There once was a time in the past
Ere Covid, when risk was amassed
But now every day
Risk assets betray
That fear is still growing quite fast
It is awfully hard to find the bright side of the current situation, whether discussing markets, the economy or the general state of the world. Volatility remains the watchword in markets as yesterday saw the largest US equity decline since Black Monday in October 1987. Globally, economic data that is remotely current continues to show the disastrous impact of Covid-19. The latest print is this morning’s German ZEW Survey where the Expectations reading fell to -49.5, its lowest level since the middle of the Eurozone crisis in 2011. And finally, one need only listen to the number of government pronouncements and edicts including border closures, business closures and curfews to recognize that it will be quite some time before our lives, as we knew them just a few months ago, return to some semblance of normal.
And while it is virtually certain that this situation will ebb over time, we continue to get estimates that are further and further into the future as to when that time will arrive. What had been assumed to be a six-week process is now sounding an awful lot like a six-month process.
But consider this, it is events of this nature that change the zeitgeist and will have much further reaching effects on every industry. For example, given how much of the US (and global) economy has become service oriented, outside of things like food service, I expect that we will see a much greater reliance on telecommuting going forward. Even in bank dealing rooms, a place that I always considered the last bastion of the importance of proximity of workers, we are seeing a pretty effective adjustment to working from remote locations. And you can be sure that whatever issues are currently still impeding the workflow, they will be addressed by technological fixes in short order.
But what does that do to automobile manufacturers and all their supply chains? And while fossil fuels aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, in fact given how much cheaper they have become, they will be able to supplant alternatives for now, at some point, all those industries are going to suffer as well. Ironically, the move toward urbanization that we have seen during the last decade may find itself halted as people decide that not cramming themselves into small apartments with hundreds of other people (mostly strangers) in close proximity, is really a healthier way to live. And certainly, leisure activities are likely to change their nature as well. While the future remains unknown, it certainly does appear that it will look very little like the recent past. Food for thought.
Turning to the markets more specifically, we continue to see a combination of central bank and government activity in increasingly strident efforts to ameliorate the negative economic impacts of Covid-19. So last night the BOJ bought a record amount (¥121.6 billion) of equity ETF’s to help support the stock market. To their credit, the action was able to prevent a further decline in prices there, as the Nikkei closed unchanged on the day. However, it is still lower by 32% since early February’s recent high. In addition, we have seen equity short-selling bans by France, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Belgium as of this morning in an effort to prevent further market declines. Spain is the only market that seems happy about it, rising 2.6% this morning, with the rest of Europe little changed generally. Risk assets are still on the block for sale, its simply a question of the available liquidity for positions to be unwound.
Of greater interest to me are global government bond markets, which are quickly losing their status as haven assets. Despite rate cuts from all over the globe, yields are rising virtually everywhere, even in the US this morning with 10-year Treasuries seeing a 9bp jump. But Bunds have been underperforming for more than a week, with yields on the 10-year there up nearly 50bps in that time. While it makes perfect sense that the PIGS are seeing yields rise in this environment, what I think we are seeing is a combination of two things for ‘safer’ bonds. First, when yields fall this low, a key haven characteristic, limited probability of losing principal, is put at risk, because any reversal in yields will result in very sharp price declines. And second, with the spending commitments that are being made by governments on a daily basis, I think bond investors are starting to price in the idea that there is going to be a massive increase in the supply of bonds starting pretty soon. And asset managers don’t want to get caught in that blitz either. It is the second of these reasons that will continue to drive central banks to promulgate QE measures, and you can be sure we will continue to see those programs coming. In fact, I think the MMTer’s have won the debate, as that is likely to be a very accurate description of monetary policy in the future.
Finally, this morning the dollar has regained its crown and is, by far, the strongest currency around. It has rallied vs. all the G10, and pretty sharply as well. For instance, CAD is the best performer of the bunch today, and it is lower by 0.75%, having found a new home with the dollar above 1.40. SEK and AUD are the worst performers, both down around 1.7%, as the krona is seeing increased speculative betting that they will be forced to go back to negative rates, while Down Under, the Lucky Country has run out of luck with a collapsing Chinese economy crushing commodity prices, and the RBA promising to do more to stop the economy’s slowdown.
In the EMG space, the dollar is also reigning supreme this morning with EEMEA currencies under the most pressure. Given their relative outperformance lately, it cannot be too surprising that we are seeing this type of price action. HUF is today’s laggard, down 2.1%, but PLN (-2.0%), RON (-1.6%) and BGN (-1.2%) are all feeling the pain. Asian currencies are also lower, but generally not by quite as much, although IDR and KRW are both lower by around 1.5%.
Ultimately, the dollar’s strength today is probably best attributed to the absolute blowout in the basis swaps market, where borrowing dollars vs. other currencies has become hugely expensive. Given the way economic activity is contracting so rapidly, and so revenues everywhere are shrinking, all those non-US companies that need to repay dollar debt are desperate to get hold of the buck. Once financing charges rise high enough, the next step is generally outright purchases of dollars on the FX market. And that is what we are seeing this morning. Look for more of that going forward.
It’s ironic, Retail Sales is released this morning (exp 0.2%, 0.1% ex autos) on the same day I received emails that Nordstrom is closing its stores for the next two weeks along with a myriad of other smaller retailers. We also see IP (0.4%), Capacity Utilization (77.1%) and the JOLT’s Jobs Report (6.40M). But again, this data looks backward and in the quickly evolving world today, I doubt it will have an impact. Rather, while risk stabilized somewhat overnight, my sense is this is a temporary situation, and that we are going to see another wave of risk reduction, certainly before the week is over. So, for now, the dollar will continue to find a lot of demand.