The Absolute Fact

It’s been one score years and one more
Since prices for oil hit this floor
Despite last week’s pact
The absolute fact
Is there’s no place for, it, to store

Q1 1999 was the last time the price of the front-month oil contract on the Comex was trading as low as it has this morning. As I type, it is currently at $13.55/bbl, down more than $4.70 on the session, which on a percentage basis is more than 25%! And you thought currency volatility was high. At any rate, it seems the major issue is that oil producers have no place left to store the stuff, and since demand has collapsed, the natural response is for the price to collapse as well. Now, in fairness, while this will garner the headlines, the market reality may be slightly different, because the May futures contract, which expires tomorrow, is no longer the active contract, that has moved to June. Now, the June contract is down nearly 10%, but is still trading above $22/bbl, so this morning’s excitement may have less long-term market impact than it seems at first. Nonetheless, it does point to just how disruptive the coronavirus has been to markets all around the world.

Of course, one should not be surprised by the currencies that have felt the repercussions of this oil price decline the most severely; MXN (-1.9%), RUB (-0.45%), NOK (-0.65%) and CAD (-0.7%). The peso has been one of the market’s favorite whipping boys all year, as it has declined nearly 22% thus far. ZAR (-25.7%) and BRL (-23.0%) are the only two currencies to underperform the peso. Thus, this morning’s nearly 2% decline cannot be a surprise. In fact, since March 2, truthfully before Covid was widely understood to be the threat it has become to Western economies, the average daily range in USDMXN has been 3.78% which works out to an annualized volatility of nearly 60%. The remarkable thing is how cheap MXN options are relative to actual movement. For example, this morning, 1-month implied volatility is trading on the order of 25%, clearly far less than the type of movement we have seen in the past seven weeks. And given oil’s extreme volatility, and the peso’s link to the price of oil, I expect that we are going to continue to see the peso trade like this for the foreseeable future. The implication here is that hedgers might want to consider owning some of this optionality to help manage the uncertainties of their exposures during this time.

Away from the oil story, though, we have an entirely different narrative forming regarding the virus and its impact on the broader economy. Despite a number of countries having extended their lockdown procedures into the second week of May, we are also getting the first signs that the peak of infections may have passed, and we are hearing from more and more quarters that reopening the economy is more critical given that fact. This has been a big part of the rationale behind the equity market rally we saw last week, which despite the evidence of just how awful Q1 earnings are going to be, was really remarkably robust.

There continue to be two strong storylines with bulls claiming that this is a temporary hit and given the amount of stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, that has been brought to bear on the problem, the ‘V’ shaped recovery is still a high probability outcome. The bears, on the other hand, continue to highlight that expectations for the economy going forward to look anything like it did three months ago are misguided, and that it will take far longer to achieve any real recovery. Structural changes will have been made resulting in a much higher unemployment rate, considerably less consumption and, thus, much weaker GDP growth. Earnings will suffer and stock prices alongside them. Last week’s price action, with both up and down days, was an excellent depiction of this battle. And this battle will continue until one side’s argument is borne out. In other words, equity market volatility is likely to be with us for many months to come as well.

So, turning to this morning’s session, we have actually seen equity markets somewhat softer, with most of Europe lower by a bit below 1.0% which followed Asia’s similarly modest weakness. US futures, though, are starting to come under more pressure, having only been down 0.5% early in the session, but now looking at 1.5% declines. Interestingly, Treasury yields have barely moved, with the 10-year lower by less than 1 basis point, although in Europe, the weakest economies (PIGS) have all seen their government bond yields rise by more than 8bps, a sign of risk being jettisoned. And finally, gold is little changed on the morning, although given the dollar’s broad rally since the beginning of March, it has held its value extremely well.

As to the rest of the FX market, the dollar is largely, albeit not universally stronger this morning, and has been gaining ground as risk has been selling off. NOK and CAD lead the way lower, but the pound is also feeling stress as Brexit (remember that?) comes back into view with discussions starting up again. There is a big question as to whether PM Johnson will concede to an extension of the current situation given the unprecedented disruption caused by Covid-19. Fears that he won’t, and that the UK will crash out with no deal are likely to start to come back if we don’t hear positive news on this front soon. In the EMG bloc, away from the peso, there were more losers than winners, but the magnitudes of movement this morning have been far less than what we have seen recently. Ultimately, if risk continues to be shed, I expect the dollar to remain well bid against all comers.

On the data front, we start to see a bigger range of March data, which will clearly have been impacted by the virus and response.

Tuesday Existing Home Sales 5.3M
Thursday Initial Claims 4.5M
  Continuing Claims 17.27M
  Markit Mfg PMI 38.0
  Markit Services PMI 31.3
  New Home Sales 644K
Friday Durable Goods -12.0%
  -ex Transport -6.0%
  Michigan Sentiment 68.0

Source: Bloomberg

As we have seen for the past several weeks, the Claims data is likely to be the most important, although the PMI data will be interesting as well. Of course, the question, at this point, is whether the market will have discounted what it perceives to be all the bad news and ignore this data. While we may see that again for another week or two, my sense is that at some point, investors will realize that the future is not quite so bright, and that risk is not where they want to be. That seems to be today’s short-term narrative, but it has not changed the bigger view yet.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf