Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bye Yellen and boo Powell?

Wall Street went a bit berserk last week taking the global markets on a roller coaster ride with it; Jerome Powell took over as the Fed Chair in the same week, is too much to be a coincidence? A calm and competent Janet Yellen chaired her last FOMC meeting on Jan 31, and bid goodbye to her job that she did splendidly for 4 years.

Yellen spent 14 years in Fed, a large part of which she served as a loyal and able deputy to her predecessor Ben Bernanke. This also ensured continuity post Lehman Crisis and a new era of easy money. Yellen was the first woman to lead Federal Reserve in its 105 years history. In a fairer world, her tenor would have been extended, as was, most of her male predecessors’.

“Under Yellen, the US unemployment rate has fallen the most of any Fed Chair term in modern history” said The Washington Post. Unemployment rate dropped from 6.7% (start of her tenor) to 4.1% - even this didn’t push her to quicken the pace of rate hike, even as economists professed inflationary fears.  She kept an ear to the ground while leading the organization, and maintained lower rates and looser monetary policy for the greater good of the economy.

In the recent times though, bond yields have been heating up on speculation of inflationary pressures thus quicker rate hikes. This fear of course has had far reaching effect spreading across global financial markets. Change in the top job in Fed feels like a tectonic shift given the fragile nature of the markets at present. Though Powell is expected to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Yellen was well entrenched, hence seemed well positioned to steer the economy without causing too many ripples.

So welcome to one more newness, I suppose; or not so new, maybe? Political agenda superseding everything else? God Bless America!

(and as I was writing this I couldn’t stop thinking of you Dr. Rajan! Incidentally, its Valentines Day today)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Global Markets in Twenty Seventeen

2017 began with Trump’s inaugural speech after he took over The Oval Office in January. It was surreal and scary how serious he was about his radical foreign policy. There were protests and demand for impeachment at the start of the year. But like most things in life, it died down and our man continues to reign.  A bevy of changes to the tax code at the individual, corporate and international level came into effect at the start of 2018.  Large companies are getting a big cut to the corporate tax rates – down to 21% from 35%. This may convert itself into heavy perks and financial benefits to employees. Better consumer sentiment and more consumer spending? Making America great again?

FED kept it slow and easy with a 75 basis points increase over 3 rate hikes as FOMC continued to be wary of low inflation.  While the unemployment rate stayed low, wages remained at a decent level and growth surprised on the upside, it maybe a year before aggressive hikes happened. Change of Guard at the Federal Reserve may not mean change of stance.  But I would wait and watch.

Euro Zone 
surprised positively. Macron won the French election giving us hope that the world is not moving to far right in a hurry; his pro-Euro and pro-immigrant stance help heal deep wounds post Brexit and Trump’s protectionism. Chancellor Angela Merkel won (albeit precariously) the 4th term in German elections; however here, hard right AfD managed to enter parliament.

ECB continues its asset purchase, to a lesser extent though and said in no uncertain terms that it would continue its accommodative stance for as long as needed. This could mean all of 2018, though the economic indicators including growth - are starting to look better.

Brexit is being the single source of pain for the sluggishness in the UK economy as it stifles policy advances.  The entire nation is in a limbo as the policy makers are distracted with goings-on in Brussels (which so far, is pretty much nil). Amidst this Brexit ennui, there are still hopes that Brexit could be reversed in 2018. Realistically, what looks likely is a soft Brexit that too in a last minute agreement (March 2019) as EU continues to play hardball.

In Communist Party Congress's 5 yearly summit, Xi Jinping has consolidated his control over the machinery of the Chinese government. The Party congress approved the amendment of the official Communist Party Constitution to include “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” which is his vision for China’s future. With this, Xi joins revered party legend Mao Zedong to have their official thought enshrined in the Party’s Constitution while still in office.

Global Equities
Global growth, lax monetary policy across developed nations, new tax legislation, low volatility (one important indicator is the CBOE volatility index, known as Wall Street’s fear gauge - fell to a record low) coupled with investor’s complacency (or is it irrational exuberance? We miss you Mr. Greenspan) have helped equities soar across the globe. One research shows, of the 73 bourses tracked globally all but nine have recorded gains, this year.

Dollar index has had a tough year with hopes of quicker rate hikes fading away. Also the single currency’s strength with improved geopolitical and economic situation and Pound’s recovery added to the woes of greenback. With US inflation likely to be low, market’s expecting another 75 bps cut this year – this may not be the best news for Dollar this year too. For the same reason and with benign interest rates across the globe, equities may have another profitable year.

At home, coming on the heels of demonetization, introduction of GST and botched up implementation threw businesses off track. Strong polarizing views continue as regards the current Government and it will only get more intense as we approach election year.  Rupee, however has been gaining on the back of weak dollar. With the crude where it is, this should help and there hasn’t been much of resistance from RBI in letting Rupee soar. The trend should continue, domestic political surprises not withstanding.

What do we watch for going into 2018?
      1. Geopolitical stress – what with Trump and Kim Jong Un continuing their war of words which has currently reached debating sizes of their nuclear buttons, Fastest finger? Scary!
2. Developments in Brexit discussions – will it get anywhere?
3. General elections in Italy
4. New FED chair Jerome Powell’s tone
5. Bitcoin – this reached dizzying heights both in terms of value and popularity in 2017. What next? Collapse? Better liquidity and depth?
6. Flattening Yield Curve – New normal or a warning sign for an economic slowdown?