Until Covid-19 Is Dead

To those who had thought that the Fed
Was finished, Chair Powell just said
There’s nothing that we
Won’t do by decree
Until Covid-19 is dead

Small Caps? Check. Munis? Check. Junk bonds Fallen angels? Check. These are the latest segments in the credit market where the Fed has created new support based on yesterday’s stunning announcements. All told, the Fed has committed up to $2.3 trillion to support these areas, as well as the trillions of dollars they had already spent and committed to support the Treasury market, mortgage market, and ensure that bank finances remained sufficient for their continued operation and provision of loans and services to the economy.

While the breadth of programs the Fed has announced and implemented thus far is stunning, based on the CARES act passed last week, there is still plenty more ammunition available for the Fed to continue to be creative. Of course, the market reaction was highly positive to these announcements and served to cap off a week where the S&P 500 rose more than 12% from last Friday’s closing levels. In fact, a cynic might suggest that the Fed’s sole purpose is to prop up the equity market, but given the extraordinary events ongoing, I suppose that is merely a happy side effect. At any rate, there is no doubt that the Fed has taken its role as the world’s central bank seriously. Between swap lines and repo facilities for other central banks and purchase programs for virtually every type of domestic asset, Chairman Powell will never be able to be accused of fiddling while the economy burned. And while government programs are notoriously difficult to remove once enacted, based on the ongoing economic indicators, like yesterday’s second consecutive 6.6 million print in the Initial Claims data, it is evident that the Fed is being as aggressive as possible.

There will almost certainly be numerous longer-term negative consequences of all this activity and books will be written about all the ways the Fed overstepped its bounds, but right now, the vast majority of people around the world are hugely in favor of their actions. Anything that supports the economy and population through this period of mandated shutdown is appreciated. While they don’t run polls for popularity of central bank chiefs, I’m pretty confident Chairman Jay would be riding high these days.

In the meantime, there were two other noteworthy stories in the past 24 hours with market impact. The first was that the OPEC+ meeting did not come to agreement yesterday for production cuts totaling 10 million bbl/day as Mexico was the lone holdout, insisting that it would only cut 100,000 bbl/day of production, not the 400,000 bbl/day needed. After 16 hours of video conferencing, the energy leaders postponed any decision and decided to allow today’s G20 FinMin video conference to go forward and help try to break the impasse. It strikes me that Mexico will cave soon on this issue, but for now, nothing is agreed. It is hard to determine how oil markets have responded given essentially all cash and futures markets are closed today for the Good Friday holiday. However, oil futures had not fallen on Thursday afternoon which indicates they, too, believe a deal will be done.

And finally, the EU finally came up with a financing package to address the economic impact of the virus on its members. As was to be expected, it was significantly less than initially mooted and the construct of the deal indicates that there has not yet been any agreement by the Teutonic trio of Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to fund the PIGS. A brief overview of the deal shows the headline figure to be €540 billion made up of three pieces; a joint employment insurance fund (€100B), an EIB supported package designed to provide liquidity to impacted companies (€200B) and a ESM credit line (€240B) to backstop national spending. The problem with the latter is that the European Stability Mechanism is anathema to those nations that need it most like Spain and Italy, because it imposes fiscal conditions on the use of the funds. It is an ECB creation from the Eurobond crisis years by Mario Draghi, but it has never been used. Essentially, the rest of Europe has said to Germany, we may need your money, but we will not become your vassal. And this is exactly why the EU, and its subgroup the Eurozone, will remain dysfunctional going forward.

Thus, when compiling the newest information, the one thing that becomes clear is that the US continues to be the nation most willing to increase spending and liquidity to support its economy. And in the end, it cannot be surprising that the dollar will suffer in that scenario. Back in January, my view was the dollar would decline this year as the US was the economy with the most room to ease policy and that eventually, those much easier conditions would result in a weaker dollar. Well, that is exactly what we are seeing occur right now, as the Fed has upped the ante regarding monetary policy easing relative to the rest of the world at the same time that the broad narrative seems to be evolving into ‘the infection peak has passed and things are going to be better in the future than in the recent past’. Hence, the need to hold dollars as a haven has diminished, and the dollar has responded. For instance, this week AUD has rallied 5.7% while NOK is higher by 3.9%. Clearly both have been buoyed by the rise in oil prices as well as the generally better tone on risk. But the entire G10 bloc is higher, although the yen has gained just 0.1% on the week.

In the EMG space, we see a similar picture with MXN the leader, rallying 6.3%, followed closely by ZAR (5.6%) and HUF (5.2%) as virtually the entire bloc has gained vs. the dollar this week. And the story is identical throughout, a better risk tone and more available USD liquidity relieving pressure on USD borrowers throughout the world.

For the time being, this is very likely to remain the trend, but do not dismiss the fact that the global economy is currently in a very severe recession, and that it will take a long time to recover. During the Great Depression in 1929-1932, after a very sharp initial fall in equity markets, there was a powerful rally that ultimately gave way to a nearly 90% decline. We are currently witnessing a powerful rally, but another decline seems likely given the economic damage that will take years to fix. Meanwhile, the dollar, while under pressure right now, is likely to see renewed demand in the next wave.

Good luck, stay safe and have a good holiday weekend

PS. FX Poetry will return on Wednesday, April 15.