In times of trouble
The yen continues to be
Mighty like an oak
Pop quiz! What percentage of the workforce is working at their primary site vs. home or an alternate site? Please respond with where you’re working and your guesstimates. Will publish results of this (completely unscientific) survey on Monday, March 16.
As markets around the world continue to melt down, investors everywhere are looking for a haven to retain capital. For the past 100 years, US Treasuries have been the number one destination in markets. Interestingly, the past two days saw Treasuries sell off aggressively. I think the move was initially based on the relief rally seen on Tuesday, but at this point, the fact that Treasury prices fell alongside yesterday’s stock rout can only be explained by the idea that institutions that need cash are selling the only liquid assets they have, and Treasuries remain quite liquid. And to be clear, 10-year yields are lower by 18bps this morning as that bout of selling seems to have passed and the haven demand has returned in spades.
But since the financial crisis, the second most powerful haven asset has been the Japanese yen. Despite the fact that the nation has basically been in an economic funk for two decades, it continues to run a significant current account surplus. As a consequence, Japanese external investment is huge and when fear is in the air, that money comes running back home. The evolution of the coronavirus spread can be seen in the yen’s movement as in the middle of February, when Japan itself was dealing with the growth in infections, the yen weakened to a point not seen in nearly a year. Since then, however, the yen has strengthened 7.5% (with a peak gain of 9.8% seen Monday) as flows have been decidedly one way. This morning the yen has appreciated 0.7% from yesterday’s close and quite frankly, until the pandemic starts to ebb, I see no reason for it to stop appreciating. Par will pose a short-term psychological support for the dollar, but if this goes on for another two months, 95 is in the cards. With that in mind, though, for all yen receivables hedgers, zero premium collars are looking awfully good here. Let’s talk, at the very least you should be apprised of the pricing.
Interestingly, the Swiss franc has had a somewhat less impressive performance despite its historic haven characteristics. While it has appreciated 4.5% in the same time frame, it has been having much more trouble during the latest equity market decline. And I think that is the reason why. Famously, the Swiss National Bank has 20% of its balance sheet invested in individual equities. This is a very different investment philosophy than virtually every other central bank. The genesis of this came about when the SNB was intervening on a daily basis while trying to cap the franc and ultimately needed a place to put the dollars and euros they were buying. I guess the view was stocks only go up, so let’s make some money too. Whatever the reason, as of December 31 the USD value of their equity portfolio was about $97.6 billion. I’m pretty confident that number is a lot lower today, and perhaps the idea about Swiss franc strength is being called into question. The franc is unchanged today and has been generally unimpressive for the past week.
Meanwhile, all eyes this morning are on Madame Lagarde and the ECB who will be announcing their latest policy initiatives shortly. While it is clearly expected they will do something, other than a 10bp cut in the deposit rate, to -0.60%, there is a great deal of uncertainty. Expectations range from expanding the TLTRO program with much more aggressive rates, as low as -2.00%, to a significant increase in QE to capping government bond yields. All of that would be remarkably dramatic and likely have a short-term positive impact on markets. But will it last? My sense is that until the Fed announces next week, and at this point I think they cut 100bps, markets will still be on edge. After all, the world continues to revolve around USD funding, and in times of crisis, foreign entities need access to USD liquidity. Look for more repo, more swap lines and maybe even a lending scheme although I don’t think the Fed can do something like that within their mandate.
Overall, the dollar is performing as the number two currency haven, after the yen, and has rallied sharply against commodity currencies in both the G10 and EMG spaces. For example, with oil down 5% this morning, NOK has fallen 3.6%, but both AUD and SEK are lower by 1.5% as well. In the emerging markets, Mexican peso continues to be the market’s whipping boy, falling a further 3.2% as I type, which takes its decline since the beginning of the month to 12.2%. meanwhile, the RUB is in similarly dire straits (-2.75% today, -11.5% in March) and we are seeing every single EMG currency lower vs. the dollar today. These are the nations that are desperate for USD liquidity and you can expect their currencies to continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
At this point, data is an afterthought, but it is still being released. Yesterday saw CPI rise a tick more than expected but the more interesting data point was Mortgage Applications, which jumped 55.4% as mortgage rates collapse alongside Treasury yields. This morning brings Initial Claims (exp 220K) and PPI (1.8%, 1.7% core) with far more interest in the former than the latter. Consider, given the enormous economic disruptions, it would be easy to see that number jump substantially, which would just be another signal for the Fed to act as aggressively as possible.
At this point, as the equity meltdown continues, the dollar should remain well supported vs. everything except the yen.