Has Panic Subsided?

This morning a look at the screen
Shows everything coming up green
Has panic subsided?
Or is it misguided
To think that a bottom’s been seen?

It certainly feels less frightening in markets this morning as assets of all nature, equity, commodity and fixed income, are rallying nicely and the panic buying of dollars seems to have ended for the time being. Of course, this is an interesting outcome if one reads the news, given that virus stories have not only continued apace, but the statistics and government responses are getting more draconian. Arguably, the biggest story is that the entire state of California, with its population of 40 million, has been put on lockdown, with stay-at-home restrictions imposed by the Governor. By itself, California is, famously, the fifth largest economy in the world, just ahead of the UK, so the idea that economic activity there is going to come screeching to a halt cannot be seen as a positive. At least not in the short term. In addition, virus related deaths in Italy have now surpassed those from China, and further personal restrictions are being contemplated by PM Conte in order to get a handle on the situation. Thus, the fact remains that Italy is in dire straits from an economic perspective, again at least in the short term. Yet the FTSE MIB (the main Italian stock market index) is higher by 3.8% as I type this morning.

This all begs the question, why are markets reversing course from what has been several hellacious weeks of price declines? Let’s consider a few possible reasons:

It could be that the combination of expanded central bank and government activity around the world has finally achieved a point where investors believe that apocalyptic scenarios overstate the case.

While this is possible, it seems a bit far-fetched to believe that in the course of 36 hours, investors have suddenly decided to accept all the actions, and there have been many, have done the job.

A recap of the major actions shows:
• ECB creates €750 billion PEPP as additional QE measures
• Fed extends USD swap lines to 9 additional central banks to allow USD liquidity to reach all G10 nations and several more developed EMG nations like South Korea
• Fed creates money market fund liquidity backstop to insure that CP issuance by US corporates is able to continue and companies are able to fund operations
• BOJ added ¥5.3 trillion in liquidity to markets while snapping up ¥201 billion of new ETF’s
• RBA cut rates by 0.25%, added new liquidity to markets and started a QE program to control the 3-year AGB at a rate of 0.25%

There is no question that this is an impressive list of actions put into place in very short order which demonstrates just how seriously governments are taking the Covid-19 outbreak. And this doesn’t include any of the fiscal stimulus packages which either have been enacted or are on the cusp of being so. In fact, a total of 31 central banks around the world have cut rates, added liquidity or started QE programs in the past week in order to stem the tide. (I have to add that the Danish central bank actually raised its base rate by 0.15%, to -0.60%, yesterday morning in a truly shocking move. Apparently there was growing concern that with the ongoing problems in Italy, investors were flocking to DKK from EUR and driving that cross, which the central bank uses as its monetary benchmark, strongly in favor of the krona. In this instance, strongly represents a 3.5 basis point move, which has since been reversed.) And perhaps the market is telling us, they’ve done enough. But I doubt it.

Remember, the problem is not financial at its heart, it is a medical issue and efforts to contain the virus remain only partially effective thus far. The medical news, however, continues to get worse, at least in Europe and the US, as the caseload continues to increase rapidly, as well as the death toll, and governments are imposing stricter and stricter regulations on the population. So along with California’s action, New York has mandated that no more than 25% of a company’s workforce is allowed to work at the office (at SMBC we are below 15%), while New Jersey has closed all personal service businesses, like hair salons, exercise facilities and tattoo parlors. And these are just the most recent ones that I have seen because of where I live and work. I know there are countless measures throughout the US and Europe. And all of those measures inflict significant pain on the economy.

Yesterday’s Initial Claims number jumped to 281K, significantly higher than model forecasts, but just a fraction of what we are likely to see going forward as small service businesses like restaurants and hair salons and so many others are forced to close for now and cannot afford to continue paying their staff. Hence I’ve seen estimates that we could see those numbers jump as high as 2 million! So while it is not an economic or financial condition at its heart, it is certainly having that impact.

A second thought, one which I think has more substance to it is that during the past three weeks we have seen a substantial amount of position liquidation by highly leveraged fund managers who were forced to sell assets (or cover shorts) at ANY price due to margin calls. The only way to get market movements of 5%-10% or more is to have market participants be price insensitive. In other words, sales (short covers) were mandated, not by choice. However, once those positions are closed, and the evidence is that most have been so, markets revert to price discovery in the normal fashion, with buyers and sellers putting their money to work based on views of the asset. So while there is still significant trepidation by investors, my gut tells me that we have seen the worst of the financial market activity and volatility. It will still be quite a while before things truly settle down, and there is every chance that as the economic data comes over the next weeks and months and shows just how badly things were impacted, we will see sharp market downdrafts. So I am not calling a bottom per se, but think that going forward it will be less dramatic than we have seen during the first three weeks of March.

A quick recap of this morning’s markets shows equity markets around the world higher, with many substantially so (CAC +5.1%, DAX +4.2%, Hang Seng +5.0%); government bond markets also rallying nicely with yields almost everywhere falling (Treasuries -14bps, Gilts -14bps, Bunds -9bps); commodity prices rallying virtually across the board (WTI +2.4%,Copper +1.7%, Gold +2.3%); and finally, the dollar selling off virtually universally, with some of the worst recent performers regaining the most. So KRW (+3.0%), AUD (+2.6%) and GBP (+2.3%) are all unwinding some of the excess movement we saw in the past weeks. If I am correct and the worst has passed, I expect the dollar will cede more of its recent gains. However, given my timeline of May, I expect it will be another month before we see that in any material way. So, if you are a payables hedger, these are likely to be some of the best opportunities you are going to see for quite a while. Don’t miss out!

Good luck, good weekend and please all stay safe and socially distant