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US elections, a round of rate decisions, global disputes - DFX Key Themes

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JohnDFX

Remove the Political Bias, Focus on the Volatility 

There has been plenty of political risk keeping the markets at a steady simmer these past months. Some situations like Italy’s budget stand-off with the European Union and the Brexit negotiations are more overt concerns. However, the general rise of populism and the erosion of cross border diplomacy (trade wars, sanctions, failed trade deals, etc) represents a more systemic risk. Yet, despite the ubiquity of this fundamental influence, there is an explicit focus on this theme through the coming week in the form of the United States’ mid-term election. The discourse in the country has become toxic, which will leverage the domestic market’s attention and ensure a broad evaluation of influence to encompass the factors that can steer the economy. Further, given the pressure the United States has exerted on the rest of the world via tariffs and sanctions largely via the Trump Administration’s executive powers, the election takes on global significance. 

While there is little doubt that the world is watching, there is considerable ambiguity over exactly how it will impact the markets. With tariffs or another break down in Brexit negotiations, it is easy to draw the lines to market influence. In the US election, there is far more social stake and clash of personalities than direct financial implication. That is not to say the ultimate effect on the economy and market are not significant – they are. However, it can be difficult to separate these elements. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we do so. The foundation of successful investing is removing emotion from the equation as much as possible. Besides religion, there is probably nothing more likely to elicit emotion than politics. When we put aside the anger and mania that radiates out from this event, we are left with few possible scenarios that can translate into key domestic and global policies that can impact the markets (see Christopher Vecchio’s article on this for more detail). This election will only translate to the legislative branch when we account for federal reach on key positions. 

If the Republican party retains both the Senate and the House, that would be seen as the ‘status quo’ as it presents continuity to the situation we’ve had this past two years. It is far from a happy and functional government, but it would still be possible to generate short-term growth via a planned second tax cut plan and perhaps reviving the discussion of an infrastructure spending program. Yet, the growing debt load over the long-term paired against the risk of a slowing economy will loom. If the one or both of the houses of Congress flip to a Democrat majority, pressure will increase significantly. That will lead to difficult progress on programs and likely lead the President to fall back on executive powers to approximate his desires. Overall, that will punctuate the uncertainty and volatility in the markets moving forward – perhaps securing and hastening a more systemic risk aversion for which the market has been threatening since February. 

The Asymmetric Potential in the Fed, RBA and RBNZ Rate Decisions 

When there is an event like the US mid-term elections on the docket, it is easy to overlook event risk that is scheduled for release after – and even before – the systemic distraction. Exploiting a very different theme of speculative interest and source of growing concern over the coming week are three major central banks’ rate decisions. Each is expected to end in no actual change to their benchmark rate or other unorthodox policies, but the market is effectively tuned to the nuance for which they were reference in their accompanying reports. Before we consider the potential of each, it is important to consider the wholesale influence that they have on financial system. Whether individual market participants appreciate it or not, the stability and reach of their markets are heavily dependent on the extremely accommodative policies the major central banks have committed to over the years. 

The abundance of cheap funds has lowered the assumption of risk while also deflating the rate of return – necessitating riskier and leveraged exposure in order to make a competitive rate of return. That translates into considerable risk taking. Should the spectrum continue to slowly shift away from easing to early tightening – following the lead of the Fed – the more readily the masses will recognize the risk in their exposure. That will raise the sensitivity to risk trends and encourage de-risking that can accelerate into a crisis. As for the individual events themselves, the Federal Reserve’s decision will garner the greatest global attention. Despite – or perhaps exactly because of – the Fed’s tempo of tightening, the market’s do not expect a hike at this meeting. The fourth hike the majority of the FOMC forecasted in the September SEP was given a December timetable by the market’s. No change, but language that confirms a fourth hike would leave the Fed untouchable as the most hawkish central bank for carry purposes, but the market will treat it as status quo. The most feasible surprise would come in more restrained language that would curb established rate expectations which would in turn sink the Dollar (and likely risk trends). 

In contrast, the Australian (RBA) and New Zealand (RBNZ) policy events are expected to end with no change and language that reflects the same ‘neutral with a modest dovishness’ that they have maintained for the past few years. Both the Australian and New Zealand Dollars have deflated for months to the point where they have significantly reduced their responsiveness to their detrimental yield bearing. Even if the groups raised the stakes on their dovish views, it would likely translate into a small market response. Alternatively, should they offer any improvement in their view and possible intentions, there would be a disproportionate rally from their currencies. 

He Said, He Said: US-China Trade War, Brexit, Italy 

Though we do not have the benefit of specific events and time frames on updates for some of the other more systemic concerns lurking in the financial system, that doesn’t make them any less potent a threat. Though the coming week, there are three general themes of ongoing concern that will remain on my radar. The First is the US-China trade wars. This situation has managed to avoid a clear path much less a genuine resolution to the point that markets are starting to grow wary of any remarks that could be considered signs of an improved path. This past week, we were reminded of the importance of this cold economic war when conflicting views were espoused – this time on the same side of the negotiation table. The US President voiced his optimism that a corner was turned in the negotiations after a call with his Chinese counterpart with reports that he had called on his cabinet to draft a proposal to find a solution. That helped extend the capital markets’ rebound. Yet, that optimism was quickly muted when Trump’s chief economic adviser said he was not given direction to come up with a plan and that he was less confident about the future of the relationship than he was in previous months. And, just to ensure we were fully confused on the point, the President made further remarks soon after the adviser reiterating his initial statement. 

Look for any mentions of production discussions before the G20 summit over the coming week first as campaign rhetoric and after the election as planning. Across the pond, the Brexit situation seems to find itself steeped back into despair after brief interludes of optimism charged by supposed progress. At this point, the holdup is finding agreement on the UK’s side. Last week, the earlier reports that the Prime Minister was willing to make concessions on an important point of disagreement to make a breakthrough, progress yet again stalled as her cabinet revolted. There is a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Theresa May will need to get an agreement from her own government under the new parameters whittled down with the last EU Summit rejection. In the background, there are rumors that a solution is being honed in on, but their rhetoric in public certainly isn’t doing them any favors in market and business sentiment terms. 

Then there is the clear contrast in perspective between the Italian government and other European Union leaders. There is no ambiguity in this contentious disagreement. Italian leaders have repeatedly committed to increase spending well beyond what the EU considers acceptable. European leaders and central bank members have shown little interest in making an exception to the austerity rules for the region (and a backstop should market’s punish Italy in the latter’s case) for fear of losing stability internal and confidence externally. If capitulation is not found from one side, there is really no alternative solution as they head towards an existential crisis for another member finding its way out of the Union. And, unlike the UK, Italy is more deeply integrated as a member of the monetary agreement that shares the same central bank and currency. 

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