Are Recession Risks Rising?

It is incredible that just a few months ago most analysts were expecting at least two if not three interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.  How quickly things change.  Markets are pricing in at least a couple of rate cuts by the FOMC while US Treasury yields have fallen sharply as growth concerns have intensified, even as the hard economic has not yet turned that bad.  Recession risks are once again being actively talked about as trade fears intensify, with President Trump threatening increased tariffs on both Mexico and China.  As I noted earlier this week, trade tensions have escalated.

Reflecting this, core bond markets have rallied sharply, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 60bps so far this year, while bund yields are negative out to 10 years.  Historically such a plunge would be associated with a sharp weakening in growth expectations and onset of recession.  However, equity markets are holding up better; the US S&P 500 has dropped around 6.8% from its highs but is still up close to 10% for the year.  Even Chinese equities are up close to 20% this year despite falling close to 13% from their highs.  Equities could be the last shoe to fall.

In currency markets the US dollar has come under pressure recently but is still stronger versus most currencies this year except notably Japanese and Canadian dollar among major currencies and the likes of Russian rouble and Thai baht among emerging market currencies.  On the other end of the spectrum Turkish lira and Argentine peso have fallen most, but their weakness has largely been idiosyncratic.  In a weaker growth environment, and one in which global trade is hit hard, it would be particularly negative for trade orientated EM economies and currencies.

The US dollar has a natural advantage compared to most major currencies at present in that it has a relatively higher yield. Anyone wishing to sell or go short would need to pay away this yield.  However, if the market is increasingly pricing in rate cuts, the USD looks like a much less attractive proposition and this is what appears to be happening now as investors offload long USD positions build up over past months.  Further USD weakness is likely at least in the short term, but it always hard to write the USDs resilience off.

Going forward much will of course depend on tariffs.  If President Trump implements tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese exports to the US as he has threatened this would hurt global growth as would tariffs on Mexico.  Neither is guaranteed and could still be averted.  Even if these tariffs are implemented fears of recession still appear to be overdone.  Growth will certainly slow in the months ahead as indicated by forward looking indicators such manufacturing purchasing managers’ indices, but there is little in terms of data yet to suggest that recession is on the cards.

 

Advertisements

Euro sentiment dives to a new low

Equity markets in Europe began the year in positive mood, with gains led by the German DAX index following the release of firmer than expected readings for Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI). Chinese data which showed an increase in its PMI also helped to boost sentiment. The Eurozone data however, remained at a weak level, contracting for a fifth month in a row, and still consistent with Eurozone recession.

It seems unlikely that equity gains will be sustained over the rest of this week, with risk aversion set to remain elevated against the background of ongoing Eurozone debt and global growth concerns. Indeed, both French and German leaders in their new-year messages warned about the risks ahead. A meeting between Germany’s Merkel and France’s Sarkozy is scheduled for January 9th ahead of an EU Finance Ministers summit on January 23rd. It is unlikely that there will be any significant policy decisions in Europe before then.

Meanwhile, press reports noting that Germany is pushing for an even bigger write down of Greek debt than previously agreed will only add to risk aversion over the short term. The report in the Greek press highlighted the prospect of a 75% write down of Greek debt a far cry from the 20% proposed some months ago. Eurozone markets continue to be haunted by the prospects of credit downgrades by major ratings agencies at a time when many countries have to issue large amounts of debt to satisfy their funding requirements.

Against this background the EUR is set to remain under pressure, with a notable drop below EUR/JPY 100, its lowest level in over a decade registered. Reflecting the deterioration in sentiment for the currency, EUR speculative position hit an all time low at the end of last year according to the CFTC IMM data. This is unlikely to reverse quickly, with sentiment set to deteriorate further over coming weeks and months as the EUR slides further.

Q1 Economic Review: Elections, Recovery and Underemployment

I was recently interview by Sital Ruparelia for his website dedicated to “Career & Talent Management Solutions“, on my views on Q1 Economic Review: Elections, Recovery and Underemployment.

Sital is a regular guest on BBC Radio offering career advice and job search tips to listeners. Being a regular contributor and specialist for several leading on line resources including eFinancial Careers and Career Hub (voted number 1 blog by ‘HR World’), Sital’s career advice has also been featured in BusinessWeek online.

As you’ll see from the transcript of the interview below, I’m still cautiously optimistic about the prospects for 2010 and predicts a slow drawn out recovery with plenty of hiccups along the way.

Sital: Mitul, when we spoke in December to look at your predictions for 2010, you were cautiously optimistic about economic recovery in 2010. What’s your take on things after the first quarter?

Click here to read the rest…

Is the Fed trying to support the dollar?

Did Fed Chairman Bernanke really provide any real support to the dollar when he said at the Board of Governors conference on Thursday that the Fed will be prepared to tighten monetary policy when the outlook for the economy “has improved sufficiently”. Various newswires report that these comments have given the dollar some relief but the reality is that Bernanke only stated the obvious. Of course the Fed has to raise interest rates at some point and most likely this will be when the economic recovery looks sustainable. There is indication when this point in time will be, however.

In fact there was unsurprisingly no sign from Bernanke that the Fed was preparing to raise rates any time soon. As was noted in the September 23 Fed FOMC statement Bernanke reiterated that the Fed “believe that accommodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period”. An extended period could mean at the least some months but even years and this is no exaggeration.

In 2001 the Fed did not begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in 1990-91 rates did not go up until close to 3 years after recession ended. Arguably this recession was worse in terms of depth and breadth suggesting that it will take a long time before the Fed even contemplates reversing policy. In any case the first step is to reduce the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Admittedly there has been some suggestions from other Fed members that when interest rates are raised it may be done “with greater force” as stated by Fed Governor Warsh recently but others such as NY Fed President Dudley have said that the pace of recovery “is not likely to be robust”, suggesting a more cautious tone and also highlighting that there is some debate within the Fed about the timing of exit strategies and raising interest rates.

There is no doubt that some Fed members are becoming more nervous about holding policy at such an accommodative level but it could still be several months before policy is reversed given the massive excess capacity in the product and labour markets and benign outlook for inflation. Judging by past history markets have little to be nervous about in terms of an early rate hike.

For the dollar this is bad news and as noted in my previous post the dollar will suffer from a growing yield disadvantage as other countries raise interest rates ahead of the Fed. The dollar may have benefited from some short covering at the end of the week and this could have been provoked by Bernanke’s comments but if so, the dollar’s gains are likely to be short-lived as investors take the opportunity of better levels to take short positions in the currency.

Recovery hopes spoiled by the consumer

News that US Q2 GDP dropped by less than expected, with the 1% fall in GDP over the quarter far smaller than the annualised 6.4% drop in the previous quarter, adds to the plethora of evidence highlighting that the US recession is coming closer to ending.  The bad news, albeit backward looking was revealed in the downward revisions to growth in the previous quarters, which indicated that the recession has been more severe than previously thought.  

Within the Q2 GDP data the details revealed that consumer spending weakened by far more than expected. The recession is also breaking all sorts of records as the annual 3.9% decline in growth was the biggest since WWII and the fourth quarterly decline in a row was the longest on record. Nonetheless, inventories look a lot leaner following their sharp drop over the quarter and the deterioration in business investment appears to be slowing.  The data also showed that the Fed´s preferred gauge of inflation (core PCE deflator) remained relatively well behaved.

The downward revisions to past data and the fact that growth was boosted in Q2 by government spending as well as very weak consumer spending will takes some of the shine off the less than forecast drop in GDP.  Nonetheless, the data is still backward looking.  The evidence of recovery highlighted in recent housing data as well as some bottoming out in manufacturing conditions, taken together with less severe readings in jobs data  are difficult to ignore.  This was echoed in the Fed´s Beige Book which revealed that economic deterioration was becoming less marked.

The most worrying aspect of the report and something that cannot be downplayed however, is consumer spending. Massive wealth loss, rising unemployment, tight credit conditions, reduced income and consumer deleveraging all point to a very subdued outlook for the US consumer in the months ahead and only a gradual pace of economic recovery. The US savings rate is set to move higher even from its current 15 year high and spending on big ticket items will remain fragile at best.   Although the upcoming US jobs report will likely show a less severe pace of Job losses in July, the drop in payrolls will still remain significant and hardly  conducive of a turnaround in spending. 

Although some policy makers have indicated that policy should not be kept too loose for too long the weak consumer outlook suggests that inflation is likely to remain subdued for a long time to come.  So whilst it is easy to get excited about the signs of recovery increasingly being revealed in economic data this should not be taken as a cue to reverse policy. The recovery process remains a “long, hard, slog” and the massive excess capacity in the global economy, especially  in developed countries suggests that interest rates will remain at ultra low levels for many months.

Some clues to central bank thinking will be seen over coming days as interest rate decisions in Australia, UK, and Eurozone move into focus. Although none of the Banks are expected to tighten policy it will be interesting to see whether the rhetoric becomes more hawkish. The RBA in particular will likely indicate that the room for further rate cuts has diminished. In Europe, following the very soft inflation data in July the ECB will be comfortable in its current policy settings.  In the UK attention will focus on the BoE´s asset purchase programme and the possibility of increasing purchases from the current GBP 125 billion, especially after the MPC surprisingly did not increase purchases at its last meeting.

Why the Fed should be in no hurry to hike rates

Equity markets struggled to gain traction last week and finally lost ground registering their first weekly decline in month.  It finally looks as though markets are succumbing to the inevitable; the realisation that the recovery is going to be a rocky ride but neither will it be rapid or aggressive.  Markets look as though they have just about run out of fuel and after registering major relief that the global economy was not falling into an endless whole and that financial markets were not going to implode, the equity rally has finally come to a point where it will need more than just news about “green shoots” to keep it going. 

One question that has been raised in particular in bond markets and in interest rate futures pricing is whether these “green shoots” have accelerated the timing of the end of quantitative easing and/or higher interest rates.  Although the markets have retraced some of the tightening expectations that had built in following the May US jobs report there will be a lot of attention on whether the Fed will attempt to allay market concerns that current policy settings will result in inflation running out of control and necessitate a hike in interest rates. 

The Fed’s job shouldn’t be too difficult. In usual circumstances the expansion of the money supply undertaken by the Fed would have had major implications for inflation.  However, the circulation of money (money multiplier) in the economy has collapsed during the recession as consumers have been increasingly reluctant to borrow and lenders have become increasingly reluctant to lend.  The end result has been to blunt the impact of Fed policy.  Of course, once the multiplier picks up the Fed will need to be quick to remove its massive policy accommodation without fuelling a rise in inflation.  If it didn’t it would be bad both for long term interest rates as well as the dollar. 

Although the current policy of quantitative easing is untested and therefore has a strong element of risk attached to it the reality is that the Fed is unlikely to have too much of a problem on its hands.  The explanation for this is that there will be plenty of slack in the economy for months if not years to come.  The labour market continues to loosen and as the US unemployment rate increases most probably well in excess of 10%, wage pressures will continue to be driven down.  

In addition there is plenty of excess capacity in the manufacturing sector and as the May industrial production report revealed the capacity utilisation rate dropped to 68.3%, a hefty 12.6% below its average for 1972-2008.  Inflation data continues to remain subdued as revealed by last week’s release core inflation remains comfortable at a 1.8% annual rate.   Weaker corporate pricing power suggests that core inflation will remain subdued over coming months and will even fall further, so there will be little threat to Fed policy.  

The output gap (difference between real GDP and potential GDP) remains wide and according to CBO estimates of potential GDP the economy will end the year growing at around 8% below its full capacity.  Even if the economy grows above potential for the next few years it may only just close the output gap and subsequently begin fuelling inflation pressures.  The bigger risk is that the economy grows slowly over coming years and takes several years to close the output gap. 

Taking a perspective of past Fed rate hikes following the last two recessions, interest rate markets should take some solace.  In 2001 the Fed begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in the 1990-91 recession rates did not go up until close to 3 years following the end of recession.  Arguably this recession is worse in terms of depth and breadth suggesting that it will take a long time before the Fed even contemplates reversing policy.

%d bloggers like this: