraction in both, despite interest rates still much closer to historic lows than highs. Remember, both these businesses are credit intensive as almost everyone borrows money to buy a car or a house. As an example of the concerns, auto loan delinquencies are at record levels currently with more than 6.5% overdue by more than 90 days.

Obviously, this is a small sample of the economy, albeit an important one with significant knock-on effects, but at the end of the day, investors continue to take the bullish view. Free money trumps all the potential travails of any particular industry.

It’s funny, because this attitude is what has been increasing the hype for the sexiest new economic views of MMT. After all, isn’t this what we have been seeing for the past decade? Fiscal stimulus paid for by central bank monetization of debt with no consequence. At least no consequences yet. Japan is leading the way in this process and despite a debt/GDP ratio of something like 240%, everybody sees the yen as a safe haven with negative 10-year yields. And arguably, last year’s tax and spending bill in the US alongside the end of policy tightening here, and almost certain future easing, is exactly the same story. Ironically, the Eurozone experiment is going to find itself on the wrong side of this process since member countries ceded their seignorage when they accepted the euro for their own currencies. And who knows, maybe MMT is a more correct description of the world and printing money without end has no negative consequences. I remain skeptical that 10 years of experimental monetary policy in the developed world is sufficient to overturn 300 years of economic history, but I am, by nature, a skeptic. At any rate, right now, the market is embracing the idea which means that equity markets ought to continue to gain, and government bond yields are not destined to rise alongside them.

As we start Q2, we are treated to a bunch of data as well as some more Fedspeak:

Today Retail Sales 0.3%
  -ex autos 0.4%
  ISM Manufacturing 54.5
  Business Inventories 0.5%
Tuesday Durable Goods -1.8%
  -ex transport 0.2%
Wednesday ADP Employment 170K
  ISM non-Manufacturing 58.0
Thursday Initial Claims 216K
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 170K
  Private Payrolls 170K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 10K
  Unemployment Rate 3.8%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.4% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.5

So, on top of Retail Sales and Payroll data, both seen as critical information, we hear from four more Fed speakers during the second half of the week. The thing is, we already know what the Fed’s view is, no rate hikes anytime soon, but it is too soon to consider rate cuts. That is where the data comes in. Any hint of weakness in the data especially Friday’s payroll report, and you can be sure the calls for a rate cut will increase.

Right now, the market feels like the Fed is going to be the initiator of the next set of rate cuts, and so I expect the dollar will be pressured by that view. But remember, if the Fed is cutting, you can be sure every other central bank will be going down that road shortly thereafter.

Good luck
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A Major Mistake

There once was a pundit named Fately
Who asked, is Fed policy lately
A major mistake
Or did Yellen break
The mold? If she did t’was sedately

Please sanction my poetic license by listing Janet Yellen as the primary suspect in my inquiry; it was simply that her name fit within the rhyme scheme better than her fellow central bankers, all of whom acted in the same manner. Of course, I am really discussing the group of Bernanke, Draghi, Kuroda and Carney as well as Yellen, the cabal that decided ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), NIRP (negative interest rate policy) and QE (quantitative easing) made sense.

Recently, there has been a decided uptick in warnings from pundits about how current Fed Chair, Jay Powell, is on the verge of a catastrophic policy mistake by raising interest rates consistently. There are complaints about his plainspoken manner lacking the subtleties necessary to ‘guide’ the market to the correct outcome. In this case, the correct outcome does not mean sustainable economic growth and valuation but rather ever higher equity prices. There are complaints that his autonomic methodology (which if you recall was actually instituted by Yellen herself and simply has been followed by Powell), does not take into account other key issues such as wiggles in the data, or more importantly the ongoing rout in non-US equity markets. And of course, there is the constant complaint from the current denizen of the White House that Powell is undermining the economy, and by extension the stock market, by raising rates. You may have noticed a pattern about all the complaints coming back to the fact that Powell’s policy actions are no longer supporting the stock markets around the world. Curious, no?

But I think it is fair to ask if Powell’s policies are the mistake, or if perhaps, those policies he is unwinding, namely QE and ZIRP, were the mistakes. After all, in the scope of history, today’s interest rates remain exceedingly low, somewhere in the bottom decile of all time as can be seen in Chart 1 below.

5000 yr interest rate chart

So maybe the mistake was that the illustrious group of central bankers mentioned above chose to maintain these extraordinary monetary policies for nearly a decade, rather than begin the unwinding process when growth had recovered several years after the recession ended. As the second chart shows, the Fed waited seven years into a recovery before beginning the process of slowly unwinding what had been declared emergency policy measures. Was it really still an emergency in 2015, six years after the end of the recession amid 2.0% GDP growth, which caused the Fed to maintain a policy stance designed to address a severe recession?

Chart 2

real gdp growth

My point is simply that any analysis of the current stance of the Federal Reserve and its current policy trajectory must be seen in the broader context of not only where it is heading, but from whence it came. Ten years of extraordinarily easy monetary policy has served to build up significant imbalances and excesses throughout financial markets. Consider the growth in leveraged loans, especially covenant lite ones, corporate debt or government debt, all of which are now at record levels, as key indicators of the current excesses. The history of economics is replete with examples of excesses leading to shakeouts throughout the world. The boom and bust cycle is the very essence of Schumpeterian capitalism, and as long as we maintain a capitalist economy, those cycles will be with us.

The simple fact is that every central bank is ‘owned’ by its government, and has been for the past thirty years at least. (Paul Volcker is likely the last truly independent Fed Chair we have had, although Chairman Powell is starting to make a name for himself.) And because of that ownership, every central bank has sought to keep rates as low as possible for as long as possible to goose growth above trend. In the past, although that led to excesses, the downturns tended to be fairly short, and the rebounds quite robust. However, the advent of financial engineering has resulted in greater and greater leverage throughout the economy and correspondingly bigger potential problems in the next downturn. The financial crisis was a doozy, but I fear the next one, given the massive growth in debt outstanding, will be much worse.

At that point, I assure you that the first person who will be named as the culprit for ‘causing’ the recession will be Jay Powell. My point here is that, those fingers need to be pointed at Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi, Carney and Kuroda, as it was their actions that led to the current significantly imbalanced economy. The next recession will have us longing for the good old days of 2008 right after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the political upheaval that will accompany it, or perhaps follow immediately afterwards, is likely to make what we are seeing now seem mild. While my crystal ball does not give me a date, it is becoming abundantly clear that the date is approaching far faster than most appreciate.

Be careful out there. Markets and politics are going to become much more volatile over the next several years.

One poet’s view!

Trembling With Fear

The one thing increasingly clear
Is markets are trembling with fear
As stock markets tumble
Most central banks fumble
Their message, then get a Bronx cheer

Being a central banker has become much more difficult recently, especially in the wake of yesterday’s global equity market rout. It seems that policies that they have collectively promulgated, QE and ZIRP/NIRP are now quite long in the tooth, and no longer having the positive impact desired. Let’s recap quickly.

The Great recession in 2008 called for an extraordinary monetary response by central banks around the world, and rightly so. The deepest recession since the Great Depression saw liquidity across many markets completely dry up. Even FX, arguably the most liquid market of them all, had structural problems. So the combination of QE and USD swap lines offered by the Fed to the rest of the world’s central banks was an appropriate response to help untangle the mess. Alas, fiscal policy never chipped in to the recovery and central banks took it upon themselves to do all the lifting, thus relieving governments of the need to make hard decisions. In hindsight, this was a key mistake!

Fast forward ten years to today and the situation, remarkably, is that most of that extraordinary monetary stimulus is still sloshing around the world as other than the Fed and the Bank of Canada (who raised rates yesterday and indicated they would be quickening the pace of doing so in the future), no other major central bank has done anything of note. The ECB, the BOJ and the PBOC are all still adding liquidity to their systems, while the BOE has raised rates just 25bps, net, from the lows established after the crisis. And the same is true of peripheral nations like Switzerland, Sweden and Australia, where interest rates remain at their post crisis nadirs (-0.75%, -0.50% and 1.50% respectively).

The problem for these central banks is that growth is starting to slow on a global basis. Whether it is the increased trade friction between the US and China, concerns over Brexit or simply that the US recovery (which still arguably drives most of the global economy) is now the longest on record and due to end, the situation is increasingly fraught. And that’s the rub. If interest rates are already negative, what can central banks do to stimulate the economy in the event of a recession? The answer, of course, is not much. More QE and even deeper negative interest rates are unlikely to have the same positive impact the first efforts had, in fact they could have the opposite effect by generating greater concern amongst investors and causing a more severe sell-off in markets. But politically, no central bank will be able to sit by and do nothing if a recession does appear. As I said, central banking has become much more difficult lately.

That is all a preamble to discuss what is going on in markets right now. FX is a backburner issue with equities front and center around the world. While European markets have stabilized at this time, one session of stability is not sufficient to declare an end to the rout. In the end, markets remain beholden to broad sentiment, the narrative if you will, and for the past ten years that narrative was that continued low inflation combined with steady growth would allow the central banks to maintain ultra easy monetary policy with no negative side effects. But in the past year, the cracks in that narrative have grown to the point where it is no longer seen as viable. First, inflation has begun to creep higher in certain areas around the world, notably the US and China. At the same time, growth data appears to have peaked last quarter. Tomorrow we will see the first estimate of Q3 GDP growth in the US (exp 3.3%), which is already considerably lower than Q2. In addition, we have seen Chinese growth slow more than expected and German growth fall to 0.0% in Q3. The combination of rising inflation and slower growth has put central banks in a bind forcing them to choose which issue to address first. The problem is by addressing one they are likely to exacerbate the other. So as the Fed fights threats of higher inflation, it impedes growth. Meanwhile, China has opted to support growth, thus feeding faster inflation. In the end, as the next recession looms closer, central banks will find themselves with fewer policy arrows in their quiver.

But this is an FX note, so let’s take a quick look at the market this morning. The dollar is a touch softer, with both the euro and the pound higher by 0.15% while we are seeing similar moves in most emerging market currencies. Activity in the market seems muted relative to the excitement in equities, but my sense is this will not last. Rather, if the equity sell-off continues, the dollar should find itself in a much stronger position. As to the stories that have been driving things in FX, the Italian budget, Brexit, central bank policies, there have been no real changes in the past twenty-four hours. The possible exception is that the interest rate futures market in the US has removed one price hike from the Fed’s expected path as concern grows that a continues slide in the stock market will lead to weaker growth and less need to keep driving rates higher. It seems that the Fed realizes that it began its tightening process far too late (thank you Chair Yellen!) and is now desperately trying to catch up so they can respond to the next downturn. But hey, the ECB is MUCH further behind.

Looking forward to today’s session, we start with the ECB meeting, where they announced no change in policy rates, but we still await Signor Draghi’s press conference at 8:30. It will be interesting if he continues to characterize the Eurozone economy risks as balanced, or if the downside risks are now elevated. If the latter, look for the euro to decline sharply! We also get US data including Durable Goods (exp -1.0%, ex transport +0.5%) and the Goods Trade Balance (-$74.9B). Yesterday’s New Home Sales data was awful, just 553K, well below expectations, and another sign that parts of the economy here are rolling over. I still don’t believe that the data turn has been enough to change the Fed’s mind about a December rate hike, but if numbers start to fall, watch out. Tomorrow’s GDP print will be quite important to the market. But today, I think the ECB dominates the story.

Good luck
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