While yesterday, risk basked in glory
This morning risk-off is the story
Unease in Iraq
Had markets give back
The gains seen in each category
Well, this is probably not the way most of us anticipated the year to begin, with a retaliatory strike against Iran inside Iraq, but that’s what makes markets interesting. So yesterday’s bright beginning, where the PBOC reduced its reserve requirement ratio (RRR) by 0.50% to add further liquidity to the Chinese economy which led to broad based positive risk sentiment has been completely reversed this morning. Briefly recapping yesterday’s activity, equity markets around the world soared on the news of further central bank easy money, but interestingly, Treasury bonds rallied (yields declined) and gold rallied as did the dollar. This is a pretty unusual combination of market movements, as generally, at least one of that group would sell off in a given session. Perhaps it speaks to the amount of spare cash on the sidelines looking for investment opportunities to start the year.
However, that was soooo yesterday. At about 7:45 last night the news hit the tape that a senior Iranian general from the QUDS force had been killed by a US drone attack near Baghdad airport. When this was confirmed all of the positive sentiment that had been permeating markets disappeared in an instant. Equity prices went from a strong opening in Asia to closing with declines. The dollar and the yen both rallied sharply as did gold and oil. And not to be left out, Treasury yields have plummeted along with Bund and Gilt yields. In other words, today is a classic risk-off session.
So a quick look at markets as NY starts to walk in shows European equity markets under pressure (DAX -1.65%, CAC -0.5%, FTSE -0.5%) and US futures similarly falling (DJIA -1.2%, Nasdaq 1.5%, SPY -1.3%). In the bond market, Treasury yields are down 7.5bps to 1.80% while German Bunds are down 7bps to -0.30%. Gold prices have rallied a further 1.4% and are back to the highs touched in September at $1550/oz, a level which had not been seen since early 2013 prior to that. Oil prices have rocketed higher, up 3.9%, as fears of supply interruptions make the rounds. Of course, given that the US shale producers have essentially become the swing producers in the market, my sense is that we are not likely to see a permanently higher price level here. Remember, when Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities last September, the oil price spike was extremely short-lived, lasting just a couple of days before settling right back down.
And finally, the dollar has rallied sharply this morning against virtually all its counterparts except, naturally, the yen. During the last week of 2019, the dollar sold off broadly, losing about 2.0% against a wide range of currencies as investors and traders seemed to be preparing for a scenario of continued low US interest rates supporting stocks while undermining the dollar’s value. Of course, my view of ‘not QE’ having a significant impact on the dollar has not changed, and although the US economy continues to outperform its G10 peers and US interest rates remain higher than pretty much every other country in that bloc, the history of QE is that it will undermine the dollar this year.
But for right now, long-term structural issues are taking a back seat to the immediacy of growing concern over escalating tensions in Iraq and the Middle East. If a larger conflict erupts, then we are far more likely to see protracted USD and JPY strength alongside weaker equity markets, higher prices for gold and oil and lower Treasury yields. And the thing to remember right now is that traders were establishing short USD positions for the last several weeks, so this sudden reversal could well have further to run on position squaring alone. Markets remain less liquid than normal as most trading desks will not be fully staffed until Monday. So keep that in mind if some hedging needs to be executed today.
With that as an introduction, what else can we anticipate today? Well, we do get a bit of US data, ISM Manufacturing (exp 49.0) and ISM Prices Paid (47.8) as well as Construction Spending (0.4%) and then at 2:00 the FOMC Minutes from the December meeting will be released. Those have garnered a great deal of interest as even though Chairman Powell has essentially told us all that rates are on hold for a long time, all eyes will be searching for further discussion of the repo issue and how the Fed plans to handle it going forward. While they were able to prevent any untoward movement for the year-end turn, they are still buying $60 billion / month of T-bills and the balance sheet has grown more than $400 billion since October. Not coincidentally, equity prices have rallied sharply since October as well. The point is that the Fed remains on a path where they have promised to re-inflate the balance sheet until at least late Spring, and given the direct relationship between the Fed’s balance sheet and equity prices, as well as the demonstrated fear the Fed has shown with respect to doing anything that could be blamed for causing the stock market to decline, it seems awfully likely that ‘not QE’ is going to continue for a very long time. And that is going to weigh on the dollar going forward…just not today.
One more thing to look for this afternoon is a series of comments from a bevy of Fed doves (Brainard, Daly, Evans and Kaplan) who are attending a conference in San Diego. Do not be surprised to hear comments that continue to raise the bar for any possible rate hikes, but allow the idea of rate cuts to filter into the discussion. However, this too, is unlikely to undermine the dollar during a risk-off session. The theme here is that payables hedgers need to consider taking advantage of this short-term dollar strength.