Weeks Left of Liquidity, A Laundry List of Unresolved Fundamental Threats
We have officially closed out November Friday and we are now heading into the final month of the trading year. Historically, December is one of the most reserved months of the calendar year with strong positive returns for benchmark risk assets like the S&P 500 along with a sharp drop in volume and significant drop in traditional volatility measures (like the VIX index). There is a natural, structural reason for this moderation. The abundance of market holidays, tax strategies and open windows for various funds all contribute to this norm. That said, there is another element that plays as significant a role in the seasonal pattern as any practical influence – if not more – and that is habit. Mere anticipation of quiet during this period does as much to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy as the practical developments of the period. Yet, assumptions of quiet when the market as a whole – and most traders individually – have so much exposure to surprise financial squalls would be particularly poor risk management.
Looking ahead, it is first important to assess the practical time lines of full liquidity. The next two weeks (the first half of December) are only sheltered from unforeseen storms by expectations alone. It would be prudent to at least be engaged and dynamic in the markets through this period. The third week of the month will see position squaring take its toll on speculative positioning and liquidity. This is a useful time as we can establish where investors believe the most aggressive risk exposure is held (‘risk on’ or ‘risk off’) as they unwind anything with a shorter-duration holding period. Through the final full week of the year, the markets will be severely drained by market closures and limited time and market depth to meet the tax and portfolio redistribution windows. To general a strong market move – trend or even a severe drive – would take an exceptionally disruptive event for the financial system. I am concerned over the complacency in the market, but not so apprehensive as to believe we will tip the beginning of a lasting financial crisis through the final week of the year – and yes, it would be a bearish run if anything as there is virtually no chance of a sudden wave of greed that will bring investors back to such a fragmented and thin market.
That said, there is still plenty of potential/risk that conditions could deteriorate exponentially through the first half of the month owing to the convergence of structural and seasonal circumstances. In general, a near-decade of uninterrupted speculative advance has started to lose traction as market participants have recognized their dependence on extreme but limited monetary policy, the growth of securitized leverage and sheer self-enforcing momentum. In 2018, we have seen conviction built on that unreliable mix start to falter with severe bouts of momentum in February and October with sizable aftershocks in March and November. This speaks to the underlying conditions in the market that could fuel a sweeping fire if properly ignited by any of a number of systemic threats that we are tracking across the global markets. Trade wars, Fed policy, convergence of global monetary policy, lowered growth forecasts, breaks in trade relationship (Brexit, Italy, US,etc) and other issues are systemic threats that have gained some measure of purchase these past months. If there were a sudden panic spurred by recession fears for example, then the drain on liquidity naturally associated with this time of year could in turn amplify fear into a full-blown panic with systemic deleveraging into 2019.
Now Everything Fed-Related Carries More Consequence
There has been a notable shift in Fed policy intent, and the markets will be engrossed with interrupting exactly what this course correction will mean for the capital markets. Though there has been subtle evidence of a waning conviction in pace for some weeks, FOMC Chair Jerome Powell made it explicit (well, as explicit as their careful control of forward guidance would allow) in his prepared speech on the bond markets in which he remarked that the group was perhaps closer to its neutral rate than previously expected. Now, some would say that is merely practical observation that after three rate hikes in 2018, they have closed in on their projected ‘neutral rate’ range of 2.50 to 3.50 percent. We could still keep pace and extend the most hawkish forecasts and hit the top end of that scale. That is true, but we have to remember what the central bank’s primary monetary policy tool has been over the past half-decade.
It hasn’t been changes to the benchmark rate or adjustments to the balance sheet but rather forward guidance. They have gone to exceptional lengths to signal their policy intent without making promises for the course so that they could back away from extreme easing without triggering a speculative panic based on exposure leveraged by years of excess backed by the vaunted ‘central bank put’. If so much effort is being put into this tool, then changes should be taken seriously rather than downplayed for convenience of a comfortable trading assumption. If there was intent behind the subtle change in rhetoric, it is an effort to acclimate the markets in advance of an event whereby the forecast will be delivered in black-and-white without the ability to establish nuance before the market’s respond with speculative shock (an event like the December 19 rate decision whereby the Summary of Economic Projections will make explicit the rate forecasts).
If indeed this is the objective to temper the market before the frank forecast is offered, then each speaking engagement and key data update between now and then will carry greater consequence. In the week ahead, we have Powell testifying before the Joint Economic Committee, which is a perfect opportunity to slightly extend the effort to make its intentions known. Recognition of this undertaking is the first step. Establishing what it means for the Dollar with rate premium and risk trends that have found confidence in the central bank’s reassurances will be critical.
G20 Aftermath Produces an Official Communique and US-China Trade War Pause
Pop the corks. The G20 has agreed to an official communique while the US and Chinese Presidents made a breakthrough on the escalation of their escalating trade war. Yet, before we over-indulge in risk exposure build up, we should perhaps look further ahead to the hangover that confidence in which this development is likely to lead us. Typically, an official press briefing that all the leaders agree to (dubbed the ‘communique’) is routine. However, with the rise of populism in the global rank and subsequent deterioration of relationships, simply signing off a commitment to shared goals of growth and stability has become an exceptional milestone. The leading consensus heading into this gathering in Argentina was that no official briefing would be released as the United States would not approve anything that would set its America-first agenda into a negative light. Further, China would not sign off on a statement that cast its own policies as unfair trade.
Perhaps recognizing the deteriorating sentiment amongst businesses, investors and consumers globally; the other parties would not demand these inclusions as protest for making so little traction with their constant protests. The indirect references to US and Chinese policies were left out. That is not genuine progress but simply self-preservation. As for the more remarkable ‘breakthrough’ in US and Chinese relations, the countries’ leaders found enough common ground to compromise a pause in the rapid escalation of their trade war. For discussing key economic issues between the two countries, the US agreed to delay the increase in its tariff rate on $200 billion in Chinese imports from 10 to 25 percent due previously to take effect on January 1st. The threat made by President in the weeks preceding this gathering of adding another $267 billion in Chinese goods to the tax list didn’t seem to warrant specific reference – perhaps as a backdoor strategy or because it would assumed to be included.
This is a pause in the escalation of activities rather than a genuine path back to a state of normalcy where collective growth is the foundation for the global economy. This is the bare minimum for registering an ‘improvement’ in relations, and it will be this thin veneer of progress that will truly test the market’s appetite to source anything of ancillary value to build up speculative exposure. I doubt this will inspire a true effort to significantly build up exposure in these unsteady times. In years past, such a development may have spurred the next leg of a yield chase; but recognition of the risk/reward imbalance is far too prominent nowadays. The question is how long this pause in an explicit outlet of fear lasts? Long enough to carry us through the end of the year? We’ll find out soon enough.