FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

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Central Banks Galore

Although markets are quietening down and liquidity is thinning ahead of the holidays there are still a few important and potentially market moving events this week.   These include several central bank meetings, with the Fed FOMC at the top of the pile on Wednesday.  The Fed is widely expected to hike by 25bp to between 2.25% and 2.50% and remove any remaining forward guidance.

A few weeks ago there was little doubt that the Fed would hike rates this month, but since then it has looked like less of a done deal.  Dovish comments from Fed officials suggest that there will be a lot of attention on Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, especially following his recent comments that interest rates are “just below neutral”.   Although the Fed is likely to hike, it is likely to be seen as a dovish hike, which ought to leave the USD without much support.

In Asia there are three central bank meetings in focus.  On Wednesday the Bank of Thailand (BoT) is likely to hike its benchmark by 25bps to 1.75%, largely due to financial imbalances (household debt and bad loans) rather than inflation concerns.  On Thursday Taiwan’s central bank meeting (CBC) is likely to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1.375%, with low and declining inflation, suggesting the long held status quo will be maintained.

Also on Thursday I expect no change in policy by Bank Indonesia. Inflation is clearly non-threatening from BI’s perspective and unless the IDR weakens anew, BI will increasingly be in a position to keep its powder dry. Elsewhere in Asia, the Bank of Japan will be in focus.  No change in policy is widely expected on Thursday, with the central bank still well away from any tightening in policy given still low inflation.

RBI Governor Patel’s resignation hits India’s markets

Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Patel resigned yesterday in a surprise move.  Patel cited “personal reasons” but it is likely to have much to do with tensions between the government and RBI.  Although it had appeared they had reached a compromise, it appears that Patel didn’t feel that the RBI came out of it well. Patel’s resignation came just ahead of a RBI board meeting on Friday, and has hit India’s markets.

The timing is not good.  Patel’s resignation comes just ahead of the release of five state election results today, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, all having gone to the polls. Exit polls have suggested a weaker showing for PM Modi’s BJP, with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan likely to deliver blows to the BJP.  The outcome of the elections will be scrutinised for clued ahead of next year’s general elections.

Issues such as dealing with non-bank financial companies (NBFCs), implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code and even interest rate setting, have all been under scrutiny over recent months. How to deal with tightening liquidity has been a source of contention, with the government wanting the RBI to do more to ease liquidity and lending conditions. The RBI pushed back against the government’s request for a
higher payout from central bank reserves.

Although the government has not yet announced a replacement to Patel it will clearly be important that whoever it is, will be seen as independent of the government. The RBI under Patel has been seen to be overly hawkish by some and in this respect the government may be able to install someone who is more open to easing both monetary policy and lending constraints.The next steps will be important.

If the government nominates someone to replace Patel who is seen as more susceptible to political influence it could have much further and deeper negative consequences for India’s markets.  If however, the government is seen to nominate someone who can maintain the independence of the RBI it will bode well for confidence in Indian assets.

US-China trade tensions show little sign of ending

Increasing tensions at the APEC summit between the US and China, which resulted in the failure to issue a joint communique (for the first time in APEC’s 29 year history) highlight the risks to any agreement at the G20 summit at the end of this month.   Consequently the chances of US tariffs on $250bn of Chinese goods rising from 10% to 25% in the new year remain  high as does the risks of tariffs on the remaining $267bn of goods exported to the US from China.  Contentious issues such as forced technology transfers remain a key stumbling block.

As the Trump-Xi meeting at the G20 leaders summit approaches, hopes of an agreement will grow, but as the APEC summit showed, there are still plenty of issues to negotiate.  US officials feel that China has not gone far enough to alleviate their concerns, especially on the topic of technology, with the hawks in the US administration likely to continue to maintain pressure on China to do more.  As it stands, prospects of a deal do not look good, suggesting that the trade war will intensify in the months ahead.

Despite all of this, the CNY CFETS trade weighted index has been remarkably stable and China’s focus on financial stability may continue as China avoids provoking the US and tries to limit the risks of intensifying capital outflows.  China may be wary of allowing a repeat of the drop in CNY that took place in June and July this year, for fear of fuelling an increase in domestic capital outflows.  However, if the USD strengthens further in broad terms, a break of USDCNY 7.00 is inevitable soon, even with a stable trade weighted currency.

Worsening China Economic News

There was more bad news on the data front from China.  Data released yesterday revealed a further slowing in the manufacturing sector. The Caixin purchasing managers index (PMI) dropped to 50.0 in September, its lowest reading since May 2017. This index which is far more weighted towards smaller companies is more sensitive to export concerns. Further pressure on sentiment is likely over coming months as tariffs bite, with prospects of another $267bn of US tariffs against China still very much alive.

The official China manufacturing PMI fell to 50.8, its lowest since February 2018, from 51.3 in August. Reflecting worsening trade tensions, the new export orders component of the index fell to 48, its fourth consecutive contraction and lowest reading since 2016. In contrast the non-manufacturing PMI strengthened to 54.9 from 51.2 in August reflecting firm service sector conditions. S

Separately China’s central bank, the PBoC stated on Saturday that it will maintain a prudent and neutral monetary policy stance while maintaining ample liquidity. This implies further targeted easing. The data may fuel further pressure for a weaker Chinese currency path in the weeks ahead though it is unlikely that China will revert to the fast pace of CNY depreciation registered over June.

 

US dollar weakness providing relief

The US dollar index has weakened since mid-August 2018 although weakness in the broad trade weighted USD has become more apparent since the beginning of this month.  Despite a further increase in US yields, 10 year treasury yields have risen in recent weeks to close to 3.1%, the USD has surprisingly not benefited.  It is not clear what is driving USD weakness but improving risk appetite is likely to be a factor. Markets have been increasingly long USDs and this positioning overhang has also acted as a restraint on the USD.

Most G10 currencies have benefitted in September, with The Swedish krona (SEK), Norwegian Krone (NOK) and British pound (GBP) gaining most.  The Japanese yen (JPY) on the other hand has been the only G10 currency to weaken this month as an improvement in risk appetite has led to reduced safe haven demand for the currency.

In Asia most currencies are still weaker versus the dollar over September, with the Indian rupee leading the declines.  Once again Asia’s current account deficit countries (India, Indonesia, and Philippines) have underperformed most others though the authorities in all three countries have become more aggressive in terms of trying to defend their currencies.  Indeed, The Philippines and Indonesia are likely to raise policy interest rates tomorrow while the chance of a rate hike from India’s central bank next week has risen.

As the USD weakens it will increasingly help many emerging market currencies.   The likes of the Argentinian peso, Turkish lira and Brazilian real have been particularly badly beaten up, dropping 51.3%, 38.5% and 18.8%, respectively this year.  Although much of the reason for their declines have been idiosyncratic in nature, USD weakness would provide a major source of relief.  It’s too early to suggest that this drop in the USD is anything more than a correction especially given the proximity to the Fed FOMC decision later, but early signs are positive.

 

Trade war heats up

After the US administration announced that it will impose tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports to the US, China responded by announcing retaliatory tariffs on $60 billion of US goods.

The US tariffs of 10% will be implemented on September 24.  The tariffs could rise to 25% by the beginning of next year if no deal is reached between the US and China. This is important as it implies some breathing space for a deal and means that the immediate impact is less severe.

There have been some exemptions on goods that were on the original list including smart watches and Bluetooth devices. Aside for allowing time for negotiation the delay in increasing to 25% to 1 Jan 2019 also gives US manufacturers time to look for alternative supply chains.

The reality is that these tariffs should not be surprising. There has been little room for compromise from the beginning. China wants to advance technologically as revealed in its “Made In China 2025” policy as part of its efforts to escape the so-called middle income trap by fostering technological progress and movement up the value chain.

In contrast the US clearly sees China’s policy as a threat to its technological dominance especially as the US holds China responsible for intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers.US administration hawks including trade advisor Peter Navarro and US trade representative Lighthizer were always unlikely to accept anything less than a full blown climb down by China, with moderates such as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and head of the National Economic Council Kudlow unable to hold enough sway to prevent this.

President Trump stated that if China retaliates the US will pursue further tariffs on the remainder of $267bn of Chinese imports. This now looks like a forgone conclusion as China has retaliated.

Further escalation from China could target US energy exports such as coal and crude oil. China could also target key materials necessary for US hi-tech manufacturers. Another option for China given the lack of room for tit for tat tariffs is to ramp up regulations on US companies making it more difficult to access Chinese markets. It could give preference to non-US companies while Chinese media could steer the public away from US products. Such non trade measures could be quite impactful.

It seems unlikely that after allowing a rapid fall in the renminbi (CNY) and then implementing measures to stabilise the currency (in trade weighted terms) China would allow another strong depreciation of the CNY to retaliate against US tariffs. Even so, as long as China can effectively manage any resultant capital outflows and pressure on FX reserves, it may still eventually allow further CNY depreciation versus the USD amid fundamental economics pressures.

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