Tag Archives: QE

Welcome to the Ice Age?

ice-age-3-1

Having had the weekend to digest the Bank of Japan’s shock decision to increase its quantitive easing program, I’ve a few thoughts on what this might mean for the globe.

Permafrost of a permabear

Back in 1996, hyper-bear Albert Edwards unveiled his ‘Ice Age’ thesis, arguing that the West would find itself beset by the same deflationary forces that had seen Japanese equities persistently trade far below the bubbly peaks of the 1980s. This ‘Ice Age’ entailed equities under-performing both in absolute terms and relative to bonds (falling inflation makes fixed-interest securities more attractive, since in real terms the income received rises).

Even with the wild spasms of recent decades, his extreme bearishness towards Western equity markets has been a big loser.

US5001

This hasn’t discouraged him; you can see one of his latter-day howlers on the chart below.

US5004

The bond market, however, has been considerably more sympathetic to his thesis.

10yeartreasuries1

One of his key claims was that the US 10-year government bond yield would spend a long time below 2%. It spent some time below this level in 2011 and 2012 (something many would have considered impossible a decade ago), but news that the Fed was planning to ‘taper’ its QE program sent yields sharply higher in 2013. This, along with signs of growing strength in the US economy, had analysts and institutional desks calling a continuation of the bond sell-off in 2014 (rising yields). Quite the opposite has happened. In fact, as shorts stopped out en masse last month, the 10-year yield sunk briefly below 2%. (This isn’t captured on the chart below as it only plots daily closes).

us10year1

Despite the conclusion of the Fed’s QE program, markets have been anticipating a passing of the baton to the European Central Bank (ECB) as it initiated its own asset purchase program. This has been highly EUR-negative, and the cycling of funds out of EUR exposure into USD has likely supported demand for US bonds. This strong demand for the USD, as the outlook for relative monetary settings began to clearly favour the greenback, has driven back inflationary pressures.

USCPI1

Falling inflation is uncharacteristic of an economy in an upswing, and has kept demand for bonds healthy even as equities marched higher this year. Indeed, the general absence of inflationary pressures is, to my mind, a central feature of global economy today. As I have said before, “from the US to the UK to China to Japan to Europe and even Australia, the spectre of deflation looms large over the global economy.” So although I tend to ignore Edwards’ hysterics regarding the ever-looming equities Armageddon, his Ice Age thesis, at least the deflation foundations on which it rests, is worth paying attention to.

Bank of Japan’s boreal blast

White-walker
BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda

It was into this environment, of persistently low global inflation, that the BOJ dropped its QE bombshell on Friday. This chart from the Financial Times illustrates the magnitude of the monetary stimulus afoot in Japan.

bankofjapan

The movement of foreign exchange rates, which signify the nominal value of a currency against its peers, basically maps out the relative monetary policy trajectories of the institutions that issue those currencies (central banks). When a central bank is loosening its monetary policy (or rather when markets expect that this will be the case in the future), the currency it is responsible for tends to depreciate, ceteris paribus. Conversely, when the market anticipates monetary tightening, the tendency is for the currency to appreciate. It is useful to recognize then that although currency changes hands when international trade in goods and services takes place, the ‘goods market’ has very little influence on exchange rates in the short- or medium-term, when set against the influence of the ‘capital market’. Which is to say, money changing denominations happens primarily for investing and speculative purposes. (Note: when the euro crisis was raging, currency markets oscillated primarily on a risk-on/risk-off dynamic; the EURUSD being the axis of the market’s risk temperament. After mid-2012, currency markets drifted back to a relative monetary policy dynamic.)

It is scarcely surprising then that the Japanese yen has undergone a massive depreciation since late 2012, when it became clear that the BOJ would embark on a radical expansion of the money base, or that the announcement of further easing on Friday sent the yen into freefall. (USDJPY rising indicates the yen is falling against the USD.)

USDJPY

The reason I have mentioned Albert Edwards is that back in September he received a fair amount of attention for his call on the USDJPY (from Bloomberg):

A divergence in U.S. and Japanese monetary policy — with the Fed slowing stimulus and the Bank of Japan expanding the money supply by record amounts — may have started the exchange rate moving. Now that the yen is past a tipping point, Edwards says the psychology of traders is likely to take over and turn the currency into a runaway train.

“Now we’re heading to 120, which is the 30-year support,” he said. “You break through that, and you can see it moving to 140, 150 very, very quickly indeed.”

Edwards found the yen’s price graph so compelling, he devoted an entire client note to it last week. He called it: “Presenting the most important chart for investors.”

I shared his view towards the yen wholeheartedly, although I certainly wasn’t expecting the BOJ to move this early on further stimulus, nor, consequently, that the yen would move so fast so soon (and remember that it was only by a 5-4 majority that the BOJ decided to increase its QE program on Friday).

So, with the USDJPY now on track to breach 120 within the next 6 months or so, we best reflect on some of the possible implications of this move, remembering, as always, what Aristotle may or may not have said: It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Currency chills 

A currency devaluation is akin to a tax on domestic consumption and a subsidy for domestic production. When the currency falls, it reduces the purchasing power of domestic households. This tends to cause fall in demand for imported goods, which are now more expensive relative to local goods, and an increase in demand for locally-produced goods. Total consumption tends to decline as the wealth effect dominates the substitution effect. On the production side, firms can now lower the foreign currency price they charge for their exported goods, since a lower foreign-currency price can provide them with the same revenue in domestic-currency terms. Straight away, therefore, we can see that this tendency to reduce consumption and increase production is inherently disinflationary for trading partners. The bigger the economy is, the greater the international impact of the devaluation.

(Of course, the BOJ is easing because it is trying to increase inflation in Japan. A currency devaluation raises the prices of imported goods, and it is hoped that this contributes to sustained gains in domestic prices, especially wages, and in so doing negates the need for perpetual currency depreciation. Whether this domestic goal is met is uncertain; the export of disinflationary pressures as a side-effect is not.)

Currently Japan is the third largest economy in the world. A big depreciation in the yen will therefore have important global consequences, and indeed these are likely to be playing out already.

Glacial creep

China undertook a significant currency intervention earlier this year, which has no doubt contributed to the rise in net exports in recent national accounts data.

USDCNY

This fall has been partially retraced in recent months, despite pronounced USD strength, as the People’s Bank allowed its foreign reserves to decline. Recent moves in the USDJPY, and the likelihood that it will devalue to 120 in fairly short order, therefore represent a jump in China’s real exchange rate. By and large, China still produces lower value-add products for export than Japan, for instance fully assembled automobiles and vehicle components remain Japan’s largest exports by a long way, whereas China exports few fully assembled cars (though it has developed a stronger presence in vehicle components). Nevertheless, China has been rapidly closing the gap in this regard, and therefore Japan’s currency devaluation will make it more difficult for China to compete in those higher value-add industries which Japan currently enjoys a lead.

Moreover, Japan is China’s third largest export destination (8.3% of total), and China’s largest source of imports (10%), so the sharp depreciation of the yen against the renminbi will place substantial pressure on China’s competitiveness with a very significant trade partner.  This will add to what are already difficult times in China’s economy, and if it’s not offset by stronger credit growth and a rebound in property (and there are tentative signs of both) then the PBOC may well judge it necessary to place further weight on the renminbi. Any depreciation in the renminbi would amplify China’s exporting of deflationary impulses, which has arisen from domestic overcapacity. We should therefore keep a close eye on Chinese factory data, and remain alert to any signs of a policy shifts.

There has been some improvement at the margins in Europe over the past year, with Spanish unemployment falling to 24.4% from high of 26.3% early last year. Clearly, this is still a monstrously high figure, and celebrating the fall requires a certain sadistic sense of humour. And sadly, more important than any signs of life in the periphery this year has been the weakening of the core, namely Germany. There is a risk that the Q3 national accounts will show Germany in a technical recession, and inflation has been falling (as it has across Europe). Similar to Japan, Germany’s export engine is heavily skewed towards cars and vehicle components.

Japan’s assault on the yen therefore represents a stiff challenge to Germany, whose economy has been consciously engineered to be hugely reliant on export competitiveness. So far this year the EURJPY has been largely flat, as the EUR sold off heavily in anticipation of ECB easing.

EURJPY

Now that the yen is getting hammered, a bold monetary response from the ECB is assuredly required to prevent further deterioration in Europe. Whether we get this in the near-term is debatable; there is still staunch opposition to large-scale quantitative easing from Germany. We’ll have to wait and see if Japan’s devaluation forces a capitulation from the Teutonic hawks. If the ECB stops short of a significant easing program, there is ample room for a EUR rally, which has hit the single currency area hard. Conversely, if they do deliver, it will provide yet more support for the rampaging USD rally.

The frozen core

Evidently, the discussion so far has centred on how affected countries might respond to the threat of increased competition from Japanese exports in the event that the yen continues to sell off sharply. The threat, of course, is to the production base of those countries. As Japanese production rises and consumption falls, real global aggregate demand falls and supply rises, unless the shifts in Japan are offset with less supply and more demand in other countries. But if China decides its shift to internal consumption demand entails too great a slowdown, and rescinds on its commitment to undertake structural reforms (say by devaluing the renminbi or funding more investment spending); and if Europe moves to protect domestic production by easing monetary policy, further devaluing the EUR against the USD, then clearly the international adjustment will fall upon the only economy with the wherewithal to absorb such a burden: the USandA. (Note: this is why commentators are, or should be, so interested to see China and Germany rebalance their economy towards internal consumption, not just for their own sake, but for the global economy’s.)

As exchange rates are priced in terms of other currencies, one currency’s loss is another’s gain. Given the weakness in yen, euro and sterling in the second half of the year, it is no surprise that the trade-weighted USD index has seen brisk gains. (This is not to say that the USD has been rising solely due to others weakening; it has been the divergent outlooks for monetary policies in the respective regions where each currency is used, that has led to these moves.)

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There are a few ways the US economy can react to this development, and these adjustments become more pronounced the greater USD revaluation. Essentially, a rising currency provokes the opposite responses in the home country from when it is falling. So a higher USD tends to increase consumption demand amongst US households, since their purchasing power has increased. Likewise, there is a marginal substitution away from locally-produced goods in favour of imported goods, which are now cheaper. Therefore, a rising USD exerts disinflationary pressures on the domestic economy.

A currency devaluation typically raises a country’s trade surplus, or reduce its deficit, whereas an upwards revaluation reduces the deficit or increases the surplus (speaking generally). If the US allows its currency to appreciate strongly over the next few years, the inclination will be for the US trade deficit to increase, as it responds to higher foreign production and lower domestic production, and lower foreign consumption and higher domestic consumption. But if the US is consuming increasingly more than it is producing, it must borrow the difference from foreign lenders. Luckily, higher foreign production and lower foreign consumption necessarily entails higher foreign savings, which can be lent to the US to fund its trade deficits. In fact, this process is just about automatic in the modern international system. Since the US issues the reserve currency, there is very little it can do to impede the flow of capital into or out of the USD.

This increase in capital flows into the US economy can either be directed to investment, be it productive or unproductive, or consumption. During the US housing bubble last decade, the US found itself accumulating massive foreign liabilities which were funnelled into speculative (unproductive) housing investment and consumption. Without the government stepping in and running big deficits, the private financial sector was left to allocate the capital, and did a spectacularly bad job of it.

This brings us to one of my core arguments concerning the present state of the global economy; a sustained USD bull market likely means the US must experience another private credit boom, funding unproductive investment and consumption, or that the government needs to run big deficits. (it is no use arguing that private business investment ought to rise; a strong USD reduces US competitiveness and more or less automatically crimps private business investment). If neither of these conditions are met, then the US economy will experience a prolonged period of weakness and constantly flirt with frigid deflation.

Some qualifications 

The Federal Reserve could respond by loosening monetary policy further, and in so doing quash the USD rally and negate the debt-or-deflation trade-off. I examined the possibility of more QE last month, and felt that there was far more likelihood of an extension of zero interest rates than more asset purchases. Nevertheless, the risk of more QE rises the stronger the USD gets and the further inflation falls. More QE from the Fed would then mean an (unintentionally) coordinated global monetary stimulus, which would reduce the necessary adjustments in goods and capital markets from currency movements (since the movements would be less pronounced). This would be fine, except that owing to the nature of modern central banking, this stimulus would almost certainly feed asset bubbles long before it fed general goods and services inflation, setting the global economy up for another crash at some point in the future.

Another consideration pertains to developments in energy markets. When the US was running monster trade deficits during the housing bubble last decade, the most important surplus nations were the East Asian economies (China especially) and petroleum exporters. (See chart below.)

As an aside, there is a school of thought, to which I subscribe, which argues that these global imbalances were a fundamental condition of the various bubbles leading up to the crashes of 2008 and then the Euro crisis. (Although, arguing that they themselves were the cause of financial crises merely demands an explanation of the causes of the global imbalances.)

globalCA

The shale gas and then oil booms have therefore been of signal importance to the US economy’s reduced susceptibility to large trade deficits.

US oil

Whenever we generalise about the mechanics of economic adjustment, such as when we assert that a currency appreciation forces a deterioration in a country’s trade balance, we must be alert to the myriad of real-world nuances that could prevent such a response. There is no doubt that cheaper oil, should it be sustained, provides a significant boost for the US economy, even with the shift towards domestic production. More to the point, if the US manages to reduce the cost of shale drilling, fend off the challenges from overseas and continue pushing its oil production higher at a rapid clip, then this phenomenon could dominate the effects of a stronger dollar. In which case the trade balance may not worsen, and the debt-or-deflation trade-off I believe would arise from such a development may not be a meaningful consideration. All it would mean is that part of the burden of adjustment from the various currency devaluations around the world would shift to petroleum exporters (hardly an unwelcome prospect).

In summary, in the absence of a renewed preparedness to deploy monetary stimulus from the Fed, the appreciating USD could well force upon the US a choice between rising indebtedness (again) or stagnant prices and labour markets. As I see it, the manner of this adjustment will depend heavily on developments in the crude oil market, and the degree to which other major economies take upon themselves the burden of consumption. Most importantly, if China suddenly started running big trade deficits owing to higher domestic consumption demand, this would lessen the need for the US to choose between debt or deflation.

One final point bears mentioning. It may seem odd to be mulling over the global economy’s polar prospects in an era of mass money printing. Surely this is all going to be madly inflationary at some stage? However, it is important to remember the delivery channel of quantitive easing. When central banks wish to expand the money supply, the attempt to inject money into the economy by purchasing financial assets (mainly government bonds) from financial institutions. In modern experience, the money those financial institutions receive in exchange for their assets is overwhelming left idle as reserves deposited with the central bank. Hence the extraordinary monetary stimulus of recent history has left little in the way of an inflationary legacy. This could all change if for some reason banks embarked on a mad lending spree, pumping those idle reserves into the economy. For now though, there seems scant chance of that.

‘Strayan connection

As usual, Australia would be tossed about like flotsam in the surf were all this to play out. First and most obviously, a strong USD typically hurts commodity prices. Much of this would be offset by a weakening Australian dollar, and there are obviously much more pressing concerns with say iron ore than a strong USD. The long suffering coal industry would come under further pressure, as US exports directly compete with Australian coal (all the more so after the shale gas and oil booms displaced coal as a power source in the US). However, of much greater concern to Australia is the risks that the yen devaluation poses to our emerging LNG industry.

In March 2011, Japan was devastated by a tragic triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. One understandable consequence of this disaster was the shutting down of all Japan’s nuclear reactors, which required an immediate switch to imported fossil fuels. This drove Japan’s trade balance into deficit, where it has remained in spite of the massive currency depreciation from late 2012.

Japantradebalance

One reason why this has happened by been the inelastic nature of Japan’s demand for energy. With few available alternatives, Japan has needed to import the same amount of oil, gas and coal to meet its domestic needs, and all this imported fuel has become more expensive following the yen depreciation. There was already concern within certain segments of corporate Japan that the costs of higher energy were offsetting the competitiveness improvements from the lower currency.

If the USDJPY is indeed on its way to 120 and beyond, I find it hard to see Japan weathering this depreciation in the yen without turning the nuclear reactors back on. It is true that there is strong community opposition to this, but the more expensive energy becomes, the less sway this sentiment will hold. There have already been moves to restart some reactors lately. Should this occur on a large scale, it will pile pressure on to Australia’s gold-plated LNG industry, which is already facing challenges from US and Russian gas, and the slump in crude oil prices to which LNG contract prices are linked.

Further reading

For a more detailed discussion of the mechanics of international trade and capital flows, and the issue of global imbalances generally, see Michael Pettis’ book, The Great Rebalancing, and/or his blog, China Financial Markets.

There was a spirited debate last decade, prior to the financial crisis, concerning the sustainability global imbalances, dealing especially with the question of the US current account deficit. One influential school of thought argued that the US current account deficit was a natural and healthy feature of the international economic system, largely explained by the inability of immature financial markets in developing countries to fully allocate their savings domestically, which entailed no painful adjustment. This view was exemplified by Dooley, Folkerts-Landau & Garber (2003) and (2004), but was evident also in Chinn & Ito (2005), Bordo (2005), and Backus, Henriksen, Lambert & Telmer (2009).

On the other hand, some authors did recognize the risks building up due to ballooning global imbalances, and sounded warnings accordingly. Examples include, Obstfeld & Rogoff (2005), Edwards (2005), and Roubini & Setser (2004).

It should come as little surprise that I side wholeheartedly with the latter camp.

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Golden Trouble

The barbarous bears are bearing down upon the barbarous relic.

I’ve had a negative view on gold for some time, which stemmed naturally from an uncontroversial bullishness towards the USD.

Gold threatened support at $1180 earlier this month, but did not break it. At the time, I wrote that this was a “garden variety technical pattern which often would be interpreted as a bullish signal, but that’s certainly not how I’m looking at this market.”

gold1

Despite noting room for a short-term bounce, my negative view of gold was reasoned thusly:

The entire ‘buy gold because the Fed is printing money, stoking inflation and trashing the dollar’ theme has been unraveling since early last year, as it became clear that QE would end with no inflation in sight and the dollar outperforming, rather than collapsing. Depending on the severity of the equities downturn and the follow through on the dollar, I’d be looking for gold to break $1180 by the end of the year, heading below $1000 in fairly short order.

I wavered a little on the timeframe during the last few weeks, as the risk increased of dovish concessions from the Fed. But this week’s Fed meeting dispelled those market musings, and gold has been clobbered accordingly.

golddaily

Looking perhaps a little oversold on the the dailies, but support at 1180 is now firmly in the crosshairs. Should it break, my more aggressively bearish outlook on gold would be in play.

Equities’ gain, gold’s pain

One point I highlighted in that discussion on gold earlier this month was the support which an equities sell-off would provide gold. As you can see, gold moved in inverse lockstep with the S&P this month.

S&P31:10

Spiking volatility, signifying heightened risk aversion, typically favours gold. Thus the emphatic equities rebound (which I should say has so far made a mockery of my concerns of a more turbulent end to QE; question now is if it can establish and hold a new high), and the calming of market nerves, has also hurt gold.

Update (31/102014)

Going, going… Gold!

Update (5/10/2014)

The rout has deepened as the mighty USD dispatches all challengers.

GOLDST

On a longer timeframe we can see that the current breakdown is reminiscent of the 2013 collapse. We shouldn’t read too much into these kinds of patterns but the overall environment for gold is heavily bearish, and obviously I’m looking for substantial downside here.

GOLDLT

The unstoppable dollar makes a gold rally hard to come by. Inflation is going to be turning hard south if the USD holds and extends its recent gains (bearing in mind that its looking rather overbought against the yen). Yields will remain subdued. The only friend gold has really is the Fed; a decidedly more dovish tone from the Fed is required to rescue gold in the near term, and the prospects of that appear remote.

Was that it for volatility?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece which was mostly concerned with the re-emergence of volatility in markets.

In it, I noted that the S&P500 had breached what was surely the most-watched trend line in the world, and looked poised for a deeper sell-off.

sandpLT

A deeper sell-off we got, but a prolonged one we certainly did not.

S&P500

That violent whipsaw has seen S&P reclaim the trend, if only just. The VIX has accordingly been smacked down just as quickly as it rose (though it remains elevated relative to recent extreme lows).

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So, was that the little vol episode over and done with? Can we get on with the smooth rally again now?

We shouldn’t be quite so hasty. As you can see on these charts from Elliot Clarke of Westpac, the aftermath of the previous conclusions of QE ushered in significant volatility.

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The title of that second chart, I might add, speaks a most important truth. Quantitive easing is colloquially known as money printing. For something to be considered money, it requires certain attributes, most commonly that it’s a store of value, a unit of account and a medium of exchange. The last of those is where the QE hits a snag. The Fed cannot legally create money and exchange it for anything other than financial assets; it creates liquidity and uses it to purchase government bonds and asset-backed securities from commercial banks. In so doing, those banks see a decline in bonds on their balance sheet and an increase in reserves. The Fed would like those commercial banks to then lend those reserves out into the economy and stimulate economic activity, but for the most part they have not.

Much of this new ‘money’ being created by the Fed through its QE programs is therefore sitting idly in its virtual vaults. That being so, how does QE affect asset prices aside from those that the Fed is actively transacting in? (Government bonds and ABS.)

The main channel is the suppression of volatility. Through its Permanent Open Market Operations (QE), the Fed becomes a giant, regimented provider of liquidity in bond markets, thereby reducing interest rate volatility. This naturally then flows into other markets. Part of this process is direct, by virtue of the Fed’s participation in markets, and part of it occurs as a result of the general shift in market psychology: participants believe that the QE lowers volatility, meaning they transact less, driving down volatility further. Participants believe that others believe this, and so on and so forth.

In my view, it is the decline in volatility that is the critical channel through which QE supports asset prices, especially equities; more so that lower yields. Risk is not confined to the variance of returns, but that is a key measure used in the market. Lower variance of returns encourages risk-taking, driving up risk assets such as equities. (The steady rally in equities is of course itself reflected by even lower volatility, so the process is self-reinforcing. This works in reverse when volatility starts to rise.)

The key now is whether the S&P can hold on the trend line, and carry global equities in the process. Recommending equities this time around is that the US economy is in unquestionably better sharp than it was at the end of either of the last two programs, and that the fed funds rate isn’t actually going to rise for some time yet. Nevertheless, rather than signalling an abrupt end to this latest volatility episode, I’m still of the view that major asset markets will experience significant ructions over the next few months, unless the Fed surprises on Thursday by delaying the end of its bond buying program or substantively prolonging the expected timing of its first rate hike. Likewise, a big surprise from the ECB with respect to its own QE program would also be supportive of more relaxed market conditions.

A bond bear market or a dollar bull market?

There was one other thing I wanted to discuss, which is the likely trade-off between a bear market in bonds and a bull market in the USD. The former was widely expected to arrive with the end of QE, the strengthening of the US economy and the eventual normalisation of short-term US interest rates. The Fed buys US government bonds as part of its QE program, thus the providing demand. When this demand is removed from the market, so the common view held, bond prices would decline and yields rise. Supporting this view was the violent sell-off in bonds that accompanied the announcement last year that the Fed would ‘taper’ its bond-buying program (in late May).

US_10year

Alas, this year, and in spite of clear indications of economic improvement in the US, especially in the labour market, yields have been trending down. In the last couple of months this movement was especially pronounced. The chart above significantly understates the intraday volatility the week before last, since it only captures daily closes. At one point, yields fell below 1.9% as bond bears stopped out en masse.

Part of the reason for this slump in yields (rally in bond prices) has been the ongoing absence of inflationary pressures globally, which if anything seem to be abating further. Economic recoveries are typically associated with rising inflation, which makes bonds less attractive. Tepid inflation has therefore supported bonds. Europe is flirting with deflation, Japan is battling to maintain what little inflationary momentum was generated by its sizeable currency depreciation, and China’s chronic overcapacity encourages to its ongoing export of ‘disinflationary’ pressures (see steel, for instance). Adding to this has been the sharp decline in oil prices, which is inherently disinflationary, although not of the sort that demands a monetary response.

Throw a strong USD into this mix and the US is going to find it extremely hard to lift inflation into a range that warrants ‘normal’ interest rate settings. So if the USD continues to rally, I find it very hard to see a trending bear market in bonds. The only thing I can really imagine that would facilitate a simultaneous USD bull market and bond bear market would be another credit boom, to support US demand and prices (particularly wages, which are more or less flat real terms), to such a degree that the strong dollar does not completely quash inflation.

There’s probably something I haven’t considered there, but it’s an interesting scenario to ponder, I reckon.

Straya T’day 10/10/2014

Arise, Sir Vol!

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Chart from John Kicklighter

We’ve finally been treated to some decent volatility in the past couple of months. Although it was initially concentrated in foreign exchange markets as the USD rediscovered its mojo, we’re now seeing sizeable moves across the asset spectrum.

We’ll start with FX.

It’s no secret that the USD has been on a rampage these last couple of months (I’m preparing a post on the history of the USD post-Bretton Woods in which I’ll try to contextualise the current outlook for the dollar and its ramifications).

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Here’s how it’s looking on a long-term basis:

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The proximate cause behind the timing of the rally was somewhat unclear, but the overarching case for a stronger USD has been sound for some time. The US is in the midst of the longest period of uninterrupted jobs growth in its history, at 55 weeks and counting, and the unemployment rate is down to 5.9% (here’s the latest jobs report). However, countering this is the fact that the decline in the unemployment rate has been largely accounted for by the decline in the participation rate, suggesting considerable slack remains in the labour market.

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Some of this is certainly a consequence of retiring baby-boomers, although the timing and pace of the fall, coinciding as it did with the onset of recession, makes me a bit suspicious of this as the dominant explanation. Nevertheless, the market excitedly seized on a paper from the Fed last month arguing that the fall in labour force participation was largely structural; the implication being that labour markets would tighten without a big rise in the employment-to-population ratio, and the Fed would be compelled to adjust monetary policy accordingly.

If this is the case, it’s not yet showing up in wage pressures. Inflation measures have been creeping up lately, but not in any concerning fashion. In any case, the strong dollar will knock these pressures on the head, should it continue to run as I expect it to.

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So although the US is improving, it’s hardly charging. The case for a stronger dollar has therefore centred on the miserable state of its peers. Germany is sinking into recession, adding to the persistent weakness plaguing the Eurozone, Japan is looking sickly after hiking the sales tax earlier this year, and China is doing its best to rebalance without detonating its debt time-bomb. Combined with the end of QE this month, the USD is looking the least ugly out of a pretty ordinary bunch.

Black gold

Many commodities have struggled under the weight of a resurgent USD, chief among them being the anti-dollar: gold.

gold1

Gold managed to bounce off its double bottom at $1180, forming a triple bottom now. This is garden variety technical pattern which often would be interpreted as a bullish signal, but that’s certainly not how I’m looking at this market.

As you can see on the short-term USD index chart, the greenback gave up some of its gains this week as the Fed minutes showed some members were concerned about the negative impacts of weak external demand and the high dollar on the US economy. In truth the dollar really just needed a bit of breather after the run it’d had. This consolidation gave gold another kick up. It may be that gold finds a little further to rally, especially if equities continue to sell off, but in time expect critical support at $1180 to give way and gold to go much lower.

The entire ‘buy gold because the Fed is printing money, stoking inflation and trashing the dollar’ theme has been unraveling since early last year, as it became clear that QE would end with no inflation in sight and the dollar outperforming, rather than collapsing. Depending on the severity of the equities downturn and the followthrough on the dollar, I’d be looking for gold to break $1180 by the end of the year, heading below $1000 in fairly short order.

Oil has also been suffering under the weight of the strong dollar, although more importantly its fundamentals have been growing increasingly bearish. The US is awash with oil in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

US oil

This is the result of the shale and tight oil boom, which allowed previously inaccessible gas and then oil resources to be exploited. There are plenty of reasons to believe that this will be a relatively short lived spike in US production, but for now all you can do is recline and admire America’s capacity to revitalise itself at the most critical of moments.

Adding to the supply mix has been the return of Libyan crude to world markets, the stability of Iraqi output despite its dire geopolitical environment, and the disinclination among OPEC producers to cut output, as many assumed they would. This could well be a reflection of political tensions in the Middle East. The Gulf Arab states are embroiled in a vicious proxy war at present against the Shi’ite bloc led by Iran. Iran is seriously suffering with oil at current prices, giving the Arab states an incentive to maintain supplies and turn the screws on Iran. That’s just speculation of course; we’ll need to wait until the November meeting for a better gauge on OPEC’s response to the price slide.

Against the supply backdrop we have anaemic ‘growth’ in Japan and Europe, and signs of a meaningful slowdown in China, giving us a perfect storm battering oil prices.

brentoil

Energy stocks are being crushed accordingly, with the S&P energy sector index yesterday posting its biggest one-day fall since April last year.

The recent surge in US oil production has depended on high oil prices and continuous investment due to the rapid depletion rate of shale wells. This ought to provide a floor of sorts for prices. However, as we saw with natural gas a few year back, producers kept the gas flowing long after they were doing so unprofitably, simply because the cash flow was preferable to shutting down production altogether. This leaves scope for an overshoot on the downside. There’s also the aforementioned situation with OPEC to consider. On the demand side, I see little prospect of a substantial pick-up outside the US. Together with the stronger dollar, this adds up to a high likelihood of more pain ahead for oil.

Equities on edge

After flirting with the lower bound of its long-term channel earlier this year, the Salt&Peppa has decisively broken through support.

sandpLT

It’s now around 5% off the September high, and looking like it has room for a proper correction (>10% fall).

If we take a closer look at recent price action, we get a better impression of how poorly the market has traveled this week.

sandpchart

That’s three breaks of the trend line. The second rally back above support was provoked by the Fed minutes I mentioned before. It was a desperate rally and the swiftness with which it was rejected will be a shot in the arm to the bears.

The IMF meeting this weekend, at which a number of Fed members will be speaking, heightens risk of holding positions into the close tonight. It’s looking as though the various speakers, Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer in particular, will need to pull something generously dovish out of the bag to rescue equities in the short-term.

In some ways you’ve got to marvel at the manner in which this (potential!) correction in equities is unfolding. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody with even a passing curiosity in markets who isn’t aware that QE has supported stock prices. Likewise, every man and his broker has known that the end of QE at least risked a serious dislocation in asset markets. As the great Stanley Druckenmiller put it just over 12 months ago, “How in the world does anyone think when the actual exit (from QE) happens that prices are not going to respond?”

How indeed. Prices are responding just as so many expected them to, but not really in anticipation of the end of QE, but rather right as its happening. It’s a poignant reminder of the level of complacency that accompanies low-volatility, financially repressed asset markets, where the hunt for yield dominates over all other concerns.

Whatever happens with equities in the immediate future, it’s looking as though the days of leveraging up and exploiting yield wherever you can find it, with scarcely a care for the risk involved, is on the way out. With the global growth phantasm fading (again), and the end of QE to boot, markets are set to get much more belligerent and unforgiving.

Volatility is back.

Home sweet home

One consequence of all this excitement for us Aussies has been a sharp and most welcome drop in the AUDUSD.

AUDUSD2

Similar to gold, AUDUSD bounced off the previous low set earlier this year. It then staged a heroic but short-lived rebound, which was smacked down ruthlessly. Hard to see support holding for long.

AUD-exposed firms with a strong export profile therefore remain the best prospect among Australian shares. However, I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to rush in, as the downside risks to equities at the moment are palpable. (Note that the chart below reflects after-market futures trading, the close was 5188.)

AUS200

With equities well down for the calendar year now, it’s worth taking a look at the sectoral breakdown within the market.

Unsurprisingly, the materials index (XMJ) has been getting pummelled this year. Financials (XFJ) are up slightly but they’ve had a rough ride of late as well, particularly as foreign money hastily bails out of all AUD exposure (which of course has hastened the AUD slide).

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Charts built using Yahoo Finance

Both consumer staples (XSJ) and discretionary (XDJ) are down year-to-date, and this is reflective of lacklustre consumer sentiment and subdued retail sales post-budget. Health stocks (XHJ) are looking healthy, although that’s almost entirely because of CSL’s rally in August after its profit beat and buyback plan announcement (CSL is roughly half the index).

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Industrials (XNJ) have mostly sold-off in sympathy with the market since early September. Energy stocks (XEJ) briefly joined utilities (XUJ) as the star performers of 2014, until the collapse in oil prices spoiled the party. This leaves the humble XUJ as the stand-out sector so far in 2014. The driver of the strength in the utilities space this year has been natural gas pipelines operator, APA. As Australia prepares to ramp up its LNG exports, APA has been in the box seat to exploit bottlenecks in gas transportation networks. Even after the recent broad market selloff, APA is still up around 20% for 2014.

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Steel-ore complex

Better price action for steel and iron ore today in China, with the most-traded rebar contract up 1.6% and Dalian iron ore up 2.3%. More in the usual place.

Here’s what spot is looking like at:

Iron ore3

Still fishing for a bottom.

There has been a noticeable thawing in the policy stance towards property in China recently, and if this helps property prices stabilise then it could provide the impetus for a bit of restocking by steel mills, bestowing upon us the fabled Q4 rebound. The trouble is, along with steel and iron ore, property is oversupplied to a degree it hasn’t been in the past; it’s going to take a truly massive credit splurge to reboot the bubble now. And all signs indicate the government isn’t stupid enough to do that.

Still, the worst may well be past for the iron ore miners in 2014. But they’d better pray the AUDUSD has fallen hard by the time the pain resumes in 2015.