The latest myth of a European recovery came crashing down two weeks ago when Eurostat reported an inflation print of 0.7% (putting Europe's official inflation below that of Japan's 1.1%), followed promptly by a surprise rate cut by Mario Draghi which achieves nothing but sends a message that the ECB is, impotently, watching the collapse in European inflation and loan creation coupled by an ongoing rise in unemployment to record levels (not to mention the record prints in the amount of peripheral bad debt). Needless to say, all of this is largely aggravated by the EURUSD which until a week ago was trading at a two year high against the dollar, and while helpful for Germany, makes the so-needed external rebelancing of the peripheral Eurozone countries next to impossible. Which means that like it or not, and certainly as long as hawkish Germany says "nein", Draghi is stuck in a corner when it comes to truly decisive inflation-boosting actions. But what is Draghi to do? Well, according to BNP's Paul-Mortimer Lee, it should join the "no holds barred" monetary "policy" of the Fed and the BOJ, and promptly resume a €50 billion per month QE.
As the S&P 500 continues to push to one new high after the next, the bullish arguments of valuation have quietly given way to "it's all about the Fed." The biggest angst that weighs on professional, and retail investors alike, are not deteriorating economic strength, weak revenue growth or concerns over the next political drama - but rather when will the Fed pull its support from the financial markets. For the Federal Reserve, they are now caught in the same "liquidity trap" that has been the history of Japan for the last three decades. Should we have an expectation that the same monetary policies employed by Japan will have a different outcome in the U.S? More importantly, this is no longer a domestic question - but rather a global one since every major central bank is now engaged in a coordinated infusion of liquidity. Will the Federal Reserve "taper" in December or March - it's possible. However, the revulsion by the markets, combined with the deterioration of economic growth, will likely lead to a quick reversal of any such a decision.
The extreme experiment of current US monetary policy has evolved (as we noted yesterday), from explicit end-dates, to unlimited end-dates, to threshold-based end-dates. Of course, this 'threshold' was no problem for the liquidty whores when unemployment rates were extremely high themselves, but as the world awoke to what we have been pointing out - that it's all a mirage of collapsing participation rates - the FOMC (and sell-side strategists) realized that the endgame may be 'too close'. Cue Goldman's Jan Hatzius, who in today's note, citing two influential Fed staff economists, shifts the base case and forecasts that the Fed will lower its threshold for rate hikes to 6.0% (and perhaps as low as 5.5%) as early as December (as a dovish forward-guidance balance to an expected Taper announcement).
With the recent adoption of explicit forward guidance as a stimulative policy tool by the major European central banks, virtually every major central bank is now using the tool in some form. The potential benefits and dangers of such policies as central bank communications have evolved are unclear as "the form of guidance" matters. As Robin Brooks notes, and is so well illusrated below in the example of the Riksbank's and Norges Bank's 'failures', "[In terms of implications for rates] the jury is still out on how well forward guidance works. What is clear, though, is that markets prefer 'deeds' to 'words'."
While the specter of the debt ceiling debate continues to haunt the halls of Washington D.C. it is the state of retail sales that investors should be potentially focusing on. While the latest retail sales figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis are unavailable due to the government shutdown; we can look at other data sources to derive the trend and direction of consumer spending as we head into the beginning of the biggest shopping periods of the year - Halloween, Thanks Giving (Black Friday) and Christmas. The recent downturns in consumer confidence and spending are likely being exacerbated by the controversy in Washington; but it is clear that the consumer was already feeling the pressure of the surge in interest rates, higher energy and food costs and stagnant wages. As we have warned in the past - these divergences do not last forever and tend to end very badly.
Despite the ongoing antics in Washington the market remains less than 5 points (at the time of this writing) from its all-time closing high. If the markets were concerned about economics, fundamentals or potential default; stock prices would be significantly lower. The reality is that as long as the Federal Reserve remains convicted to its accommodative policies the argument for rationality is trumped by the delusions of Mo' Money. We have seen these "Teflon" markets before - do we really need to remind you what happens to a Teflon pan when you finally scratch the surface? In the meantime here are 5 things to ponder as the week progresses...
As we wrap up a most interesting, and volatile, week there are some things that we have discussed previously that are now brewing, interesting points to consider and risks to be aware of. In this regard we thought we would share a few things that caught our attention:
1) Angela Merkel Election No So Assured
2) The Debt Ceiling Debate
3) The "Taper" Indecision Is Back
4) In The "Economy Is Improving" Camp
5) Syria Already Set To Miss A Deadline
6) Everything Else...
Simply put, complacency is not an option; Stocks are overvalued, rates are rising, earnings are deteriorating and despite signs of short term economic improvements the data trends remain within negative downtrends. Investors, however, have disregarded fundamentals as irrelevant as long as the Federal Reserve remains committed to its accommodative policies. The problem is that no one really knows has this will turn out and the current assumptions are based upon past performance.
Japan’s core CPI (which excludes perishables) surged 0.7% y/y in July, but the upturn is largely due to higher prices for energy that reflect rising import prices due the yen’s weakness. Despite global exuberance at Abe's "progress", BNP notes that there are still no signs of price growth for rent and service prices, factors behind Japan’s protracted deflation. Crucially, BNP believes that Abenomics could lead to four possible medium-term outcomes: (1) Continued deflation (35% probability), (2) Financial repression (40%), (3) High inflation (15%), and(4) Happy end to deflation via revived trend growth (10%). Furthermore, even if this happy ending scenario were to unfold, that does not mean that structural problems, like the swelling public debt and insolvent social welfare, will be headed for resolution.
In a world in which when the numbers don't comply with the propaganda, the only recourse is to change the rules, and if that fails, change the numbers themselves (see Fukushima radiation count, US GDP, Employment numbers, anything out of Europe, etc.) it was only a matter of time before that last sticking point of the grand made up narrative, the lack of economic improvement in the European despite evil, evil austerity (which somehow has resulted in record debt which is rising faster than expected virtually everywhere in Europe) resulting in unpalatable deficits, was magically "fixed." This was resolved moments ago when as the AP reports, "European Union finance officials have reached a preliminary agreement to change the way the bloc determines some deficit figures, which might lessen the pressure for austerity measures in crisis-hit economies." In other words, Europe's "recovery" will now be based on even more made up numbers. One wonders: since Europe is finally admitting that the numbers are fake, i.e., lying, are things finally getting truly serious again?
For what it's worth, here is Goldman's Jan Hatzius with a Q&A on the Fed's announcement, which now sees the first tapering to start in December, QE to conclude (three months after their prior forecast), and expects the first rate hike to take place in 2016: 8 years after the start of the financial crisis: "We now expect the QE tapering process to start at the December 2013 FOMC meeting and to conclude in September 2014, three months later than before. Our baseline is that the first step will consist of a $10bn cut in Treasury purchases. These steps remain data dependent in all respects--timing, size, and composition. A change in the explicit forward guidance for the federal funds rate is also likely, probably at the same time as the first tapering step. Our baseline is an indication that the 6.5% unemployment threshold is conditional on a forecast of a near-term return of inflation to 2%, and that a lower threshold would apply otherwise. But there are also other options, such as an outright inflation floor or an outright reduction in the unemployment threshold. Our forecast for the first hike in the funds rate remains early 2016. The reasons are the large output gap, persistent below-target inflation, and some weight on "optimal control" considerations."
Until six days before Lehman Brothers collapsed five years ago, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s maintained the firm’s investment-grade rating of “A.” Moody’s waited even longer, downgrading Lehman one business day before it collapsed. How could reputable ratings agencies – and investment banks – misjudge things so badly? Regulators, bankers, and ratings agencies bear much of the blame for the crisis. But the near-meltdown was not so much a failure of capitalism as it was a failure of contemporary economic models’ understanding of the role and functioning of financial markets – and, more broadly, instability – in capitalist economies. Yet the mainstream of the economics profession insists that such mechanistic models retain validity.
As most know by now, over the past month or so, pressure on the currencies of EM deficit countries has intensified again. Goldman's EM research group, however, remains negative on EM FX, bonds, and even stocks suggesting using any strength, like this week's exuberance to add protection or cover any remaining longs. Central banks in most of these countries have become more active in attempting to stem pressure in the last two weeks. But with a Fed decision on ‘tapering’ looming, investors have also become more cautious and are now focused on the parallels with prior crisis periods. In what follows, Goldman provides some concise answers to the questions on the EM landscape that we encounter most often, confirming their longer-held bearish bias.
September is likely to be dominated by a number of key event risks, in addition to ongoing uncertainty around the US growth outlook, the Fed’s reaction function and heightened EM volatility. We highlight the major events and likely market implications.
The JGB market was completely unfazed by the news that the prime minister’s office was reconsidering the planned consumption tax hike. While the tax hike is unlikely to be changed; in BNP's view, the market’s lack of response to tail risk looks like proof that its function has been impaired by the BoJ’s massive buying. Even if the Abe regime is opting for financial repression to reduce the public debt, however, BNP warns that some degree of fiscal reform is needed to control the long-term interest rate. If the unfazed market is deemed to mean that fiscal reforms can be shelved without fear of a bond-yield spike as long as massive BoJ buying continues, serious problems could ensue.
Something is way off: either the unemployment data is very much wrong and the real unemployment rate is far higher especially when normalized for the collapsing labor participation rate and the surge in part-time and temp workers, or the GDP calculation is incorrect and the economy is growing at a 4%+ rate. (It isn't). The scarier implication is that in addition to all other seasonally adjusted economic data points which have become painfully unreliable, daily Treasury tax receipts must also now be added to the docket of meaningless and corrupt data points. The question of just how the Treasury could explain a massive (and deficit boosting) cash discrepancy could only be answered if somehow the Fed is found to be parking cash directly into the Treasury's secret basement.