Though April saw rallies galore
In equities, bonds and much more
The first days of May
Seem set to convey
A tale that risk-off’s set to soar
Last week finished on a down note for risk appetite, as we saw equities decline sharply on Friday, at least in those markets that were open, as well as the first cracks in the rebound in currencies vs. the dollar. This morning, those trends are starting to reassert themselves and we look to be heading toward a full-blown risk-off session.
A quick recap reminds us that Thursday, which was month end, saw a modest decline in equities which was easily attributed to portfolio rebalancing. After all, the April rally was impressive in any context, let alone the current situation where huge swathes of the global economy have been shuttered for more than a month. Friday, while a holiday in many markets around the world, saw far more significant equity market declines in countries that were open, with US markets falling between 2.5% and 3.2%. The weekend saw loads of stories highlighting the adage, ‘Sell in May and go away’, as an appropriate strategy this year. This was compounded by the far more bearish take by Warren Buffett regarding the US economy, where he explained that Berkshire Hathaway had exited its positions in airline stocks and instead had grown its cash pile to $138 billion. These are not the signs of confidence that investors crave, and so this morning, European equity markets are all much lower, led by the CAC (-4.0%) and DAX (-3.5%). While both China and Japan were closed for holidays, the Hang Seng had a terrible performance, falling 4.2%, and we saw sharp declines throughout the rest of Emerging Asia. Meanwhile, US futures markets are all lower by about 1% as I type.
I guess the question at hand remains the sustainability of last month’s price action. Right now, there are two key subjects where the underlying narrative is up for grabs; risk appetite and inflation. For the former, there is a large contingent who believe that the worst is over with respect to Covid-19, and its spread is abating. This means that over the course of the next few weeks and months, economies are going to reopen and that the situation will return to normal. There is much talk of a V-shaped recovery on the strength of the extraordinary efforts of central banks and governments around the world. The flip side of this argument is that despite the tentative steps toward reopening economies worldwide, the pace of recovery will be significantly slower than the pace of the decline. Concerns about how much of the economy has been irrevocably destroyed, with small businesses worldwide closing, and unemployment everywhere rising sharply, are rife. While we are still in the first half of Q1 earnings season, the data to date have not been pretty, and remember, the virus only became a significant issue in March, generally. This implies that the bearish view may have more legs, and it is the side I believe fits the fact pattern more accurately.
The inflation narrative is just as fierce, with the hard money advocates all decrying the central bank activity as opening the door to currency collapses and hyperinflation right around the corner. Meanwhile, the other side of the argument looks to the history of the past twenty years, where Japan has been printing yen and effectively monetizing its debt, while still unable to achieve any sort of inflation at all. In this case, I think the deflationistas make the best case for the near term, as the combination of unprecedented demand destruction as well as extraordinary growth in debt both point to slower growth and price declines in the short and medium term. However, that is not to ignore the fact that central banks have gone far outside the boundaries of what had traditionally been viewed as their bailiwick, and especially if we do see a debt jubilee of some type, where government debt owned by a nation’s own central bank is forgiven, then the opportunity for a significant inflationary outcome remains on the table. Just not right away.
Adding it up for today points to a reduced risk appetite as evidenced by those equity markets that are open. Bond markets have not played along as one might have expected, with Treasury yields lower by only 1bp, and Bund yields, along with the rest of Europe’s, actually higher this morning. That price action seems to be a response to concerns over the outcome of the German Constitutional Court’s ruling due tomorrow, regarding the legality of QE, the PEPP and, perhaps more critically, the necessity of the ECB to follow the Capital Key when purchasing bonds.
In the FX markets, the dollar has resumed its role as king of the world, rallying against every currency except the yen, which has essentially stayed flat. In the G10 space, NOK is the leading decliner, down 1.2% as oil prices are back on the schneid with WTI down 6.3% this morning. But we are seeing the pound (-0.8%) and Swedish krone (-0.7%) under significant pressure as well. GBP traders are looking ahead to Thursday’s BOE meeting where expectations are rising for another bout of policy ease, which fits in with the broad risk-off framework. The krone, meanwhile, is suffering as the Riksbank finds itself in a difficult spot regarding its QE program. It seems that despite its claims that it would be purchasing not only government bonds, but corporates as well, that is illegal based on the bank’s guiding legislation, and so there is some monetary policy confusion now undermining the currency.
In the EMG space, IDR (-1.45%) and RUB (-1.3%) have been the weakest performers, with the ruble suffering from both weaker oil prices as well as the recent increase in the pace of infections in Russia. While things there are already under pressure, they could well get worse before they get better. Meanwhile, Indonesia saw a reversal of half of last week’s currency gains as PMI data (27.5) highlighted just how weak the near-term looks for the island nation. While the bulk of the rest of the space has suffered on the back of the overall risk-off sentiment, there has been a later reversal in ZAR, where the rand is now higher by 0.75% after its PMI data surprised one and all by printing at 46.1, well above expectations and a very modest decline compared to March, albeit still in contractionary territory.
On the docket this week, we see a great deal of information culminating in the payroll report on Friday, and that is certain to be frightful.
|Unit Labor Costs||3.8%|
|Average Hourly Earnings||0.3% (3.3% Y/Y)|
|Average Weekly Hours||33.5|
The range of expectations for the payroll number highlight the ongoing confusion, with estimates between -840K and -30.0M. Regardless, the number will be a record, of that there is no doubt.
In addition to all this data, we hear from the RBA and the BOE on Thursday, with further ease on the cards, and we get to hear from five different Fed speakers. In these unprecedented times, as policymakers struggle to keep up with the economic destruction, we will soon become inured to shocking data. But that will not make it any better, and I fear that shock or not, risk appetites will continue to diminish as the month, and year, progresses. This means that the dollar is likely to retain its bid for a while yet.
Good luck and stay safe