Jackson Hole Symposium Has Too Much to Cover
There are two particularly important, multi-day summits scheduled for this coming week. Given the individual market-moving capacity of US President Donald Trump, the G7 Summit from August 24th through the 26th will be particularly important to watch. He has announced remarkable change in policy at or around such large events before – particularly when provoked by flabbergasted global counterparts. There are five general topics on the agenda which are all important but the market-centric among us – and who wouldn’t considering them more dialed in given the state of the economic outlook – will be most interested in the third of the listings which is the conversation on globalization. It is worth noting that as of January 1st, 2020, the United States will take over the presidency of the group. Yet, as far as the impact this can reasonably have on the markets for the week in front of us, there is very limited potential given that the event begins on a Saturday. If anything, anticipation for surprise policy tweets will discourage positioning for fear of another painful weekend gap.
The other major gathering on tap from Friday through Sunday is the Kansas City Federal Reserve-hosted Jackson Hole Symposium. This is a gathering of major policy authorities (government and central bank), business leaders and investors whereby they discuss the most important matters for the financial system and economy of the day. Given the current fragile nature of both dynamics at present, there is enormous pressure on this event and its participants to urge a sense of calm. They will find this exceedingly difficult to achieve. The official topic of the event is the ‘Challenges for Monetary Policy’ which is certainly a concern, but not one designed to immediately provide relief. The politicizing of monetary policy threatening short-term focus and policies that result in currency war- like conditions will likely come up explicitly if not in the undertone. If the Fed and others use this event to warn that the effectiveness of there tools are diminishing as they are already stretched to the max and face diminishing returns in economic and financial influence, that will only solidify reality for so many that have grown to believe that there are only three things certain in life: death, taxes and asset inflation. They will attempt to hedge their language, but market participants are extremely vigilant of cracks in our troubling backdrop. Furthermore, the world will be looking for as much reassurance of a safety net against an increasingly probable economic downturn as can be mustered. This will likely prove a very disappointing event for many.
The Inverted Yield Curve vs Sovereign Debt Sliding Into Negative Yield
The story of the inverted yield curve continues to gain traction across the market – from bond to FX trader, new investor to old hand. In part, this is testament to the self-reinforcing influence of the financial media and financial social platforms. That is why there is a cottage industry in analyzing the collective views garnered from browsers and tweets, whether for genuine view or contrarian signal. Yet, how much should we really read into such a signal. There is very strong statistical evidence to suggest that certain yield comparisons in certain countries heralds economic and/or market troubles. The 10-year to 3-month Treasury yield curve is an economist favorite and has been inverted for a number of months now while the trader-favorite 10-year to 2-year spread only slipped below the zero mark this past week. Just to be clear, this is essentially a situation where the market demands more return from (virtually) triple-A rated government at the front of the world’s largest economy to lend to them over 3 months and 2 years versus 10 years. Something is systemically wrong if this is the case. Usually, this portends recession as we’ve seen for most similar instances in history. There is caveat in the reality that the sample size is small and conditions do change between the generations that pass between many of these instances. The Fed and other central banks being so active in purchasing their local government’s debt is a very big systemic change. However, there is also very serious data to suggest that we are looking at a stalled economy despite all the unique circumstances and distortions we are dealing with at present.
Another consideration with the signals these curves offer is the time gap between the market-based cue and the official flip on the economic switch. Yet, just because there is an average 12 month lag time between the two, does not mean we can comfortably assume that we can continue to press our luck until mid-2020. The official signal of a recession by the NBER and others is two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. What’s more, the speculative nature of the financial markets rarely has investors hold out on their judgement of risk until that lumbering signal has flashed red. I find that the curve is not so personally concerning as the overall level of global yields themselves. The US 30-year Treasury yield plunged to a record low this past week. Globally, an unprecedented amount of government and high-rated debt is facing negative yield. That may seem fine on the face of it from a consumer’s perspective – who wouldn’t want to be paid to borrow money – but it is a reflection of serious problems in the system. Negative yields are an indication that there is no appetite for lending despite the affordability, it creates sever problem for profitability of financial institutions and it means there is very little policy room for authorities to ease conditions to jump start growth whether stalled or collapsing. As you see the headlines continue to flash negative yield around the world, remember that this is a serious problem for the environment in which you are investing.
Trump Eased Trade War Pressure but Neither Markets Nor China Placated
There was a noticeable waver in the Trump administration’s trade war pressure this past week, which many political pundit zeroed in on from both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps spurred by the market’s sudden bout of indigestion following the reciprocal escalations between the US (announcing the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports would face a 10 percent tariff) and China (allowing the 7.0000 level on the USDCNH exchange rate give way), the White House backtracked to offer some modest relief in the pressure. It was announced that some small portion of goods would be left off the list all together owing to their importance to health and security while a wider range of consumer goods (clothing and consumer electronics) would avoid the new tax until December 15 to avoid hitting the American holiday shopping season. The half-life of the market’s enthusiasm was even more brief than their shortened bout of fear following the initial one-two punch to global trade. China’s was similarly dubious in its response. The White House lamented that China did not move to ease its own policies aimed in retaliation, but that should not exactly surprise given that the US had enacted a disproportionate escalation and China’s own measures cannot be linearly throttled – to push the exchange rate back below 7.0000 would only reinforce the belief that the PBOC is fully manipulating its
Moving forward, we will have to rely on unscheduled headlines to update our standings in US-Chinese trade relations. Perhaps the Jackson Hole Symposium or G7 summit will offer up some key insights, but there is little reason to believe these administrations are plotting it out thoroughly to offer investors genuine relief. Furthermore, it is crucial that we don’t lose sight of the other trade conflicts building up around the world. Japan and South Korea as well as the Eurozone and UK skirmishes are serious problems to the fabric of global growth. Yet, my top concern remains on the risk that the two largest regional economies in the world could see threats evolve into actions. The US and EU have warned each other with complaints and suggestion of policy preparation, but there hasn’t been serious movement yet. That may have changed however when France decided to push forward with a 3 percent digital tax on the largest tech companies in the world – which happen to largely be US-based. Some of these biggest players (Google, Amazon, Facebook) are due to testify to Congress early next week and they will no doubt cry foul. Yet, if they push the volatile government too far; their efforts to reduce their tax bill could trigger a much larger drain on global growth and trade…which will cause a much larger hit to their income.