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

Politics suspected of interfering with economics and markets

In the US, political intrigue, seemingly lifted straight out of a John Le Carré novel, has reached a crescendo and there are now multiple investigations running concurrently.

If we assume these investigations will run over weeks/months, the question is whether and to what extent this political backdrop is likely to impact financial markets, US government policy-making, the US and global economy and Federal Reserve monetary policy.

US equities have corrected lower, volatility has spiked and markets are seemingly ignoring positive data surprises

It has all been rather orderly so far but it is difficult to see how at this juncture, with major policy initiatives likely kicked down the road, US equities can launch another meaningful rally. If anything big data misses are likely to further pressure stocks. 

The Dollar’s performance has been mixed in the past month, posting its biggest loss against the euro in line with the fundamentally bullish euro view I expressed in December and April.

Capital inflows into the eurozone allied to a 2% of GDP current account surplus, a pick-up in economic activity and receding political risks following the French presidential elections are likely to extend the euro’s current rally near-term.

However, the ECB’s stance on its quantitative easing program will be key in shaping the euro’s medium-term path.

US economic indicators paint a blurry picture while solid global GDP growth is seemingly struggling to make further gains.

The Fed and US rates market have the unenviable task of making sense of these macro trends and a quickly changing political landscape.

The apolitical Fed will of course stay above the political fray, even if markets do not with pricing for the probability of a 25bp hike at the 14th June policy meeting continuing to oscillate between 60% and 75%.

My core scenario is that the Fed will hike rates only once more in 2017 although I acknowledge that this is not a high conviction call. The market seems still on the fence, pricing in a further 32bp of hikes in the remainder of the year.
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EM currencies, Fed, French elections and UK reflation “lite”

Rising US yields, stronger dollar, FX outflows from emerging markets into US equities, President Trump’s still uncertain policies regarding global trade and country-specific concerns continue to weigh on EM currencies.

But the pace of depreciation in EM currencies has abated, with a number of central banks hiking their policy rate and likely intervening in the FX market. China is manipulating its currency but perhaps not the way that US President Trump thinks.

With the market having almost fully priced in a December Fed hike, it will focus on FOMC members’ likely further downward revision to their forecasts for the appropriate policy rate.

Commentators are making a number of assumptions about next year’s French presidential elections and the potential impact on the euro. Some seem reasonable, others less so.

The first assumption is that Fillon will beat Juppé in the second round run-off of the Republican primaries on 27th November. This is indeed the most likely outcome.

The second assumption, which I agree with, is that no presidential candidate will clear the 50% threshold required in the first round of the elections on 23 April to become President.

The third assumption, now seemingly hard-baked, is that no Socialist candidate stands even a remote chance of making it to the second round of the presidential elections on 7th May 2017. I would argue that it is too early to write off that possibility.

The fourth assumption, which I believe is still far-fetched, is that Front National leader Marine Le Pen could win the second round to become President, which in turn would precipitate France’s exit from the EU and pressure the euro.

UK markets’ mixed reaction to Wednesday’s Autumn budget was in line with my expectations of higher yields and stronger Sterling.

Chancellor Hammond’s modestly stimulative package reflects the realities and uncertainties which the UK economy has faced since the June referendum. This is still the over-riding theme markets will have to deal with in the near and potentially long-term.

Hammond had one hand behind his back and a moving target to hit. He has backloaded spending to 2018-19 and beyond with a focus on infrastructural projects to boost languishing UK productivity. Read more