Sanguinity Reigns

Despite growth in Chinese infections
And turmoil in Irish elections
Sanguinity reigns
As Powell takes pains
To help prevent any corrections

Once upon a time, people used to describe the President of the United States as ‘the most powerful man in the world’, on the back of the idea that he oversaw the richest and most powerful nation in the world. But these days, it has become pretty clear that the most powerful man in the world is Fed Chairman Jerome Powell. After all, not only is he in command of the US economy, but he is tasked with shielding us all from the impacts of non-financial issues like the coronavirus and climate change. And many people believe, not only can he do that, but it is imperative that he stops both of those things in their tracks.

And yet, the coronavirus continues to spread as virologists and doctors learn more about it each day and seemingly continue to fall further behind the curve. For example, initially, it had been believed that the incubation period for the virus was 14 days, implying that was an appropriate amount of time for any quarantine of suspected cases. But now, the data is showing it may be as long as 24 days, which means that formerly quarantined individuals who were cleared, may actually be infected, and thus the spread of the disease accelerated. As of this morning, more than 40,000 cases have been documented with more than 900 deceased. The human toll continues to rise, and quite frankly, shows no signs of abating yet. Stories of complete lockdowns of cities in Hubei province, where people were literally welded shut inside their homes to enforce the quarantine, and videos showing large scale disinfectant spraying are remarkable, as well as horrifying. And none of this leads to greater trust in the official information that is published by the Chinese government. In other words, this situation is by no means coming to an end and the impacts on economies worldwide as well as financial markets are just beginning to be felt.

From an economic perspective, China has largely been shut for nearly three weeks now, since the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday in January, which means that all those companies that had built supply chains that run through China while implementing just-in-time delivery have found themselves with major problems. Hubei province is a key center for automotive, technology, pharmaceutical and chemical production. Major global firms, like Foxconn, PSA (Peugeot), Honda and others have all seen production elsewhere impacted as parts that come from the area are no longer being delivered. In fact, Hyundai Motors has closed its operations in South Korea for lack of parts supply. My point is, the economic impact is going to be very widespread and likely quite significant. While there is no way to accurately assess that impact at this time, simple math implies that the fact China will have essentially been closed for 25% of Q1, at least, means that GDP data will be severely impacted, arguably by at least a full percentage point. And what about highly leveraged companies? Interest is still due even if they are not selling products and earning revenue. Trust me; things will get worse before they get better.

And yet…financial markets remain remarkably nonplussed over the potential ultimate impact of this. Yes, equity markets slipped on Friday, but a 0.5% decline is hardly indicative of a significant amount of fear. And overnight, while the Nikkei (-0.6%) and Hang Seng (-0.6%) both fell, somehow the Shanghai Composite rose 0.6%. Yes, the PBOC injected more stimulus, but there is a remarkable amount of faith that the impact of this virus is going to be completely transitory. That seems like a big bet to me, and one with decidedly ordinary odds.

European markets are in the same space, with very modest declines (DAX -0.25%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE -0.15%) and US futures are now little changed to higher. Apparently, economic growth is no longer an important input into the valuation of equities.

And that is the crux of the matter. Since the financial crisis in 2008-09, central banks around the world have, in essence, monetized the entire global economy. If growth appears to be slowing they simply print more cash. If things are going well, they also simply print more cash, although perhaps not quite as much as in the case of a slowdown. And companies everywhere, at least large, listed ones, borrow as much as possible to restructure their balance sheets, retiring equity and increasing leverage. Alas, that does not foster economic activity, and ultimately, that is the gist of the disconnect between financial market strength and the ongoing growth of populist and nationalist political parties. Welcome to the 2020’s.

So, with all that said, risk is modestly off this morning, but by no means universally so. Yes, Treasury yields are lower, down another basis point to 1.57%, but that does not speak to unmitigated fear. And in the currency market, the impact of the overnight story has been largely muted. In fact, the biggest mover today has been Norwegian krone, which has rallied 0.75% after its inflation data surprised on the high side (CPI +1.8% Y/Y in January) which has helped convince traders that Norway may be inclined to tighten policy going forward. While I don’t see that outcome, it likely takes any rate cuts off the table for the immediate future. But elsewhere in the G10, the pound’s modest 0.3% rally is the next largest move, and that has all the earmarks of a simple trading rebound after a 2.5% decline last week. Otherwise, this space has been dull, and looks set to remain so. In the EMG bloc, the picture is mixed as well, with CLP weakening furthest, -0.55% on the open, as traders bet on policy ease by the central bank, while we have seen a series of currencies, notably CNY, rally a modest 0.3%, as fears abate over a worsening outcome from the virus.

This week’s upcoming highlight is likely to be Fed Chair Powell’s testimony to the House and Senate, but we do see both CPI and Retail Sales data late in the week as well.

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 103.3
JOLTS Job Openings 6.85M
Powell House Testimony
Wednesday Powell Senate Testimony
Thursday CPI 0.2% (2.4% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (2.2% Y/Y)
Initial Claims 211K
Friday Retail Sales 0.3%
-ex autos 0.3%
IP -0.2%
Capacity Utilization 76.8%
Michigan Sentiment 99.3

Source: Bloomberg

Aside from Powell’s two days in the spotlight, there will be eight other Fed speakers as well, with my guess being that all the interest will be regarding the impact of the virus. So far, there is no indication that the Fed is ready to react, but it also seems abundantly clear that they will not hesitate to cut rates again in the event that things rapidly deteriorate on that front. Ultimately, the dollar remains extremely well bid as the bid for Treasuries continues to drive flows, but nothing has changed my medium term view that the dollar will eventually weaken on the back of Not QE4.

Good luck
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