Enough Wherewithal

The Chairman explained to us all
The Fed has enough wherewithal
To counter the outbreak
But, too, Congress must take
More actions to halt the shortfall

The US equity markets led global stocks lower after selling off in the wake of comments from Chairman Powell yesterday morning. In what was a surprisingly realistic, and therefore, downbeat assessment, he explained that while the Fed still had plenty of monetary ammunition, further fiscal spending was necessary to prevent an even worse economic and humanitarian crisis. He also explained that any recovery would take time, and that the greatest risk was the erosion of skills that would occur as a huge swathe of the population is out of work. It cannot be a surprise that the equity markets sold off in the wake of those comments, with a weak session ending on its lows. It is also not surprising that Asian markets overnight followed US indices lower (Nikkei -1.75%, Hang Seng -1.45%, Shanghai -1.0%), nor that European markets are all in the red this morning (DAX -1.6%, CAC -1.7%, FTSE 100 -2.2%). What is a bit surprising is that US futures, at least as I type, are mixed, with the NASDAQ actually a touch higher, while both the Dow and S&P 500 see losses of just 0.2%. However, overall, risk is definitely on its back foot this morning.

But the Chairman raised excellent points regarding the timeline for any recovery and the potential negative impacts on economic activity going forward. The inherent conflict between the strategy of social distance and shelter in place vs. the required social interactions of so much economic activity is not a problem easily solved. At what point do government rules preventing businesses from operating have a greater negative impact than the marginal next case of Covid-19? What we have learned since January, when this all began in Wuhan, China, is that the greater the ability of a government to control the movement of its population, the more success that government has had preventing the spread of the disease. Alas, from that perspective, the inherent freedoms built into the US, and much of the Western World, are at extreme odds with those government controls/demands. As I have mentioned in the past, I do not envy policymakers their current role, as no matter the decision, it will be called into question by a large segment of the population.

What, though, are we now to discern about the future? Despite significant fiscal stimulus already enacted by many nations around the world, it is clearly insufficient to replace the breadth of lost activity. Central banks remain the most efficient way to add stimulus, alas they have demonstrated a great deal of difficulty applying it to those most in need. And so, despite marginally positive news regarding the slowing growth rate of infections, the global economy is not merely distraught, but seems unlikely to rebound in a sharp fashion in the near future. Q2 has already been written off by analysts, and markets, but the question that seems to be open is what will happen in Q3 and beyond. While we have seen equity weakness over the past two sessions, broadly speaking equity markets are telling us that things are going to be improving greatly while bond markets continue to point to a virtual lack of growth. Reading between the lines of the Chairman’s comments, he seems to be siding with the bond market for now.

Into this mix, we must now look at the dollar, and its behavior of late. This morning had seen modest movement until about 6:30, when the dollar started to rally vs. most of its G10 counterparts. As I type, NOK, SEK and AUD are all lower by 0.5% or so. The Aussie story is quite straightforward as the employment report saw the loss of nearly 600K jobs, a larger number than expected, with the consequences for the economy seen as potentially dire. While restrictions are beginning to be eased there, the situation remains one of a largely closed economy relying on central bank and government largesse for any semblance of economic activity. As to the Nordic currencies, SEK fell after a weaker than expected CPI report encouraged investors to believe that the Riksbank, which had fought so hard to get their financing rate back to 0.00% from several years in negative territory, may be forced back below zero. NOK, however, is a bit more confusing as there was no data to see, no comments of note, and the other big key, oil, is actually higher this morning by more than 4%. Sometimes, however, FX movement is not easily explained on the surface. It is entirely possible that we are seeing a large order go through the market. Remember, too, that while the krone is the worst performing G10 currency thus far in 2020, it has managed to rally more than 7% since late April, and so we are more likely seeing some ordinary back and forth in the markets.

One other comment of note in the G10 space was from BOE Governor Andrew Bailey, who reiterated that negative interest rates currently have no place in the BOE toolkit and are not necessary. While the comments didn’t impact the pound, which is lower by 0.25% as I type, it continues to be an important distinction as along with Chairman Powell, the US and the UK are the only two G10 nations that refuse to countenance the idea of NIRP, at least so far.

In the emerging markets, what had been a mixed and quiet session earlier has turned into a pretty strong USD performance overall. The worst performer is ZAR, currently down 0.9% the South African yield curve bear-steepens amid continued unloading of 10-year bonds by investors. But it is not just the rand falling this morning, we are seeing weakness in the CE4 (CZK -0.7%, HUF -0.5%, PLN -0.4%) and once again the Mexican peso is finding itself under strain. While the CE4 appear to simply be following the lead of the euro (-0.35%), perhaps with a bit more exuberance, I think the peso continues to be one of the more interesting stories out there.

Both MXN and BRL have been dire performers all year, with the two currencies being the worst two performers in the past three months and having fallen more than 20% each. Both currencies continue to be extremely volatile, with daily ranges averaging in excess of 2% for the past two months. The biggest difference is that BRL has seen a significant amount of direct intervention by the BCB to prevent further weakness, while MXN continues to be a 100% free float. The other thing to recall is that MXN is frequently seen as a proxy for all LATAM because of its relatively better liquidity and availability. The point is, further problems in Brazil (and they are legion as President Bolsonaro struggles to rule amid political fractures and Covid-19) may well result in a much weaker Mexican peso. This is so even if oil prices rebound substantially.

Turning to data, we see the weekly Initial Claims number (exp 2.5M) and Continuing Claims (25.12M), but otherwise that’s really it. While we have three more Fed speakers, Kashkari, Bostic and Kaplan, on the calendar, I think after yesterday’s Powell comments, the market may be happier not to hear their views. All the evidence points to an overbought risk atmosphere that needs to correct at some point. As that occurs, the dollar should retain its bid overall.

Good luck and stay safe
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