Day: January 29, 2017

February’s FOMC Meeting: A Powder Keg In Search Of A Match

On February 1st the Federal Reserve will conclude its scheduled two-day meeting. No one expects any change in policy to be announced, especially since the Fed. has since hiked rates at the preceding meeting. And with there being no press conference scheduled, that’s been a pretty reliable indicator for all to assume it’s steady-as-she-goes.

Although I agree, what I also believe is there’s a wildcard in this one that could send everything into a tizzy. That “wildcard” is: The minutes.

The minutes (e.g., transcripts of the meeting) are released three weeks after the date of the policy decision. More often than not these are looked upon by the “markets” as “already known, knowns.” In other words, a non-market moving event.

However, I believe this meeting followed by its minutes may set up the “markets” as well as the economy for an “Ides of March” we may all soon not want to remember, let alone – never forget.

So why is it I imply these minutes might have more onerous implications than prior? Two words: China, Yuan.

Let’s lay out a few other “known, knowns”, as well as a possible “what if” and what they might portend after this upcoming Fed. meeting shall we?

As we sit here today it’s hard to overstate what is now coined the “Trumpflation” trade happening across the U.S. “markets.” All the major indexes are trading at never-before-seen-in-human-history-highs.

Even the President himself took to social media to put his stamp (or brand) of approval on Dow 20K. And with that action implied credit for it. Something prior presidents usually kept at arm’s length, accepting credit via osmosis. So to say, think, or believe this president isn’t going to insert himself into the dialogue of the “markets” in the future, for whatever the reason, is naive at best, willfully blind as worst. Because now – you have precedent. This is an important point to remember.

Now on the other hand we have China, and the Yuan. And I believe it’s here where things begin to go awry in very short order.

I will argue both the “markets,” and currencies are about to be caught off guard and left flat-footed in much the same fashion as politicians everywhere have been with the U.S. president. i.e., Completely shocked and stupefied as to the reality of what he’s doing – as compared with what they thought (or believed) he’d do. And he’s only been in office a week.

It is a known fact that China is currently throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) trying to stem capital flight from not only within its borders, but also, a depreciating Yuan exacerbated by a rising $Dollar. And it’s not getting better.

The real problem? It may go from worsening condition to catastrophic at any moment. No hyperbole intended.

China’s latest efforts to halt an ever falling Yuan seems to be waning, along with the ever watched USD/CNH cross rate once again inching back toward prior intervention attempts. Or to say it differently: Without constant, unrelenting, massive intervention – the path is down, and maybe, waaay down.

China’s dilemma is not merely worsened by the ramifications of a “hawkish toned” Fed. That’s an understatement. What I want to make clear from my perspective is this:

In its (China’s) current position, I’m of the opinion they’re one rate hike (U.S. hike to be specific) away from the Yuan becoming completely unglued from any sought level by the politburo, regardless of further intervention – and- goes into an uncontrolled free-fall, exacerbated by capital flight which only may be halted or quelled by some form of monetary martial law.

I’m also of the opinion – it’ll be too little, too late, and the global “markets” will go into a near instantaneous heaving with gyrations possibly worse, if not on par, with the beginning chaos seen in early 2008. And that can all happen (“can” because nobody knows) in the coming weeks. Here’s why:

A lot has changed over the last few weeks. First and foremost: president-elect is now Mr. President. And with that has come sweeping changes to the global stage as to how once thought sacrosanct “trade deals” or “trading partners” have been relegated to “it’s different this time” status. Make that – much, much different.

One of the most stunning developments I personally took notice of was the president’s very public cancelling of a scheduled meeting with Mexico’s president. What I found absolutely comical was the reporting of it by the media through the political lens. Every word I continue to hear, or read, is either in the form of unhinged apoplectic, or utterly confused.

I’m here to tell you the way the president treated that circumstance is absolute “Business 101.” To think this president isn’t more concerned with “business optics first” as opposed to “political optics” is journalistic, as well as political malfeasance.

Any person who is, or has, been in business viewed his response (e.g., Mr. Trump’s) as a textbook business negotiation tactic. i.e., “If we can’t agree that it has to be good for the both of us? Fair enough, thanks for letting us know, all the best: ‘click.'” I personally have used that exact negotiating start point countless times throughout my own career.

I’m going to make this point for it is the key to understanding what truly took place. Not from the political, but rather, from the business perspective:

“Click” means just that: Click, the conversation is over.

If you aren’t already prepared, or at the least cognizant of the consequences – whatever they may be – you don’t use it. It’s not something, or a tactic, to be used flippantly. That’s why it can be one of the most forceful negotiating start-points in business for it implies nothing, rather – it states clearly: “If my phone doesn’t ring, I know it’s you – and don’t care.”

This is for those who aren’t interested in “talking” about a deal. It’s only used by those interested in doing a deal. If not? They’re moving on to someone else who either might or does.

It’s not for the faint-of-heart politician, and that’s why most are already seeking oxygen masks. But serious business people? It’s the only way. Period.

China’s politburo has to now assume that this president is far more serious and willing to accept consequences as to renegotiate prior deals or hash out new ones going forward. Calls of “currency manipulator” or for “tariffs” and more are now squarely on the table going forward. China must now look at any and all possibilities through the lens of having actual follow-through. Why?

By all appearances Mr. Trump is showing when it comes to business – he’s deadly serious. But what may be more important is this: He appears personally prepared and willing to accept or deal with any fallout.  And, once again – that’s Business 101.

It is there dear reader, where the rubber-hits-the-road far differently than ever before when it comes to China. For it might be that the next person Mr. Trump decides to “cancel a meeting” or “tell them I’ll get back to them” is none other than China. A position the China of today has never been in.

This must be causing quite the stir, as well as consternation for China’s leaders behind the scenes as they’re enjoying (or at least trying) their New Year. Why? Because you now have provable actions as to compare or postulate by. i.e., The current “Mexican standoff” must be taken as entirely plausible to happen to them. Regardless of how many (enter your “think” tank of choice here) might argue it as “crazy talk.”

And speaking of “crazy talk.” Let’s get to the Fed. and its upcoming meeting shall we?

As convoluted as the current narrative is to follow of whether or not the Fed. will in-fact begin raising rates in earnest this year. One thing is clear: The Fed. appears to now be by openly hostile to the current administration. Why do I make such a claim? Just look to their own public words for clues.

At the last meeting I made the observation for opinion that if you watched, and listened to the retorts given by Ms Yellen. One couldn’t come away with any other conclusion than what appeared to my eye. i.e., A complete reversal for upcoming policy based purely on the current administration. Data be damned. Not only an I still standing by that claim, I feel more confident in it than ever. Here’s why:

As I stated then: About 60 days prior to that meeting and subsequent rate hike Ms. Yellen gave a speech on how the residual effects from the financial crisis of ’08 had yet to be vanquished and were still present adding to much of the malaise still apparent in the economy. Here thoughts on what to do about it? Maybe a “high-pressure” policy stance would be suitable. What’s that in layman’s terms you ask? Basically it’s this: Keep rates low even while the economy shows improvement and inflation rises, even if it’s above any once “mandated” benchmark.

That was when Mrs. Clinton appeared to be the presumptive winner. When it was president-elect Trump? Raise rates, and vociferously imply not only is an increase of rate hike gone from a well-assumed 2 to 3 in 2017. But what was far more instructive was Ms. Yellen’s responses as to imply more are on the table should they see fit. Don’t take my word for it as I like to point out. Watch the press conference for yourself and come to your own conclusions with what you know now. Including the timing for her purple attire. But I digress.

So here we are today a little more than 30 hence that meeting, and what has now been added into the discussion? Hint: The unwinding of The Fed’s balance sheet.

What’s even more incredible about this story is what the main-stream media and financial media missed, or conveniently glossed over, take your pick. e.g., The inferred revelation that Fed. members are thinking of soon. As in real soon. To wit:

Fed. president Mr. Harker (paraphrasing): “When rates are at 1%, we need to look at unwinding the balance sheet.”

Fed. president Mr. Bullard (paraphrasing): “Balance sheet roll off may be better than aggressive hiking.”

Some will say I’m trying to make an argument that really doesn’t exist, because it’ll be implied as “it’s not like they mean it.” This will be the go-to argument or rationalization by most policy wonk talking heads. However, I use as evidence to back up my assertion with none other than “Mr. Courage To Print, and Print more” former Fed. chairman Ben Bernanke’s own “Wait…what?” response with his own near immediate rebuttal, to wit:

“Has the Fed’s approach to balance sheet normalization actually changed? At least until I hear otherwise from the FOMC’s leadership or the Committee as a whole, my guess (and hope) is that it hasn’t.”

If we’ve learned aything over the last few years “hope” is not a strategy. Especially when it comes to serious matters. So let’s take this all at their word, for that’s why they tell us their “communication strategy for forward guidance” is there for, no? Even if the former chairman is as confused to their intent as the rest of us.

First: “When rates are at 1%, we need to look at unwinding the balance sheet.”

Rates are currently at .5% which implies we are either 1 rate (or Fed. meeting where the old norm of raising .5 or 1/2% begins in earnest once again) away from possibly beginning the once unmentionable (let alone inconceivable) unwinding of the balance sheet. If they decide to do 1/4 points (e.g. .25) raises as has been the norm, then we’re possibly just two meetings away. That’s March 15th aka the Ides of March. (Gotta love the coincidence of history, yes?)

Some will say. “That’s crazy talk.” I’ll contend, as well as argue: The open discussion calling for even a hinting of unwinding the “balance sheet” by the Fed. was also once considered crazy. And yet? There it is.

Second: “Balance sheet roll off may be better than aggressive hiking.”

So let’s put this into perspective: If one rate hike a year has been seen as “the norm.” And if we add to that even 1 has been seen as foreboding dependent on the timing. Is it not fair to conclude the possibility of 3 in a year, added with the Fed. Chair herself arguing maybe even more might be forthcoming should the FOMC decide as – “aggressively hiking?” Notwithstanding being in concert this argument began with someone who made financial heads scratch everywhere when he himself aggressively switched just last year from a “hawkish” perspective to near “uber-dove?”

Again, taken at face value the only prudent consideration is for one to position (or at least calculate in earnest) for the possibility that the Fed. may in fact decide to push much, much faster, and in ways once considered unimaginable, not in years to come – but starting as early as February.

Think that through once again, for if that’s not implying “it’s different this time?” Nothing is.

So with the above for context here’s the real issue:

China has to be looking at all the above from behind closed doors – and be absolutely freaking out!

And yes, I mean that precisely, consider it a new “technical term” in response to the current state of affairs and messaging which they can only try to understand, let alone formulate contingency plans for. Remember, they are truly a command and control economy and government. e.g., Communist regime. They don’t have the business savvy for nuance and theatre as we have here.

This is a very dangerous point for the global economy and “markets, let alone for the Chinese politburo. Remember: For all intents and purposes they (the Chinese politburo) view everything via the lens of “a hammer in want of a nail.” And while looking at the above through that prism, they may feel the only thing for them to do is “pound, and pound now.” Remember the line I liked to quote from the movie Margin Call, “It’s not panicking if you’re first.”

Since July of 2016 things have not gotten better for China.

As of today the only thing that has worked as to stem the tide of the Yuan falling ever fast and further into oblivion is utilizing the proceeds via the aggressive selling of currently held U.S. debt. (So far the latest best guess has been well over $1TRILLION)

And here you have multiple Fed. members openly stating it may, in concert, with an aggressive (there’s that word again) raising of rates be looking to, or advising for, purging some of its balance sheet (and by how much is anyones guess although one has to assume it may be more than anyone thinks let alone believes).

All of which if it were to happen (and you have to assume, as well as position that it is a possibility) would be vying for the same buyers for debt as you (e.g., China), and would cause a flooding of the “markets” with purchasable debt into too few buyers with the resources to consume it all, exacerbating what would already be problematic to begin with.

If China feels that it is in a no-win situation (and it’s easily conceivable using the Fed’s latest words, speeches, shift in policy signaling and a whole lot more) They might decide after coming back from their New Year holiday and – act first – question later.

Once the February 1st FOMC meeting concludes – if – the chatter now apparent and public by Fed. members continues during the interlude before the releasing of the minutes, I feel another of the “first to act” will be Mr. Trump in a calling out of epic proportions for hypocrisy using, and pointing to, a very defendable position using the Fed’s own prior testimony, signaling, and more to publicly make his case. Especially if the “markets” begin roiling.

During that time I believe China will wait for the minutes to be released, and if it is made apparent that there was indeed further discussion as to bolster the inferences that the Fed. may be actively considering a path as to embark on a march towards higher rates, along with the thinning of its balance sheet, which would inevitably send the $Dollar rocketing skywards?

They’ll act first and ask (or maybe not) questions later. Sending everything that is now taken for granted in the “markets” (e.g., “It’s good to be long!) into total chaos. All before March 15th’s next meeting. Again, which just so happens to be the exact date originating the “Ides of March” warning.

As I implied in the headline: This “powder keg” may not wait until then. For “then” (March) may be a moment too late. (Just ask Caesar)

Circumstances are now showing this “powder keg” could in fact become – self-combusting. All courtesy of The Fed’s own words whether, stated, implied, written, or imagined.

© 2017 Mark St.Cyr