As we outlined last week, policymakers are struggling to come to terms with the volatility in the markets. The Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell in a speech this past week put up more fog around future policy. President Trump’s plans remain solely focused on egotistical belligerence to keep the US government closed while petulantly waiting for the funding of a Mexican wall. Meanwhile, this week the UK faces its moment of truth. Parliament goes to a vote on the previously negotiated EU exit plan. It is universally expected that Mrs May’s proposal will be voted down. However, there is a great deal of fog around what potential outcomes we will see subsequently.
Fed Chairman Powell added further foggy nuance to the Fed messaging this week that only adds to the market’s nervousness over the future path of monetary conditions. As an ‘untrained’ economist, Mr Powell is struggling to give the market a consistent message of the Fed’s policy, and he has only added to the market’s volatility. The market saw his most recent comments as slightly more hawkish; he alluded to the Fed’s intention to substantially reduce its balance sheet from the current $4.06 trillion. The net impact of the Fed’s recent communications has been to leave Treasury yields higher and bond auctions less well supported. Last Tuesday’s sale of three-year notes saw the bid-to-cover ratio of 2.44 at the lowest level since 2009. Also, hopes for a rate cut by the end of the year have fallen back to just 13% probability from 50% a few weeks ago.
Thank goodness the US economy is still far from a crisis point. The Fed’s reluctance to countenance loosening again must at least in part be down to the fact that the Fed knows it will be building even more significant problems for itself by re-opening the floodgates of quantitative easing. Cutting interest rates from such a low level would get the Fed precariously close to zero too quickly.
It has also been a highly stressful year-end on either side of the English Channel (La Manche). In Paris, the Macron government has struggled to manage the most profound civil unrest in 50 years. The economic challenge remains unaltered. France’s young leader - is attempting to place the country’s debt on a sustainable path while improving efficiency in an economy where public spending accounts for 55% of GDP. We might fault President Macron for his style, but for now, he has performed a tactical Napoleonic retreat rather than a strategic U-turn. The government’s €10 billion in spending on low wage subsidies and a cancelled petroleum tax will buy some time. However, in the medium term, the big targets for the government to deliver on are still the reform of unemployment benefits and a fundamental restructuring of the public pension system.
The failure of Emmanuel Macron to maintain momentum in his quest for reform in France does not bode well for the rest of the eurozone, the euro, or the financial markets. President Macron has been the single driver of further European integration and reform. With the region suffering an economic slowdown, and interest rates already near zero, it is hard to see what tools the policymakers could use to re-stimulate the economy. The ECB will be reluctant to react and has justifiably long argued that the eurozone economy needs reform. In the meantime, the ECB seems single-minded in its commitment to reduce its balance sheet in the coming years thereby taking away support for debt markets of weaker members only adds to the potential long-term hazards for investors in eurozone markets.
The eurozone economic slowdown and Macron’s problems do not bode well for the euro. Recent industrial production data releases out of both Germany and France were both well below expectations. The euro has been bouncing around the $1.14 level however there must be some risk of a move back to the 2017 lows of $1.04, mainly if President Trump follows through in his threat to raise tariffs on eurozone products.
In London, the holiday period has had little if no impact on the sense of imminent crisis. There has been no real narrowing in the divide on the path to Brexit. Mrs May is secure in her position for now as the leader of the government, but with this week’s procedural defeats in parliament, that government is barely in control of the critical decisions around departing the EU in the face of an assertive legislature.
The UK government is likely to be defeated in its flagship ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ on January 15th. No one knows for certain what will happen after that although a recently passed Parliamentary Bill puts the compunction on the government to deliver a second proposal within three days. No Plan B as such exists. If a No-Deal outcome is to be avoided, it will require significant cross-party coordination - that looks more plausible now. That, in turn, may be a starting point in establishing some agreed consensus on what type of exit Parliament overall will support. Much depends on the scale of Mrs May’s defeat. A moderate loss (30 votes or less) may set the stage for haggling with the EU before a second vote on the government’s proposals.
Regardless, we are now only ten weeks from Brexit Day. The legislative timetable is very tight as even if there is a quick victory for the government a whole programme of enabling legislation sits stuck in the pipeline. The risk of a delay on withdrawal beyond March 29 is growing by the day. If a Parliament votes for a compromise, we would expect sterling assets to potentially rally strongly as investors take this as a very real hint that Brexit will never happen. Indeed, this week already saw some big financial backers of the Brexit movement make just this point. Someone clearly smells value in sterling - a move to $1.35 from current $1.284 is very plausible.
Who says that Hell can’t freeze over? As if the problems of Brexit weren’t enough for the UK the winter weather could be about to get a whole lot worse. The long-term weather forecasters have set a probability of 70% chance of a severe cold spell around the end of January/early February. The Times reports that temperatures over the North Pole rose by 65C in two days recently creating climatic conditions for a severe winter. Also, the winds above the Arctic have also gone into reverse. Strong easterly winds could bring Siberian air over the UK.
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