In college Econ 101
Professors described the long run
As when we all died
Like Keynes had replied
Debating a colleague for fun
However, the rest that they taught
Has turned out to have, value, nought
Their models have failed
While many have railed
That people won’t do what they ought
Observing market activity these days and trying to reconcile price action with the theories so many of us learned in college has become remarkably difficult. While supply and demand still seem to have meaning, pretty much every construct more complex than that turns out to have been a description of a special case and not a general model of behavior. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from the fact that essentially every forecast made these days turns out wrong while major pronouncements, regarding the long-term effect of a given policy, by esteemed economists seem designed to advance a political view rather than enhance our knowledge and allow us to act in the most effective way going forward. Certainly, as merely an armchair economist, my track record is not any better. Of course, the difference is that I mostly try to highlight what is driving markets in the very short term rather than paint a picture of the future and influence policy.
I bring this up as I read yet another article this morning, this by Stephen Roach, a former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and current professor at Yale, about the imminent collapse of the dollar and the end of its status as the world’s reserve currency. He is not the first to call for this, nor the first to call on the roster of models that describe economic activity and determine that because one variable has moved beyond previous boundaries, doom was to follow. In this case growth of the US current account deficit will lead to the end of the dollar’s previous role as reserve currency. Nor will he be the last to do so, but the consistent feature is that every apocalyptic forecast has been wrong over time.
This has been true in Japan, where massive debt issuance by the government and massive debt purchases by the BOJ were destined to drive inflation much higher and weaken the yen substantially. Of course, we all know that the exact opposite has occurred. This has been true around the world where negative interest rates were designed to encourage borrowing and spending, thus driving economic growth higher, when it only got half the equation right, the borrowing increase, but it turns out spending on shares was deemed a better use of funds than spending on investment, despite all the theories that said otherwise.
Ultimately, the point is that despite the economics community having built a long list of very impressive looking and sounding models that are supposed to describe the workings of the economy, those models were built based on observed data rather than on empirical truths. Now that the data has changed, those models are just no longer up for the task. In other words, when it comes to forecasting models, caveat emptor.
Turning to the markets this morning, equity markets seem to have stopped to catch their collective breath after having recouped all of their March losses. In fact, the NASDAQ actually set a new all-time high yesterday, amid an economy that is about to print a GDP number somewhere between -20% and -50% annualized in Q2.
I get the idea of looking past the short-run problems, but it still appears to me that equity traders are ignoring long-run problems that are growing on the horizon. These issues, like the wave of bankruptcies that will significantly reduce the number of available jobs, as well as the potential for behavioral changes that will dramatically reduce the value of entire industries like sports and entertainment, don’t appear to be part of the current investment thesis, or at least have been devalued greatly. And while in the long-run, new companies and activities will replace all these losses, it seems highly unlikely they will replace them by 2021. Yet, yesterday saw US equity indices rally for the 7th day in the past eight. While this morning, futures are pointing a bit lower (SPU’s and Dow both lower by 1.2%, NASDAQ down by 0.7%), that is but a minor hiccup in the recent activity.
European markets are softer this morning as well, with virtually every major index lower by nearly 2% though Asian markets had a bit better showing with the Hang Seng (+1.1%) and Shanghai (+0.6%) both managing gains although the Nikkei (-0.4%) edged lower.
Bond markets are clearly taking a closer look at the current risk euphoria and starting to register concern as Treasury yields have tumbled 5bps this morning after a 4bp decline yesterday. We are seeing similar price action in European markets, albeit to a much lesser extent with bunds seeing yields fall only 2bps since yesterday. But, in true risk-off fashion, bonds from the PIGS have all seen yields rise as they are clearly risk assets, not havens.
And finally, the dollar is broadly stronger this morning with only the other havens; CHF (+0.3%) and JPY (+0.4%) gaining vs. the buck. On the downside, AUD is the laggard, falling 1.4% as a combination of profit taking after a humongous rally, more than 27% from the lows in March, and a warning by China’s education ministry regarding the potential risks for Chinese students returning to university in Australia have weighed on the currency. Not surprisingly, NZD is lower as well, by 1.1%, and on this risk-off day, with oil prices falling 2.5%, NOK has fallen 1.0%. But these currencies’ weakness has an awful lot to do with the dollar’s broad strength.
In the emerging markets, the Mexican peso, which had been the market’s darling for the past month, rallying from 25.00 to below 21.50 (13.5%) has reversed course this morning and is down by 1.4%. But, here too, weakness is broad based with RUB (-0.95%), PLN (-0.7%) and ZAR (-0.6%) all leading the bloc lower. The one exception in this space was KRW (+0.6%) after the announcement of some significant shipbuilding orders for Daewoo and Samsung Heavy Industries improved opinions of the nation’s near-term trade situation.
Turning to the data, although it’s not clear to me it matters much yet, we did see some horrific trade data from Germany, where their surplus fell to €3.5 billion, its smallest surplus in twenty years, and a much worse reading than anticipated as exports collapsed. Meanwhile, Eurozone Q1 GDP data was revised ever so slightly higher, to -3.6% Q/Q, but really, everyone wants to see what is happening in Q2. At home, the NFIB Small Biz Index was just released at a modestly better than expected 94.4 but has been ignored. Later this morning we see the JOLT’s Jobs data (exp 5.75M), but that is for April so seems too backward-looking to matter.
Risk is on its heels today and while hopes are growing that the Fed may do something new tomorrow, for now, given how far risk assets have rallied over the past two weeks, a little more consolidation seems a pretty good bet.
Good luck and stay safe