Noise (and not)

The equity markets threw quite a tantrum on Monday and on Tuesday morning, but Mr Market appears to have found his valium.

Wednesday evening insert: 

Strike that! Mr Market picked the wrong bottle and actually took some acid. He’s freakin’ out again.


What is the American equities terror all about? Not much as far as I can see. Noise.

I am no Bernanke groupie, but the message from the Federal Open Markets Committee Tuesday looked about right. No immediate promise of QE3. It isn’t needed yet and given the epicentre of crisis at this point is in Europe (see next par) it is hard to see how US government debt yields are going to be pushed significantly up. There was an FOMC promise of long-term cheap money, but everyone expected that anyway. The US may just (unlike the UK) continue to crawl towards recovery. If not, there’s time.

The real story is on two different fronts. The first is the European sovereign debt crisis, where the ECB is applying to Italy and Spain the medicine that did not work for Greece, Ireland or Portugal — buying the bonds of a country that cannot otherwise afford to service them. For Spain, at least this may be a useful subsidy while the country makes further adjustments to ensure its independent fiscal survival. But for Italy, it is simply a matter of how much time elapses before the market remembers that Italy cannot get its act together. I can’t see how this can take very long at all. The trigger for renewed panic in the debt market, however, could be one of many: German politicians decide unilaterally that they have had enough of Italy; Italian blue collar unions affirm their intransigence; Berlusconi opens his mouth; some new scandal breaks; the ‘professional’ classes go on strike; or the sheer scale of what is entailed in buying Italian (and Spanish) debt sinks in — the total the ECB spent on Greek, Irish and Portuguese debt last year and this was Euro74 billion; it will likely be asked by delighted sellers to buy that much Italian (and Spanish) debt within a month.  Waiting for one of these things to go bang is a bit like watching old episodes of Dallas: predictable.

More interesting perhaps is what is happening on the China front, another key to the rebalancing of economic and political relationships that must happen before this crisis is over. Here we see what can be construed as the method in American madness. The S&P downgrades of US debt and the hoo-ha about a possible QE3 is backing the Chinese leadership further into a corner it hardly even realised it was in. There was old China, all tough and proud with a couple of trillion dollars of US dollar-denominated foreign exchange reserves (out of a total of more than three trillion USD-equivalent). Everyone was all afraid of the big panda that was buying up all the forex. But suddenly the Chinese government doesn’t feel so clever buying USD in order to depress the Renminbi exchange rate. So what else do they buy? Euros? Ho, ho, ho. Japanese Yen? Hee, hee, hee. Sterling? Ha, ha, ha, ha. There aren’t enough Swiss Francs or Swedish Krona to last China a week. And if it buys gold, what happens when the crisis is over and the price falls off a cliff?

It is no fun at all being the Chinese government right now and the path of least resistance is to let the Renminbi appreciate. The central bank allowed it to shift a quarter of a percent in a day when the S&P downgrade was announced, to 6.43 to the USD. (This would be nothing in a free market, but it is a big jump for China.) The official news agency, Xinhua, has taken to running political commentaries demanding the US guarantee the value of Chinese investments, which must have the China people in Washington rolling on the floor and slapping the carpet. At least someone is having fun. The more the Renminbi appreciates, the  better the US net trade position becomes. The process also imports some inflation into the US, which is good. And the rising Rmb becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as speculative capital moves into China in search of higher interest rates and a rising currency. Basically, China either lends America cheap money to fund the deficit, or it takes the (upward) currency hit. They ain’t feeling so forex macho any more.


Sloppy graph of USD-Rmb exchange rate:  USD Rmb Sep10 to Aug11

And in the news:

Appreciation does not prevent a monster Chinese July trade surplus (FT sub needed). But imports, year-on-year, continued to rise faster than exports and the growth gap widened a little versus June. Going forward, it is worth bearing in mind that China could still see increasing trade surpluses as the Rmb exchange rate rises and exports slow, by virtue of falling domestic investment and hence lower capex imports. This would be consistent with the huge trade surpluses of the mid-1980s in east Asia which caused the US to put its revaluation gun to the head of Taiwan and Korea in 1987. However the trend to narrowing surpluses and a positive impact for the US economy is my base China case.

The Renminbi kicks on following yesterday’s FOMC statement.


Latest from not-so-gay Paris and not-so-dolce-vita Roma: (FT sub needed)

Zoot alors! King Sarko summons his ministers as selling fever turns on Italian bond-laden French banks. Pas bon: this FT story focuses on the sell-off of French bank stocks today, but notes further down that the Italian big 3 banks also got a caning. What is really telling, I suspect, is that French and Italian banks that own Italian (and other toxic) debt fell by double digits today, even as Italy was able to sell new bonds at lower interest than a few days ago (figures in the freakin’ out again link if you need them). Would that be because a few days ago the ECB wasn’t buying Italian bonds?

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