Plan B

Global and US equity markets are hitting new all-time highs at an almost metronomic rate while the VIX continues to hover around a historically-low 11. Moreover, major currencies have remained within narrow ranges in the past couple of months.

Rising global economic activity, still accommodative central bank monetary policy, a historically average crude oil price and increasingly realistic prospect of US tax cuts, among others, continue to buoy global financial markets and tame asset price volatility.

Financial markets have seemingly largely ignored macro, political and geopolitical risks which include 1) monetary policy uncertainty and risk of central banks “getting it wrong”, 2) the impact on emerging markets from higher rates and stronger funding currencies, 3) the shaky underpinnings of global economic growth and 4) political uncertainty in Europe.

The question is whether governments and central banks have a Plan B to reflate their economies and/or support financial markets in the event of an exogenous shock to global growth and/or sharp correction in global financial markets.

The willingness of the private sector in developed markets to borrow more in order to fund economic activity would likely be greatly tested given already high levels of indebtedness and I would not expect corporates or households to be the main source of reflation.

Similarly, the ability and willingness of developed central banks to cut policy rates further and re-start QE programs would be limited in my view.

Precedent suggests that central banks in emerging markets, including China, would likely use considerable FX reserves of around $8trn to slow, if not stop, any shock-induced, rapid and/or sustained depreciation in their currencies.

However, aggregate data mask significant country-side variations while large percentage changes in FX reserves tell us little about their absolute size.

Governments in developed economies could ultimately take over from central banks in a more pivotal role while the governments of China and other Asian economies have repeatedly shown their willingness and scope to use a broad arsenal of measures.

Read the article in full on my blog.

Bank of England – Trick rather than treat

The Bank of England (BoE) hiked rates 25bp yesterday for the first time in a decade, as expected, with recent domestic and global macro data seemingly helping the Monetary Policy Council inch over the rate-hiking start line.

But that was not real story, with financial markets always likely to look beyond the headline decision and focus instead on the underlying message.

Markets’ dovish reaction in the past 24 hours suggests that they zeroed in on BoE Governor Carney’s view that future rate hikes would be gradual and limited.

The Sterling Nominal Effective Exchange Rate is down 1.4% to the bottom of a 5-week range and markets are now pricing only a 34% probability of a 25bp hike in February.

Carney’s cautious outlook for the policy rate’s path is in line with my expectations that macro data and the cloak of uncertainty which surrounds Brexit will limit the need and room for the BoE to tighten monetary policy.

Fundamentally, the UK economy remains fragile, with lacklustre GDP growth of only 1% in Q1-Q3 2017 lagging growth in other G7 economies, and the medium-term outlook remains uncertain at best, in my view.

Weak retail sales and household consumption growth of only 0.5% in H1 is clearly acting as a drag on overall economic growth.

A key reason is that growth in economy-wide real earnings has slowed sharply in the past two years, in turn the by-product of slowing growth in employment and real earnings.

Moreover, the household savings rate is an already very low 6% while commercial banks are looking to tighten lending standards and pass on yesterday’s rate hike to borrowers.

With this backdrop and likely slowdown in imported inflation, core and headline CPI-inflation may be close to peaking, in my view, although there is of course the no small-matter of Brexit, a known unknown of considerable magnitude.

Governor Carney’s clear message that the BoE may not need to hike much to get inflation back down to 2% in coming years is somewhat reminiscent of the US Federal Reserve’s policy stance in 2015 and 2016.

It is possible, in my view, that the BoE’s rate hiking cycle could mirror the Fed’s with the BoE only delivering one (or perhaps two) hikes in 2018, in which case markets may need to further reduce their expectations of a February 2018 rate hike.

Read the full article on my website.

UK: Land of Hope & Glory…but mostly Confusion

The lyrics of Genesis’ 1986 hit “Land of Confusion” were penned over 30 years ago, with the English rock band satirising Ronald Reagan’s US presidency (see Figure 1). Specifically, they allude to the confusion fuelled by opportunist politicians in a fast-changing world beset by acute challenges. But, in my view, they portray with uncanny accuracy the UK in 2017 as Prime Minister Theresa May and her government, Parliament and the Bank of England feel their way towards Brexit.

Read the full article on my website.

UK Election: Clutching defeat from the jaws of victory

With the votes having been counted for 649 of the 650-seats in the House of Commons, the ruling Conservatives have 318 seats, a net loss of 12 seats. Labour, the main opposition party, won 261 (+32).

Even if the Conservatives win the 650th seat, they will at best be 7 seats short of an absolute majority and 5 seats short of a working majority – a hung parliament.

Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the Conservatives would form an informal alliance with the Northern Irish DUP which won 10 seats. The DUP would support the Conservatives in key votes, likely in exchange for some say on government policy.

Theresa May’s future seems secure for now but medium-term I would expect her position to come under close scrutiny and a party-leadership battle remains a distinct possibility.

Sterling has weakened about 1.5% post election, in line with my and market expectations. The Conservatives’ loss of seats raises serious questions about Theresa May’s leadership, her decision to trigger early elections and the risk of a party leadership battle to oust her.

Moreover, markets will likely remain concerned about the shelf-life of a Conservative-DUP alliance and its ability to push legislation through parliament.

However, I also see scope for Sterling’s downturn to fade and even reverse in due course. To be clear, a V-shaped Sterling recovery would likely remain elusive.

Two key questions pertain to the likelihood of this new Conservative-DUP formal alliance 1) securing an advantageous EU deal and 2) opting for a “hard” or “soft” version of Brexit.

If anything, the past two months have reinforced my view that the government is ill-equipped, ill-prepared and lacking in institutional capacity to negotiate complex deals with the EU and non-EU partners.

The composition of parliament and its take on Brexit leave Theresa May in somewhat of a bind. The government may therefore have little choice but to seek support from some of the 322 opposition MPs who on the whole favour the UK remaining in the EU or at the very least a “soft” version of Brexit.

So while I do not expect a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, I do see a possibility of the government toning down its rhetoric and potentially opting for a softer version of Brexit – a development which UK financial markets would welcome in my view.

At the very least, this election has further weakened the idea that nationalist parties in Europe are gaining the upper hand.

Read UK Election: Clutching defeat from the jaws of victory in full.

UK General Election Scenario Analysis – Impact on Policy, Theresa May and Sterling

In less than 24 hours the British electorate will start voting in the election for the 650-seat House of Commons with the result expected early in the morning of Friday 9th June.

While the last general election was only held two years ago, there is arguably as much if not more at stake this time round than in May 2015.

Opinion polls still point to the ruling Conservatives winning a record-high 44% of the national vote ahead of the opposition Labour Party, but polling agencies which in the past have misestimated true voting intentions still display great inconsistency.

Ultimately it is the number of seats which British parties command which matters and the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it difficult to predict.

You Gov’s constituency-specific model forecasts the Conservatives winning only 304 seats as a result of a record number of “wasted” votes, a 26-seat loss and well short of both a working and absolute majority. Labour would increase its seat numbers from 229 to 266.

This would result in a hung parliament and either a coalition or minority government.

My own model points to the Conservatives winning around 360 seats (55.4% of total) and Labour 212 seats. Admittedly, this prediction is based on a number of assumptions, namely the net share of votes which Conservatives gain from other parties as well as voter turnout.

Whether the Conservatives significantly improve on their current 330 seats or fail to secure a parliamentary majority remains a tough call and there is an almost infinite number of possible outcomes.

However, I have narrowed down in Figure 10 the number of seats the Conservatives could win to eight possible scenarios, in each case assessing i) Their probability; ii) Their numerical impact on the Conservatives’ majority (or lack thereof); and iii) The risk of opposition parties and/or Conservative backbenchers high-jacking the policy agenda.

Figure 11 assesses for each of the eight scenarios their likely impact on iv) Theresa May’s standing within the Conservative Party and v) Sterling and currency volatility.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, two events beyond British shores also scheduled for 8th June – the ECB’s policy meeting and Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee – will conceivably exacerbate Sterling volatility.

Read ‘UK General Election Scenario Analysis – Impact on Policy, Theresa May and Sterling‘ on my website.

US, UK and global GDP growth update – Put the champagne on ice

US GDP data weakest of a disappointing lot….

Data released today show that Q1 2017 real GDP growth:

  • In the US slowed to 0.7 quarter-on-quarter (qoq) annualised, from 2.1% qoq in Q4 2016 – the weakest growth rate in three years (see Figure 1);
  • In the UK halved to 0.3% qoq – the weakest growth rate in a year;
  • In France slowed to 0.3% qoq from 0.5% qoq in Q4 2016; and
  • In Spain rose to 0.8% qoq from 0.7% qoq in Q4 2016.
Read the full article on my website.

French politics, UK macro data and possible GBP/EUR downside

The GBP/EUR cross is at year-highs but continues to struggle to breach the 1.20 mark, as it did on a number of occasions in the second half of 2016. Sterling has been buoyed by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for early general elections on 8th June while the euro remains in reasonably narrow trading ranges as we head into Sunday’s French presidential election first round.

With four presidential candidates polling between 18.5% and 23.5%, it is still a close call (see Figure 1). But I am sticking to my core scenario that independent centre-left candidate Emmanuel Macron will fill one of the top two spots to make it to the 7th May run-off, which I my view would be welcomed by French financial markets and the euro even if markets remain jittery over the next fortnight (see The Ultimate Guide to the 2017 French Elections, Part IV, 13 April 2017).

At the same time, the ever-changing political scene in the UK can do little near-term to avert the headwinds to GDP growth stemming from falling real wages and retail sales. With this in mind, I see the risk to GBP/EUR biased to the downside in coming weeks, particularly if both Macron and Republican candidate François Fillon earn their place in the second round.

Read the full article here.

BANK OF ENGLAND AND INFLATION – SENSE OF DÉJÀ-VU?

UK retail sales in Q1 likely contracted from Q4 2016, despite their rebound in February.

Falling real wages and slowing household borrowing are likely to further dampen retail sales and consumption growth going forward.

The still large pool of available workers is seemingly limiting their wage-bargaining power, with nominal wage growth falling behind rising inflation.

Moreover, investment growth is still only making a negligible contribution to GDP growth ahead of the British government’s decision to trigger Article 50 on 29th March.

Much of the rise in inflation in recent months is attributable to imported inflation driven by Sterling’s depreciation since November 2015 with little evidence of demand-led inflation.

This situation is reminiscent of 2007-2008 when Sterling’s collapse fuelled imported and in turn headline inflation.

Should Sterling remain broadly unchanged going forward, its year-on-year pace of depreciation, currently around 9%, would slow from June onwards and hit zero towards end-year according to my estimates, in turn dampening imported inflation.

I would expect retailers to stabilise prices to maintain market share in the face of tepid demand and for wage-inflation expectations to remain modest. This was certainly the case in the 12 months to September 2009 with CPI-inflation falling from 5.2% yoy to 1.1% yoy.

The question is whether the BoE is willing to look beyond a potentially temporary rise in UK inflation – as Governor Mark Carney suggested – or whether it tries to short-circuit any self-reinforcing rise in prices.

My base-line scenario is that the BoE will look beyond the current rise in UK inflation, unless at least one of three conditions materialise:

(1)       Nominal wage growth accelerates, comfortably outstripping headline inflation and driving consumption growth;

(2)       Commercial bank lending picks up significantly; and

(3)       Sterling depreciates materially from current levels, exacerbating imported and in turn headline inflation.

I expect that neither (1) or (2) will materialise any time soon and that while risks to Sterling are probably to the downside, Sterling is unlikely to weaken sufficiently to push the BoE into hiking. I would however expect it to keep a possible rate hike firmly on the table.

Read the full article here.

Sterling singing to (leaked) tune ahead of Theresa May speech

Reports in the British press about the content of Theresa May’s planned speech tomorrow seem to confirm that the prime minister may sacrifice access to the Single Market in exchange for control over EU immigration into the UK.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Sterling has weakened further but the currency may get some (temporary) respite if the content of Theresa May’s actual speech is somewhat more conciliatory.

In particular I would expect markets to focus on whether the UK government has moved closer to agreeing to a transitional arrangement once the UK has actually left the EU and whether any progress has been made in protecting the all-important UK services sector.

About 45% of the UK’s total exports are destined to the other 27 EU member states and about 53% of its total imports come from the EU. In comparison, only about 9% of the EU-27 exports of goods and services are destined for the UK. Similarly, only 9% of the EU-27 imports of goods and services come from the UK.

The EU thus has far more leverage over the UK than vice-versa assuming these 27 EU member states are willing and able to negotiate as one trading block, in my view. This imbalance is even greater in traded goods alone.

However, when it comes to services, the picture is somewhat more balanced and the UK may arguably have a stronger bargaining hand.

Simply put the EU buys and sells a far greater share of its services to/from the UK than it does for goods and it may be difficult for EU countries to substitute imports of financial services from the UK given London’s pre-eminence as a financial centre.

Read the article in full on my website.

UK inching towards Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May will make a speech on Tuesday 17th January in which she will set out in greater details her plans for the UK’s exit from the EU.

There have been few signs that she is willing to tone down her mantra of the UK regaining control over immigration in exchange for a bespoke trading deal with the EU which may exclude access to the Single Market.

If Theresa May sticks to her guns next week I would expect Sterling to weaken further.

A sell-off in Sterling could be partly curbed if Prime Minister May agrees more explicitly to a transition agreement whereby the UK still retains some of the benefits of EU membership even after the UK has officially left the EU.

If MPs perceive Theresa May’s speech as insufficiently detailed or it is not backed up with a detailed and formal government white paper, parliament may decide to delay or even scupper the process by which Article 50 is triggered.

This would at the margin increase the perceived odds of the UK remaining in the EU and may provide some relief for Sterling.

However, I would view this as only a temporary reprieve as ultimately the government has a popular mandate for the UK to leave the EU.

The apparent resilience of British economic growth since the June referendum has given weight to the arguments that the economy can easily weather the UK’s exit from the EU and that the British government is in a strong negotiating position.

However, the risk now is perhaps that too much confidence is being placed in the British economy’s ability to weather a number of possible forthcoming challenges.

Read ‘UK Inching Towards Brexit’ in full here.