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