Health data are starting to show
A second wave might overthrow
The rebound we’ve seen
Which clearly will cause growth to slow
Risk is under pressure this morning as market participants continue to read the headlines regarding the rising rate of Covid infections in some of the largest US states, as well as throughout a number of emerging market nations. While this is concerning, in and of itself, it has been made more so by the fact that virtually every government official has warned that a second wave will undermine the progress that has been made with respect to the economic rebound worldwide. However, what seems to be clear is that more than three months into a series of government ordered shut downs that have resulted in $trillions of economic damage around the world, people in many places have decided that the risk from the virus is not as great as the risk to their personal economic well-being.
And that is the crux of the matter everywhere. Just how long can governments continue to impose restrictions on people without a wholesale rebellion? After all, there have been many missteps by governments everywhere, from initially downplaying the impact of the virus to moving to virtual marital law, with early prognostications vastly overstating the fatality rate of the virus and seemingly designed simply to sow panic and exert government control. It cannot be surprising that at some point, people around the world decided to take matters into their own hands, which means they are no longer willing to adhere to government rules.
The problem for markets, especially the equity markets, is that their recovery seems to be based on the idea that not only is a recovery right around the corner, but that economies are going to recoup all of their pandemic related losses and go right back to trend activity. Thus, a second wave interferes with that narrative. As evidence starts to grow that the caseload is no longer shrinking, but instead is growing rapidly, and that governments are back to shutting down economic activity again, those rosy forecasts for a sharp rebound are harder and harder to justify. And this is why we have seen the equity market rebound stumble for the past three weeks. In that time, we have seen twice as many down sessions as up sessions and the net result has been a 5.5% decline in the S&P500, with similar declines elsewhere.
So, what comes next? It is very hard to read the news about the growing list of bankruptcies as well as the significant write-downs of asset values and order cancelations without seeing the bear case. The ongoing dichotomy between the stock market rally and the economic distress remains very hard to justify in the long run. Of course, opposing the real economic news is the cabal of global central banks, who are doing everything they can think of collectively, to keep markets in functioning order and hoping that, if markets don’t panic, the economy can find its footing. This is what has brought us ZIRP, NIRP and QE with all its variations on which assets central banks can purchase. Alas, if central bankers really believe that markets are functioning ‘normally’ after $trillions of interference, that is a sad commentary on those central bankers’ understanding of how markets function, or at least have functioned historically. But the one thing on which we can count is that there is virtually no chance that any central bank will pull back from its current policy stance. And so, that dichotomy is going to have to resolve itself despite central bank actions. That, my friends, will be even more painful, I can assure you.
So, on a day with ordinary news flow, like today, we find ourselves in a risk-off frame of mind. Yesterday’s US equity rally was followed with modest strength in Asia. This was helped by Chinese PMI data which showed that the rebound there was continuing (Mfg PMI 50.9, Non-mfg PMI 54.4), although weakness in both Japanese ( higher Jobless Rate and weaker housing data) and South Korean (IP -9.6% Y/Y) data detracted from the recovery story. Of course, as we continue to see everywhere, weak data means ongoing central bank largesse, which at this point still leads to equity market support.
Europe, on the other hand, has not seen the same boost as equity markets there are mostly lower, although the DAX (+0.4%) and CAC (+0.2%) are the two exceptions to the rule. UK data has been the most prevalent with final Q1 GDP readings getting revised a bit lower (-2.2% Q/Q from -2.0%) while every other sub-metric was slightly worse as well. Meanwhile, PM Johnson is scrambling to present a coherent plan to support the nation fiscally until the Covid threat passes, although on that score, he is not doing all that well. And we cannot forget Brexit, where today’s passage without an extension deal means that December 31, 2020 is the ultimate line in the sand. It cannot be a surprise that the pound has been the worst performing G10 currency over the past week and month, having ceded 2.0% since last Tuesday. With the BOE seriously considering NIRP, the pound literally has nothing going for it in the short run. Awful economic activity, questionable government response to Covid and now NIRP on the horizon. If you are expecting to receive pounds in the near future, sell them now!
Away from the pound, which is down 0.3% today, NOK (-0.6%) is the worst performer in the G10, and that is really a result of, not only oil’s modest price decline (-1.3%), but more importantly the news that Royal Dutch Shell is writing down $22 billion of assets, a move similar to what we have seen from the other majors (BP and Exxon) and an indication that the future value (not just its price) of oil is likely to be greatly diminished. While we are still a long way from the end of the internal combustion engine, the value proposition is changing. And this speaks to just how hard it is to have an economic recovery if one of the largest industries that was adding significant value to the global economy is being downgraded. What is going to take its place?
The oil story is confirmed in the EMG space as RUB is the clear underperformer today, down 1.4% as Russia is far more reliant on oil than even Norway. However, elsewhere in the EMG bloc, virtually the entire space is under pressure to a much more limited extent. The thing is, if we start to see risk discarded and equity markets come under further pressure, these currencies are going to extend their declines.
This morning’s US data is second tier, with Case Shiller Home Prices (exp +3.8%), Chicago PMI (45.0) and Consumer Confidence (91.4). The latter two remain far below their pre-covid levels and likely have quite some time before they can return to those levels. Meantime, Fed speakers are out in force today, led by Chair Powell speaking before a Congressional panel alongside Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. His pre-released opening remarks harp on the risk of a second wave as well as the uncertainty over the future trajectory of growth because of that. As well, he continues to promise the Fed will do whatever is necessary to support the economy. And in truth, we have continued to hear that message from every single Fed speaker for the past two months’ at least. What we know for sure is that the Fed is not going to change its tune anytime soon.
For today, unless Powell describes yet another new program, if he remains in his mode of warning of disaster unless the government does more, it is hard to see how investors get excited. Risk is currently on the back foot and I see nothing to change that view today.
Good luck and stay safe