Ukraine Tensions Rise, Russian Markets Fall. Will Investors “Run the stops” on the Yuan?

Observations on the Capital Markets – Week Ended April 25, 2014

Ukraine tensions increased, people died, and Russia is threatening, while the U.S. and EU appear weak/passive. S&P cut Russia’s sovereign debt to BBB- with a negative outlook. Two Russian sovereign bonds auctions failed due to an “absence of bids” according to the Russian Finance Ministry. Russia’s Central Bank increased its key rate another 50 bps to 7.50% (after a 150 basis point hike on March 3) due to “higher inflation risks.” Russian stocks were among the week’s biggest losers.

The Chinese yuan was down almost 3.5% against the dollar year to date. Perhaps more important, it crossed 6.25 per dollar, a level where (some say) lots of highly leveraged derivative products known as “target redemption forwards” could turn sour. In my youth, if lots of investors had stop-losses or similar triggers at some price point, markets would have a propensity to go through that price, triggering the stop-losses, then reversing, imposing losses on the investors who had stop-losses: it was called ”running the stops.” We’ll see. Continue reading

Fed’s Inflation Target Misguided? Good vs. Bad Disinflation

For more than a year the Federal Reserve Board has cited inflation below its targeted 2% level as one justification for maintaining its extraordinarily accommodative monetary stance. As of February, the core inflation rate was 1.1%, based on the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE)  inflation series, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation. But there is good reason to question whether the 2% target justifies current policy. Continue reading

The Fed Keeps a Watchful Eye as U.S. Economy Continues to Improve

The Fed’s “Beige Book” painted a beige—or is it Goldilocks?—picture of the economy, as most districts reported economic activity growing at a modest/moderate pace, employment generally rising, and wage pressures still generally well-contained. Nothing suggested cause for the Fed to change its plans or guidance.

  • Indeed, in her speech last week, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said that she thinks the U.S. is at least 2 years away (maybe more) from reaching full employment and that inflation pressures remain subdued, so tightening policy any time soon would probably be premature.
  • With that said, her speech wasn’t all that dovish. She didn’t make new promises or push the envelope; rather, she reiterated that Fed policy remains data-dependent and the Fed “must always be prepared to respond” to rising inflation.
  • Somewhat worryingly (for those who worry about these things), she stressed the mandate of maximizing employment and acknowledged the responsibility to constrain inflation, but made no mention of preventing asset price bubbles in things like stocks, houses, or things that yield 5%.

Business and Consumer Activity Rebounding
Early in the week, the Empire State (NY Fed) survey disappointed, slipping from 5.6 to 1.3 on weak new orders. Later in the week, the Philadelphia (Mid-Atlantic) Fed index surprised on the upside, rising from 9.0 to 16.6 on strong new orders. The market’s reaction suggests Philadelphia trumps New York.

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A Eurozone Pick-Up? Three Key Insights

The Eurozone economy is showing more convincing signs of a pick-up that is more broad based and robust than anticipated. Obviously, a wide difference in conditions exists between European countries and fragmentation in their financial conditions still exist, but these are (slowly) receding. We recently examined trends in three elements of Eurozone health: growth, inflation and the European Central Bank.

Growth: Improving Momentum
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‘No Brakes’ on U.S. Growth – But Are Americans on Board?

IMF Bullish on U.S. Economy – Americans Remain Cautious
“There are no brakes on U.S. growth,” said the IMF’s chief economist, “It’s an economy that is fundamentally robust.” The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast is for 3.6% global GDP in 2014. The U.S. is expected to grow 2.8%, the Eurozone 1.2%, Japan 1.4% and the UK 2.9%.

Indeed, U.S. labor market data signaled ongoing strength, as unemployment claims fell to 300k, the biggest week/week drop in 10 years and the lowest weekly number since May 2007. Seasonal factors (Easter) and normal data volatility may be at work, but it’s still a low number. The February JOLTs report was fine, considering the weather: the number of job openings and hires rose, the number of terminations was flat. The number of job openings is the highest since January 2008.

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Where Should Interest Rates Really Be? Applying the Taylor Rule to the World’s Central Banks.

The Taylor Rule is a formula widely used by central banks to determine how interest rates should change based on inflation, output, economic conditions and other factors. Since the start of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, the world’s “G4” central banks – U.S., Japan, UK, and Europe have injected over $5 trillion of liquidity into the global economy. The U.S. Federal Reserve began “tapering” in December 2013, starting the process of exiting its quantitative easing program designed to keep rates low, stimulate borrowing and promote investing. Amidst signs that the global economic recovery is broadening and becoming more sustainable, market attention has begun to shift to whether less overall monetary accommodation is needed.

We applied the Taylor Rule to test the monetary policy stance of the G-4 central banks – testing each of them individually and making the results available below and conclude that policy for all but the Eurozone is too accommodative and that central bankers may have to respond more swiftly than many expect. Continue reading

U.S. Economic Outlook is Sound

We believe U.S. economic data supports sound conditions for the economy in 2014, with no major imbalances appearing. Some figures, weaker than expected in the first weeks of the year, are mainly the result of exceptional weather conditions. The transition towards a self-sustained recovery is supported by strengthening internal demand, driven by recovering capital expenditure and household consumption. We expect to see mixed signals coming from economic activity indicators and labor market as the economy normalizes, but we do not expect the trend in the main drivers of growth to be derailed.

Our growth estimates for 2014:

  • U.S. GDP growth of 2.8%.
  • Personal consumption estimated to grow at a moderate pace and then accelerate in the second half of the year.
  • Inflation expected to remain below 2% but step up gradually during the year.
  • Non-Residential Investments to accelerate in the second half of the year, giving momentum to acceleration in capital expenditures.
  • The Fed will continue to taper its bond buying program which will be effectively wound down by the end of 2014 if its current economic projections hold.

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