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Why the Falling Yuan is Causing a Selloff

What’s in Today’s Report:

  • Why the Falling Yuan is Causing a Selloff
  • Weekly Market Preview
  • Weekly Economic Cheat Sheet

Futures and global markets are sharply lower as the U.S./China trade war intensified over the weekend.

China allowed the yuan to weaken below the psychologically important level of 7/dollar on Monday, signaling a likely acceptance of a long U.S./China trade war.

Economically, global July composite PMIs were better than feared and generally in-line with expectations, while the British services PMI easily beat estimates (51.4 vs. (E) 50.2).

Today, the key report is the ISM Non-Manufacturing PMI (E: 55.5) and the market will be looking for solid data.

Regarding U.S./China trade, undoubtedly there will be tweets flying today but there is a chance for some good news on U.S./China trade this week.  The Commerce Department may grant waivers for U.S. companies to do business with Huawei, and if that happens, it’ll help offset some of this recent trade escalation.

Why Taxes Caused Yesterday’s Selloff, August 18, 2017

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If there was one “reason” for the sell-off yesterday, it was taxes—specifically, the dying dream of tax cuts and a profit repatriation holiday.

That’s why the Cohn headline spooked stocks. It’s not that markets particularly love Gary Cohn. Instead, he’s important because he’s viewed as a key figure in pushing tax cuts through in early 2018, an expectation that market has held on to (until, perhaps, yesterday).

If Cohn resigns, then the prospects for tax cuts (and almost more importantly, the foreign profit repatriation holiday) dim… significantly.

The declining expectations for tax cuts and profit repatriation hit tech especially hard yesterday and it combined with the underwhelming CSCO/NTAP earnings to push that sector sharply lower—and falling tech dragged the whole market down yesterday afternoon.

Now, going forward, clearly there’s been some damage done on the charts (the S&P 500 closed at a one-month low), and momentum indicators are showing warning signs.

And, those warning signs are appearing at a particularly dangerous time for markets (in the short term) as late August is particularly favorable for “air pockets” to form in the markets given that a lot of desks are minimally staffed due to summer vacation. Point being, I don’t think we’re done with the uptick in volatility yet—again due mostly to the calendar.

However, Nasdaq, SOXX and FDN all remain above last week’s lows. So, while Thursday’s trading was clearly painful, I’m not ready to get materially more defensive just yet (although clearly we’re watching those indicators very, very closely going forward).

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What Caused The Mid-Day Selloff?

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The most likely “cause” of the midday reversal and selloff (which frankly looked ugly for an hour or so) was a cautious report from JPM quant analyst Kolanovic, and the reasons it caused a dip are twofold. First, Kolanovic is very respected on the Street, and he was one of the first analysts to correctly identify the role of “Risk Parity” funds in the violent market declines of August 2015.

Second, he outright suggested investors hedge equity exposure.

Now, to be clear, it wasn’t a bearish report, as he did note there are strong, positive fundamental factors supporting stocks including a rising economic tide and growing earnings.

However, he made the point that, in his opinion, market volatility is now at an all-time low. The specific accuracy of this claim can be debated, but let’s all agree market volatility is close to, if not at, all-time
lows.

The all-time lows in volatility have caused funds to use increasingly leveraged strategies to generate outsized returns. Selling volatility options is one of the simplest leveraged strategies, but the point is this: Quant funds and traders will ratchet-up leverage in low volatility environments to increase returns amidst perceived lower risk. And, since volatility is at or near all-time lows (and has been for some time) these leveraged strategies are both abundant and large.

And, this all-time low volatility and explosion of leveraged strategies is coming right at a time when global central banks are reducing monetary accommodation  for the first time in, well, a decade.

So, while the analogy of fireworks sitting on top of a powder keg is a bit over the top, it does illustrate the general idea behind Kolanovic’s caution.

Bottom line, in my opinion, this report by itself isn’t a reason to materially de-risk, as the same argument could have been made about this market over the past few months (as it’s made new highs). But, Kolanovic is a smart guy, so his caution should be noted.

Finally, two anecdotal points. First, I believe what really spooked markets yesterday was that Kolanovic referenced this current set up as being similar to “Portfolio Insurance,” a strategy that failed miserably and contributed to the crash of 1987. Obviously, that’s not an uplifting analogy.

Second, for those of us watching the tape yesterday, the mini-freefall we saw in tech and specifically SOXX and FDN, was a bit unnerving. Things steadied, but the pace of the declines midday yesterday was a bit scary. That tells me these are very, very crowded trades, and I am going to have a “think” on potentially lightening up some exposure to that tech sector in favor of shifting it internationally (Europe, Japan, and perhaps emerging markets). Food for thought.

Getting back to the markets today, the Employment Cost Index is the key number to watch. If it’s hot, we could see yields rise, and that might pressure stocks mildly. Meanwhile, a soft reading will send yields lower and likely push stocks higher short term. Inflation remains a much more important influence on the markets right now than measures of economic growth.

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