Recession vs. Inflation Battle Rages On

The recession vs. inflation battle is increasingly shifting towards the former as reflected in the recent paring back in US Federal Reserve tightening expectations and growing market pricing of rate cuts beginning as soon as early next year.  The weakness in the US July Services purchasing managers index (PMI) added more weight to this argument.  This week’s second quarter US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data is likely to confirm two quarters of negative growth, which should mean technical recession though in the case of the US, recession is defined by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months”.  Either way, the US economy is on a softer path.

This week is a big one for events and data. The Fed is widely expected to hike US policy rates by 75 basis points tomorrow. Expectations of a bigger 100bps move have been pared back. If the Fed does hike by 75bp it will likely result in interest rates reaching a neutral rate (the theoretical federal funds rate at which the stance of Federal Reserve monetary policy is neither accommodative nor restrictive). At this meeting there will be a lot of focus on the Fed’s forward guidance but in reality the magnitude of hikes at the next FOMC meeting in September will be contingent on key inflation releases and other data, with two inflation reports (10 August and 13 September) to be published ahead of the next Fed meeting.

In Europe there was yet more disappointing economic news this week, with the German July IFO business sentiment survey falling sharply. The data gave a similar message to last week’s weak PMIs, provides yet more evidence that the German economy is falling into recession.   News that Russia has cut gas deliveries to Europe through Nord Stream 1 will only add to such concerns.  After surprising with a 50bp rate hike last week, the ECB arguably faces a bigger problem than the Fed.  At least in the US, the consumer is still quite resilient, with demand holding up well, while in contrast, demand is weak in Europe and the economy is sliding into recession at a time when inflation is around four times higher than target. 

Emerging markets have found some respite from the pull back in the US dollar over recent days, but it is questionable how far the dollar will sustain any pull back.  Increased worries about the US economy and a paring back of Fed tightening expectations could damage the dollar further, but let’s not forget that the Fed is still tightening more rapidly than many other major central banks, which ought to limit any US dollar weakness.  Even so, even if it’s a short-term phenomenon, emerging market currencies and bonds will find some relief from a softer dollar tone for now.  That said, many frontier economies such as in North Africa and South Asia are likely to struggle from higher food and energy prices for some months to come. If the dollar does resume its ascent it will only add to their pain. 

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.

 

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?

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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.

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