Markets Heading into October and the Fourth Quarter
With this past Friday, we closed out week, month and quarter. The shortest measure was a period of consolidation for most assets – from the top performing US equity indices to the EURUSD’s make over break technical move to trade back into range. More impressive for its deviation from character (statistical norm) was the performance for the month of September. Historically, this period is one of significant upheaval for the capital markets (see the attached images). Using the S&P 500 as the imperfect standard bearer, September is historically the only month that has averaged a loss in the calendar year as volume picks up and volatility measures rise. That clearly was the case for 2018 and it also wasn’t true of 2017. Using the same study to evaluate October, it would suggest that significant gains are ahead for October. However, if one month’s average can deviate from the norm, so can any other’s – there is a reason it is called the law of averages.
Statistically, the range of the samples for the monthly performance for the benchmark is wide in signal. For measures of activity – via volume for the same index and volatility from the VIX – there is far less ‘spread’ in the readings. Volume rises through the month of October as the post-Summer lull and pre-holiday trade period draws in active market participants looking to weigh in on market direction. Volatility similarly peaks in October historically, which makes an interesting combination of circumstances. Traditionally, volatility rises as risk aversion kicks in while a rise in volume behind market moves frequently signals commitment to trend. Of course, how the market commits depends on what is motivating capital distribution (positioning).
It is possible to see assets with a ‘risk’ bearing bid as there is a host of assets that currently stand at a significant discount to the S&P 500’s record high. An ‘idolizing’ speculative play would depend on complacency and the avoidance of possible disruptions from the fundamental current. To propose a windfall improvement in economic and investment circumstances in the multi-speed environment with protectionism continuously rising is an approach akin to passing through the eye of a needle. Spinning our wheels around current levels is certainly a high probability given the market’s penchant for the status quo, but it is difficult to miss the laundry list of troubles we have yet to reconcile. With trade wars escalating and political risks growing (US election cycle, UK government fracturing over Brexit approach, EU facing another budgetary rebel), we should keep track of scheduled and ‘mundane’ influences like GDP readings as if they are asteroids that we discover are on a collision course with the planet.
A Two Speed Trade War the Break in the Clouds?
The updates on trade wars for the new week offer a modicum of hope that we can stave off an utter collapse into a global economic conflict. Yet, with so much riding on a steady bearing of economic activity, avoidance of financial troubles amid monetary policy normalization and even the whims of a single powerful individual (the US President); it would be careless to put so much faith into apathy. Between the United States and China there is as yet no sign of improvement – nor even a let up from further escalation of force. Following the United States implementation of a further range of tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese goods and China’s $60 billion rejoinder, the situation has been in negotiation limbo.
An effort to revive talks seems to have hit the skids and the only sliver of solace is that President Trump didn’t move immediately to execute his threat for a further $267 billion duty on its largest economic counterpart should it retaliate against the latest effort – which of course, it did. Perhaps the smaller response has bought them relief, but the ideological belief for both of these countries as to their righteous efforts likely leads this particular course to a ‘total’ engagement. We will soon run out of room to add more items to the tax list. New policy outlets will need to be explored, and they will either be ignored by the markets and populations which will only encourage desperation for those looking to exact pain in order to force capitulation or it will exact the intended pain. Either way, it ends in the same economic trouble. Of course, as far as this pain is isolated to these two countries, the better off the world will be.
This past week, Japanese Prime Minister Abe managed to elicit the same vow from President Trump that EU President Juncker earned: no new import taxes so long as discussions continue. Of course, the US already slapped tariffs on both region’s steel and aluminum imports, but they may let that go so as not to provoke further lash out. Yet, progress will likely lack until there is some tangible blood sacrifice to appease the Trump administration’s demands for more favorable trade conditions. Meanwhile, the effort to steer the NAFTA deal to a successful conclusion is the most encouraging corner of this global pressure. Yet again, language this weekend has tempted hope that a deal is close at hand, but investors are acutely aware that the suggestion of a proximate deal were raised and dashed multiple times over the past week. If an agreement does go through, other US counterparts will evaluate what was agreed to as a template for charting their own course to a resolution.
What is Driving the Dollar = What Can Drive the World
What is driving the US Dollar? I like to keep particularly close tabs on markets or benchmarks that are at the center of so many overlapping fundamental considerations. Over the past months and years, I have paid particularly close attention to the S&P 500, gold, USDJPY and others for their ability not to cue trade opportunities of their own but rather to act as signal for the system at large. At present, the Greenback reflects that ‘deep cut’ market perspective that can offer seismic shift for the financial system at large. Starting from the most recent of the rapidly growing fundamental concerns, political uncertainty is moving out of the tabloid-like headlines into the tangible expectations of an impending mid-term election. We are six weeks out from the polls opening, and the country and world are even more on edge than usual for the event. Partisan appetites and beliefs should be kept out of our evaluation or market effect, rather it is the sense of uncertainty that breeds concern for the financial system. A turn in either of the houses can make an already difficult-to-operate government virtually grind to a halt.
Meanwhile, the ongoing trade war may be multi-faceted and hosting many different participants, but there is an easily recognizable common denominator amid all of it: the US. Not content to lead the world to general growth, the country has pressured its trade partners to sacrifice some of their own advantages to accelerate its own pace. There is little doubt that its size could be used to leverage capitulation from a few counterparts, but engaging a host of the world’s largest players runs the risk of a collaborative retaliation or simple an effort to reduce exposure to avoid themselves being held hostage so readily again in the future. That would be a significant and permanent downgrade to the United States’ financial position and its currency. Of course, it is possible that all of these countries yield – but what is the probability of that? And, lest we forget, there are also traditional fundamental themes that are as-yet resolved of the US.
The Fed continues to push forward with a policy effort clearly set to normalization with steady hikes and reduction in balance sheet. After the last Fed hike, the central bank made it known that it expects to hike again in December and three more times in 2019. That can be encouraging from a carry perspective, but it doesn’t bode well for markets that depend on low lending rates such as corporate debt and real estate. Higher yields to be found in the US relative to other countries is appealing only so long as the markets are set to unhindered risk appetite. Yet, with dollar-denominated loans for areas like the emerging markets seeing rates soar to tip nonperforming loans, this divergence from the world norm can be the spark for its own immolation.