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
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