If Covid is back on the rise
It’s likely it will compromise
The mooted return
Of money to burn
Instead, growth it will tranquilize
For the past two or three months, market behavior has been driven by the belief that a V-shaped recovery was in the offing as a combination of massive fiscal and monetary stimulus alongside a flatter infection curve and the reopening of economies would bring everything back close to where it was prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. However, since last Thursday, that narrative has lost more than a few adherents with the growing concern that the dreaded second wave of infections was starting to crest and would force economies, that were just starting to reopen, back into hibernation.
The most recent piece of evidence for the new storyline comes from Beijing, where the weekend saw the reporting of 100 new infections after several weeks of, allegedly, zero infections in the country. This has resulted in the Chinese government re-imposing some restrictions as well as massively increasing testing again. Chinese data last night showed that the economy remains under significant pressure, although analysts fell on both sides of the bullish-bearish spectrum. The four key data points are Retail Sales (-13.5% YTD, up from April’s -16.2% and right on the economic estimates); IP (-2.8% YTD, up from -4.9% and slightly better than -3.0% expected); Fixed Asset Investment (-6.3% YTD vs. -10.3% last month and -6.0% expected); and the Jobless Rate (5.9%, as expected and down from 6.0% last month). My read is that the Chinese economy remains quite troubled, although arguably it has left the worst behind it. The PBOC continues to inject liquidity into the market and the Chinese government continues to add fiscal support. Unfortunately for President Xi, China remains an export led economy and given the complete demand destruction that has occurred everywhere else in the world, the near-term prospects for Chinese growth would seem to be muted at best.
For political leaders everywhere, this is not the story that they want to tell. Rather, the narrative of the V-shaped recovery was crucial to maintaining some level of confidence for their populations as well as for their own popularity. Remember, at the government level, everything is political, so crafting a story that people
believe accept is just as important, if not more so, than actually implementing policies that work to address the problems.
Another chink in the narrative’s armor is the fact that despite the approach of the summer solstice, and the northern hemisphere warming that accompanies it, infection levels are growing in many different places; not only Beijing, but Korea, Japan, California, Texas and Florida, all locations that had begun to reopen their respective economies due to reduced infections. Remember, a key part of the narrative has been that the virus, like the ordinary flu, thrives in cold weather, and warmth would be a natural disinfectant, if you will. While it remains too early to claim this is not the case, the recent flare-ups are not helping that storyline.
Ultimately, what is abundantly clear is we still don’t know that much about the virus and its potential and weaknesses. While we will certainly see more businesses reopen over the next weeks, it is unclear how long it will take for actual economic activity to start to revert to any semblance of normal. Equity markets have been wearing rose-colored glasses for at least two months. Beware of those slipping off and haven assets regaining their bid quite quickly.
So, a quick look at markets this morning simply reinforces the changing narrative, with equity markets lower around the world, bond markets rallying and the dollar reasserting itself. Overnight, Asian markets all fell pretty sharply, led by the Nikkei’s 3.5% decline, but also seeing weakness in the Hang Seng (-2.2%) and Shanghai (-1.0%). European indices are also bleeding this morning, with the DAX (-0.9%) and CAC (-0.8%) slipping on increasing concerns over the growth of the second wave. US futures will not miss this party, with all three indices sharply lower, between 1.5% and 2.0%.
In the bond market, Treasury yields are sliding, down 3 basis points, as haven assets are in demand. We are seeing increased demand across European bond markets as well, surprisingly even in the PIGS, although that seems more in anticipation of the almost certain increase in the pace of ECB QE. What is clear, however, is that we are seeing a rotation from stocks to bonds this morning.
Finally, the dollar is feeling its oats this morning, rallying against the high-beta G10 currencies with AUD the leading decliner (-0.9%) followed by NOK (-0.6%) and CAD (-0.5%). The latter two are clearly feeling the pressure from oil’s declining price, down 1.75% as I type, although it had been even lower earlier in the session. While we do see both JPY and CHF slightly firmer, the emphasis is on slightly, with both less than 0.1% higher than Friday’s closing levels. Meanwhile the euro and pound are both slightly softer, also less than 0.1% off Friday’s levels, which simply implies a great deal of uncertainty over the next big move. This is corroborated by price action in the option market, where implied volatility continues to climb, as 1mo EURUSD volatility is up 1.3 points in the past week. Of perhaps more interest is the fact that the 1mo risk reversal has flipped from 0.5 for euro calls to 0.35 for euro puts in the same time frame. Clearly, concern is growing that all is not right with the world.
As to the EMG bloc, one would not be surprised to see the Mexican peso as the biggest laggard this morning, down 1.5% as the combination of declining oil prices, increasing infections and risk reduction all play into the move. Asian currencies did not have a good evening, led by KRW (-1.0%) which suffered from a combination of concern over the US-Korean alliance (as the US withdrew some troops unexpectedly and continues to demand more payment for protection) as well as some warmongering from the North. But we have also seen weakness across the rest of the region, with declines in the 0.2%-0.5% range nearly universal. Too, the rand is under pressure this morning, falling 1.0%, on what appears to be broad-based risk reduction as there are no specific stories to note there.
Data this week is on the light side with Retail Sales tomorrow likely to garner the most attention.
We also hear from six Fed speakers in addition to the Chairman’s congressional testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday. Clearly, it will be the latter that keeps everyone most interested. There are those who complain that Powell should have done more last week, starting YCC or adding more stimulus, but that remains a slight minority view. Most mainstream economists seem to believe that we are fast approaching the point where excessive central bank largesse is going to create much bigger problems down the road. In fact, ironically, I believe that is one of the reasons we are in risk-off mode overall, growing concerns that the future is not as bright as markets have priced to date.
My sense is that the dollar is set to end its slide overall and start to regain traction as the reality that the V-shaped recovery is not coming begins to hit home. Hedgers beware, and don’t miss these opportunities.
Good luck and stay safe