The data from China revealed
This bug, is in fact, the windshield
It splattered the hope
That ‘war’ was a trope
Instead ‘twas the first battlefield
China released its main grouping of March data last night and the picture was not pretty. Q1 GDP fell 9.8% Q/Q and was 6.8% below Q1 2019. Those are staggeringly large contractions of economic activity and likely portend what we will begin to see throughout the rest of the world over the next several weeks. The other key data points were Retail Sales (-15.8%), Fixed Asset Investment (-16.1%), both with record declines, and then surprisingly, Industrial Production, which fell just 1.1% in March from last year’s results, though has declined 8.4% thus far in 2020. The official spin of the data was that while February was abysmal, given the nation was essentially completely closed that month, things have started to pick up again and the future is bright. While Q2 seems likely to be better than Q1, bright may overstate the case a bit. After all, the Chinese economy remains highly dependent on its export industries, and the last I checked, most of its major western markets like the US and Europe remain closed for business. So even if Chinese factories are restarting and producing goods again, their client base is not yet in the market for consuming most things.
Excitement is starting to build
And President Trump’s clearly thrilled
That plans are afoot
To increase output
In states where Covid has been chilled
But as important as that data is, and despite the harbingers it brings regarding the rest of the world in Q1 and Q2, market focus is clearly on an even more important subject, the timing of the reopening of the US economy. Last evening, in his daily press conference, the President explained that there will be a three-step approach outlined for individual states to follow in order to try to return to more normal conditions. The idea is that when reported infections show a downward trend over a two-week period, that would be an appropriate time to allow certain businesses (e.g. restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and places of worship) to reopen amid strict social distancing guidelines. Assuming no relapse in the data, phase two would include the allowance of non-essential travel with bars and schools reopening, while phase three, also assuming a continued downward slope of the infection curve, would allow the bulk of the remaining economy to reopen, while observing ongoing social distancing.
At least, that is the gist of the idea. Each state will be able to decide for itself when it reaches appropriate milestones to expand allowable activities with the Federal government not imposing any specific restrictions. While the exact timing of these activities remains uncertain, there are likely some states that will be ready to start phase one before the end of April, while others will take much longer to get there.
Investors, though, see one thing only, that the worst is behind us and that if the US is going to reopen, then so, soon, will the rest of the world. After all, Europe was inundated with the virus earlier than the US. Thus, the prospect of restarting economic activity combined with the extraordinary stimulus measures undertaken by governments around the world has encouraged the investment community to race back into equity markets before they get too rich! At least that is what it seems like this morning.
Fear has taken a back seat to greed and stock markets around the world are higher. So, we saw Asian markets (Nikkei +3.1%, Hang Seng +1.6%, Shanghai +0.7%) all perform well despite the Chinese data. Europe has been even better, with the DAX +4.2%, CAC +4.0% and FTSE 100 + 3.4%, and US futures are closely following Europe with all three indices up well more than 2.0% at this point in the session. In other words, earnings collapses are now seen to be one-time impacts and will soon be reversed. At the same time, pent-up demand will restore much of the luster to so many beaten down stocks, especially in the retail and consumer space.
This seems a tad aggressive for two reasons. First, though undoubtedly reopening the economy will result in better outcomes, it is not clear that the future will resemble the past that closely. After all, are we going to see a much greater use of telecommuting, thus less need for daily transport? Will restaurant and bar business pick up in the same way as prior to the virus’s onset? Will shopping malls ever recover? All these questions are critical to valuations, and answers will not be known for many months. But second, the one thing of which we can be pretty certain, at least in the short run, is that share repurchase programs are going to be thin on the ground for quite a while, and given the more than $1 trillion of spending that we have been seeing in that space, it seems that a key pillar of equity market support will have gone missing. So, while today is clearly all about risk being acquired, it will be a bumpy ride at best.
Speaking of risk-on, a quick look at the FX market shows that the dollar, for the first time in a week is under pressure this morning, having fallen against all its G10 peers. NZD is the leading gainer today, up 0.75%, as kiwi appears to be the highest beta currency in the group and is responding to the US reopening story. Aussie is next on the list, +0.45%, with its beta second only to kiwi, and then the rest of the bloc is higher but in a more limited fashion.
EMG currencies, too, are showing life this morning with IDR in the lead, having rallied 1.1% alongside TRY up a similar amount. The rupiah seems to be the beneficiary of the announcement by the central bank there that they are going to begin direct purchases of government bonds, i.e. monetizing the debt, on Monday, which is apparently a positive statistic in the beginning of the process. Meanwhile, on this risk-on day, Turkey’s 8%+ yields remain extremely attractive for investors, drawing funds into the country. But essentially, the entire bloc is firmer today, even the Mexican peso, which has been one of the absolutely worst performing currencies around. It has rallied 0.25%, its first gain in more than a week.
Today’s narrative is clearly that whatever damage has been incurred by Covid-19, the worst is behind us. Investors are looking forward and anxious to take part in the next up cycle. Alas, the curmudgeon in me sees a scenario where it will take far longer to regain previous levels of activity than the market currently seems to be pricing, and so risk attitudes have room to reverse, yet again, in the not too distant future. But as long as the narrative is the future is bright, the dollar should soften while equity markets rally.
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe