Riven By Obstinacy

Said Jay, in this challenging time
Our toolkit is truly sublime
It is our desire
More bonds to acquire
And alter the Fed’s paradigm

In contrast, the poor ECB
Is riven by obstinacy
Of Germans and Dutch
Who both won’t do much
To help save Spain or Italy

Is anybody else confused by the current market activity? Every day reveals yet another data point in the economic devastation wrought by government efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, and every day sees equity prices rally further as though the future is bright. In fairness, the future is bright, just not the immediate future. Equity markets have traditionally been described as looking forward between six months and one year. Based on anything I can see; it is going to take far more than one year to get global economies back to any semblance of what they were like prior to the spread of the virus. And yet, the S&P is only down 9% this year and less than 13% from its all-time highs set in mid-February. As has been said elsewhere, the economy is more than 13% screwed up!

Chairman Powell seems to have a pretty good understanding that this is going to be a long, slow road to recovery, especially given that we have not yet taken our first steps in that direction. This was evidenced by the following comment in the FOMC Statement, “The ongoing public health crisis will weigh heavily on economic activity, employment and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.” (My emphasis.) And yet, we continue to see equity investors scrambling to buy stocks amid a great wave of FOMO. History has shown that bear markets do not end in one month’s time and I see no reason to believe that this time will be different. I don’t envy Powell or the Fed the tasks they have ahead of them.

So, let’s look at some of the early data as to just how devastating the response to Covid-19 has been around the world. By now, you are all aware that US GDP fell at a 4.8% annualized rate in Q1, its sharpest decline since Q4 2008, the beginning of the GFC. But in truth, compared to the European data released this morning, that was a fantastic performance. French Q1 GDP fell 5.8%, which if annualized like the US reports the data, was -21.0%. Spanish Q1 GDP was -5.2% (-19.0% annualized), while Italy seemed to have the best performance of the lot, falling only 4.8% (-17% annualized) in Q1. German data is not released until the middle of May, but the Eurozone, as a whole, printed at -3.8% Q1 GDP. Meanwhile, German Unemployment spiked by 373K, far more than forecast and the highest print in the history of the series back to 1990. While these were the highlights (lowlights?), the story is uniformly awful throughout the continent.

With this in mind, the ECB meets today and is trying to determine what to do. Last month they created the PEPP, a €750 billion QE program, to support the Eurozone economy by keeping member interest rates in check. But that is not nearly large enough. After all, the Fed and BOJ are at unlimited QE while the BOE has explicitly agreed to monetize £200 billion of debt. In contrast, the ECB’s actions have been wholly unsatisfactory. Perhaps the best news for Madame Lagarde is the German employment report, as Herr Weidmann and Frau Merkel may finally recognize that the situation is really much worse than they expected and that more needs to be done to support the economy. Remember, too, that Germany has been the euro’s biggest beneficiary by virtue of the currency clearly being weaker than the Deutschemark would have been on its own and giving their export industries an important boost. (I am not the first to notice that the euro’s demise could well come from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands deciding to exit in order to shed all responsibility for the fiscal problems of the PIGS. But that is a discussion for another day.)

The consensus is that the ECB will not make any changes today, despite a desperate need to do more. One of the things holding them back is an expected ruling by the German Constitutional Court regarding the legality of the ECB’s QE programs. This has been a bone of contention since Signor Draghi rammed them through in 2012, and it is not something the Germans have ever forgiven. With debt mutualization off the table as the Teutonic trio won’t even consider it, QE is all they have left. Arguably, the ECB should increase the PEPP by €1 trillion or more in order to have a truly positive impact. But thus far, Madame Lagarde has not proven up to the task of forcing convincing her colleagues of the necessity of bold action. We shall see what today brings.

Leading up to the ECB announcement and the ensuing press briefing, Asian equity markets followed yesterday’s US rally higher, although early gains from Europe have faded since the release of the sobering GDP data. US futures have also given back early gains and remain marginally higher at best. Bond markets are generally edging higher, with yields across the board (save Italy) sliding a few bps, and oil prices continue their recent rebound, although despite some impressive percentage moves lately, WTI is trading only at $17.60/bbl, still miles from where it was at the beginning of March.

The dollar, in the meantime, remains under pressure overall with most G10 counterparts somewhat firmer this morning. The leaders are NOK (+0.45%) on the strength of oil’s rally, and SEK (+0.4%) which seems to simply be continuing its recent rebound from the dog days of March. Both Aussie and Kiwi are modestly softer this morning, but both of those have put in stellar performances the past few days, so this, too, looks like position adjustments.

In the EMG bloc, IDR was the overnight star, rallying 2.8% alongside a powerful equity rally there, as investors who had been quick to dump their holdings are back to hunting for yield and appreciation opportunities. As markets worldwide continue to demonstrate a willingness to look past the virus’s impact, there are many emerging markets that could well see strength in both their currencies and stock markets. The next best performers were MYR (+1.0%) and INR (+0.75%), both of which also responded to a more robust risk appetite. As LATAM has not yet opened, a quick look at yesterday’s price action shows BRL having continued its impressive rebound, higher by 3.0%, but strength too in CLP (+2.9%), COP (+1.2%) and MXN (2.5%).

We get more US data this morning, led by Initial Claims (exp 3.5M), Continuing Claims (19.476M), Personal Income (-1.5%), Personal Spending (-5.0%) and Core PCE (1.6%) all at 8:30. Then, at 9:45 Chicago PMI (37.7) is due to print. As can be seen, there is no sign that things are doing anything but descending yet. I think Chairman Powell is correct, and there is still a long way to go before things get better. While holding risk seems comfortable today, look for this to turn around in the next few weeks.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

How Far Did It Sink?

This morning the data we’ll see
Is highlighted by GDP
How far did it sink?
And is there a link
Twixt that and the FOMC?

Which later today will convene
And talk about Covid-19
What more can they do
To help us all through
The havoc that we all have seen

Market activity has been somewhat mixed amid light volumes as we await the next two important pieces of information to add to the puzzle. Starting us off this morning will be the first look at Q1 GDP in the US. Remember, the virus really didn’t have an impact on the US economy until the first week of March, although the speed of its impact, both on markets and the broad economy were unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I created a very rough model to forecast Q1 GDP and came up with a number of -13.6% +/- 2%. This was based on the idea that economic activity was cut in half for the last three weeks of the month and had been reduced by 25% during the first week. My model was extremely rough, did not take into account any specific factors and was entirely based on anecdotal evidence. After all, sheltering in home, it is exceedingly difficult to survey actual activity. As it turns out, my ‘forecast’ is much more bearish than the professional chattering classes which, according to the Bloomberg survey, shows the median expectation is for a reading of -4.0%, with forecasts ranging from 0.0% to -10.0%. Ultimately, a range of forecasts this wide tells us that nobody has any real idea what this number is going to look like.

Too, remember that while things have gotten worse throughout April, as much of the nation has been locked down, the latest headlines highlight how many places will be easing restrictions in the coming days and weeks. So, it appears that the worst of the impact will straddle March and April, an inconvenient time for quarterly reporting. In the end, the issue for markets is just how much devastation is already reflected in prices and perhaps more importantly, how quick of a recovery is now embedded in the price. It is this last point which gives me pause as to the current levels in equity markets, as well as the overall risk framework. The evidence points to a strong investor belief that the trillions of dollars of support by central banks and governments around the world is going to ensure that V-shaped rebound. If that does not materialize (and I, for one, am extremely skeptical it will), then a repricing of risk is sure to follow.

The other key feature today is the FOMC meeting, with the normal schedule of a 2:00 statement release and a 2:30 press conference. There are no updated forecasts due to be released, and the general consensus is that the Fed is unlikely to add any new programs to the remarkable array of programs already initiated. Arguably, the biggest question for today’s meeting is will they try to clarify their forward guidance regarding the future path of rates and policy or is it still too early to change the view that policy will remain accommodative until the economy weather’s the storm.

While hard money advocates bash the Fed and many complain that their array of actions has actually crossed into illegality, Chairman Powell and his crew are simply trying to alleviate the greatest disruption any economy has ever seen while staying within a loose interpretation of the previous guidelines. Powell did not create the virus, nor did he spend a decade as Fed chair allowing significant financial excesses to be built up. For all the grief he takes, he is simply trying to clean up a major mess that he inherited. But market pundits make their living on being ‘smarter’ than the officials about whom they write, so don’t expect the commentary to change any time soon.

With that as prelude, a survey of this morning’s activity shows that equity markets in Europe are generally slightly higher, although a few, France and Switzerland, are in the red. Interestingly, Italy’s FTSE MIB is higher by 0.4% despite the surprise move by Fitch to cut Italy’s credit rating to BBB-, the lowest investment grade rating and now the same as Moody’s rating. S&P seems to have succumbed to political pressure last week and left their rating one notch higher at BBB although with a negative outlook. Though Italian stocks are holding in, BTP’s (Italian government bonds) have fallen this morning with yields rising 4bps. In fact, a conundrum this morning is the fact that the bond market is clearly in risk-off mode, with Treasury and bund yields lower (2bp and 3bp respectively) while PIGS yields are all higher. Meanwhile, European equities are performing fairly well, US equity futures are all higher by between 0.5%-1.0%, and the dollar is softer virtually across the board. These latter signal a more risk-on scenario.

Speaking of the dollar, it is lower vs. all its G10 counterparts except the pound this morning although earlier gains of as much as 1.0% by AUD and NZD have been cut by more than half as NY walks in. This currency strength is despite weaker than expected Confidence data from the Eurozone, although with an ECB meeting tomorrow, market participants are beginning to bet on Madame Lagarde adding to the ECB’s PEPP. Meanwhile, CAD and NOK seem to be benefitting from a small rebound in the price of oil, although that seems tenuous at best given the fear of holding the front contract after last week’s dip into negative territory on the previous front contract.

EMG currencies are also uniformly stronger this morning, led by IDR (+1.0%) after a well-received government bond issuance increased confidence the country will be able to get through the worst of the virus’ impact. We are also seeing ZAR (+0.9%) firmer on the modestly increased risk appetite, and MXN (+0.7%) follow yesterday’s rally of nearly 1.7% as the worst fears over a collapse in LATAM activity dissipate. Yesterday also saw Brazil’s real rebound 2.75%, which is largely due to aggressive intervention by the central bank. The background story in the country continues to focus on the political situation with the resignation of Justice Minister Moro and yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that an investigation into President Bolsonaro could continue regarding his firing of the police chief. However, BRL had fallen nearly 14% in the previous two weeks, so some rebound should not be surprising. In fact, on a technical basis, a move back to 5.40 seems quite viable. However, in the event the global risk appetite begins to wane again, look for BRL to once again underperform.

Overall, this mixed session seems to be more likely to evolve toward a bit of risk aversion than risk embrasure unless the Fed brings us something new and unexpected. Remember, any positive sign from the GDP data just means that Q2 will be that much worse, not that things are better overall.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Yields Are Appalling

Though prices for oil keep falling
And Treasury yields are appalling
The stock market’s view
Is skies will be blue
If Covid’s spread’s finally stalling

The ongoing dichotomy between equity market performance, traditionally a harbinger of future economic activity, and commodity market performance, also a harbinger of future economic activity, remains glaring. The commodity markets are clearly signaling significant demand destruction amid the economic devastation that has followed the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, equity markets around the world continue to recover from the lows seen in March, telling a completely different tale; that the future is bright.

When two key leading indicators offer such different portents, we need to look elsewhere to build our case of likely future outcomes. Clearly, government bond markets are the next best indicator, but their signal has been clouded by the more than $15 trillion that central banks around the world have spent buying those bonds since the financial crisis in 2008-09. Absent those purchases, would 10-year Treasury yields really be 0.65% like they are this morning? Would 10-year German bund yields really be at -0.44%, their 356th consecutive day yielding less than zero? Consider how much new debt has been issued and how that debt would have been absorbed absent central bank intervention. My point is that perhaps, using bond yields now as a proxy for future economic activity may no longer be quite as useful.

Which leaves us with the FX markets as our last signal for future activity. What does the dollar’s value tell us about expectations for the future? The problem with the dollar as an indicator is, its track record is extremely unclear. Throughout history, the US economy has been strong with both a strong dollar and a weak dollar. If anything, the dollar is a far better coincident indicator than anything else. After all, what is the risk-off/risk-on characteristic other than a signal of investors’ current views of the market. Thus, when fear is rampant, which was evident last month, the dollar performed extremely well. A quick look at currency returns during the month of March showed the dollar rising against 9 of its G10 Brethren, from 0.2% vs. the Swiss franc, to 10.7% vs. the oil-linked Norwegian krone. Only the yen, which managed a 0.75% rise, was able to outperform the dollar.

Not surprisingly, the EMG space saw some much more significant declines led by the Mexican peso (-18.1%) and Russian ruble (-15.3%). The broad theme in this bloc was that the best performers, those that fell the least, were APAC currencies with closer links to China, while LATAM and EEMEA were generally devastated. But, again, this was a real-time response to coincident activities, not a harbinger of the future.

The lesson to learn from this brief look at recent history is that there is no consensus view as to how things are going to evolve from here. Both sides make their respective cases strongly, and both sides can point to a substantial amount of data that supports their argument. However, the only universal truth is that economic disruptions that have been caused by the response to Covid-19 are unprecedented in both size and speed, and econometric models built for a different environment are unlikely to be very effective. Modeling of complex systems, whether the economy, the climate or the spread of a pathogen is an extremely fraught undertaking. More often than not, models will produce useless results. Their benefits generally come from the need to define conditions and factors, thus helping to better think and understand a particular situation, not from spurious calculations that produce a result. And this is why hedging is an important part of risk management, because regardless of what certain harbingers indicate, the reality is nobody knows what the future will bring.

But back to today’s activity. As we have seen for the past several sessions, the prospect of the reopening of economies is being seen by the equity markets as a clear positive. Despite abysmal earnings results across most industries, once again equity markets are firmer this morning, with most of Europe higher by 1.5%-2.0% and US futures pointing to gains of more than 1.0% on the open. Countries throughout Europe are starting to announce their plans to reopen with May 11 seeming to be the date where things will really start. And of course, the same process is ongoing in the US, with Georgia dipping its toe into the water yesterday, and other states lining up to do the same. Of course, the end of the lockdown does not mean that that things will return to the pre-virus situation. Incalculable damage has been done to every nation’s economy as regardless of government attempts, thousands upon thousands of small businesses will never return. Arguably, the one thing we know about the future is that it is going to be different than what was envisioned on January 1st.

Bond markets are behaving consistently with a modest risk-on view as Treasury and bund yields edge higher, while yields for the PIGS continue to slide. And finally, the dollar remains under pressure this morning, sliding against most of its counterparts as short-term fears abate. The best performers today in the G10 bloc are SEK and NOK, with the former rallying on what was perceived as a more hawkish than expected message from the Riksbank, when they didn’t cut rates back below zero at today’s meeting, and merely promised to continue to buy more bonds. NOK is a bit more difficult to explain given that oil prices (WTI -7.7%) continue to suffer from either significant excess supply or a complete lack of demand, depending on your point of view. However, given that NOK has been the worst performing G10 currency this year, it is probably due for some recovery given the positive sentiment seen today.

EMG currencies are also generally firmer, with MXN (+1.5%) atop the charts, as it, too, is ignoring the declining price of oil and instead finding demand after a precipitous fall this year. but we are also seeing strength in ZAR (+1.2%) and most EEMEA currencies, as some of last month’s excesses seem to be unwinding as we approach the end of April.

On the data front this morning are two minor releases, Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 3.19%) and Consumer Confidence (87.0). Rather, with the FOMC’s two-day meeting beginning this morning at 9:00, discussions will continue to focus on expectations for the Fed tomorrow, as well as the first look at Q1 GDP. But for today, I expect that we will continue to see this mildly positive risk attitude and the dollar to remain under modest pressure. My view remains that there are still significant issues ahead and the market is not pricing in the length of how bad things are going to be, but clearly for now, I am in the minority.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The Real Threat

Around the world, government’s fret
Is it safe to reopen yet?
As growth worldwide slows
Each government knows
Elections are now the real threat

The common theme in markets today, the one that is driving asset prices higher, is that we are beginning to see a number of countries, and in the US, states, schedule the easing of restrictions on activity. Notably, in Italy, the European epicenter of the virus, PM Conte is trying to reschedule the return to some sense of normality with the first relief to occur one week from today in the manufacturing and construction industries, followed by retailers two weeks later. Personal services and restaurants, alas, must wait until June 1 at the earliest. While that hardly seems like an aggressive schedule, the forces arrayed on both sides of the argument grow louder with each passing day, neither of which has been able to convince the other side. (This sounds like the Democrats and Republicans in Congress.) But the reality is, there is no true playbook as to the “right” way to do this as we still know remarkably little about the disease, and its true infectiousness. Of course, collapsing the global economy in fear is likely to result in just as many, if not more, victims.

But it’s not just Italy that is starting. In the US, Georgia is under close scrutiny as it begins easing restrictions as of today. New York’s Governor Cuomo is now talking about a phased in reopening of certain areas, mostly upstate NY, beginning on May 15. And the truth is that many states in the US are preparing to reopen sections of their respective economies. The same is true throughout Europe and Asia, as the rolling lockdowns globally have essentially inflicted as much pain as governments can tolerate.

Of course, the real question is, what exactly does it mean to reopen the economy? I think it is fair to say that the immediate future will not at all resemble the pre-virus situation. Even assuming that most personal financial situations were not completely disrupted (and they truly were), how many people are going to rush out to sit in a movie theater with 200 strangers? How many people are going to jump on an enclosed metal tube with recirculated air for a quick weekend getaway? In fact, how many are going to be willing to go out to their favorite restaurant, assuming it reopens? After all, you cannot eat dinner while wearing an N95 mask!

My point is, the upcoming recovery of this extraordinary economic disruption is likely to be very slow. In fact, history has shown that traumatic events of this nature (think the Depression in the 1930’s) result in significant behavioral changes, especially regarding personal financial habits. The virus has highlighted the fragility of many job situations. It has exposed just how many people worldwide live close to the edge with almost no ability to handle a situation that interrupts their employment cashflow. And these lessons are the type that stick. They will almost certainly result in reduced consumption and increased personal savings. And that is almost the exact opposite of what built the global economy since the end of WWII.

With this in mind, it strikes me that the dichotomy we continue to see in markets, where equity investors are remarkably bullish, while bond and commodity investors seem to be planning for a very long period of slow/negative growth, is going to ultimately be resolved in favor of the bond market. No matter how I consider the next several months, no scenario results in that fabled V-shaped recovery.

But perhaps I am just a doom monger who only sees the negatives. After all, a quick look at markets today shows that the bulls are ascendant. Equity markets around the world are firmer this morning as the combination of prospective reopening of economies and additional central bank stimulus have convinced investors that the worst is behind us. Last night, the BOJ, as widely expected, promised unlimited JGB buying going forward. In addition, they increased their corporate bond buying to ¥20 trillion, essentially following in the Fed’s footsteps from two weeks ago. If their goal was to prop up the stock market, then it worked as the Nikkei closed higher by 2.7% helping the rest of Asia (Hang Seng +1.9%, Australia +1.5%) as well. Europe took the baton, and with more policy ease expected from the ECB on Thursday, has seen markets rise between 1.4% (FTSE 100) and 2.4% (DAX). Meanwhile, the euphoria continues to seep westward as US futures are all higher by roughly 1% this morning.

Bond markets, too, are feeling a bit better with Treasuries and bunds both seeing yields edge higher, 2bp and 1bp respectively, while the risky bonds from the PIGS, all see yields fall sharply. Interestingly, commodity markets don’t seem to get the joke, as oil (-15.8%) is under significant pressure. Finally, the dollar is under pressure across the board, falling against all its G10 counterparts with AUD (+1.4%) leading the way on a combination of today’s positivity and some short-term positive technicals. Even NOK (+0.75%) is firmer today despite oil’s sharp decline, showing just how much the big picture is overwhelming market idiosyncrasies.

In EMG space, pretty much the entire bloc is firmer vs. the dollar with ZAR (+1.15%) and HUF (+0.85%) on top of the list. The rand seems to be the beneficiary of the idea that South Africa is set to receive $5 billion from the IMF and World Bank to help them cope with Covid-19 related disruptions. Meanwhile, the forint is seeing demand driven by expectations of the country easing its lockdown restrictions this week. One quick word about BRL, which has not opened as yet. Last week saw some spectacular movement with the real having fallen nearly 10% at its worst point early Friday afternoon as President Bolsonaro’s most important ally, Justice Minister Moro, resigned amid allegations that Bolsonaro was interfering with a corruption investigation into his own son. The central bank stepped in to stem the tide, and successfully pushed the real higher by nearly 3%, but the situation remains tenuous and as Bolsonaro’s popularity wanes, it seems like there is a lot of room for further declines.

On the data front this week, the first look at Q1 GDP will be closely scrutinized, as well as the FOMC meeting on Wednesday and Thursday’s Claims data.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.13%
  Consumer Confidence 87.9
Wednesday Q1 GDP -3.9%
  FOMC Rate Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 3.5M
  Continuing Claims 19.0M
  Personal Income -1.6%
  Personal Spending -5.0%
  Core PCE -0.1% (1.6% Y/Y)
  Chicago PMI 38.2
Friday ISM Manufacturing 36.7
  ISM Prices Paid 28.9

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, the data will be nothing like any of us have ever seen before, but the real question is just how much negativity is priced into the market. In addition, while the Fed is not expected to change any more policies, you cannot rule out something new to goose things further.

In the end, there is no economic evidence yet that the situation is improving anywhere in the world. And while measured cases of Covid-19 infections may be dropping in places, human behaviors are likely permanently altered. This crisis is not close to over, regardless of what the stock markets are trying to indicate. My money is on the bond market view that things are going to be very slow for a long time to come. And that implies the dollar is going to retain its bid as well.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Infinite Buying

Is infinite buying
Kuroda-san’s new mantra
If so, will it help?

An interesting lesson was learned, for those paying attention, yesterday after a headline hit the tape about the BOJ. The headline, BOJ Considering Unlimited JGB Purchases, had an immediate impact on the yen’s value, driving it lower by 0.7% in minutes. After all, logic dictates that a central bank that will buy all the government debt available will drive rates, no matter where they are, even lower, and that the currency would suffer on the back of the news. But, as is often the case, upon further reflection, the market realized that there was much less here than met the eye, and the yen recouped all those losses by early afternoon. In fact, over the past two sessions, the yen is essentially unchanged overall.

But why, you may ask, would that headline have been misleading. The key is to recognize that the BOJ’s current policy describes their QQE (Qualitative and Quantitative Easing) as targeting ¥80 trillion per year, equivalent in today’s market to approximately $740 billion. But they haven’t come close to achieving that target since 2017, actually only purchasing about ¥15 trillion last year. That’s a pretty big miss, but a year after they created that target, they began Yield-Curve Control (YCC), which states that 10-year JGB’s will be kept at around a 0.0% yield, +/-0.2%. Now, given that the BOJ already owns nearly 50% of all JGB’s outstanding, there is very little actual trading ongoing in the JGB market, so it doesn’t really move very much. The point is, the BOJ doesn’t need to buy many JGB’s to keep yields around 0.0%. However, they have been concerned over the optics of reducing that ¥80 trillion target, as reducing it might seem a signal that the BOJ was tightening policy. But now, in the wake of the Fed’s announcement that they will be executing unlimited QE, the BOJ has the perfect answer. They can get rid of a target that no longer means anything, while seeming to expand their program. At the same time, when pressed, they will point to their successful YCC and claim they are purchasing everything necessary to keep rates low. And in fairness, they will be right.

Next week it’s the central bank three
Who meet and they’ll try to agree
On proper next steps
(Increasing the PEPP?)
And printing cash like it was free

This was merely a prelude to what the next several days are going to hold, anticipation of the next central bank actions as the three major central banks, BOJ, Fed and ECB, all meet next week. At this point, we have already seen all the excitement regarding the BOJ, and as to the Fed, while they may well announce more details on their efforts to get funds flowing to SME’s, they are already at unlimited QE (and they are active, buying $75 billion/day) and so it seems unlikely that there will be anything else new to be learned.

The ECB, however, is the place where all the action is going to be. Remember, Madame Lagarde was a little slow off the mark, when back in March she stated that the ECB’s job was not to worry about spreads in the government bond market. Granted, within two weeks, after the market crushed Italian BTP’s and called into question Italy’s ability to fund its Covid-19 response, she realized that was, in fact, her only role. And so subsequently we got a €750 billion PEPP program that included Greek debt for the first time. But clearly, based on the recent PMI data, as well as things like this morning’s Ifo Expectations Survey (69.4 vs. exp 75.0), more is needed. So, speculation is now rampant that PEPP will be increased by €250 billion, and that the Capital Key will be explicitly scrapped. The latter is important because that is the driver of which nation’s debt they purchase and is based on the relative size of each economy. But the main problem is Italy, and so you can be sure that the ECB is going to wind up with a lot more Italian debt than would be allowed under the old rules.

Turning back to this week, though, we still have a whole day to traverse before the weekend arrives. Overall, markets are beginning to quiet down, with actual volatility a bit softer than we had seen recently. For example, though equity markets in Europe are lower, the declines are between 0.7% (FTSE 100) and 1.1% (Spain’s IBEX), with the CAC and DAX in between. If you recall, we were seeing daily movement on the order of 2%-5% not that long ago. The same was true overnight, with the Nikkei (-0.9%), Hang Seng (-0.6%) and Shanghai (-1.1%) all softer but by less dramatic amounts. As to US futures, while they were negative earlier, they are actually currently higher by about 0.5%, although we have a long way to go before the opening.

Bond markets are uninspiring, with Treasuries basically unchanged. European markets are a bit firmer (yields lower) across the board as investors try to anticipate the mooted increase in PEPP. And JGB’s are yielding -0.026%, right where the BOJ wants them.

The dollar this morning is now ever so slightly softer, with CAD actually the leading gainer up 0.2%, while the rest of the G10 is +/-0.1%. The Ifo data was the only release of note, although we have seen oil prices rebound slightly, currently higher by about 1.0% helping both CAD and NOK. In the EMG bloc, the story is a bit more mixed, although gainers have had a better day than losers. By that I mean, CZK (+1.35%), HUF (+1.1%) and RUB (+1.0%) have seen stronger gains than the worst performers (INR and KRW both -0.5%). As always, there are idiosyncratic drivers, with CZK seeming to benefit from word that lockdowns are about to ease, while HUF is gaining on the imminent beginning of QE purchases by the central bank. As to RUB, the combination of oil’s continuing rally off its worst levels earlier this week, and the Bank of Russia’s 50bp rate cut, to 5.50%, has investors looking for better times ahead. Ironically, that stronger oil seems to be weighing on the rupee, while the won fell as foreign equity selling dominated the market narrative.

Yesterday’s Claims data was pretty much as expected, granted that was 4.4M, still horrific, but the market absorbed the news easily. This morning brings Durable Goods (exp -12.0%, -6.5% ex transport) and then at 10:00 Michigan Sentiment (68.0). Not surprisingly, expectations are for some of the worst readings in history, but the way the market has been behaving, I think the risk is actually for a less negative data print and a sharp risk rally. Eventually, unless there really is a V-shaped recovery, I do see risk being shed, but it doesn’t seem like today is the day to get started.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

 

Dire Straits

In Europe, that grouping of states
Now find themselves in dire straits
The PMI data
Described a schemata
Of weakness and endless low rates

In the past, economists and analysts would build big econometric models with multiple variables and then, as new data was released, those models would spit out new estimates of economic activity. All of these models were based on calculating the historic relationships between specific variables and broader growth outcomes. Generally speaking, they were pretty lousy. Some would seem to work for a time, but the evolution of the economy was far faster than the changes made in the models, so they would fall out of synch. And that was before Covid-19 pushed the pace of economic change to an entirely new level. So now, higher frequency data does a far better job of giving indications as to the economic situation around the world. This is why the Initial Claims data (due this morning and currently expected at 4.5M) has gained in the eyes of both investors and economists compared to the previous champ, Nonfarm Payrolls. The latter is simply old news by the time it is released.

There is, however, another type of data that is seen as quite timely, the survey data. Specifically, PMI data is seen as an excellent harbinger of future activity, with a much stronger track record of successfully describing inflection points in the economy. And that’s what makes this morning’s report so disheartening. Remember, the PMI question simply asks each respondent whether activity is better, the same or worse than the previous month. They then subtract the percentage of worse from the percentage of better and, voila, PMI. With that in mind, this morning’s PMI results were spectacularly awful.

Country Manufacturing Services Composite
France 31.5 10.4 11.2
Germany 34.4 15.9 17.1
UK 32.9 12.3 12.9
Eurozone 33.6 11.7 13.5

Source: Bloomberg

In each case, the data set new historic lows, and given the service-oriented nature of developed economies, it cannot be that surprising that the Services number fell to levels far lower than manufacturing. After all, social distancing is essentially about stopping the provision of individual services. But still, if you do the math, in France 94.8% of Service businesses said that things were worse in April than in March. That’s a staggering number, and across the entire continent, even worse than the dire predictions that had been made ahead of the release.

With this in mind, two things make more sense. First, the euro is under pressure this morning, falling 0.6% as I type and heading back toward the lows seen last month. Despite all the discussion of how the Fed’s much more significant policy ease will ultimately undermine the dollar, the short-term reality continues to be, the euro has much bigger fundamental problems and so is far less attractive. The other thing is the ECB’s announcement last evening that they were following the Fed’s example and would now be accepting junk bonds as collateral, as long as those bonds were investment grade as of April 7. This is an attempt to prevent Italian debt, currently rated BBB with a negative outlook, from being removed from the acceptable collateral list when if Standard & Poor’s downgrades them to junk tomorrow. Italian yields currently trade at a 242bp premium to German yields in the 10-year bucket, and if they rise much further, it will simply call into question the best efforts of PM Conte to try to support the Italian economy. After all, unlike the US, Italy cannot print unlimited euros to fund themselves.

Keeping all that happy news in mind, market performance this morning is actually a lot better than you might expect. Equities in Asian markets were mixed with the Nikkei up nicely, +1.5%, but Shanghai slipping a bit, -0.2%. Another problem in Asia is Singapore, where early accolades about preventing the spread of Covid-19 have fallen by the wayside as the infection rate there spikes and previous efforts to reopen the economy are halted or reversed. Interestingly, the Asian PMI data was relatively much better than Europe, with Japanese Services data at 22.8. Turning to Europe, the picture remains mixed with the DAX (-0.3%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) slipping while the CAC (+0.1%) has managed to keep its head above water. The best performer on the Continent is Italy (+1.0%) as the ECB decision is seen as a win for all Italian markets. US futures markets are modestly negative at this time, but just 0.2% or so, thus it is hard to get a sense of the opening.

Bond markets are also having a mixed day, with the weakest links in Europe, the PIGS, all rallying smartly with yields lower by between 5bps (Italy) and 19bps (Greece). Treasury yields, however, have actually edged higher by a basis point, though still yield just 0.63%. And finally, the dollar, too, is having a mixed session. In the G10 bloc, the euro and Swiss franc are at the bottom of the list today, with Switzerland inextricably tied to the Eurozone and its foibles. On the plus side, NOK has jumped 1.0% as oil prices, after their early week collapse, are actually rebounding nicely this morning with WTI higher by 12.4% ($1.70/bbl), although still at just $15.50/bbl. Aussie (+0.6%) and Kiwi (+0.75%) are also in the green, as both have seen sharp recent declines moderate.

EMG currencies also present a mixed picture, with the ruble on top of the charts, +1.4%, on the strength of the oil market rebound. India’s rupee has also performed well overnight, rising 0.8%, as the market anticipates further monetary support from the Reserve bank there. While there are other gainers, none of the movement is significant. On the other side of the ledger, the CE4 are all under pressure, tracking the euro’s decline with the lot of them down between 0.3% and 0.5%. I must mention BRL as well, which while it hasn’t opened yet today, fell 2.6% yesterday as the market responded to BCB President Campos Neto indicating that further rate cuts were coming and that QE in the future is entirely realistic. The BRL carry trade has been devastated with the short-term Selic rate now sitting at 3.75%, and clearly with room to fall.

Aside from this morning’s Initial Claims data, we see Continuing Claims (exp 16.74M), which run at a one week lag, and then we get US PMI data (Mfg 35.0, Services 30.0) at 9:45. Finally at 10:00 comes New Home Sales, which are forecast to have declined by 16% in March to 644K.

The big picture remains that economic activity is still slowing down around the world with the reopening of economies still highly uncertain in terms of timing. Equity markets have been remarkable in their ability to ignore what have been historically awful economic outcomes, but at some point, I fear that the next leg lower will be coming. As to the dollar, it remains the haven of choice, and so is likely to remain well bid overall for the foreseeable future.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Huge Threat

In Europe officials now fret
‘bout dealing with Italy’s debt
If it gets downgraded
It could be blockaded
From PEPP, which would be a huge threat

At home, both the Senate and House
Agreed that it’s time to espouse
More spending is needed
And so, they proceeded
To spend half a trill, thereabouts

While oil prices are still getting press (and still under pressure), the return to positive prices has quickly turned that story into one about supply and demand, and the knock-on economic impacts of lower oil prices, rather than the extraordinary commentary on the meaning of negative prices for a commodity. In other words, it’s just not so exciting any more. Instead, today has seen markets turn their collective attention back toward government and central bank activities with investors trying to determine the next place to take advantage of all the ongoing financial largesse.

Starting in Europe, this evening the ECB will be having a video conference to discuss its next steps. Topic number one is what to do about Italian, and to a lesser extent, the rest of Southern Europe’s debt. Remember, the ECB is precluded from financing government spending by its charter, and the Teutonic trio watch that issue like hawks. So, news from Rome this morning that highlighted PM Conte’s promise to double the stimulus spending to €55 billion in order to better support the economy is at odds with that promise.

The problem is, that much spending will take the budget deficit above 10% of GDP and drive the debt/GDP ratio above 155%. While the latter will still simply be the third highest ratio in the world (Japan and Greece have nothing to fear yet), both the budget and debt numbers are far higher than currently allowed under the Stability and Growth Pact as defined by the EU. (For good order’s sake, the EU demands its members to maintain budget deficits below 3% of GDP and a debt/GDP ratio of 60% or lower).

A potentially larger problem is that Italy’s sovereign debt is currently rated at BBB with a negative outlook, just two notches above junk. Italian interest rates have been rising as BTP’s are no longer seen as a haven, but rather a pure risk trade. Combining all this together puts the ECB in a very tough position. If Italian debt is downgraded to junk, the ECB charter would preclude it from purchasing Italian debt. But if that were the case, you could pretty much bank on a collapse in the Italian bond market, followed by a collapse in the Italian economy, and a very real risk that Italy exits the euro, likely collapsing that as well. Clearly, the ECB wants to prevent that sequence of events. Thus, to successfully sail between the Scylla of financing government spending and the Charybdis of a euro collapse, the ECB is very likely to revise their collateral rules such that sub-investment grade debt is acceptable to purchase. And they will be buying the long-dated bonds which they will hold to maturity, thus effectively funding Italy but being able to technically tell the Germans they are not. It is an unenviable position for Madame Lagarde, but the alternatives are worse. Once again, if you wonder about the euro’s long-term viability, these are the questions that need to be answered.

However, despite the latest drama on the rates side, the market seems to be focusing on the positive stories today, namely the decisions by a number of European governments to gradually reduce the ongoing covid-inspired restrictions on their citizens. Throughout Europe, small shops are gradually being allowed to reopen and there have been discussions of schools reopening as well. The infection data appears to have stabilized overall, with many countries reporting a downtick in the number of new infections. Governments worldwide have the unenviable task of balancing the risk of further damage to their economies vs. the risk of another increase in the spread of the disease. At this time, it seems clear that there is a broad-based move toward getting on with life. And that’s a good thing!

In the meantime, this morning, the House is set to approve the Senate bill to extend further stimulus in the US, this time with a $480 billion price tag. The bulk of this will go to extending the Paycheck Protection Program, but there are various other goodies to support farms and hospitals. As well, the discussion about reopening the US economy continues apace, with the latest updates seeming to show that about half the states, mostly in the Midwest and mountain states, are going to be returning to a more normal footing, as they have been the least impacted. Even parts of western New York are now being considered for a removal of restrictions, given the demographic there is far closer to Wyoming than Manhattan.

Put it all together, and the bulls get to define the narrative today, with a better future ahead and more government spending to support things. It should be no surprise that equity markets are modestly higher this morning, with European bourses up by 1% or so, and US futures higher by a similar amount. Treasuries have seen some supply, with the yield on the 10-year rising 2bps, and the dollar is softer vs. almost all other currencies.

In the G10 bloc, only NOK is weaker today, and by just 0.1% as oil prices continue to slide, but even CAD, also closely linked to oil, is higher today, up 0.5%. Aussie is the biggest winner today, higher by 1.0% after a short-covering spree emerged in the wake of better than expected Retail Sales data. But the dollar’s weakness is broad-based today.

EMG currencies are also faring well today with ZAR (+1.15%) leading the way on the back of a $26 billion stimulus package, and RUB (+0.75%) following up as traders begin to believe the currency markets have oversold the ruble. MXN (+0.55%) is gaining on the same thesis, and, in fact, most of the space is higher due to this more positive feeling in the markets. The one outlier here is KRW (-0.2%) which is coming under pressure as a second wave of Covid infections makes its way through the country.

On the data front this morning, there is nothing of note to be released in the US. Yesterday saw Existing Home Sales fall slightly less than expected, to 5.27M, but just slightly. All eyes are on tomorrow’s claims data, as well as the PMI’s. The only data from Europe showed that UK inflation remains quiescent (and is likely to fall further) while Italian industry continues to shrink with Industrial Orders -2.6% in February, ahead of the worst of the outbreak.

Risk has a better tone this morning, but I fear it has the ability to be a fleeting break. Markets have shown they still like new stimulus, but at some point, questioning the ability to pay for it all is going to overwhelm the short-term benefits of receiving it. Today doesn’t seem like that day, but I assure you it is getting closer.

Good luck and stay safe
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