Virus Malaise

It seemed, for a couple of days
That the stock market’s virus malaise
Had finally broken
But now, not unspoken,
Concerns grow in multiple ways

The upshot is risk’s in retreat
And currencies cannot compete
With strength in the greenback
Which this week’s been on track
For, every prediction, to beat

As we head into another weekend, investors and traders have once again demonstrated concern over a shock change in the Covid-19 story and correspondingly have reduced their risk holdings in most markets. While the Chinese government continues to try to pump massive amounts of stimulus into their economy, the actual results may not be as impressive as the numbers suggest. For example, last night the PBOC released their Money supply data, granted a number that has lost much of its luster over the years, but one which still helps explain what is happening in the monetary system there. After all, without a robust monetary system, real economic growth is virtually impossible. And M1, the narrow measure, registered “growth” of 0.0% in January, which means it was at the same level as January 2019. That was a shockingly low outcome (forecasts were for 4.5% growth) and likely indicative of just how little economic activity is occurring in China right now. The other nasty data point was auto sales, which fell, wait for it, 92% in the first half of February. Remember, China is the world’s largest auto market, with annual sales having approached 25 million in 2017, although that number slipped to 21.5 million last year. But a 92% decline, if it persists for another month only, implies that sales will fall below 20 million, and if things don’t get better soon, that number can be much lower. The point is regardless of how much stimulus the Chinese government pumps into the economy, if people remain quarantined and cannot go out and spend it, the economy is going to suffer for a long time.

On top of the Chinese data, the other growing fear is that Covid-19 is starting to spread more widely outside of China. To date, the bulk of the infections have been in Hubei province, although the entire nation is on alert. But last night we heard of more infections in both South Korea and Japan, while the death toll continues to climb alongside the overall infection count. And for the 3rd time this month, the Chinese changed the way they count infections, which pretty much guarantees that whatever numbers they release are hogwash. I fear the virus is much more widespread than publicized, and that it will take far longer than another month for things to return to any semblance of normal in China. There is no ‘V’ shaped recovery coming in Q2, I don’t even think there is a ‘U’ shaped one on the horizon. I fear the Chinese recovery, at least for 2020, may well be ‘L’ shaped.

So, with those cheerful thoughts in mind, let’s look at markets and what they have done both overnight, and all week. Starting with equity markets, last night saw weakness in Asia (Nikkei -0.4%, Hang Seng -1.1%, KOSPI -1.5%) which took their weekly losses to -1.3%, -1.8% and -3.6% respectively. Shanghai, on the other hand, was slightly positive overnight (+0.3%) taking its weekly advance to 4.2%. Of course, Shanghai is the epicenter of a massive inflow of liquidity, so while the real economy may be cratering, new monetary stimulus can easily find its way into the stock market as people trade from home.

European markets have fared somewhat better, with the DAX (0.0%, -0.6% this week), CAC (-0.1%, -0.3%) and FTSE 100 (-0.2%, +0.2%) all biding their time as none of these countries have yet been severely impacted by the virus directly, although obviously, exports to China will have suffered greatly. Meanwhile, in the US, leading up to today’s session, the DJIA has fallen 1.1% this week and the S&P 500 is -0.2%, although the NASDAQ is actually higher by 0.25%. That said, futures markets in all three are pointing lower this morning.

Other key risk indicators are also showing significant gains this week, notably gold (+0.9% today, +3.2% this week) and Treasury bonds, where the 10-year yield is at 1.49% (-2.5bps this morning and 9bps this week).

Finally there is the dollar, which has outperformed virtually every currency this week, with only the Swiss franc even breaking even. In the rest of the G10 space, the yen is the week’s big loser, having fallen 2.0%, a true blow to its status as a safe haven. As I wrote yesterday, it appears that Japanese exporters have stepped away from the market, while leading up to fiscal year end in Japan, there has been an increase in outward investment on an unhedged basis, meaning Japanese lifers and pension funds are buying dollars to buy USD assets and unconcerned about the dollar falling. But both AUD (-1.6%) and NZD (-1.9%) also had a rough week, as the fact that China seems to have come to a virtual standstill will have an immediate negative impact on both those economies.

In the EMG bloc, LATAM currencies have been under the most pressure this week, with BRL (-2.5%), CLP (-2.35%) and MXN (-2.3%) all feeling the impacts of slowing growth in China as the first two are reliant on exports to China for a significant amount of economic activity, while Mexico, which has been holding up extremely well until this week, seems to be feeling the pain of overly extended carry positions amid a risk reduction period. MXN futures are the largest outstanding long positions on the IMM, as many investors seek to earn the 500bps of positive carry. However, as can be seen from the movement just yesterday and today, all that carry can be offset in the blink of an eye when things turn. Given how large the long MXN positions still are, do not be surprised to see the peso weaken much further going forward.

Away from LATAM, it can be no surprise that KRW (-2.1% this week) and THB (-1.6% this week) are also under pressure as the direct Covid-19 impact is greatest in those nations that do the most business with China. And not to be outdone, CNY (-0.65% this week) is trading well back through the 7.00 level and seems unlikely to reverse course until we get unequivocally better news regarding Covid-19.

On the data front, yesterday’s Philly Fed number was spectacular, 36.7 vs. 11.0 forecast, indicating that the US growth story has not yet felt any real effects of the virus. Overnight saw weakness in Australian and Japanese PMI data, again no real surprise, but better than expected results out of Europe and the UK. It seems that the signing of the phase one trade deal was seen as quite a positive, and while Eurozone (and German and French) Manufacturing all remain in contraction with PMI’s below 50.0, the levels have rebounded significantly from their low prints several months ago. This morning brings the US PMI (exp 51.5 for Manufacturing, 53.4 for Services) although this market is far more focused on next week’s ISM data. We also see Existing Home Sales (5.44M) which continue to perform well given the combination of incredibly low Unemployment and incredibly low mortgage rates.

On the day, the dollar is more mixed, having ceded some of its weekly gains vs. the euro and pound, but sentiment appears to continue to point to further risk reduction and further dollar strength as the week comes to a close.

Good luck
Adf

Set For Stagnation

When thinking of every great nation
Regarding its growth expectation
The US alone
Is like to have grown
While others seem set for stagnation

The upshot of these circumstances
Is regular dollar advances
Within the G10
It’s euros and yen
That suffer on policy stances

Another day, another dollar rally. This simple sentiment pretty well sums up what we have been seeing for the past several weeks. And while there may be a multitude of catalysts driving individual currency movements, the reality is they all point in the same direction, a stronger dollar. Broadly speaking, data from around the world, excluding the US, has been consistently weaker than expected while the US continues to hum along nicely. Now, if China’s economy remains in its current catatonic state for another month, one has to believe that US numbers are going to suffer, if only for supply chain reasons. But right now, it is difficult for anyone to make the case that another currency is better placed than the dollar.

For example, last night we saw Australian Unemployment unexpectedly rise to 5.3% as the first measured impacts of Covid-19 make themselves felt Down Under. Traders wasted no time in selling Aussie and here we are this morning with the currency lower by 0.75%, trading to new lows for the move and touching its lowest level since March 2009. Perhaps the Lucky Country has run out of luck.

The yen keeps falling
Like ash from Fujiyama
Is an end in sight?

At this point in the session, the yen has seen its largest two-day decline since November 2016, in the immediate wake of President Trump’s election, and has now fallen more than 2.0% since Tuesday morning. It has broken through a key technical level at 111.02, which represented a very long-term downtrend line. This has encouraged short-term traders to add to what is believed to be significant outflows from Japanese investors, notably insurance companies. One of the other interesting things is that Japanese exporters, who are typically sellers of USDJPY, seem to be sitting this move out, having filled orders at the 110 level, and are now apparently waiting for 115. While it is unlikely that we will see the yen continue to decline 1% each day, I have to admit that 115 seems quite realistic by the end of the Japanese fiscal year next month.

And those are just two of the many stories that seem to be coming together simultaneously to encourage dollar buying. Other candidates are ongoing weak Eurozone economic data (Eurozone Construction output falling and reduced forecasts for tomorrow’s flash PMI data), rate cuts by EMG central banks (Indonesia cut by 25bps last night), and more confusion from China regarding Covid-19 and its spread. Last night, they changed the way they count infections for the second time in a week, and shockingly the result was a lower number indicating the spread of the disease is slowing. However, at this point, the virus count seems to be having less of a market impact than little things like the announcement that Hubei province is keeping all factories shuttered until at least March 10. Now I don’t know about you, but that hardly seems like the type of thing that indicates things are getting better there.

There is a new tacit contest in the market as well, trying to determine just how big a hit the Chinese economy is going to take in Q1. If you recall two weeks ago, the initial estimates were that GDP would grow at a 4%-5% rate in Q1. At this point 0.0% seems a given with a number of analysts penciling in negative growth for the quarter. And folks, I don’t know why anyone would think there is going to be a V-shaped recovery there. It is going to take a long time to get things anywhere near normal, and there has already been a lot of permanent demand destruction. On top of that, one of the things I had discussed last week, the idea that even if companies aren’t generating revenue, they still need to pay interest on their debt, is starting to be seen more publicly. The news overnight that HNA Group, a massively indebted conglomerate that had acquired trophy assets all around the world (stakes in Hilton Hotels and Deutsche Bank amongst others) is unable to pay interest on its debt and seems to be moving under state control. While the PBOC cut rates slightly overnight, the one-year loan prime rate is down to 4.05% from 4.15% previously, it appears that the Chinese government is going to be fighting the Covid-19 fight with more fiscal measures than monetary ones. That said, the renminbi has been falling along with all other currencies and has traded back through 7.00 to the dollar after a further 0.35% decline overnight.

The point is that you can essentially look at any currency right now and it is weaker vs. the dollar. Each may have its own story to tell, but they all point in the same direction.

I would be remiss to ignore other markets, which show that other than Chinese equity markets (Shanghai +1.85%), which rallied last night after news of further stimulus measures, risk is mostly on its back foot today. European equity markets are generally lower (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.1%) although not by much. US futures are pointing lower by 0.2% across the board, again, not significant, but directionally the same message. Treasury yields continue to fall, down another 2bps this morning to 1.54%, and gold continues to rally, up another 0.3% this morning.

Yesterday’s FOMC Minutes explained that the Fed was pretty happy with current policy settings, something we already knew, and that they are still unsure how to change their ways to try to be more effective with respect to achieving their inflation target as well as insuring that there are no more funding crises. On the data front, yesterday’s PPI data was much firmer than expected, although most people pretty much ignore those numbers. Today we see Philly Fed (exp 11.0), Initial Claims (210K) and Leading Indicators (0.4%). Monday’s Empire Mfg data was stronger than expected and the forecasts for Philly Fed are for a solid increase. Yet again, the data picture points to a better outcome in the US than elsewhere, which in the current environment will only encourage further USD buying. For now, don’t get in front of this train, but if you need to hedge receivables, sooner is better than later as I think we could see this run for a while.

Good luck
Adf

Fears Melt

As Covid fears melt
Like the snowpack during spring
The yen, too, recedes

Remember when there was a universal idea that if the world’s second largest economy, and its fastest growing one at that, essentially shut down due to complications from an exogenous force (Covid-19), it would force investors to show concern over their risk allocations and seek out haven assets? Me neither! Remarkably, equity investors have become so convinced that central banks collectively have their “backs” that there is virtually no interest in limiting positions. This is certainly true across all equity markets, where after a mere twenty-four hours of modest concern over the fact that Q1 iPhone sales would be negatively impacted by Covid-19, the all clear signal was given. This time that signal took the form of the Chinese government announcing that they would be supporting the domestic airline industry, either encouraging takeovers of smaller airlines in financial trouble by their larger brethren, or via direct capital injections into companies. My sense is we will see both of those actions in order to be certain that no airlines go under.

Headlines like the following: “Chinese Companies Say They Can’t Afford to Pay Workers Now” from a Bloomberg story are seen as irrelevant and have no impact on risk assessment. Apparently the idea that the Chinese private sector, which accounts for two-thirds of GDP growth and 90% of new jobs, has basically been shuttered is not relevant in the calculations made by equity investors. Let me just say that the idea of risk has certainly evolved lately.

But this is the story. Equity investors are convinced that central banks will never allow stock markets to decline again and will do everything in their power to prevent any such decline. And while that may be true with regard to central bank efforts, there is a potential flaw in the theory. Central bank power, just like virtually everything else, is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and we are already seeing that situation in Europe and Japan. So even though central bankers may try to stop all declines, do not be surprised when a situation arises where they cannot do so.

Interestingly, bond market investors have a somewhat different view of the landscape as we continue to see interest in Treasuries and bunds with yields in both instruments continuing to grind slowly lower. However, for now, the equity markets are in the spotlight and driving the narrative.

So, with this in mind, it is easier to understand that Asian markets mostly rallied last night (Nikkei +0.9%, Hang Seng +0.5) although Shanghai edged lower by -0.15%. European markets are rocking this morning with the DAX (+0.55%), CAC (+0.7%) and FTSE100 (+0.8%) leading the way higher despite news that Adidas and Puma have seen sales collapse to virtually zero in China. US futures are also pointing higher, on the order of 0.3% as we would not want to be left out of the action here.

Treasury yields continue to sink, however, with the 10-year down to 1.56% while German bunds have fallen to -0.42%. So there is clearly some demand for haven assets, perhaps just not as much as we would expect. And finally, in the FX market, havens have lost their appeal. Most notably, the yen has tumbled 0.5% this morning, trading well back through 110 and touching its weakest point since last May. Clearly, there is no fear in FX traders’ collective minds. Funnily enough, gold prices continue to rally, having closed above $1600/oz yesterday for the first time since March 2013, and are higher by a further 0.5% this morning.

With this as a backdrop, it is very difficult to paint a coherent picture of the markets today, at least the FX markets. In the G10 space, we have already discussed the yen’s decline, marking it as the worst performing major currency today. On the flip side, NOK is the big winner, +0.5% as oil prices rebound on the news that Chinese airlines are not all going to disappear. CAD is the second best performer, also on the back of the oil news, although it has only managed a 0.25% gain. And other than those three currencies, nothing else has moved more than 10 basis points from last night’s closing levels. On the data front overseas, UK CPI was released a tick higher than expected at 1.8%, although the pound has seen exactly zero movement on the back of the data. If nothing else, new BOE Governor Andrew Bailey must be happy that the road to 2% inflation is not quite as steep as previously expected.

In the EMG space, movement has been even more muted with the biggest gainers ZAR (+0.3%) and RUB (+0.25%) on the back stronger commodity and oil prices while the biggest decliners have been HUF (-0.3%) and TRY (-0.25%) with the former seeing profit taking after a nearly 2% rally in the wake of central bank discussions of tighter policy to fight inflation there, while the lira is responding to a rate cut of 50 bps as the central bank seeks to unwind the drastic tightening it implemented in mid-2018 amid major inflationary pressures. And while I wish there were some more interesting stories, the reality is the big narrative of central banks preventing risk sell-offs remains the only theme in the market.

Looking at this morning’s data we see Housing Starts (exp 1428K), Building Permits (1450K) and PPI (1.6%, 1.3% ex food & energy). Then at 2:00 we get a look at the FOMC Minutes from January’s meeting. Fed watchers are focusing on any discussion regarding the balance sheet and repo as it remains clear there is not going to be any interest rate change anytime soon.

So that’s what we have for today. Arguably, the dollar is ever so slightly on its back foot, but the movement has been infinitesimal. While I continue to believe that ultimately the Fed will ease policy further, for now, the dollar remains the brightest bulb in the box, and so should continue to attract buyers.

Good luck
Adf

 

Forecasts to Hell

The company named like a fruit
Said Covid was going to shoot
Its forecasts to hell
So risk assets fell
And havens all rallied to boot

Essentially, since the beginning of the Lunar New Year, there have been two competing narratives. First was the idea that the spread of the Covid virus would have a significantly detrimental impact on the global economy, reducing both production, due to the interruption of supply chains, and consumption, as the world’s second largest economy went into lockdown. This would result in a risk-off theme with haven assets in significant demand. The second was that, just like the SARS virus from 2003, this would be a temporary phenomenon and the fact that central banks around the world have been ramping up policy support by cutting rates and buying assets means that risk assets would continue their relentless march higher. And quite frankly, while there were a handful of days where the first thesis held sway, generally speaking, equity markets at least, are all-in on the second thesis.

At least that was true until today, when THE bellwether stock in the global equity markets explained that Q1 sales would miss forecasts due not only to production delays caused by supply chain interruptions, but to reduced sales as well. This news certainly put a crimp in the bull theory that the virus impact will be temporary and we have seen equity markets around the world suffer, while Treasuries rally, as fears are reignited over the ultimate impact of the CoVid virus.

While this author is no virologist, and does not pretend to have any special insight into how things with Covid evolve from here, long experience informs me that government efforts have been far more focused on controlling the message than controlling the virus. Confidence plays such an important part in today’s economy, and if the first narrative above is the one that takes hold, then there is very little that governments will be able to do to prevent a more substantial downturn and likely recession. Remember, at least in the G10, most central banks are basically out of ammunition with respect to their abilities to pump up the economy, so if the populace hunkers down because of fear, things could get ugly pretty quickly. And with that cheerful thought, let’s take a tour of the markets this morning.

It turns out the tax
On goods and services was
A growth disaster

During the US holiday weekend, we received a stunningly bad Q4 GDP report from Japan, with a -1.6% Q/Q result which turned into a -6.3% annualized number. Not only was that significantly worse than expected, but it was the worst outturn since the last time the Japanese government raised the GST in 2014. So, in their effort to be fiscally prudent, they blew an even bigger hole in their budget! But the yen didn’t really mind, as it remains a key safe haven, and while it weakened ever so slightly yesterday, this morning’s fear based markets has allowed it to recoup those losses and then some. So as I type, the yen is stronger by 0.15% today. Certainly, selling yen is a fraught operation in a market with as big a potential fear catalyst as currently exists.

Meanwhile, that other erstwhile growth engine, Germany, once again demonstrated that the idea of a rebound this year is on extremely shaky ground. Early this morning the ZEW surveys were released with the Expectations reading falling sharply to 8.7, while Current Situations fell to -15.7. While the numbers themselves have no independent meaning, both results were far worse than expected and crushed the modest rebound that had been seen in December. The euro has been under pressure since the release of the data, falling to a new low for the move and continuing its streak of down days, now up to 10 of the past twelve sessions, with the other two sessions closing essentially flat. The euro story has shown no signs of turning around on its own, and for the euro to stop declining we will need to see the dollar story change. Right now, that seems unlikely.

And generally speaking, the dollar is simply outperforming all other currencies. Versus the EMG bloc, the dollar is higher across the board, with not a single one of these currencies able to rally against the greenback. Today’s biggest decliners are the RUB (-0.6%) as oil prices fall, KRW (-0.5%) as concerns grow over Covid, and ZAR (-0.45%) as both commodity prices decline and global growth fears increase. In the G10 space, it should be no surprise that both AUD (-0.5%) and NZD (-0.7%) are the worst performers (China related) as well as NOK (-0.7%) as oil suffers over concerns of slowing global growth. It seems like we’ve heard this story before.

The one currency doing well today, other than the yen, is the British pound (+0.2%) as UK Employment data, released early this morning, was generally better than expected, with the 3M/3M Employment Change slipping a much less than expected 28K to 180K, a still quite robust number. Interestingly, yesterday saw the pound under pressure as PM Johnson’s Europe Advisor, David Frost, laid out the UK’s goals as ditching all EU social constructs and simply focusing on trade. That is at odds with the hinted at EU view, which is they want the UK to follow all their edicts even though they are no longer in the club. Look for more fireworks as we go forward on this subject.

Looking ahead to this week, the US data is generally second-tier, although we will see FOMC Minutes tomorrow.

Today Empire Manufacturing 5.0
Wednesday Housing Starts 1420K
  Building Permits 1450K
  PPI 0.1% (1.6% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (1.3% Y/Y)
  FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Initial Claims 210K
  Philly Fed 11.0
Friday Leading Indicators 0.4%
  Existing Home Sales 5.45M

Source: Bloomberg

So lots of housing data, which given the interest rate structure should be pretty decent. Of course, the problem is the reason the interest rate structure is so attractive to home buyers is the plethora of problems elsewhere in the economy. In addition, we have seven Fed speakers during the rest of the week with a nice mix of hawks and doves. Although it seems unlikely that anybody will change their views, be alert to Dallas Fed President Kaplan’s comments tomorrow and Friday as he is the only FOMC member who has admitted that continuing to pump up the balance sheet could cause excesses in risk taking.

At this point, there is nothing on the horizon that indicates the dollar’s run is over. Regarding the euro, technically there is nothing between current levels and the early 2017 lows of 1.0341 although I would expect some congestion at 1.0500.

Good luck
Adf

Simply Too Fraught?

The question whose answer is sought
‘Bout what should be sold or be bought
Is will GDP
Rebound like a V
Or are things just simply too fraught?

Risk is neither on nor off this morning as investors and traders continue to sift through both the recent changes in coronavirus news from China and the economic releases and choose a direction. Thus far this morning, that direction is sideways.

In one way, it is a bit surprising there is not a more negative viewpoint as on top of the surge in reported cases of Covid-19 (the coronavirus’s official name), we have heard of more companies closing operations outside of China for lack of parts. The latest is Fiat Chrysler, which closed a manufacturing facility in Serbia due to its inability to source parts that are built in China. While the Chinese government is seemingly trying to get everyone to believe that things are going to be back to normal soon, manufacturers on the ground there who have reopened, are running at fractions of capacity due to an inability of workers to get to the plant floor. Huge swaths of the country remain in effective lockdown, and facemasks, which are seen as crucial to getting back to work, are scarce. Apparently, the capacity to make face masks in China is just 22 million/day. While that may sound like a lot, given everyone needs a new one every day, and that there are around 100 million people under quarantine (let alone 1.3 billion in the country), there just aren’t enough to go around. I remain skeptical that this epidemic will come under any sense of control for a number of weeks yet, and that ultimately, the hit to global economic growth will be far more severe than the market is currently pricing.

Another sign of trouble came from Germany this morning, where Q4 GDP was released at 0.0% taking the annual growth rate to 0.6% in 2019. Eurozone GDP turned out to be just 0.9% in 2019, and that was before the virus was even discovered. In other words, it appears that both those numbers are going to be far worse in Q1 as the Eurozone remains highly reliant on exports to grow, and as the Fiat news demonstrates, exports are going to be reduced.

Keeping this in mind, it is easy to understand why the euro remains under so much pressure. While its decline this morning is just 0.1%, to 1.0830, the euro is trading at its lowest level vs. the dollar since April 2017. The single currency has fallen in 9 of the past 10 sessions and is down 2.4% this month. And let’s face it, on the surface; it is awfully difficult to make a case for the euro to rebound on its own. Any strength will require help from the dollar, meaning either weaker US economic data, or more aggressive Fed policy ease. At this point, neither of those looks likely, but the impact of Covid-19 remains highly uncertain and can easily derail the US economy as well.

But for now, the narrative remains that Chinese GDP growth in Q1 will be hit, but that by Q2 things will be rebounding and this will all fade from memory akin to the SARS virus in 2003. Just remember, China has effectively been closed since January 23, three full weeks, or 6% of a full year. While manufactured goods demand will certainly rebound, there are many services that simply will never be performed and cannot be recouped. The PBOC is already tweaking leverage policies on property lending in an effort to help further support growth going forward, and there is discussion of allowing banks to live with a greater proportion of non-performing loans that are due to the coronavirus. One can only imagine all the garbage loans that will receive that treatment!

Switching to a view of the markets, equity markets are +/- 0.2% generally speaking with US futures in a similar position. Treasury yields have fallen back a few bps, giving up yesterday’s modest gains, and the FX market, on the whole, is fairly benign. Away from the euro’s small decline this morning, we are seeing slight weakness in the pound, Aussie and Kiwi, with the rest of the G10 doing very little. The one gainer today is CAD, +0.15%, which seems to be benefitting from WTI’s ongoing bounce from Monday’s low levels, with the futures contract there higher by 1.4%.

In the EMG space, ZAR is today’s big winner, up 0.65%, in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation speech, where he outlined steps to help reinvigorate growth and fix some of the bigger problems, like the state-owned power producer Eskom’s debt issues. Of course, speeches are just that and the proof will be in what policies actually get implemented. The other key gainers here are BRL (+0.6%), which saw the central bank (finally) intervene yesterday to try to stop the real’s dramatic recent plunge (it had fallen more than 4% in the past 10 days and nearly 10% in 2020 so far). After announcing $1 billion in swaps, the market turned tail and we are seeing that continue this morning. HUF also continues to benefit, rallying a further 0.55% this morning, as the market continues to price in growing odds of a rate hike to help rein in much higher than expected inflation.

On the data front, this morning brings Retail Sales (exp 0.3%, 0.3% ex autos) as well as IP (-0.2%), Capacity Utilization (76.8%) and Michigan Sentiment (99.5). Yesterday’s CPI data was a touch firmer than forecast, simply highlighting that the Fed’s measure of inflation does not do a very good job. Also yesterday, we heard from NY Fed President Williams who told us the economy is in a “very good place”, while this morning we hear from uber-hawk Loretta Mester. This week the doves have all cooed about letting inflation run hot and cutting if necessary. Let’s hear what the hawks think.

So as we head into the weekend, I expect traders to reduce positions that have worked as the potential for a weekend surprise remains quite large, and nobody wants to get caught. That implies to me that the dollar can soften ever so slightly as the day progresses.

Good luck
Adf

Burdened With Shame

There once was a president, Xi
Who ruled with a fist of F E
But there’s now a nit
That cares not a whit
‘Bout politics while running free

So mandarins now take the blame
For playing along with Xi’s game
Their jobs they have lost
And soon they’ll be tossed
In jail, as they’re burdened with shame

Apparently, at least some of the rumors of undercounting coronavirus infections seem to have been true as last night the latest data showed an extraordinary jump in total cases to nearly 60,000 with a regrettable mortality rate of 2.3%, meaning more than 1350 people have passed away from its effects. Last week, much was made about how this was not very different than the simple flu, but that is just not the case. The mortality rate of the flu is 0.1%, an order of magnitude lower. At any rate, officials in Hubei Province revised the way they were calculating cases (i.e. they started admitting to higher numbers) and suddenly there were nearly 15,000 more cases just like that. In typical dictatorial fashion, the previous Hubei leadership, whose job was to prevent the truth from escaping, has been summarily sacked, and President Xi has a new man on the job, with a clean(er) slate. Talk about a thankless job!

At this point, what has become clear is that the dynamics of the spread of the virus remain uncertain and despite significant efforts by the Chinese, it appears premature to declare the situation under control. Recent market activity, where risk assets were aggressively acquired leading to record high stock prices, may now need to be rethought. Consider that the narrative that had been developing, especially after it appeared the growth of the virus was slowing, was that any impact would be temporary and confined to Q1. If that were the case, then it certainly was reasonable to think that ongoing central bank largesse would continue to push risk assets ever higher. But today it seems as though the definition of temporary may need to be adjusted somewhat, and investors are treading more cautiously. This is a terrible human tragedy and the most concerning aspect is that due to the politics in China, efforts to address it using the broadest array of expertise from the WHO and CDC is not being utilized. The likely outcome of these decisions is that many more will die from the coronavirus’s effects, and economic growth worldwide will be pretty significantly impacted.

And that is the background for this morning’s market across all assets. Risk is very definitely off today as can be seen in equity markets in Europe (DAX -1.1%, CAC -1.2%, FTSE100 -1.6%) and US equity futures, all of which are down between 0.7% and 0.9%. Treasury bonds have been in demand, rising half a point with yields falling 4bps to 1.59% while gold is higher by 0.5%. In the FX markets, the yen is today’s top performer, rallying 0.35% while the dollar outperforms virtually every other currency. And finally, oil prices have been slumping again as the IEA has just issued a report estimating that oil demand would actually shrink in 2020, the first time that has happened since the financial crisis and global recession of 2008-09. The latter certainly makes sense given that China has been the largest user of petroleum and its products. Consider that not only has travel to and from China fallen dramatically, over 100 million people are on lockdown in the country, and industrial output has slowed dramatically given there are no factory workers available to get to the factories.

The initial estimates of Chinese Q1 GDP were reduced to 4.5%-5.0%, but lately I have seen estimates falling to 0.0% for Q1 which would have a pretty severe impact on the global economy. And one of the problems is that data from China doesn’t come out quite as regularly as it does here in the US or in Europe, so there are long periods with no new information. Consider also that the Chinese simply didn’t release the January trade figures (they must be AWFUL) and it would not be surprising if they delay the release of much important data going forward. My point here is that we will have an increasingly difficult time understanding the actual situation on the ground in China, although it will become more apparent as those companies and countries that do the most business there report their data. The greater the deterioration of that data, the greater the problem on the mainland.

Turning to individual currency movers this morning, RUB and NOK, the two currencies most closely linked to the price of oil, are the biggest laggards in the EMG and G10 spaces respectively. Aside from the yen’s gains, the pound just jumped 0.3% after reports that Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, has resigned. Apparently the market was unimpressed with his performance. Boris is actively reshuffling his cabinet today, so there are other moves as well, but this was the only one that moved the market. But elsewhere in the G10, the dollar reigns supreme.

In the EMG space, HUF is today’s biggest winner, rising 0.45% after January’s CPI data jumped to 4.7% annually, well above their 3.0% target, and the central bank said they are ready to use all tools to rein it in. Clearly that implies rate hikes are coming to Hungary. (As an aside, I wonder if Powell, Lagarde or Kuroda are going to be ringing up the central bank there asking how they were able to create inflation.) But away from HUF, any gainers have moved so little as to be effectively unchanged, while the rest of the space, notably LATAM, is under pressure on the back of the weaker China story.

Data this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 210K) and CPI (2.4%, 2.2% ex food & energy), with the latter likely to be closely watched. Weakness in this print will only increase the odds of a rate cut here in the US, likely driving the market to price one in by July (currently a 72% probability). Chairman Powell didn’t teach us anything new yesterday, simply rehashing Tuesday’s testimony and no Senators raised anything noteworthy. Today we get two more Fed speakers, Kaplan and Williams, with Kaplan needing to be closely watched. After all, he is the only FOMC member who has admitted that the growth of the Fed’s balance sheet is having an impact on markets, and could prove to be problematic over time.

But it is a risk off day, which means that further yen strength is likely, and the dollar should continue to perform well overall.

Good luck
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Rate Cuts They May Soon Espouse

The Chairman explained to the House
The virus could truthfully dowse
Their growth expectation
As well as inflation
Thus rate cuts they may soon espouse

Chairman Powell testified before the House Financial Services Committee yesterday and there were absolutely no surprises. According to him, the economy remains in a “good place” and current policy settings are appropriate. He did, however, explain that the coronavirus outbreak in China did pose a new risk to their forecasts and has added significant uncertainty overall. He also left no doubt that in the event the economic data started to turn lower due to virus linked issues (or arguably any other issues), the Fed was ready to act as appropriate to support the economy. In other words, they will cut rates in a heartbeat if they think their targets are in danger of being missed. In the meantime, they continue to buy $60 billion of T-bills each month and will do so at least until April, and they continue to expand the balance sheet further via term repos, pumping ever more liquidity into the system and ultimately supporting global equity markets.

If you think about it, that is really what defines the market these days. It is the battle between questions and fears over the spread of the coronavirus and its negative impacts on Chinese and global economic activity vs. central bank largesse and the positive impacts of ever more cash being created and seeking a home by investors. And let’s face it, up until now; except for two days in late January, bookending the Lunar New Year when equity markets fell sharply, the central banks have been dominant.

Will they continue to have success? At this point, there is no reason to believe they won’t in the short run, but ultimately, it will depend on just how deep the shock to China’s economy actually turns out to be. Remember, a key discussion point about China prior to the virus outbreak was the fragility of a large swathe of Chinese industries given their highly leveraged stance. While I imagine we will never learn the true extent of how much the economy there slows, analysts will infer a great deal based on how many companies wind up failing, or at least restructuring their debt. As I have said before, interest remains due even when revenues cease to occur. But for now, the market is backing Powell and his central bank comrades and thus risk appetite continues to grow.

Thus, turning out attention to this morning’s market activity, equity markets are in the green everywhere after solid overnight performance in Asia. Haven assets, notably Treasuries and the yen, are under pressure, and overall, the dollar is on its back foot.

Last night, the RBNZ left rates on hold at 1.0% and explained that while the virus could well have a longer term negative impact, for now, they see no reason to cut rates any time soon. Interest rate markets, which had been pricing in a 40% probability of a rate cut this year, rebalanced to no rate changes and the kiwi dollar jumped 1.2%. Not surprisingly, Aussie is also performing well, up 0.5%, as investors recognize that the two nations are inextricably linked economically, and if New Zealand is feeling better, odds are Australia will be soon as well.

Last night the Swedish Riksbank also left rates on hold, at 0.0%, as widely expected, despite lowering their inflation expectations. You may recall Sweden raising rates by 25bps in December as they sought to exit the NIRP world after concluding it was doing more harm than good. While lowered inflation expectations might seem a reason to reduce rates, the fact that the catalyst for that has been the sharp decline in energy prices due to the virtual closure of China’s economy, allows Riksbank members to cogently make the case that this is a temporary shock, and they need to look through it. This morning, SEK is firmer by 0.2% vs. the dollar after the Riksbank announcement. NOK is higher by 0.4% as oil prices firm up again on a more positive general tone, and the pound is higher by 0.2% as it continues its rebound from last week’s sharp decline, and there was nothing new from the PM regarding a hard Brexit.

You may have noticed that I failed to mention the euro, which is essentially flat on the day, arguably the second biggest underperformer vs. the dollar. Early in the session, it too was firmer as the dollar has few friends during a risk-on session, but then they released Eurozone IP at -2.1%, worse than expected and the worst print in four years. Subsequent trade saw more sellers emerge, weighing on the single currency, which has been under pretty steady pressure for the past week and a half. Madame Lagarde testified to the European Parliament yesterday and basically begged countries to step up their fiscal response as it becomes ever clearer that the ECB has no more bullets.

In the emerging markets, the Russian ruble is the leader of the pack, up 0.5%, also benefitting from oil’s rebound from the lows seen earlier this week. Away from this, there are far more gainers in the space (CLP +0.4%, THB +0.35%, ZAR +0.3%) than losers (TRY -0.4%, HUF -0.3%), but as you can see by the magnitude of the movements, there is not much of interest ongoing. Ultimately, as long as the risk-on attitude prevails, I expect the higher yielding currencies (ZAR, MXN, INR, etc.) should perform well as investors continue to hunt for yield.

There is no data to be released today, but we do hear Chairman Powell in front of the Senate, as well as some comments from Philly Fed President Patrick Harker, arguably one of the more centrist FOMC members. Yesterday’s comments from the bevy of doves who were on the tape were just as expected. Things are fine, but more accommodation is available and if inflation were to rise, they would be comfortable with letting it run hot for a while before acting.

And that’s really all there is. I see no reason for the dollar to change its current trajectory, which is modestly lower this morning. And since we already know what Powell is going to say, unless some Senator pins him down on something, I suspect we will see yet another day of limited movement overall.

Good luck
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