Covid’s Attacks

We’re finally going to see
The data which shows the degree
Of all the impacts
By Covid’s attacks
On life as we knew it to be

Risk assets are under pressure this morning as market participants once again reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of government actions during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The question which bedevils both politicians and markets is, what is the proper balance between restricting economic activity via lockdown orders to prevent further spread of the virus vs. maintaining economic activity in order to prevent the global economy from collapsing? The problem is there is no easy answer to this dilemma, and the reality is that every nation has a different tradeoff based on the nature of its economy as well as the social and cultural mores that exist there.

And so, every nation continues to go their own way as they try to figure out the response best suited for their own circumstances. What is beginning to change as time passes is the data reports that will be released in the coming days and weeks will now be reflective of the first periods of shutdowns and will offer the best indications yet of just how severe the economic damage, thus far, has been. Remember, most data are backward looking. In fact, other than the Initial Claims data, which is both timely and has been awful, analysts are simply guessing at the economic impact so far. Thus, much will be learned this week and next as we start to see the first measurements of how significant the impact has been to date. In fact, we start with today’s Retail Sales data (exp -8.0%, -5.0% ex autos), as well as Empire Manufacturing (-35.0), IP (-4.0%), Capacity Utilization (74.0%) and then the Fed’s Beige Book at 2:00. All of this data is for March, which means that the crisis was in full swing for the bulk of the period. Expectations, as can be seen above, are for substantial declines across the board. But are econometric models based on history going to be effective in forecasting unprecedented events? My money is on no. If the first pieces of data we have seen are any indication, then today’s numbers will be much worse than currently anticipated.

However, as any economist worth their salt will explain, markets are discounting instruments, always looking some period into the future, rather than looking backwards. And that is, no doubt, just as true now as before the Covid-19 outbreak. The question of the moment then becomes, just how far ahead is the market discounting? There seems to be a significant difference of opinion between the bond and equity markets, with the latter having a far more optimistic view than the former. In fact, the bond market appears to be pricing in a significantly longer period of economic disruption, as evidenced by the 30-year yield at 1.32%, than is the stock market, which has already retraced 50% of its initial decline.

One other thing to remember is that recent government actions indicate further delays in reopening economies, rather than any speeding up of the process. This is evidenced by this morning’s German announcement that they will be extending lockdown measures to May 3, from the previously expected April 19. And the Germans have had a measure of success in slowing the spread of the virus, with today being the sixth consecutive day of a lower count of new infections. So, for those nations where the infection rate is not slowing, like the US, it becomes that much more difficult to revert to any sense of normalcy.

History has shown that when the stock and bond markets tell different stories, like they are now, it is more frequent the bond market has things right. I see no reason that this situation is any different and expect that we are coming to the end of the equity market bounce. Risk is far more likely to be shed than added in the next few weeks, and that means that haven assets like the dollar and they yen should resume their climb.

With that in mind, let’s look at markets this morning. The dollar is definitely in the ascendant vs. its G10 brethren with NOK (-1.9%) the leading decliner after the OPEC+ talks led to a disappointing outcome and oil prices have fallen to new lows for the move with WTI touching $19.20/bbl earlier this morning. But Aussie (-1.8%) and Kiwi (-1.7%) are feeling the weight of weaker commodity prices and less confidence in China’s rebound as well. Even JPY, the best performer today is lower by 0.15%, just reinforcing that in the strange new world we inhabit, the dollar remains the single most attractive currency in which to hold assets.

In the Emerging markets, the story is similar with most currencies under pressure led by ZAR (-1.8%), MXN and RUB (both -1.7%) on the back of the weak oil/commodity story. However, we did see two gainers overnight, IDR (+0.45%) and THB (+0.3%). The former seems to be benefitting from the fact that the central bank there surprised markets and did not cut rates yesterday, as well as the positive economic impact of showing a small trade surplus, thus reducing external financing pressures. Meanwhile, the baht seems to be the beneficiary of an announcement of a new fiscal stimulus totaling nearly $31 billion, which is seen as quite substantial there. Otherwise, the bulk of this bloc has seen more modest losses, somewhere between 0.2% and 1.0%.

Having already discussed today’s data, I think the real question for FX markets today will be just how equity markets perform as a better indicator of risk sentiment. Europe has been under pressure all morning, with almost all markets there lower by about 2.0%. Meanwhile, US equity futures are pointing in the same direction, with losses currently pegged between 1.1% (NASDAQ) and 1.7%(S&P 500). Of course, the Retail Sales data will be out before the equity market opening, so there is ample opportunity for either a significantly worse opening in the event the data is even worse than expected, as well as an extension of the recent rally should the data somehow surprise on the high side. I fear the worst.

So be prepared for a risk-off session as we finally start to see just how badly the US economy has been damaged by Covid-19. Ironically, this implies that the dollar is set for further gains as the rest of the world is likely to be even worse off.

Good luck