The first bit of data we’ve seen
Has shown what economists mean
When most business stops
And GDP drops
Reacting to Covid – 19
This data describes people’s fear
Another wave just might appear
But right now those views
Are yesterday’s news
And ‘buy the dip’ traders are here
The UK is an interesting study regarding GDP growth because they actually publish monthly numbers, rather than only quarterly data like the rest of the developed world. So, this morning, the UK reported that GDP activity in April declined 20.4% from March, which had declined 5.8% from February when the first impact of Covid-19 was felt. This has resulted in the UK economy shrinking back to levels last seen in 2002. Eighteen years of growth removed in two months! Of course, when things recover, and they will recover as the lockdowns are eased around the world, we will also get to see the fastest growth numbers in history. However, we must remember that a 20% decline will require a 25% rebound to get back to where we started. Keep that in mind when we start to see large positive numbers in the summer (hopefully) or the autumn if people decide that the risks of Covid outweigh the benefits of returning to previous activities.
Needless to say, this has been an unprecedented decline, on a monthly basis, in the economy for both its depth and speed. But the more remarkable thing, is that despite this extraordinary economic disruption, a look at financial markets shows a somewhat different story. For example, on February 28, the FTSE 100 closed at 6580.61 and the pound finished the session at 1.2823. On April 30, after the worst two-month economic decline in the UK’s history, its main stock market had declined 10.3% while the pound had fallen just 1.8%. Granted, both did trade at substantially lower levels in the interim, bottoming in the third week of March before rebounding. But it seems to me that those are pretty good performances given the size of the economic dislocation. And since then, both the FTSE 100 and the pound have rallied a bit further.
The question is, how can this have occurred? Part of the answer is the fact that on a contemporaneous basis, investors could not imagine the depths of the economic decline that was taking place. While there were daily stories of lockdowns and death counts, it is still hard for anyone to have truly understood the unprecedented magnitude of what occurred. And, of course, part of the answer was this did not happen in a vacuum as policymakers responded admirably quickly with the BOE cutting rates by a total of 0.65% in the period while expanding their balance sheet by £150 billion (and still growing). And the UK government quickly put together stimulus packages worth 5% of then measured GDP. Obviously, those measures were crucial in preventing a complete financial market collapse.
Another thing to remember is that the FTSE 100 was trading at a P/E ratio of approximately 15 ahead of the crisis, which in the long-term scheme of things was actually below its average. So, stock prices in the UK were nowhere near as frothy as in the US and arguably had less reason to fall.
As to the pound, well, currencies are a relative game, and the same things that were happening in the UK were happening elsewhere as well to various degrees. March saw the dollar’s haven status at its peak, at which point the pound traded below 1.15. But as policymakers worldwide responded quite quickly, and almost in unison, the worst fears passed and the ‘need’ to own dollars ebbed. Hence, we have seen a strong rebound since, and in truth a very modest net decline.
The questions going forward will be all about how the recovery actually unfolds, both in timing and magnitude. The one thing that seems clear is that the uniformity of decline and policy response that we saw will not be repeated on the rebound. Different countries will reduce safety measures at different paces, and populations will respond differently to those measures. In other words, as confusing as data may have been before Covid, it will be more so going forward.
Now, quickly, to markets. Yesterday’s equity market price action in the US was certainly dramatic, with the Dow falling nearly 7% and even the NASDAQ falling 5.25%. The best explanation I can offer is that reflection on Chairman Powell’s press conference by investors left them feeling less confident than before. As I wrote in the wake of the ECB meeting last week, the only way for a central banker to do their job (in the market’s eyes) these days is to exceed expectations. While analysts did not expect any policy changes, there was a great deal of talk on trading
desks floors chatrooms about the next step widely seen as YCC. The fact that Jay did not deliver was seen as quite disappointing. In fact, it would not be surprising to me that if stock markets continued to decline sharply, the Fed would respond.
But that is not happening as buying the dip is back in fashion with European markets higher by roughly 1.5% and US futures also pointing higher. Meanwhile, with risk back in favor, Treasury yields have backed up 3bps and the dollar is under pressure.
On the FX front, the G10 is a classic depiction of risk-on with the yen (-0.5%) and Swiss franc (-0.3%) both declining while the rest of the bloc is higher led by CAD and AUD, both up 0.5%. In truth, this has the feeling of a bounce from yesterday’s dollar strength, rather than the beginning of a new trend, but that will depend on the broader risk sentiment. If equity market ebullience this morning fades as the session progresses, look for the dollar to take back its overnight losses.
Meanwhile, EMG markets are having a more mixed session with APAC currencies all having fallen last night in the wake of the US equity rout. APAC equities were modestly lower to unchanged but had started the session under far more pressure. At the same time, the CE4, with the benefit of the European equity rebound and higher US futures are mostly firmer led by PLN (+0.6%). But the biggest winner today in this space is MXN, which has rebounded 0.7% from yesterday’s levels, although that represented a nearly 4% decline! In other words, the defining characteristic of the peso these days is not its rate but its volatility. For example, 10-day historic volatility in the peso is currently 28.37%, up from 13.4% last Friday and 21.96% in the middle of May when we were looking at daily 3% moves. Do not be surprised if we see another bout of significant peso volatility, especially given the ongoing concerns over AMLO’s handling of Covid.
On the data front, only Michigan Sentiment (exp 75.0) is on the docket today, which may have an impact if it is surprisingly better than expected, but I don’t anticipate much movement. Rather, FX remains beholden to the overall risk sentiment as determined by the US equity markets. If the rebound continues, the dollar will remain under pressure. If the rebound fails, look for the dollar to resume yesterday’s trend.
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe