Another ‘Brexit Breakthrough’ Falls Apart
Yet another potential breakthrough in the Brexit stalemate seemed to be hashed out at the beginning of this past week following hours of legal negotiation and closed doors discussions. Supposedly, a draft bill was worked out that both the Prime Minister and top European Union negotiators were comfortable moving forward with. If there were only two parties which needed to be satisfied in this divorce, that would be that. However, there are multiple parties whose needs in this debate are collectively at opposite ends of the spectrum. And, that inability to satisfy all these necessary groups once again torpedoed hope of progress. After hours of one-on-one meetings with her cabinet, the PM announced that she had received the support of her council only to see the foundation crumble again when a number of her senior cabinet members suddenly resign. And so, the confusion remains and time to work out a viable solution winds closer and closer to zero. It is important to remember the complexity involved in withdrawing from the EU – a move that has never happened in the collective’s history. Approval of the deal is only the first stage. Consent needs to be offered by all member governments and the technical steps need to be implemented in preparation for the first day of the actual split (March 29, 2019).
So, even though politicians continue to voice optimism and time, the reality is that their initial assessment was the deal was necessary months ago in order to facilitate a reasonable transition. Moving forward, each week that passes without agreement is going to be met with exponentially greater concern by global investors and businesses. Inevitably, to make the critical breakthrough, one of the major vested parties will need to capitulate on a key point of their position. Remaining in the customs union for the indefinite future for work around on the Irish border is one primary sticking point. It remains an outcome of a hard break or soft withdrawal that keeps the United Kingdom one foot in the Union against the wishes of the Brexit supporters with a black-and-white interpretation of the referendum back in 2016. In my view, there are two general outcomes for this standoff: a compromise or no deal. There are many different possible variants for how the separation can look – with their pros and cons, virtues and vices. Yet, each would represent a plan.
Alternatively, a failure to find common ground will disadvantage the United Kingdom and the European Union (more the former than the latter if you really want to keep score). An agreement – any agreement – is needed to prevent a European crisis from developing. And, a crash out would almost certainly start a crisis for the region. Global economic and financial conditions are already tenuous as it is with numerous other threats prodding our over-inflated, speculative balloon including trade wars, Italy threatening EU fiscal stability and recognition of the limits of effectiveness for global monetary policy. A recession-inducing and short-term credit crisis arising from a messy break in this event is certainly one of catalysts broad and acute enough to start the wheels turning on a global scale.
Remembering the Volatility and Volume Relationship for Thanksgiving
We are heading into a known draw in global liquidity this week. The Thanksgiving holiday is distinctly a US market closure, but the break in liquidity from a major financial hub is so well-known – and inconvenient – that the world tends to accommodate the drop in market depth. There is an important measure of habit that fulfills seasonal expectations in performance and activity level year in and year out. If you believe a speculative run that is starting to form will hit a road block because the subsequent session will drain half of the world’s liquidity, would you take the outsized risk exposure in hopes that the drive is so remarkable that it will overcome the disruption? There is one particular scenario for which I believe that an exception to establish an explicit trend despite a thinned market would actually occur: a panic-induced risk aversion.
Greed is difficult to gain foothold as opportunities are not often seen as so fleeting as to require such a quick reaction as to override a contented sideline exposure. That said, a sudden crash in the market that puts in jeopardy a fund manager’s or individual’s capital can certainly override confidence in a quick burn. Ultimately, there is a distinct relationship between volatility and volume – or, in more universal abstracts activity level and participation. In a bit of a ‘chicken and the egg’ parable, it is somewhat self-evident that volatility and volume move hand in hand; but not which leads the other. So long as there isn’t an overwhelming threat to the global financial system for which European, Asia and North and South Americans (who are not the US) are driven to flee regardless of America’s participation; the low volume will inspire low volatility.
And, for those that have not kept tabs on the VIX or other implied volatility measures, this aspect of the market is considered a ‘risk’ measure with an inverse correlation to benchmark capital market exposure like a long equities index position. If, on the other hand, there is a sharp increase in volatility, it will either draw more volume in to facilitate the development of a trend or cause an extreme response in the market similar to a tsunami gaining height as the water’s depth decreases heading into shore. Normally, I would be little concerned about conditions ahead, but given the list of systemic threats that circle just outside of the market’s comfort zone, it would be risky to assume quiet.
A Trade Deal – No Trade Deal – No Credibility
It is getting difficult to believe updates on the United States’ position in the global financial system and the prospects of the country’s growth moving forward. It has been a feature of the landscape for years (well into the past administration) to see the promise of an economic improvement crushed by political gridlock. However, the defusing of confidence is happening more rapidly, arising from within a single party and the stakes have grown so much larger through subsequent years of speculative build up. A good example is the infrastructure program that has been touted since the 2016 Presidential campaign for which both Republican and Democratic front-runners vowed to pursue to accelerate growth. Now passed the mid-terms, we have not seen progress made on the fiscal stimulus (though the tax reform and regulatory rollback did earn some points for the buoyancy).
President Trump referenced his willingness to return to the effort this past month, but Senate leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on market hopes when he said the program would not be considered unless it paid for itself – very difficult to do after a tax cut. An infrastructure bill would be an ‘addition to the economic outlook’, while an end to the trade war would reflect the ‘removal of a threat’. Said removal has been something the market has harbored some measure of hope would occur and likely one of the key reasons risk assets like US equities have not imploded. Trump seemed to give traction to that confidence earlier this month when he said that progress was being made in negotiations with China and a deal was on the way after a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi. The rally that followed those remarks however were quickly stifled when his chief economic advisor outright contradicted the President’s assessment and instead said he was even more concerned about the future than he was previously.
One false dawn is enough to undermine the market’s confidence in taking such remarks in the future at face value, but a second time within a few weeks will almost ensure it. This past week, Trump again said a deal would be done with a short list of items left to work out and the need to apply the last tranche of tariffs against the country perhaps not necessary. Before those remarks could take any serious traction, White House officials followed up by saying the market should not read into his remarks. They seemed self-explanatory with no interpretation necessary, so the check reads as outright contraction – a move that will certainly curb the use of forward guidance into the future. If you want to see the fallout from losing the ability to direct market’s to views for the future, look to Japan or Switzerland.