A return of the USD carry trade?

A few weeks ago I provided a bird’s eye view of most of the major asset classes, what they did in Q1, and what they’re likely to do for the rest of the year. I neglected the most important one though; the dollar. I am convinced that other markets eventually will take their cue from what happens to the greenback. The bull case is simple. The U.S. economy is about to get a jolt of fiscal stimulus, propelling growth to above 3%. The labour market has plenty of hidden slack, and productivity is rising, which mean that the Fed won’t have to hike the economy into the stone age to quell inflation and wage growth.  Trade wars aren’t a problem, and in the case of U.S. tariffs on imports, the dollar will appreciate offsetting a boost to competitiveness. If the shit hits the fan, the dollar will be the safe haven of choice as capital flees the more open and exposed economies in Europe and China. Mr. Trump might not get a lower trade deficit but he can “win” a trade war with the rest of the world. The contrasting bear case is equally straightforward. The U.S. twin deficit is about to widen significantly, and foreign investors need compensation to finance the party. Higher bond yields and a weaker dollar are a necessary adjustment to reach a new equilibrium.

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It's complicated

Last week I complained about information overload, but as we close the book on Q1, the overall story is relatively simple: It has suddenly become a lot more difficult for investors to extract value from markets across all major asset classes. My first chart shows what happened at the start of the year. Specifically, it shows the volatility-adjusted performance of the main asset classes in Q1 compared with their recent 12 month performance. The butcher’s bill for anyone who haven’t been sitting on piles of cash, and long volatility exposure, has been large. Equities have struggled, bond yields have increased, the dollar has weakened, again, while commodities and gold have outperformed.

The volte-face in equities has been extraordinary. The MSCI World, in dollar terms, was down 1.2% in Q1, while its 90-day volatility increased by about 55% compared to the 360-day trailing volatility. This is in stark contrast to the trend before the swoon at the start of February, when low volatility and a gentle rise in headline indices were the only the story that mattered. Across regions, emerging market equities have done relatively well, eeking out a small positive return in Q1. The S&P 500 is flat—the NASDAQ is up marginally—while European and Japanese equities have been underperforming—in local currency terms—primarily because these indices are very sensitive to FX. 

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Information Overload

Sometimes when you’re faced with too many choices, the best thing is to do nothing at all. When I look at markets, I sense that many investors are thinking along the same lines. If true, I have sympathy for it. In the U.S. economy, the news flow has invited contradicting conclusions. The February NFP report in delivered a hawkish headline, but sluggish wage growth and a higher labour force participation rate suggest a goldilocks interpretation. It is similar in the global economy. We have the promise of a fiscal stimulus-boosted U.S. economy growing close to 4% adding further momentum to a synchronous global upturn. But data in the Eurozone have disappointed recently, and investors also have to count the risk of a tit-for-tat trade war in tariffs. Geopolitics, as always, loom on the horizon too.  In FX markets, we are still debating whether reckless economic policies in the U.S. will drive the dollar lower or whether Make-America-Great-Again™ will revive the dollar bull. A wider twin deficit, in principle, could deliver both. We have also been discussing the Libor OIS spread, Italian politics, and of course, the ongoing tragedy of Brexit. I view markets through narratives, but I struggle to come up with one that captures all of the above.

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#Tradewars

Markets were mulling familiar themes last week. Will a wider U.S. twin deficit change the rules for the dollar and treasuries and is elevated volatility here to stay in equities? Judging by last week, the answer would be: probably and yes. The contemplation over these stories, though, were interrupted by politics. Mr. Trump announced his intention to apply tariffs on steel and aluminium—25% and 10% respectively—and Mrs. May attempted to give clarity on the U.K. government’s Brexit position.* I was unimpressed with both. Before I have a dig at Mr. Trump, I ought to provide an example of someone who supports it. I have great respect for Stephen Jen, but his argument here is like endorsing the idea of a diet by advising someone to eat nothing but kale and carrots for a decade. The analysis of Mr. Trump’s tariffs requires a distinction between the principle and the concrete measures. I concede that China is bending the rules of global trade, but Mr. Trump is stretching the fabrics of macroeconomic policy if he starts imposing tariffs on industrial goods. He is presiding over an economy close to full employment, a low domestic savings rate, and a medium-sized twin deficit. To boot, he is about to let fly with unprecedented fiscal stimulus.

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