Broken Records

The past year has been remarkable with political precedents set in the US, UK and France, still record-low central bank policy rates in most developed economies and financial markets and macro data at all-time or multi-year highs (and lows).

The US presidency is fraught with problems but markets are turning a blind eye…for now. The UK is still on course to be the first ever member state to leave the European Union come 29th March 2019, at least on paper. French elections have repainted the political landscape and present many opportunities but old (fiscal) hurdles still need to be cleared.

Central bank policy rates remain at record lows in the majority of developed economies, including the Eurozone, UK, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and I expect this to remain the case for the remainder of the year. Loose global monetary policy is likely to continue providing a floor to risky assets, including equities and emerging market currencies.

A number of central banks have hiked 25bp in recent months, including the Fed, BoC and CNB, in line with my year-old view that rate hikes would gradually replace rate cuts. But in aggregate the turnaround in developed central bank monetary policy is proceeding at a glacial pace and I see few reasons why this should change.

The Bank of England has not hiked its policy rate for 526 weeks – a domestic record – and I continue to believe that this stretch will extend into 2018.

In contrast to the Dollar and Sterling, the Euro – by far the most stable major currency in the past seven years – has appreciated over 7% since early April.

While the ECB may want to slow the current rapid pace of Euro appreciation, it is unlikely to stop, let alone reverse, the Euro’s upward path at this stage. For starters, Eurozone growth and labour markets continue to strengthen. The German IFO business climate index hit three consecutive record highs in June-August.

Perhaps the most obvious record which financial markets have broken is the continued climb in US equities to new highs and volatility’s fall to near-record lows.

Emerging market rates continue to edge lower in the face of receding inflationary risks and I see room for further rate cuts, particularly in Brazil given the pace of Real appreciation.

Non-Japan Asian (NJA) currencies continue to broadly tread water, in line with my core view that NJA central banks have little incentive to materially alter their currencies’ paths.

Year-to-date emerging market equities have rallied 24%, twice as fast as the Dow Jones (12%) which has rallied twice as fast as EM currencies versus the Dollar (6%). Read more

H2 2017: Something old, something new, something revisited

As we head towards the second half of 2017 and the one-year anniversary of the UK referendum on EU membership, many themes which have pre-occupied financial markets in the past 12 months are likely to continue dominating headlines.

These include Donald Trump’s US presidency and its longevity, merits and scope for tax reforms and infrastructural spending, Brexit negotiations which officially started on 19th June and the resilience of the ongoing recovery in global GDP growth.

Global GDP growth rose modestly in Q1 2017 to around 3.12% year-on-year from 3.06% in Q4 2016 and a multi-year low of 2.8% yoy in Q2 2016, according to my estimates.

But the global manufacturing PMI averaged 52.7 in April-May, down slightly from 52.9 in Q1 2017, suggesting global GDP growth may not have accelerated further in Q2. This could in turn, at the margin, delay or temper policy rate hikes and/or unwinding of QE programs.

Non-Japan Asian currencies have in the past month been even more stable than in the preceding month, in line with my expectations, but a more pronounced policy change – particularly in China – remains a possibility.

Other themes, such as the timing and magnitude of higher policy rates in developed economies and falling international oil prices, have recently come into clearer focus and will likely be of central importance in H2.

For the UK, I am sticking to my view that a 25bp policy rate hike this year is still a low probability event and I see little chance of an August hike.

The uncertainty over the MPC’s interest rate path and the government’s stance on Brexit complicate any forecast of Sterling near and medium-term but I continue to see the risks biased towards further depreciation.

In France, the hype surrounding Emmanuel Macron’s presidential and legislative election victories is already giving way to whether, when and how smoothly the LREM-MoDem rainbow government can push through its reformist agenda.

Finally, while most European elections are now thankfully behind us, European financial markets are likely to attach great importance to the outcome of Germany’s general election on 24th September.

Conversely, the burning topic of rising European nationalism and future of the eurozone/EU has lost traction following recent presidential and/or legislative elections in France, the UK, Netherlands and Austria. Read more

Chinese Renminbi – Squaring the Circle

China’s exchange rate policy is one of many significant uncertainties or “known-unknowns” for 2017 (as it arguably was in 2016 and prior years).

The market’s focus is still very much on the rise in USD-CNY but Chinese policy-makers are keen to emphasise the importance of the Renminbi’s performance against a basket of currencies – the CNY Nominal Effective Exchange Rate (NEER). This comes as no surprise.

The monthly pace of CNY NEER appreciation or depreciation has rarely exceeded 3% in the past seven years, suggesting that policy-makers have sought to control the Renminbi’s rate of change.

Large (and well documented) capital outflows from China have been the main source of Renminbi pressure but China’s current account surplus-to-GDP ratio has also edged lower to around 2.5% due to a rising deficit in the services balance. This perhaps dents the argument that the Renminbi is still materially undervalued.

Moreover, despite the Renminbi’s gain in competitiveness in the past year, China’s trade surplus has somewhat counter-intuitively shrunk, not increased. This may be due to price effects outweighing demand-effects (for exports) and still strong credit-fuelled Chinese imports.

In response to quarterly capital outflows of between $100bn and $200bn since late 2015, the PBoC intervened in the FX market to the tune of about $280bn in January-November.

This strong commitment likely reflects the perceived economic and geopolitical benefits of limiting the Renminbi’s depreciation.

Near-term, I think the PBoC may continue to see some value in a broadly stable Renminbi or only very modest CNY NEER depreciation. If capital outflows re-accelerate this would likely require the introduction of further capital controls and aggressive FX intervention. This is certainly an option in the short-run.

If capital outflows stabilise or recede, the PBoC may be able to slow or even stop FX intervention. This is not a totally unfeasible scenario if global yields stabilise and a slightly stronger CNY attracts capital back into China or if capital controls take greater effect.

In the more unlikely scenario whereby China experiences capital inflows, which last happened in Q1 2014, I would expect the PBoC to have limited appetite for rapid and/or sustained Renminbi appreciation and instead use this opportunity to rebuild FX reserves.
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Paradox of Acute Uncertainty and Strong Consensus Views

There appears to be a quasi-universal belief that 2017 will be characterised by acute uncertainty, with the list of difficult-to-predict economic and political variables growing exponentially in recent months.

These include the paths which Donald Trump will tread in the US and Theresa May in the UK, the Fed’s reaction function, the future of the eurozone and EU with European elections looming, the perennial question of China’s exchange rate policy and outlook for oil prices.

And yet, there is already it would seem a set of strong consensus views about the direction which economic variables and financial markets will follow in 2017.

US reflationary policies are expected to rule, boosting already decent US economic growth, inflation and US equities, in turn forcing the Fed to adopt a far more hawkish stance than in 2015-2016 and pushing US yields and dollar higher.

At the same time, President-elect Trump’s penchant for protectionism, alongside a strong dollar and higher US yields, are seen as major headwinds for indebted emerging economies reliant on trade and by implication for emerging currencies, bonds and equities. These seemingly include the Mexican Peso and Chinese Renminbi.

Moreover, the consensus forecast is that at the very least EUR/USD will fall below parity, having got close in December.

The perception of acute uncertainty is not totally incompatible with seemingly well-anchored forecasts but they do make uncomfortable bed-fellows.

Some of the uncertainties which have gained prominence can be put to rest, for now at least. At the same time, some of the sure-fire trades currently advocated may struggle to stand the test of time, in my view.

Marine Le Pen is very unlikely to become the next French President, the Italian banking sector will not be allowed to implode and the euro may end the year on a strong note.

Emerging market currencies have showed greater poise in the past few weeks, with a number of central banks showing both the appetite and the room to support their currencies. This should be borne in mind. Read more