Friday 21 June 2019

Macro and Credit - Klondike

"Having patience is one of the hardest things about being human. We want to do it now, and we don't want to wait. Sometimes we miss out on our blessing when we rush things and do it on our own time." -  Deontay Wilder
Looking at the latest FOMC decision, leading to further compression of US yields in conjunction with rising negative yielding bonds to the tune of $12.3 trillion, making credit and high beta risky assets TINA (There Is No Alternative) again, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to continue with the theme of games and playing cards this time around. Klondike (North America) or Canfield (traditional) is a patience game (solitaire card game). In the U.S. and Canada, Klondike is the best-known solitaire card game, to the point that the term "solitaire", in the absence of additional qualifiers, typically refers to Klondike. Elsewhere the game is known as American Patience. 

The game rose to fame in the late 19th century, being named "Klondike" after the Canadian region where a gold rush happened. With the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) holding interest rates steady on Wednesday while opening the door to a cut by dropping its commitment to being "patient" in its policy statement, in similar fashion to the name of the card game of Klondike also known as "patience", the Fed conceded to more accommodation to come in July in the form of a rate cut. No wonder it led in similar fashion to a "Klondike" leading yet to another "gold rush" it seems as anticipated somewhat in our previous musing. What we find of interest in the game of "Klondike" played by the Fed is that from a probability perspective, about 79% of the games are theoretically winnable, but in practice, human players do not win 79% of games played, due to wrong moves that cause the game to become unwinnable. In addition to this probabilistic feature, some games are "unplayable" in which no cards can be moved to the foundations even at the start of the game; these occur in only 0.25% (1 in 400) of hands dealt. 

Also, there is a modified version of the game called "Thoughtful Solitaire", in which the identity of all 52 cards is known. Because the only difference between the two games (Klondike and Thoughtful) is the knowledge of card location, all "Thoughtful" games with solutions will also have solutions in "Klondike". Similarly, all dead-ends in "Thoughtful" will be dead ends in "Klondike". However, the theoretical odds of winning a standard game of "non-Thoughtful Klondike" are currently not known exactly. The inability of theoreticians to precisely calculate these odds has been referred to by mathematician Persi Diaconis as "one of the embarrassments of applied probability but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at what the latest Fed decision entails as we think that we are on the cusp of a final melt-up which could be given an additional boost from some cease-fire agreement between China and the United States when it comes to the lingering trade war.

  • Macro and Credit - Is the Fed ready for "easing" after being "easy"?
  • Final charts - Fed "easing" should undermine the US dollar.

  • Macro and Credit - Is the Fed ready for "easing" after being "easy"?
Given the global "dovishness" now being actively espoused globally and with the Fed conceding to what the financial markets want, we view a continuation of the "Japanification" playing out, meaning that credit spreads will continue to perform and compress, and the corporate debt bubble to inflate in this Chinese year of the pig. The appetite for yield hungry investors will continue to push even more government bonds yields to absurd level and even more European corporate yields into negative territory. 

From an allocation perspective, as we pointed out before, where oil price goes, so does US High Yield, clearly since the beginning of the year US Investment Grade has outperformed US High Yield, respectively up 10% and 9%. Our defensive stance favoring quality (Investment Grade) over quantity (US High Yield has been vindicated. As well our preference for the long-end of the US yield curve is paying decently with long-term US Treasuries ($TLT) up by 11%. Year to date the ETF ZROZ we follow is up by a decent 14.4%. Gold is rising again in a very much "Klondike" way with gold miners racing ahead thanks to the return of the "D" word of "Deflation" and "D" for "Dovishness".

As we highlighted in our most recent musing, weak dollar policy is a natural extension of protectionist policies. FX policy should not be ignored in trade policy. They go hand in hand as a reminder. The trajectory of real yields matter when it comes to gold:
"The ongoing trade war could turn into a currency war, further boosting investor appetite for gold hence our negative stance on the US dollar." - source Macronomics, June 2019
We also added:
"If big dollar cycles are dominated by flow as indicated by Deutsche Bank, then again, the dovish Fed has finally triggered a USD sell-off it seems with hedge funds selling from a long position. If flows are indeed turning against the USD, then a US dollar weakness could be sustained." - source Macronomics, June 2019
Given the latest tone down from the Fed with rate cut expectations in July, and a possible form of resolution between the United States and China with the upcoming G20, there is indeed a potential for an additional melt-up, and in this scenario, high beta would therefore start to outperform again strongly.

A weaker US dollar is as well highly beneficial to the Emerging Markets complex. Should you therefore "buy" the proverbial dip? Obviously credit continues to benefit from "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster close to $13 trillion. In that context yield hunt will resume its trajectory.

When it comes to the much discussed "leveraged loans" we continue to see the "great rotation" playing out from the feeble hands of retail, namely them leaving the asset class and investing into US High Yield. This is clearly indicated by part of S&P Global Market Intelligence:
"Outflows from mutual funds and ETFs that invest in U.S. leveraged loans totaled $686 million for the week ended June 12, according to Lipper weekly reporters. That's less severe than the $1.47 billion withdrawal a week ago, but marks the 30th straight net outflow from the investor segment, for a total of slightly more than $30 billion over that span.
Retail investors have beat a steady retreat from the floating rate asset class as prospects of a Fed rate hike have evaporated, and as expectations of rate hikes solidify.
The record for consecutive withdrawals from U.S. loan funds is 32 weeks, for a streak that ended March 2, 2016, though outflows during that time totaled only $17.6 billion, according to Lipper.
Mutual funds provided the bulk of the outflow over the past week, at $572 million, while loan ETFs saw a withdrawal of $114 million. The four-week average is now a net $781 million outflow. The change due to market conditions over the past week was positive $56 million.
Year to date, including the week ended Jan. 2, outflows from the segment now total $16.5 billion. Assets at U.S. loan funds stand at $78.6 billion, of which $8.2 billion are via ETFs, according to Lipper." - source S&P Market Intelligence

At the same time, the feeble retail investors crowd did put $602M into US High Yield funds, the second straight week of inflows. YTD: +$8.9B $HYG $JNK according to S&P Market Intelligence:

 - source S&P Market Intelligence

With the market now pricing in a 100% probability of a rate cut in July, from a "Klondike" perspective, we do think there is a potential for more melt-up in the high beta space.

So what's our current view on the US 10 year yield you might rightly ask?

As a reminder, when it comes to our contrarian stance in relation to our "long duration" exposure it is fairly simple to explain:
"Government bonds are always correlated to nominal GDP growth, regardless if you look at it using "old GDP data" or "new GDP data". So, if indeed GDP growth will continue to lag, then you should not expect yields to rise anytime soon making our US long bonds exposure still compelling regardless of what some sell-side pundits are telling you." - Macronomics, December 2015, The Ghost of Christmas Past
So if indeed US GDP growth is decelerating, then, obviously the US 10 year yield is right where it should be given FOMC change in real GDP for 2019 is around 2.1%. Case closed.

Giving the global dovishness from our "generous gamblers" aka our dear central bankers, when it comes to this game of Klondike and asset implications we read with interest UBS take from their Global Macro Strategy note from the 20th of June entitled "Fed, ECB Promise Insurance: Asset Implications":
"Rates: Lower long end real; front end sits oddly with financial conditions
The market has celebrated the readiness from the Fed to provide insurance and bull steepened the curve. Compared with the beginning easing cycles over the last 30 years, inflation is marginally lower today, but financial conditions are significantly looser (Figure 1).

Our Economic team's view is now for a 50bps cut in July, (64% priced), which may take some deterioration in financial conditions to be fully priced. Based on the current information, and with 76 bps already priced till year end, we would not be receiving the very front end here, and would rather position through long 5-year breakevens and receiving long-end real rates. The Fed Chair cited concerns over fall in 5y5y breakevens several times as a reason for the material shift lower in dots." - source UBS
 What is indeed striking to use as we mused in our previous conversation is that financial conditions, while tightening already in some parts are not as tight as in previous cycles as highlighted by UBS table above. This is what we had to say in our previous conversation:
"Taking it easy is not taking it to easing and as per our above discussion we think investors are a little bit ahead of themselves when it comes to the number of cuts expected and the pace. One nonfarm payroll bad number doesn't yet make a trend though the most recent data highlights disappointment and worries from the ongoing trade war." - source Macronomics, June 2019
Though we were steering towards a more cautious side, given flash U.S. Composite Output Index just came out 50.6 (50.9 in May), a 40-month low, we would not dare to "fight" the Fed and we'd rather probably switch slightly to "offense" from "defense". Credit wise, European Investment Grade remains unattractive with European yield at 0.55% (Barclays EuroAgg Corporate ISMA Yield). So all in all, we'd rather stick with US Investment Grade than European Investment Grade. In Europe we prefer European High Yield in that context. As far as US High Yield is concerned, just follow oil prices.

For the "perma bear" out there, it's the velocity of oil prices that matter on the way up as well as on the way down when it comes to "high beta". We still think that eventually the spark of a "crash" will be ignited by a sudden spike in inflation à la 2008. We are not there yet, and on that front, it could come from a "geopolitical exogenous" factor.

Clearly as highlighted by Société Générale in their 20th of June report "On Our Minds" entitled "The Fed loses patience and ready to act", the game of Klondike comes to mind:
"Summary: The Fed lost patience in June. Dropping this key word and announcing they will closely monitor incoming information strongly suggests rate cuts. Timing and magnitude are the questions. We see two cuts in 2019 matching a heavy weighting of the dots offered in the June Summary of Economic Projections.
Median held in 2019—but large mass of dots imply two rate cuts
The Fed announced they are monitoring information closely. They dropped their reference to patience. The news implies they are at willing to make insurance cuts to keep the expansion intact. The first cut likely at the next FOMC meeting in July.
FOMC revises up GDP and lowers the unemployment projections
The US growth outlook alone does not immediately justify rate cuts, but with inflation low and risks and uncertainty increasing, Fed officials appear willing to make one to two cuts.
Insurance cuts that the Fed foresees pulling back eventually
The Fed median does not fully grasp the number of Fed officials willing to cut by 50bps. Cuts are likely sooner than the median implies Yet hikes into 2021 imply the Fed will pull back these insurance cuts. The Fed does not yet appear back a full rate cut cycle.

Fed insurance cuts vs full rate-cut cycle
The Fed dot plot assumes one to two cuts and then rates are held steady and eventually hiked again. This would follow a pattern more akin to insurance cuts that achieve a soft landing.
Markets are priced for more. Eventually we view the US economic situation as requiring more. We now foresee the Fed following up with insurance cuts in 2019 and highlight July and September for the moves that reduce the fed funds rate by 25 bps each. The magnitude and timing remain sensitive to the G20 meetings and trade talks between the US and China. Additionally, incoming US data with strong US consumers and still solid employment influence timing.
We still see a need for more aggressive rate cuts eventually as sigs of US economic weakness are more pronounced. US manufacturing is currently soft, but that may be needed to reduce inventory overhang. US consumption and employment remain solid for now. Our preliminary call for June non-farm payrolls is for a 175k increase. We still have 3.6% unemployment rate, but that rate can still drop further due to the pace of hiring.
The FOMC revised up its GDP estimate for 2020! Further, the FOMC reduced their unemployment rate projections. These projections do not reflect major risks. Rather it is the low inflation rate along with risks that allow the Fed to make insurance cuts.

Low inflation – the Fed lowered their headline and core inflation readings for 2020, is a major driver in the Fed’s willingness to cut rates. Fed officials foresee uncertainty, global sluggishness and a stronger dollar as over-riding domestic labor markets in shaping the outlook on inflation." - source Société Générale.

Given in the game of Klondike the issue is that a wrong move cannot be known in advance whenever more than one move is possible, we remain agnostic about how aggressive the Fed will be as it has clearly shown us to be "data dependent". Is the recent weakness transitory and mostly due to the trade war narrative being extended into overtime? We wonder.

For our final chart, the big known unknown remains the trajectory of the US dollar. We continue to think though there is more weakness ahead.

  • Final charts - Fed "easing" should undermine the US dollar.
Our final chart below comes from Deutsche Bank FX Special Report from the 18th of June and entitled "A unique Beast". It displays the trajectory of the US dollar surrounding Fed easing cycles:
"The FX market. 
In the 3m after easing the dollar TWI tends to continue the pre-easing trend (up or down!) rather than automatically start weakening. In this cycle unique features include: i) low/negative rates elsewhere; and, ii) the unusual US rate-spread advantage across short and back-end yields. It will then take multiple Fed rate cuts to undermine the USD’s rate advantage, generating even more USD resilience than usual.
Fed easing will undermine the dollar's upside on a TWI basis, but the central bank will have to deliver more than the 50bps of cuts by Dec meeting to kick start EUR/ USD meaningfully higher.
Momentum trading has had a record of doing poorly in easing cycles.
Value currency investing does better especially a year after easing cycles begin.
This favors short base metals – long precious metals." - source Deutsche Bank
From a "Klondike" perspective and an additional "gold" rush, it remains to be seen how aggressive the Fed will be in July. While we do expect at least some short-term pull-back on gold prices, it really depends if the Fed decides to throw early in the kitchen sink and the trajectory of "real yields (Gibson's paradox) and obviously the G20 outcome surrounding the US-China tug of war. American patience is, it seems, the name of the game...

"Just be patient. Let the game come to you. Don't rush. Be quick, but don't hurry." - Earl Monroe
Stay tuned !

Monday 10 June 2019

Macro and Credit - The Numbers Game

"Nobody trusts anyone in authority today. It is one of the main features of our age. Wherever you look, there are lying politicians, crooked bankers, corrupt police officers, cheating journalists and double-dealing media barons, sinister children's entertainers, rotten and greedy energy companies, and out-of-control security services." - Adam Curtis
Watching with interest the trade war escalation with Mexico, leading to de-escalation, triggering more volatility in already jittery markets, in conjunction with more dovishness expectations from Central Banks, and with the prospect of the introduction of the so-called “mini-BOT” scheme, named after Italy’s Treasury bills in Italy, when it came to selecting our title analogy in continuation to our previous Chinese game of "Banqi" reference, we decided to go for the Italian game of the "Numbers Game". The numbers game, also known as the numbers racket, the Italian lottery, or the daily number, is a form of illegal gambling or illegal lottery played mostly in poor and working class neighborhoods in the United States, wherein a bettor attempts to pick three digits to match those that will be randomly drawn the following day. For many years the "number" has been the last three digits of "the handle", the amount race track bettors placed on race day at a major racetrack, published in racing journals and major newspapers in New York. 

What we find of interest, before we enter our usual "Macro and Credit" musing is that closely related is a policy, known as the policy racket, or the policy game. 

There is more to our title that meet the eye given Peter Navarro wrote in 1984 (the famous "dystopian" year) a book entitled "The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues Are Stealing America". 

Peter Navarro being Trump's top trade adviser we find it interesting in the light of the current trade war developments to look more closely at his change of views as put forward by AXIOS in June 2018 in their article entitled "Peter Navarro's radical transformation":
"People think of Peter Navarro, the top White House trade adviser, as President Trump’s mind-meld on tariffs — the most hardline protectionist in the White House. But Navarro used to preach very different ideas in his early career as an economist.
The bottom line: In his 1984 book, "The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues are Stealing America," that's no longer in print — Axios got a copy from a university library — Navarro sounds a lot like the very administration officials he's sparred with on trade policy. And he argues that tariffs will inevitably send the global economy into crisis.
We asked Navarro what prompted the radical change in his views, and he explained how he went from a free trader to an economic nationalist. In response to "The Policy Game," specifically, Navarro told Axios:
It borders on the comical that Axios would spend so much time on a book written 34 years ago and completely ignore the insights of my later works like the 2006 Coming China Wars, the 2011 Death By China, and the 2015 Crouching Tiger.  Together, these books explain at length why the globalist Ricardian free trade model is broken and urgently needs fixing in the name of both the economic and national security of the United States.
— Peter Navarro
From the book...
"The clear danger of this trend [protectionism] is an all-out global trade war; for when one country excludes others from its markets, the other countries inevitably retaliate with their own trade barriers. And as history has painfully taught, once protectionist wars begin, the likely result is a deadly and well-nigh unstoppable downward spiral by the entire world economy.
If the world is, in fact, sucked into this spiral, enormous gains from trade will be sacrificed. While such a sacrifice might save some jobs in sheltered domestic industries, it will destroy as many or more in other home industries, particularly those that rely heavily on export trade. At the same time, consumers will pay tens of billions of dollars more in higher prices for a much more limited selection of goods. Sacrificed, too, on the altar of protectionism will be the very heart of an international world order that since World War II has successfully changed the aggressive struggle among nations for world resources and markets into a peaceful economic competition rather than a confrontational political or military one."— "The Policy Game," pg. 55
There are multiple passages in "Policy Game" that directly argue against Navarro's current positions. Navarro's go-to argument defending the White House's trade moves has been national security. In a June New York Times op-ed, he wrote:
"President Trump reserves the right to defend those industries critical to our own national security. To do this, the United States has imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. While critics may question how these metal tariffs can be imposed in the name of national security on allies and neighbors like Canada, they miss the fundamental point: These tariffs are not aimed at any one country. They are a defensive measure to ensure the domestic viability of two of the most important industries necessary for United States military and civilian production at times of crisis so that the United States can defend itself as well as its allies."
But Navarro's own book topples that argument as well:
"On the benefit side, protectionism within certain basic industries like autos, steel, and electronics helps to create and sustain an industrial base that, in times of war or national peril, can be shifted to defense purposes, However, this national security argument — and the existence of any benefits resulting from protecting these industries — can be legitimately called into question for several reasons.
First, the existence of any sizable benefits rests on the assumption that import competition in our defense-related industries would not only reduce the size of these industries but also shrink them to the point where they would be too small to support our defense needs. The threshold of danger is a matter of some dispute. How big, after all, do our auto, steel, or electronics industries have to be to keep our borders safe? In spite of this uncertainty, few analysts would argue that import competition is likely to push a nation with as large and mature an industrial base as ours anywhere close to that threshold.
Second, it is highly possible that our defense capability might actually be enhanced — not damaged — by import competition. Without the umbrella of protectionism, our defense-related industries would be forced to operate at lowest cost, engage in more research and development, aggressively innovate to stay one step ahead of the competition, and modernize their plants at a faster pace. Thus, while import competition might shrink these industries, they would be leaner, tougher, more efficient, and more modern and in all likelihood outperform a bigger and inefficient (protected) version of those same industries.
On the national security cost side, the major effect of protectionism is to threaten the stability of the international economic order through a global trade war..."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 82
Navarro lauded the impact of tariffs on saving American jobs in a May op-ed in USA Today, writing:
"There can be no better way to make America — and American manufacturing — great again than to start to rebuild those communities of America most harmed by the forces of globalization. These new facilities will stand as shining testimony to the success of tough trade actions, smart tax policies and targeted worker-training programs."
But he warned against the harmful longer-run effects of tariffs on jobs in his 1984 book:
"American protectionism threatens employment and profits in the export-dependent nexus because it invites retaliation from our trading partners ...
From these direct and indirect effects, it is clear that over time, the major benefits of protectionism — more jobs and higher profits — are largely and perhaps completely offset by a reduction in jobs and profits in export and linkage industries and in those industries vulnerable to the 'end run.' Therefore, the argument that protectionism serves as a jobs and income assistance program must be discounted."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 79-80
And Navarro has emphasized that tariffs won't hurt American consumers, saying on CBS' "Face the Nation" in March that the Trump administration's moves' effect on the prices of consumer goods will be "negligible to nothing."
In 1984, Navarro held a very different view:
"The biggest losers in the protectionist policy game are consumers. Even here. however, 'consumers' do not constitute a monolith, for there are several different consumer categories.
Bearing the greatest burden of protectionism are American retail shoppers who pay over $70 billion annually in higher prices (and reduced consumption) for products ranging from autos, bicycles, and color TVs to shoes, shirts, and cutlery."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 65
We find it very interesting given we already discussed the trend of "de-globalization" in this blog on numerous occasions, particularly again in January 2018 in our post entitled "The Twain-Laird Duel":
"In numerous conversations we have mused around the rise of populism in conjunction with protectionism, which represents clearly a negative headwind for global trade and is therefore bullish gold. The rhetoric of the new US administration has gathered steam and there are already mounting pressure to that effect. Furthermore, in our recent conversation "Bracket creep", which describes the process by which inflation pushes wages and salaries into higher tax brackets, leading to a fiscal drag situation, we indicated that with declining productivity and quality with wages pressure building up, this could mean companies, in order to maintain their profit margins would need to increase their prices. Protectionism, in our view, is inherently inflationary in nature. To preserve corporate margins, output prices will need to rise, that simple, and it is already happening.
Productivity in the US has been eviscerated. We feel we are increasingly moving from cooperation to "non-cooperation", a sort of "deglobalization". " - source Macronomics, January 2018
It is a theme we approached in January 2015 in our conversation "The Pigou effect" when we quoted the books The Trap and The Response from Sir James Goldsmith published in 1993 and 1994. Hedge Fund manager Crispin Odey given in an interview with Nils Pratley in the UK newspaper The Guardian on the 20th of February 2015:
“1994 is when we were all slathering about the idea of a world economy, and what it is going to do as we open up,” says Odey.

“And Goldsmith basically says: ‘Hey, be careful about this because it is fine to have trade between peoples who have the same lifestyles and cost structures and everything else. But, actually, if you encourage companies to relocate and put their factories in the cheapest place and sell to the most expensive, you in the end destroy the communities that you come from. And there will come a point where the productivity gains from the cheapest also decline, at which point you have a real problem on your hands’ – And we are kind of there.” - source The Guardian
Sir Jimmy Goldsmith's great 1994 interview following the publication of his book "The Trap" which was eerily prescient. He violently criticizes the GATT and the curse of globalization as denounced as well by the great French economist (and scientist) Maurice Allais.

In response to the critics, Sir Jimmy Goldsmith wrote a lengthy but great thoughtful reply called "The Response" (link provided):

"Hindley would prefer to reduce earnings substantially rather than 'block trade'. In other words, he would prefer to sacrifice the well-being of the nation rather than his free-trade ideology. He has forgotten that the purpose of the economy is to serve society, not the other way round. A successful economy increases wages, employment and social stability. Reducing wages is a sign of failure. There is no glory in competing in a worldwide race to lower the standard of living of one's own nation. " Sir Jimmy Goldsmith
Real wage growth has been the Fed's greatest headache and probably the absence of it has been of the main reasons behind President Trump's election.

For those wondering what comes next, as discussed in January 2018, weak dollar policy is a natural extension of protectionist policies. FX policy should not be ignored in trade policy. They go hand in hand as a reminder.

We indicated in January 2017 in our conversation "The Woozle effect" the following:
"If indeed the US administration is serious on getting a tough stance on global trade then obviously, this will be bullish gold but the big Woozle effect is that it will be as well negative on the US dollar." - source Macronomics, January 2017
This we think has the potential to happen in the coming week/months provided there is no deal between China and the United States. The trajectory of real yields matter when it comes to gold.

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at a potential turn in the credit cycle, given the very weak tone coming from the latest US employment report and nonfarm payrolls coming at 75 K on a back of the blunt use of tariffs as economic policy which is already neutering gains from tax cuts.

  • Macro and Credit - Tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy? Handle with care.
  • Final charts - Fed it taking it "easy" not "easing" yet.

  • Macro and Credit - Tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy? Handle with care.
On the question of the "misuse" of tariffs as economic policy we read with interest the latest article on Asia Times from our esteemed former colleague David P. Goldman in his article from the 7th of June entitled "How I nailed the May payroll bust":
"Today’s data is a warning to the Trump Administration about the misuse of tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy.  The uncertainty generated by the threats to global supply chains from China to Mexico discourages capital investment. The tariffs already in place have taken back almost the whole of Trump’s $930 tax cut for the average American family, according to research by the New York Federal Reserve. That explains why retail sales are growing just 1% a year in real terms.
America’s growth spurt during the past two years has been Donald Trump’s great success. Tax cuts and deregulation (as well as the promise of more deregulation) revived the animal spirits of small business and produced an employment boom. But the president’s reliance on tariffs threatens to undo his good work, and prejudice his chances for re-election in 2020.
Paradoxically, the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad payroll report is very good news for equities. It will strengthen the position of those among Trump’s counselors who have warned him that tariff wars are bad news for the economy. Sadly, the equity market depends more on how the president reacts to economic news than on the economic news itself." - source David P. Goldman, Asia Times
Already the trade war rhetoric is taking its toll on employment levels with US automakers coming under pressure recently. From China to the U.K., Germany, Canada and the U.S., companies have announced at least 38,000 job cuts in the past six months. Auto demand is increasingly becoming collateral damage when it comes to the ongoing tensions between the United States and China. As we pointed out in our last conversation, Germany is greatly exposed to the rising tensions. This can be ascertained by the latest industrial production print for April falling by 1.9%, the most since August 2014 and four times more than expected. 

As well, inflation expectations have been trending down, particularly in Europe with oil prices down 22% since its April high and as we stated before, where oil prices go, so does US High Yield and in particular the Energy sector as per the below chart from Bank of America Merrill Lynch for the month to date returns for May 2019, with CCCs being highly exposed to oil prices woes (Energy sector = 20.4% of face value, 15.1% of market value):
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

As the trade war intensifies, this doesn't bode well for both CAPEX and employment levels. Leaders from G20 countries will convene in Osaka on June 28 and 29 and markets are hoping for a deal between China and the United States.

In a context of weakening macro data on top of exogenous factors such as rising geopolitical tensions, no wonder the Fed has adopted a more dovish stance leading to market pundits expecting significant cuts to come during the summer hence the significant bounce we are currently seeing on the back as well of the end of the most recent true "Mexican standoff".

But what about the inverted yield curve and the potential for a recession ahead of us, one might rightly ask. On this subject we read with interest Nomura's take from their Japan Navigator note number 826 from the 3rd of June entitled "Inverted yield curve in UST market and monetary policy conduct":
"Many FOMC members have indicated that they would allow inflation rates in the 2.0-2.5% range during an economic recovery, but they are not willing to use average inflation rates from the past to constrain future policy conduct. They have also stated that monetary policy should not be used to pop asset bubbles. We believe that this question of whether the Fed should tolerate an inverted yield curve in the UST market will be a critical subtextual theme (discussed below). However, we believe that Fed Chair Jerome Powell and other mainstream Fed officials do not buy into this idea.
We expect the US-China trade dispute to reach the next stage between 4 June and the G20 meeting on 28 June, where Presidents Trump and Xi could meet. We sense that with every day that passes, markets become more convinced that an agreement between the two countries will prove difficult and a fourth round of US tariffs is on the way. Nevertheless, semiconductor stocks, which are more likely to be directly influenced, began to halt their fall this week, which suggests that the market has priced this scenario in to a considerable degree.

We do not think that a fourth round of tariffs alone would have an impact sufficient to trigger a global economic downturn. Moreover, judging from the actions of Chinese policymakers, they seem to have determined that weakening RMB would represent a risk for China as well (due to capital flight), and there are no signs that they will guide RMB to weaker levels. Unlike many economists, we believe that if negotiations essentially break down and the US goes ahead with more tariffs, China will beef up its subsidies to export companies rather than taking measures aimed at expanding domestic demand, and in this case the damage to China and the global economy would be lower than a simple estimate premised on a reduction in Chinese exports and other countries serving as substitutes. This is because Chinese companies would absorb most of the hit from tariffs and continue to export goods. No matter how much China bolsters domestic demand measures, it is difficult to paint a growth strategy for China’s economy that does not depend on US markets. Moreover, from a US perspective, it is easier to play up a “success” if tariff revenue increases and Chinese companies, rather than US consumers, are forced to bear the load. This kind of scenario suggests a high risk that US rates, which have priced in an economic downturn, will rise. This upturn could occur when the US government officially announces a fourth round. At this point, we expect EM currencies and equities as well as USD/JPY and Japanese equities to rebound, so investors should prepare for this scenario.
If the Fed cuts rates to correct inverted yield curve, it would essentially be trying to fix a problem it created itself
The Fed’s dovish members, centered on Vice Chair Clarida, view an inverted yield curve in the UST market as an important sign presaging an economic downturn, and advocate policy conduct that would avoid such an inversion. In fact, if we look at the three economic cycles since 1980, the yield curve inverted, with yields on 3m Treasury bills higher than 10yr UST yields, followed by an economic downturn (Figure 2).

We believe this inverted yield curve is not simply significant as a sign, but also indicates a situation in which a deterioration in financial institutions’ earnings environment is likely to set off a credit crunch. However, there are many problems with simplifying this issue and arguing that monetary policy should be conducted to avoid an inverted yield curve. 1) Inverted yield curves occur when the market begins to anticipate a future rate cut, but the market tends to almost automatically move in this direction when the Fed sends the message that it will end rate hikes. 2) In past cycles, there has been a lag of at least six months to two years before the economy enters a downturn after the end of rate hikes (Figure 3).

3) There have been cases, such as in 1998, when the yield curve has inverted, but the yield curve has returned to normal levels as the economy recovered. In other words, if the Fed itself decides to cut rates to correct the yield curve, which inverted in response to the Fed’s own message, it would essentially be fixing a problem of its own making. Of course, if the Fed can accurately predict the economy’s cycle (i.e., even if it stops raising rates, an economic downturn in the near future is inevitable), the Fed could probably use policy to minimize the damage of an economic downturn. However, if this is not the case, a premature rate cut could exacerbate the asset bubble and worsen the damage done by a future economic downturn. In fact, in the aforementioned 1998 example, the IT bubble worsened after the Fed cut rates.
Does the bond market have better foresight?
In addition, the theory that an inverted yield curve leads to an economic downturn tends to lead to the erroneous perception and belief that the bond market is better at predicting the economy than equities and other risk assets. However, this is simply due to differences in these financial instruments, and does not indicate any particular capacity for judgment. While bonds tend to perform better in economic downturns and periods in which inflation is falling, most risk assets are just the opposite. As a result, in economic recoveries, risk assets, not long-term yields, tend to identify the signs of a recovery and rise accordingly. Moreover, as noted above, the time lag from the inverted yield curve to an economic downturn differs considerably depending on the cycle. For example, in the cycle in the 2000s, after the yield curve inverted (from July 2006), the economy continued to expand for almost two years, and during this period long-term UST yields fell and then rose again, reaching their highest point in this cycle (June 2007). The subsequent subprime (Paribas) shock in August 2007 all but guaranteed an economic downturn (it officially began in December 2007), and we very much doubt that bond market participants predicted this shock and acted accordingly all the way back in 2006, when the yield curve began to invert.
We believe 10yr UST yields peaked at 3.23% in this cycle, but…
In this cycle, we believe that the Fed raised rates last in December 2018 and 10yr UST yields peaked just before this, in November 2018 (3.23%). As a result, in this cycle as well, observers will likely credit the bond market with having predicted an economic downturn before the risk asset market and acting accordingly (with an inverted yield curve a sign of an economic downturn). However, the bond market has not already accurately predicted the kind of event or shock that would ensure an economic downturn, which we expect to occur in the future. We suspect that, while bond investors continue to price in a rate cut and test out the market, they will coincidentally reach this kind of event. The period of time from now until the economic downturn is not predetermined, and before this event occurs, we expect to see a period (2019 H2) in which the market reverses its excessive rate cut expectations. For this reason, we believe it would make sense to wait for 10yr UST yields to rebound to about 2.60% rather than chasing yields down to 2.30% and buying." source Nomura Japan Navigator No. 826 June 2019
From a tactical perspective, we do believe that the long-end of the US yield curve has been "overbought" and we are already seeing signs of exhaustion, so no surprise to see somewhat a pullback in our favorite proxy being ETF ZROZ (strips of 25 years plus zero coupon). As well, gold is also marking a pause which can be ascertained by a bounce in real yields and the "risk-on" tone prevailing today.

When it comes to our title and the "policy game" being played, we think we are far from any meaningful "cease fire" between the United States and China. Volatility will continue to run high we think and in that context, we continue to view quality credit such as US Investment Grade as more protective than currently high beta, which in the case of US High Yield is tied up to the direction of oil prices. 

As we stated before, we would rather continue playing it on the defensive side given the many uncertainties surrounding a potential trade deal. With this ongoing "Numbers Game", while we might see unfolding a tactical bounce, fundamentals are rapidly deteriorating with this lingering confrontation. On the potential outcome we read with interest CITI's take from their Global Strategy and Macro Weekly note from the 10th of June entitled "Trade Wars: Game Theory Suggests Escalation Risk is Underestimated":
"The uncertainty around the negotiations makes for a challenging backdrop for investors. Recession risk is rising. As our Global Macro Strategy team points out; the 3m10y yield curve inverted on a closing basis for the first time this cycle at the end of May. This, they believe, could start the clock towards a recession mid- 2020. The tailwinds of fiscal policy are fading. Trade wars could be the additional shock that break the resilience of global, and US, economies (see: Global Macro Strategy Weekly: Trade War = Recession).
The GMS team offers three scenarios: (i) a trade deal at the G20; (ii) no trade deal and no Fed easing and (iii) no trade deal and aggressive Fed cuts (75bp quickly). Our current assessment is that we are in Scenario 2 but may be transitioning to Scenario 3.
Scenario One: Trade Deal at G20
  • Equities sharply higher with EM significantly outperforming as so much more is priced here for slower global trade growth. SPX~2900
  • Yields higher, probably parallel shift higher or bear flattening. 10y yields ~2.5%
  • Gold lower, maybe $1300
  • USD lower with risk on but not much as Fed easing would likely be priced out to some degree.
Scenario Two: No Trade Deal and No Fed Cuts
  • Equities sharply lower, probable full scale bear market. SPX to 2350
  • Yields sharply lower with curve twist/ bull flattening. 10yr UST to 1.50%, maybe
  • lower
  • Gold higher. $1600+
  • USD higher bar JPY
Scenario Three: No Trade Deal, Fed Cuts (75bp or more)
  • SPX higher; new highs. Other equities mixed.
  • Yields lower with bull steepening 10yr UST 1.75-2.0%
  • Gold higher on lower rates and lower USD. Target $1500
  • USD lower as carry is eroded. EUR/$ 1.15
- source CITI

We think that, right now investors are displaying two cases of "overconfidence", one being the pace and number of rate cuts coming from the Fed, second being a clear resolution between China and the United States when it comes to this much discussed trade war. Fiscal policy results are starting to be obliterated by the blunt use as economic policy instrument of tariffs. They are being used way too much by the Trump administration and it is starting to bite, not only on the employment front but, as well on earnings.

Sure the Fed might be providing some much needed support to the strains already showing up in credit markets such as rising dispersion, but the continuation of the trade war could push the US economy and the rest of the world towards recession and led to a stagflationary outcome in conjunction with wider credit spreads and that would mean trouble ahead we think. We have not reached that point but, playing this trade war game into overtime is a recipe for disaster. In that context, gold prices look likely do well if the trade war escalates further. 

The ongoing trade war could turn into a currency war, further boosting investor appetite for gold hence our negative stance on the US dollar. On the subject of the US dollar's trajectory we read with interest Deutsche Bank's take from their FX Special  Report note from the 5th of June entitled "What happens to the dollar if the Fed cuts rates?":
"We have been worried about global growth and have positioned our FX Blueprint portfolio accordingly for nearly a month now. But what happens if the Fed cuts rates as soon as July or September? How would this impact our views and what does this mean for the dollar? In this special report, we show that Fed rate cuts are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to drive the dollar weaker.
Near-term, the dollar almost always weakens in the run-up to Fed rate cuts. But dollar weakness usually does not follow through. We argue that the Fed would need to cut rates by at least 100bps for a sustained, large move lower in the dollar. In its absence, an “insurance cut” of 50-75bps will likely keep the dollar mixed with the JPY and CHF continuing to be the primary beneficiaries (they remain our favourite longs), Asia FX the primary casualty (we remain very bearish), and the EUR stuck, though vulnerable to a squeeze higher given market positioning.
If the Fed ends up cutting by a lot more, these conclusions would change however. In the event of a full Fed easing cycle, we would expect EUR/USD to head back beyond 1.20 and dollar weakness across the board, with the possible exception of Asia. Our portfolio at the moment is more closely aligned to the former, rather than the latter scenario.
Low growth tends to be good for the dollar
The dollar has been part of our defensive portfolio together with the Swiss franc and Japanese yen. Historically, the dollar tends to do well in global slowdowns. First, the US is one of the most closed economies in the world so that global slowdowns tend to be asymmetrically reflected in the rest of the world (chart 1).

Second, even though the dollar can’t claim the huge positive internal investment positions of the franc and yen (chart 2), it benefits from the shortage of dollar funding that has been well documented by the BIS, among others .

Fed rate cuts are not always bearish for the dollar
Does the dollar lose its safe-haven status when the Fed cuts rates? The short answer is, sometimes, but certainly not always. We start by looking at the last five instances of Fed easing. Two of these instances were Fed “insurance” cuts (1995 and 1998) while three were full-blown easing cycles (1989, 2001, 2007). The clear conclusion is that while the dollar nearly uniformly weakens into a Fed easing, the subsequent performance is far from consistent. Indeed, the dollar has ended up strengthening in 3 of the last 5 Fed easing cycles. The conclusion is valid for both EM and DM (charts 3 and 4).

What other central banks do matters
So, if Fed rate cuts are not a consistent driver of the dollar what else matters? The interest rate differential is a useful starting point. If the Fed is cutting but the rest of the world is cutting even more it may well be that interest rate differentials drive the dollar higher. This was indeed the case during the 1995 and 1998 insurance cuts which saw rates move sharply in favour of the USD even though the Fed cut (chart 5).

Is this a risk today? Highly unlikely. The US- rest of world differential is already sitting at record extremes and almost every other DM central bank is constrained by the zero lower bound. If the Fed is cutting rates, the rate differential should be worsening for the dollar.
The level of rates also matters
Is a narrowing interest rate differential enough to turn the dollar? It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. Take 2001 when the Fed started an easing cycle and rates collapsed against the USD. The dollar continued rallying for a year until it finally turned. What helped? First, the absolute level of US rates which made the dollar a high-yielder (chart 6).

Second, the continued strength in the US basic balance, with the dollar only peaking once the US current account deficit turned sharply wider and the dollar became a low yielder (chart 7 and 8).

Indeed, the broad dollar cycle tends to be more correlated to the absolute level of US yields that the relative changes.
Lessons for today
The dollar is in a remarkable global position today holding the developed world’s highest yields. Never before in the history of free-floating FX has the dollar held such a preeminent position. How much does the Fed need to cut for this to stop being the case? Assuming other central banks follow the forwards, the Fed would have to cut rates by 125-150 bps to a little below 1% for the dollar to lose its high-yielding preeminence. With the rates market pricing a terminal Fed funds of 1.3% we are still one or two rate cuts away from that level. This of course also assumes that central banks with high rates such as the RBA and RBNZ would not cut more than the forwards.
An alternative approach to answering this question is to look at when the dollar lost its sensitivity to changes in yields, i.e. when did the absolute level of rates start dominating over the changes in the rate differential? Looking at the beta of EUR/USD to the EU-US rate differential we note that the sensitivity of rates to FX peaked in 2017, just when the 5-yr rate differential crossed 2%. This differential is now back at 2.3%  so we are still about 30bps away from the relative changes in yields reasserting themselves in importance. Overall, we reach a similar conclusion to the previous analysis: we need to price 1 or 2 more cuts for the level of US yields to again become "low".
Two other important observations
Interest rates aside we would make two other observations. First, the developed market dollar is already at the upper end of its historical valuation bounds (chart 9).

Valuation is a powerful medium-term anchor and a natural constraint to further dollar appreciation. The conclusion is different for the dollar including EM, mostly due to the undervaluation of USD/CNY (chart 10).

This valuation discrepancy between EM and DM would support a conclusion that the dollar has far more room to strengthen against EM – especially Asia, given the nature of the global trade war – even if the Fed cuts rates. The second observation is that US flow dynamics are not sending a particularly strong signal. The dollar is strong but so is the underlying US basic balance, without any large movement either way. In other words, the market is already overweight dollar assets but there are no clear shifts either higher or lower for now.
Putting it all together, we conclude that Fed rate cuts are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to drive the dollar weaker. We argue that the Fed would need to cut rates by more than 100bps for a broad-based and sustained move lower in the dollar. In its absence, an “insurance cut” of 50-75bps will likely keep the broad dollar mixed with the JPY and CHF continuing to be the primary beneficiaries of weaker growth, EM FX (especially Asia) the primary casualty, and the EUR stuck in the 1.10s.
These relative moves are already broadly in line with our forecasts, but these would change in the event of a full-fledged easing cycle from the Fed back down to zero. In this instance, we would expect the EUR in particular to more broadly participate in a dollar down-cycle, a topic which we will investigate in a future publication." - source Deutsche Bank
If big dollar cycles are dominated by flow as indicated by Deutsche Bank, then again, the dovish Fed has finally triggered a USD sell-off it seems with hedge funds selling from a long position. If flows are indeed turning against the USD, then a US dollar weakness could be sustained.

When it comes to market expectations, and the Fed in this "Numbers game" as per our final charts below we think the Fed is "data" dependent and has noticed the slowdown but is not yet ready to go full on the brakes as the market is expecting in "overconfidence".

  • Final charts - Fed it taking it "easy" not "easing" yet.
Taking it easy is not taking it to easing and as per our above discussion we think investors are a little bit ahead of themselves when it comes to the number of cuts expected and the pace. One nonfarm payroll bad number doesn't yet make a trend though the most recent data highlights disappointment and worries from the ongoing trade war. Our final charts below comes from Wells Fargo's Weekly Economic and Financial Commentary from the 7th of June and shows the growing hints of the slowdown in conjunction with the appropriate pace of policy firming:
"Growing Hints of a Slowdown
In the midst of rising prospects of a prolonged and more pronounced trade war, data this week seemed to lend some credence to the idea that the domestic economy is beginning to succumb more materially to all the uncertainty. Nonfarm employers added just 75,000 jobs in May, missing even the lowest forecast, while downward revisions shaved off a further 75,000 from prior months’ reported gains. Average hourly earnings also missed expectations, up 0.2% on the month and 3.1% over the year, the slowest rise since September. The bond market reaction was swift; yields on both the two-year and 10-year immediately fell more than six bps, likely out of a belief that the growing hint of labor market weakness may force the Fed’s hand and induce a rate cut.

Indeed, the market has come to view a cut this year as a foregone conclusion; futures markets have priced in around 75 bps of easing this year. A more defiant stance from the Trump administration towards China and the threat of a new volley of tariffs directed against Mexico are likely driving the pessimism and risk-off attitude. Despite high-level negotiations regarding the U.S.-Mexico border situation this week, 5% tariffs on all imports from Mexico are slated to go into effect Monday, and could rise as high as 25% by October. This latest escalation more than doubles the total value of goods subject to tariffs to around $700 billion and, perhaps more worryingly, brings into stark view the willingness of the administration to use tariffs as leverage for political or diplomatic concessions, dropping even the pretense of an economic rationale. See Topic of the Week for more detail.
The question for the Fed, then, is whether markets are overreacting to trade uncertainty by expecting three cuts in a 3.6% unemployment rate economy. Noted dove James Bullard kicked off the Fedspeak on Monday, stating that a cut “may be warranted soon”, and noted that even if growth does not succumb to trade tensions significantly, lower rates would help bring inflation up to target more quickly. Chair Jay Powell took the baton on Tuesday, saying, “We are closely monitoring the implications of these developments for the U.S. economic outlook and, as always, we will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion”. Markets took these comments and ran with them, as the S&P 500 surged 2.1% on the day and remained buoyant the rest of the week. We would suggest a more leveled view, as his comments are not anything new, per se. Expectations of a ‘Powell put’ may be a bit premature, if we resist reading into his comments too deeply, and in light of Robert Kaplan’s call for patience amidst trade threats that could be reversed as quickly as the president can tweet. John Williams similarly suggested staying on the path of data dependence.

To that end, the ISM manufacturing survey fell 0.7 points to a 31-month low of 52.1, while the non-manufacturing survey rose 1.4 to 56.9, offering some evidence that the divergence between the manufacturing and the much larger service sector is persisting; in other words, the slowdown in the trade and global growth-exposed manufacturing sector has yet to spill over into the broader economy in a major way.

Still, the majority of economic data lags. The cyclical parts of the economy are already slowing, and the uncertainty over the entire economy is already here." - source Wells Fargo
To conclude we see two cases of "overconfidence", one is the pace and number of rate cuts coming from the Fed, the second is a clear resolution between China and the United States. We therefore think it is premature to bet in the "Numbers Game" run by the Fed and we would rather stick to defense and watch a little bit from the sideline rather than going again "all in" on a supposed return of the famous "infamous" Fed put. We don't think we are there yet and what matters for the Fed is financial stability overzealous markets racing ahead we think.

"The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too." -  Stephen Covey
Stay tuned!
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