UK inflation beats, EZ construction sinks

Forex

Cable moved to session highs before handing it all back after a forecast-beating inflation print that takes some of the pressure off the Bank of England to cut rates. Inflation hit 1.8% in January, rising from 1.3% in December and ahead of the 1.6% forecast. There is a lot of noise here and indeed all this week with a slew of UK data, none of which – except the PMIs on Friday – that tell us enough yet about the direction of the economy.

The bulk of the increase came from higher petrol prices and airfares falling less than they did a year before. It was the first increase in the pace of inflation for six months and backs up the MPC’s decision not to cut rates last month. However, this is not just an inflation question. We need to see whether the positive survey data in the aftermath of the Tory election win is maintained with PMIs this Friday offering a big test for sterling bulls. And we must see whether positive sentiment – soft data – translates into more positive hard data by way of GDP. Inflation remains below target but the BoE does not seem unduly concerned by this. What the Jan decision makes clear is that the majority of the MPC would prefer to keep their power dry vis-à-vis inflation as long as economic activity does not start to stagnate too much.  

GBPUSD pushed up towards 1.3030 but the rally fizzled with little in the numbers to really indicate a change in direction by the BoE. The pair has now retraced the move, heading back through 1.30 again to 1.2980. The gravitational pull of this level will require some significant gear change in either the data, or more likely Brexit trade deal talks, to shake off. Range-bound.

Meanwhile disappointing Eurozone data keeps rolling in. Following the industrial production shocker, and German ZEW sentiment survey, the latest is a dismal construction output print, which came in at –3.7% in December year-on-year from +1.4% previously. Terrible but only underscoring the sluggishness in the EZ economy. Both EURUSD and EURGBP are vulnerable to further downside in the near-term although both pairs have eased off their lows of the day.  

Elsewhere, bond markets are not joining the risk rally party today with yields sliding to session lows. That’ll be because of, er, monetary policy expectations, which is exactly what’s lifting markets in Europe to fresh all-time highs. Gold is reacting to this yield play as it should, shooting up to $1609.80 to within a whisker of the recent multi-year highs at $1611.  USDJPY is pushing higher, breaking the near-term resistance at the Jan swing high at 110.20 to trade at session highs. With this level cleared we can now look to the May peak at 110.70 before a move back to the big 50% retracement at 112.70. 

RBA expected to hold policy, but for how long?

Forex

Up until a couple of weeks ago markets were pricing in strong odds that the Reserve Bank of Australia would cut the Official Cash Rate to 0.50% from 0.75%.

All that changed after December’s labour market data was released. Unemployment dropped for a second consecutive month, hitting the lowest levels since April 2019 at 5.1%. Unemployment decreased by 13,000, largely thanks to a 29,000 increase in the number of workers employed part-time.

While still leaving the jobless rate significantly above 4.5% – a level be RBA believes will prompt an acceleration in wage growth – the unexpectedly strong report saw markets slashing odds of further easing in February.

The Australian dollar snapped a 5-day downtrend against the US dollar, spiking to test 0.6880, but the selloff quickly resumed as the focus returned to the viral outbreak in China.

AUD/USD chart, MARKETSX, 16.00 GMT, January 29th, 2020

Bets on easing in February drop after jobs data

According to ASX 30 day interbank cash rate futures contracts for February 2020, the probability of a cut has fallen from 56% as of January 16th to 30% by January 28th.

Westpac also noted that the strong data lowered the odds of further accommodation, with chief economist Bill Evans stating:

“Prior to the release of the surprisingly strong December Employment Report we had expected the cuts to be timed for February and June.”

“Given this strength and the significance of the labour market in the mind of the RBA, we have consequently decided to push out our forecast for two further cash rate cuts from February and June to April and August 2020.”

However, Westpac believes that the recent strength in the labour market won’t last, supporting the call for further easing. Evans explained:

“The importance of the April date is that the Board will have seen another print of the national accounts for the December quarter which is likely to highlight the soft growth environment while we expect that the surprise improvement in the unemployment rate will be unravelling.”

Consensus: cuts are still coming

The general consensus is that the RBA will have to ease further as the year progresses. While some parts of the economy are stabilising, particularly the property market (which has of course been helped by 75 basis points worth of easing during 2019), others are flagging.

Construction and consumer confidence are weak, and expectations for retail sales over the Christmas period are low. Construction output has declined for five straight quarters, while consumer confidence has erased most of the rebound recorded after hitting the lowest levels since mid-2015 in October.

There are also questions over the impact of the bushfires upon monetary policy. It is believed that, despite the economic damage estimated to be in the region of $100 billion, the bushfires will have only a short-term impact and therefore may not have any bearing on monetary policy. However, if it serves to further knock consumer confidence, it could be a contributing factor in any decision to ease policy.

The Chinese coronavirus outbreak is another large unknown; Australia trades heavily with China, so talk of factory shutdowns and a reduction in consumption could hurt the Australian economy.

What will the guidance say?

It can take 12 to 18 months for the impact of monetary policy adjustments to be fully known, so the RBA is likely to claim next month that it needs more time to assess the effects of 2019’s trifecta of cuts.

But how much time? Some analysts, like Evans at Westpac, believe the RBA will tee up a cut for April, while others think we may have to wait until the second half of the year to see further easing.

Sterling off highs despite PMI Boris Bounce

Forex

Sterling rallied into the PMI release but eased back a touch despite the survey figures being a little better than expected. GBPUSD broke the Wed peak at 1.31524 but came back down to under 12.3140 following – we are talking very, very minor moves here let’s be clear. Bulls are struggling to hold 1.3150 but they may well rally the troops and if reclaimed later today then we could look for a push towards 1.31690, the Jan 8th high, to open up from upside. Looks very well supported at 1.31 for now.

Yes the PMIs bounced back – with the Composite PMI rising to a 16-month peak at 52.4 from 49.3 in December – but this was entirely to be expected and reflects businesses letting out a collective sigh of relief after the Conservative Party victory in the December election as it heralded an end to the paralysis over Brexit and killed off the prospect of a radical Jeremy Corbyn-led government. Businesses ought to be a damn sight more confident as a result – it does mean that we’re out of the woods . Ultimately, whilst clearly diminishing the case for a cut, I don’t see these PMI surveys as being enough to prevent the Bank from cutting – I think they have already decided on this.

The harder data we’ve seen has been a lot less auspicious. GDP is weak and inflation has come off sharply, albeit the base effect is at play. Inflation rose just 1.3% against 1.5% in November. Core CPI was a meagre +1.4% last month, vs 1.7% expected. CPI inflation rates are at their lowest since 2016. It is worth remembering that this data is backward looking and before the Tory victory, but this only adds to the sense that the BoE has a narrow window of opportunity to cut this month, based on the premise that it feels like it got a little behind the curve globally last year as its hands were tied by Brexit.

The Bank doesn’t want to get behind the curve of market expectations, and is seeking to get a jump on markets whilst still teeing up the cut. It would be following the Fed’s playbook in cutting early in order to prevent a downturn. This is the key thing to remember – the Bank does not want to let a weaker economy fester.  

Whilst there may be lots of arguments against a cut, the coordinated dovish commentary from about half of the MPC over the last fortnight appears no accident. Harder data has turned notably softer and the BoE doesn’t want to risk allowing weakness to become entrenched.

ECB Preview: Strategy review in focus

Forex

  • Guidance seen unchanged
  • Inflation pick up
  • EURUSD weaker, long-term uptrend barely holds

No major changes, review in focus

The European Central Bank meeting on Thursday is likely to produce some clues about future monetary policy direction, but nothing concrete. The focus will be on the strategy review as it gets underway, which is buying new boss Christine Lagarde some breathing space. She’s only in her second press conference so expect some further honing of communication skills. 

The focus of the strategy review this week will revolve around its scope and the timescale. Of particular interest of course is the mandate relative to price stability and its inflation target. We’d expect this ultimately to result in the ECB taking a more symmetrical approach to inflation. 

Given there are no fresh economic projections and the focus is on the review, guidance is not expected to alter materially. As I say, the review is a good way to buy time as the ECB remains in a holding pattern due to a) Lagarde’s own inexperience, b) the uncertainty over the economic outlook for the EZ and the world, and c) since Draghi embarked on an aggressive cut and QE restart as his parting gift, allowing Lagarde plenty of time to sit on her hands. 

The easing in trade tensions lately should support the ECB’s December view that ‘the risks surrounding the euro area growth outlook … remain tilted to the downside but are ‘somewhat less pronounced’. Of course whether the trade deal holds is another matter – but I would anticipate the signing of the phase one agreement to be reflected in Lagarde’s commentary.

However, ultimately with the market still expecting further easing from the ECB this year, we will need a clearer handle on where Lagarde is steering this ship soon enough.

Challenges: economy still spluttering 

Flash PMIs due on Friday will tell us more. A mild pick-up is seen, with the latest ZEW numbers showing a glimmer of hope, but the EZ is far from out of the woods. German growth has slowed to a six-year low. Green shoots seem few and far between. Even the UK (despite Brexit, if you care to add as an adjunct) is seen growing faster than any G7 European nation in 2020. Signs that PMIs are basing, but little recovery seen – the bottoming phase may linger.  

Inflation picked up in December, with annual headline inflation rising to a six-month high of 1.3%. Core inflation was steady from Nov at 1.3% also. Welcome news for the ECB, particularly the hawks on the council, but it’s too early to call this a material or sustained uptick. Lagarde is sure to be asked about this. Her answer will be of particular interest – and offering some scope for EURUSD volatility – as it could signal whether the ECB is about to raise its inflation forecasts.

EURU/USD: Uptrend in jeopardy 

The broad uptrend since last September remains in force, but near-term downtrend threatens to snap the bulls’ resolve. Following the swing high at the end of last year at 1.12390, the pair has trended lower to break down below the 50-day and 200-day moving averages, as well as snap the trend support around 1.1090 (red line). Key MA support on the 100-day line, which was touched and reject on Dec 20th is formed around 1.1070. The low of Dec 20th also offers some horizontal support close to this level at 1.10660. So, this region will be a key test as we get into the ECB meeting and the flash PMIs on Friday. 

Lunch wrap: bulls limp, pound holds losses

Forex

Bulls have been a bit limp, stumbling out of the gate with their tails up but quickly getting bogged down on decidedly heavy going turf.  European markets perked up early but ran out of steam heading towards lunch. Having initially popped higher the Euro Stoxx 600 turned negative, sliding 0.3%, while the DAX edged 0.4% lower before paring losses a touch. The FTSE 100 held onto slim gains as sterling softened as the odds shortened considerably on the Bank of England cutting interest rates this month.

Chinese trade delegation is said to have left Beijing, on their way to Washington to sign phase one deal.

GBPUSD is softer, beating a retreat under 1.30 as markets aggressively reprice for a BoE rate cut this month following comments from rate setter Vlieghe and weak eco data (See earlier note, BoE: Stitch in time saves 9). EURUSD has been steady at 1.112 but USDJPY is firming with the pair crossing key resistance around the 200-week moving average around 109.70/80, to hit 109.9  

Crude oil is steady at $59 with little in the way of catalysts. Lots on the wires from Saudi Arabia on production but long and short is they are looking to extend output curbs agreement come March. Likewise, gold held the line around $1550 but is showing no real direction. 

US pre-mkts 

US stock futures indicate a solid open with the Dow eyeing a c70pt gain, having earlier looked at a triple-digit gain when the cash equity market opens. 

Lululemon shares rose c2% pre-mkt after it said raised its guidance, saying Q4 revenues would be between $1.37bn and $1.38bn, from previous guidance of $1.32bn to $1.33bn. 

Alphabet is on the verge of joining the $1 trillion market cap club. Shares were a little higher pre-mkt after Evercore ISI raised their price target on the stock to $1600 from $1350.  

Tesla bears are throwing in the towel. Shares were up 2% pre-mkt to $488 after Oppenheimer raised its price target to a Street high $612 from $385. Microsoft price target raised to $180 from $155 at Credit Suisse, whilst Apple’s price target was raised to $375 from $300 at Davidson. 

Sterling finds support at 23.6% Fib level

Forex

Sterling has found support at the 23.6% retracement of the rally from the Sep 2019 lows to the post-election euphoria highs. GBPUSD pushed through 1.32 at one stage on Tuesday, moving firmly clear from the support level at 1.3140.

The move erases much of the declines from last Thursday and Friday and may signal a recovery that bulls can use to base for a push north of 1.32 again. 50-day moving average support appears at 1.30 and is rising.

The rally ran out of legs at the 50% retracement of the decline from the Dec highs to the recent lows around 1.3220. Corresponding to this move, it’s the 38.2% retracement at 1.3140 that offers support near term. Double Fib support looks powerful.

Sterling trips on new cliff edge, Unilever dips

Forex
Morning Note

Sterling tripped over its heels as Boris Johnson is looking to legislate for Britain to leave the EU fully in Dec 2020 with or without a trade deal. That means no possible way to extend the transition period. I must confess to believing he wouldn’t need to be so drastic, that a large majority offered the flexibility yet strength a government craves in deal making. This sets up another cliff-edge and could create yet more months of uncertainty for investors just when we thought all was squared away.

GBPUSD plunged to the 1.3240 area before paring losses to trade around 1.3260. Elsewhere in FX, the Australian dollar was softer as the RBA signalled it’s looking at further cuts, possibly in February. AUDUSD traded at 0.68580 as of send time, its weakest since last Wednesday. EURUSD steady at 1.1140. Signs in the dollar index that it’s rolling over.

Equity markets remain buoyant but we are seeing some softness in Europe on the open. We’ve had a really good run for the last two or three sessions so it’s a good time for a pause and consolidate around this level. In particular we need the FTSE 100 to hold this 7500 level.

The S&P 500 made a fresh record top, though Boeing’s travails left the Dow glittering a little less. Europe’s Stoxx 600 made a record high. Asia took the cue to make 8-month highs overnight. 

Equities

Unilever shares fell 5% in early trade as it warns that sales growth is more meagre than expected. Management expects underlying sales growth for 2019 to be slightly below its guidance of the lower half of its 3-5% multi-year range. 

The company puts it down to economic malaise in South Asia, with the CEO on the conference call saying it’s down largely to India’s rural markets, although these are expected to bounce back in the second half of next year. Meanwhile management says trading conditions in West Africa remain difficult. Developed markets continue to be challenging, but management did point to ‘early signs’ of improvement in North America as it picks up ice cream market share.

Earnings, margin and cash are not expected to be impacted. Weaker sales growth is a problem, but lately we have been encouraged that earnings growth is being driven by price rather than volume. However, the problem for fast-moving consumer goods giants with the big brand names is that consumers have a lot more choice and are more discerning than ever.

Sterling hit by polls as traders weigh hung parliament chances

Forex
Morning Note

Sterling remains highly susceptible to polls and specifically exposed to big downside moves on anything other than a solid Tory majority: last night’s MRP edition from YouGov showed a sizeable narrowing in the Conservatives’ lead and raised for the first time the possibility of a hung parliament. The central case remains for a Tory majority of 20-30, but we are dealing with fine margins for error. Markets for the first time need to worry about a hung parliament and what that might mean in terms of more uncertainty over the economy and Brexit.

For traders – it means election night could be very interesting indeed. We’ll be increasing staffing overnight, looking particular at the exit poll at 22:00, and preparing for a potentially highly volatile session, with all that would normally imply in terms of reduced liquidity for GBP pairs and U.K. assets anyway. Then it’s going to be all hands on deck on Friday morning as the markets reopen to whatever brave new world the voters have chosen for us. Spreads may widen out of hours for assets like the FTSE and GBP crosses, whilst gapping even in FX pairs may occur. A hung parliament takes back to a 1.27 handle on cable, and could see UK-focused stocks on the FTSE 250 hit hard.

Having been bid up ahead of the poll’s release, the pound took fright at the poll data and GBPUSD plunged nearly one big figure from north of 1.32 to around 1.3110. The pair has pared losses overnight to reach 1.3140.

The good news is the polling is just about over – the next major one is the exit poll just after 22:00 on Thursday. This has been very accurate over the last 25 years.

Yesterday, Wall Street slipped as the tariff deadline comes into view and markets stand by for the Federal Reserve decision today. Trade talks appear their usual on-again, off-again self.

Stocks were mixed but generally flagged. The S&P 500 eased back 0.1% but had been positive at times, while the DAX was down 0.3%. The Stoxx 600 pared losses of 1.1% at one stage to close down 0.3%.

European markets this morning are set to open flat with the FTSE 100 at 7235 off the back of the pound’s fall since the close yesterday.

FOMC on tap at 19:00 GMT. The Fed is likely going signal it’s sticking to its dovish mantra. Whilst no rate cut is anticipated, we may well see evidence of a noticeable shift in the Fed’s stance: specifically that it’s now willing to do whatever it takes to stimulate the economy. Powell has already said it will take a sustained and significant uplift in inflation to warrant a hike, whilst there’s chatter about essentially parking the 2% inflation target to let the economy run hot.

The persistent lack of inflation means it has a free hand to go as low as it likes, it’s only maintaining the mask of prudence by not cutting more aggressively. Moreover the drag lower from trade, global economic stress and the move to lower rates in other major economies means this is by far the path of least resistance. Out go concerns about financial stability or asset bubbles. The danger now is the Fed is becoming the monetary policy wing of the White House.

Sterling rallies, European markets drift after Trump backs Hong Kong protestors

Morning Note

One way traffic? US equities were squeezed to fresh records again yesterday  as the main indices nudged higher on good US data and of course, the usual trade deal hopes. European stocks are drifting lower after Donald Trump signed a law that backs the Hong Kong democracy movement, casting the phase one initiative into a new spasm of doubt.

The FTSE 100 slipped under 7400 in early trade having yesterday threatened to break through the late Sep highs at 7440. Having touched that high, without any real catalyst a bit of a pullback is to be expected. Meanwhile the stronger pound is bound to be hurting the blue chips. Ex-dividend factors are scrubbing 8pts off the index also.

A batch of surprisingly healthy US economic indicators were a boost to investors and specifically US equity markets. Q3 GDP was revised up to 2.1% from 1.9% and durable goods orders far exceeded expectations. It was a sign that the US economy, as the trade war is said to bite, is maybe a lot more resilient than feared. From a market perspective it was perfect as inflation undershot – core PCE came in short of expectations at 1.6%, below the prior month’s 1.7%. Growth decent, inflation not moving up = ideal for markets as the Fed has made clear now it will only raise rates if it sees a strong and sustained uplift in underlying inflation.

Markets continue to work on the expectation of a trade deal  its close, so close – but this might be a case of labouring under a misapprehension. The message from China is there is no news on trade talks – just the tiny matter of Hong Kong…

Donald Trump has signed a law backing the Hong Kong protestors. At such a delicate moment for trade talks this could tip the balance against agreement. To rob a phrase, Trump seems apt to bring discord where there was harmony. China has promised countermeasures. It’s interesting how economic disagreements are being politicised. We’ve seen how Trump has used tariffs as a diplomatic tool – this move, albeit in reverse, is in this vein.

Now closed for Thanksgiving, markets across the pond at least should be quiet.

Over here, markets took signs of a decisive Conservative win as a cue to buy sterling.

The pound rallied firmly as a key poll signalled a whopping Tory victory in the Dec 12th election. GBPUSD had found decent bid all day and broke through 1.290 to hit 1.2950 and held the gains. The widely-watched YouGov MPR poll showed the Conservatives taking 359 seats to Labour’s 211, which would give Boris Johnson a commanding 68 seat majority. Some Labour northern heartlands would turn blue for the first tome in living memory, whilst the Tories would limit damage in Scotland to just two losses and the Lib Dem’s would fail to make the incursions they’d hoped. The Beast of Bolsover would be tamed.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of this poll but as it backs up every other poll, the picture looks quite clear now. 

However, the margins in many seats is very narrow and complacent Tory voters could stay home. The majority may be much smaller than this poll predicts, we may still get a hung parliament. Betting markets will be mis-pricing the result for sure. As politicians are wont to say, there’s only one poll that matters.

Two things to consider:

– The poll is based on national polls with Tories 11pts ahead – latest polls suggest Lab has narrowed the gap.

– predicted vote margins of under 1% in about 20 seats, under 5% in at least 30 seats.

Having pushed up through the mid-point of the range, we wait now to see if the bulls have the stomach to drive it up to 1.30 and attempt a breakout.

Whilst a clear Tory majority provides near-term certainty, the rapid timetable for agreeing a future trading relationship with EU is loaded with further downside risks for the pound.

Traders, cowed by the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election, may be shy of putting all their eggs in the frying pan before the oil is hot enough. It would be prudent to consider the fine margins of this latest poll and the fact there’s still two weeks of campaigning to go. And Boris Johnson still hasn’t faced a mauling from Andrew Neil.

Elsewhere, having taken a bit of a scare as the dollar was bid on that stronger US data, and touching on a key support level at 1.0990, EURUSD has stabilised but is encountering near term resistance at 1.10080.

USDJPY seems to building momentum north of 109 but the Thanksgiving holiday may mean there’s not much impetus for further moves higher.

Oil broke a two-day win streak as US crude stocks rose 1.6m barrels last week against expectations for a 400k drawdown. Production hit a record high 12.9m bpd. Gasoline inventories swelled by 5.1m barrels vs the 1.2m increase expected.

WTI dipped through $58 but bounced easily in key support at $57.50. Thus level looks likely to offer a bulwark against more bearish data in the near term, until the OPEC meeting convenes next week (see note: OPEC Preview – the first cut may not be the deepest.)

Two-week high for cable as Conservatives extend election poll lead

Forex

GBP/USD has climbed 0.6% higher to break above $1.2985 today after a series of weekend election polls show that the Conservative Party has extended its lead over Labour.

Markets have moved to price in higher odds of a Conservative Party victory at the upcoming December General Election on the back of the latest polling data.

Data released over the weekend shows the Tories leading Labour by 15%-17%. A poll released this morning by Survation put the Conservatives at 42% and Labour at 28% – a 14-point lead.

Brexit party threat diminishes

Markets are also relieved to see that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is polling at just 5%. Even though Farage announced that Brexit party candidates would not stand in the 317 seats won by Conservative MPs during the 2017 election, there were still concerns that, by challenging Labour, the party would split the Brexit vote.

This risked diluting Tory support and potentially granting victory to Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates in hotly contested areas.

With support for the Brexit Party so low, markets are now betting that Boris Johnson will win enough support to form a majority government. Any Brexit Party candidates in Parliament would likely have advocated for a harder Brexit than the one outlined in Boris’s Withdrawal Agreement. In sufficient numbers, they could also have attracted the support of Tory rebels and pressed for more talks, or even a no deal exit.

UK on track for January 31st Brexit?

A solid majority for Boris Johnson means that it is likely the Prime Minister will be able to pass his Withdrawal Agreement bill by the new Brexit deadline of January 31st. This would finally put an end to the uncertainty that has gripped the UK economy for over three years and will allow politicians to focus once more on the domestic agenda.

Cable has twice tested and rejected the $1.30 handle in the past few weeks. There are still 24 days until the election, which is plenty of time as far as politics is concerned for everything to change. This, combined with the memory of the referendum and the 2017 election, could mean it takes more than just a few polls to fuel a rally above $1.30 ahead of December 12th.

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