My pre-holiday missive that FX volatility is making a comeback. Mr. Trump’s threat to slam tariffs on Chinese consumer goods earlier this month prompted the PBoC to step back and “allow” USDCNY to breach 7.0. This, in turn, drove the U.S. to label China as a currency manipulator. Markets now have to consider that the trade war are morphing into currency wars. This is significant for two reasons. First, it confirms what most punters already knew; the CNY is inclined to go lower if left alone by the PBoC. Secondly, it has brought us one step closer to the revelation of how far Mr. Trump is willing to go. The problem for the U.S. president is simple. He can bully his main trading partners with tariffs, “winning” the trade wars, but he is losing the currency wars in so far as goes as his desire for a weaker dollar. The veiled threat to print dollars and buy RMB assets, as part of the move to identify China as a manipulator, is a loose threat. Just to make it clear; it would involve the Fed printing dollars and buying Chinese government debt and/or stakes in SOEs, which would probably be politically contentious. Moreover, the PBoC could respond in kind; in fact, it probably would.Read More
I said my peace on what I consider to be the big market stories last week, so I won’t belabour bonds and equities too much this week. FX markets, however, could well be the driver of the NarrativeTM in the next few months, at least judging by the rustling of the grapevine. This story starts with the notion of the “global Fed,” which is not a new idea at all. Fed watchers tend to pivot between two extremes in their analysis of, and forecasts, for U.S. monetary policy. In one end, Fed conducts itself according to the reality of a relatively closed U.S. economy, without regard to the impact of its policy on the rest of the world, and the value of the dollar. At the other end, the Fed acts according to its role as a warden of the global reserve currency, taking into account the impact of its policy on the rest of the world. A more cynical version of this story is the idea that the Fed, in a world of free capital mobility, is constrained by the fact that other major central banks, in economies with large external surpluses, are stuck at the zero bound. This could happen in practice as tighter monetary policy in the U.S. drives the value of the dollar higher and/or leads to an increase in capital inflows. Both likely would drive up the external deficit, which would probably be counterproductive in an environment when the Fed would otherwise want to raise rates to curb inflation pressures.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More