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Technical and fundamental bearish bias; ECB edges up currency wars; UK's next Brexit votes

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JohnDFX

Fed Sets the Tone for Global Monetary Policy Expectations

Global monetary policy trends have shifted towards a more accommodative stance as forecasts for economic activity have stuttered and worries of ‘external risks’ have gained traction. This has sharpened the relative value of currencies as market dig into the grey areas trying to determine which groups are taking greater strides to loosen than their peers. However, it is crucial that all investors – no matter your preferred market nor time frame – keep sight of the collective impact the world’s central bank effort has on the health of the economy and stability of the financial system. While there has certainly been a boost to economic activity and all of its trappings through this past decade’s bull trend, there is undoubtedly a divergence between the extraordinary performance of capital benchmarks like the US equity indices and the more tepid clip of expansion we have registered lately. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the past four to five years of speculative abundance was chiefly the work of the largest monetary policy groups. The course change towards halting normalization efforts and entertaining further easing looks to tap some of the speculative magic of the past, but there is a definitive diminishing returns to successive waves of support. 

From central banks like the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and European Central Bank (ECB), the limitations are more overt as the scale of easing grows exorbitant. The BOJ for example owns an extraordinary percentage of the country’s ETF market and in turn holds an astounding amount of its capital market. That smacks more of desperation than safety net, and other regions are at risk of shifting to that unflattering distinction. Just how precarious that balance is finds more distinctive measure not at the most dovish end of the curve, but rather the most hawkish. The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) two-day policy meeting will conclude on Wednesday with no anticipation of a rate hike to follow on the ambitious pace of 2018. In fact, looking at Fed Fund futures, the market is pricing in a slight probability of a 25 basis point cut to the 2.25-2.50 percent range. The group’s view of the future is where the market will set its focus. This is one of the ‘quarterly’ meetings for which we are due the Chairman’s  press conference and the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). In the December update, the median forecast set expectations for 50 basis points of tightening this year (two standard rate hikes). Given the rhetoric used by most officials of late, that forecast is likely to drop at least one hike and could very well put even one move in 2019 under serious debate. If there is still a forecast for two, expect the Dollar to jump as the market has fully written off any moves (with nearly a 40 percent chance of a cut priced in by year’s end according to futures). 

The monetary policy statement and Chairman Powell’s remarks will offer important insight into the plans for the balance sheet reduction effort. We have already seen indication that they are planning on throttling the effort soon which will cap longer dated rates in the market – which will also mean rates of return will flag. Is this backing away from a tighter policy setting more supportive of economic activity or more troubling as clear indication that the world is in need of external support – support that is exceptionally limited compared to the past? Meanwhile, we are also due the Bank of England (BOE) rate decision which will be a conduit for Brexit uncertainties for better or worse. The Swiss National Bank’s (SNB) policy is a more extreme example of desperate policy that has lost traction, so its only true insight into global perspective is to amplify fears that the guardians of stability have failed. It is further worth registering what the Brazilian and Russian central banks do with their own policies as the emerging market draws direct connection to US health and risk trends register far more readily here. 

Trade Wars are Increasingly an Underappreciated Threat 

There is a hierarchy of systemic themes that rotates in its influence over the global markets and its participants. ‘Basic’ appreciation of economic potential was the focus these past two or three weeks owing to targeted economic data and troubling forecasts (such as China’s lowered target for the coming year at its National People’s Congress). Attention on this particular intersection of market-wide health will not simply vanish – we have important measures to contribute to forecasts like the Fed’s GDP forecasts and March PMIs on Friday – but appreciation will likely soften as catalysts offer a more obvious update. Monetary policy will offer the most tangible impact on a fundamental basis, but there is another theme that has garnered less attention of late but which should not be forgotten: trade wars. The course for competitive economic policies via trade pacts has shown definitive improvement in the status quo from six or nine months ago. 

The outright US-China trade war has seen the course of steady escalation frozen by the Trump administration as they continue to negotiate towards structure improvement as well as balance of consumption equity. Of course, the President’s threats that they could walk away if the deal is not favorable and President Xi’s calls for a clear time frame remind us that this is not a done deal. Another assumed reversal of fortune that is once again raising concern comes from the revamped relationship between the United States, Mexico and Canada. The replacement of the NAFTA accord with the USMCA deal was considerable relief for Mexico and Canada while simultaneously promoted as a success for the Trump Administration’s appetite for aggressive negotiations to hash out trade deals. That bargain is starting to come under significant pressure however as Congress threatens to scuttle what was agreed to amongst the three countries’ negotiation teams. Where we are already in the weeds on these two fronts of US trade, the threat of new economic conflicts garner even less appreciation. 

That is extremely shortsighted given the financial repercussions of the past year to the other efforts and the volatile nature of dealing with the US. A month ago, the US Commerce Department delivered its findings on an auto tariff probe that it conducted at the behest of the White House. We don’t know the results of that report and the President still has two months to decide whether to pursue something. However, we have seen explicit threats by the White House against countries with perceived unfair trade advantages for their auto industries – as well as vows of large scale retaliation by those in the crosshairs. If the President considers dealings with the USCMA and China a success, it is more likely that they pursue the same line on autos, particularly should political popularity rankings flag and/or domestic economic activity measures continue to crawl. 

A Third Meaningful Vote and an Update on Brexit Scenarios

I don’t think anyone will miss Brexit when it is done. Nonetheless, we need to keep close tabs on its progress as it continues its uncontrolled tumble down the hill. This past week was loaded with votes – and subsequently volatility. Prime Minister Theresa May put up a rejiggered proposal for vote in Parliament this past Tuesday and the MPs dismissed it outright once again – though this iteration wasn’t a record-breaking defeat for the PM. That in turn led to the debates this past Wednesday which resulted in a decision to direct May to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario at all costs, which definitively beats back the range of uncertainty inherent in this saga. Sterling traders took notice as we saw GBPUSD produce its largest single-day rally since April 2017. With a seeming cap on the economic repercussions this event may pose, the next question was whether May should be directed to request an extension from the EU on the Article 50 end date (set for March 29th). Approval of that particular leg is perhaps the least surprising of the week’s discussion points. Yet, with direction to seek deferment on the divorce date, serious questions followed asking whether more time would actually translate into a feasible deal. Given the state of discussions after two years, there is reason for skepticism. In turn, some hold outs have begun to signal a willingness to take a more moderate stance in order to find some compromise. 

That has encouraged the Government to put up proposal from May – it doesn’t look like she expects to have further concession – for another meaningful vote (MV3). Set against this Wednesday vote, we have seen the slogan turn to a simple arithmetic of May’s deal or risk a protracted period of uncertainty or even no Brexit at all. There are suggestions that some in Conservative party are willing to throw in some support in exchange for the PM’s resignation, but that does not come close to guaranteeing a majority. If the proposal is rejected once again Wednesday, focus will turn to the mood of the UK-EU negotiations. If support does not significantly shift in favor of the Government and May sticks to her warning that rejection will necessitate a long extension, then we will start to run up against the EU’s restrictions. EU elections will create further tumult in negotiations with the UK at risk of holding under the Union’s influence without say over the course the collective is taking – a very unattractive proposal. 

When assessing the Sterling and foreign investor appetite in the UK, the ultimate question is not the detail nor political advantage of one outcome versus the other. The basic question of taking risk or not is uncertainty. The longer the uncertainty is for the course of the UK’s economic and financial relationships moving forward, the greater the perceived risk for investors. That does not mean the Pound will just continue to drop throughout the imposed purgatory, but it will add volatility and cap the ambitions for substantial rally. 

Critical Fundamental Themes to Keep Watch For Next Week:

-    Recession Signals in Data, Markets and Forecasts [Indices, Yields, Gold]
-    Monetary Policy Supporting Risk Trends or Falling Short [Fed, ECB, BOE, EURUSD, GBPUSD, Gold]
-    Gov’t Bond Yields and Commodities as a Growth-Leaning Risk Asset [Dollar, Euro, Yields, Oil]
-    Brexit Article 50 Extension [GBPUSD, EURGBP, FTSE100]
-    US-China Trade War Deal Detail Headlines, Trump-Xi Meeting Time Frame [AUDUSD, USDCNH]
-    Threat of US Implementing Auto Tariffs [EURUSD, USDJPY]
-    Excessive Leverage / Debt in Public and Private Channels [S&P 500, Yields, Gold]

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