The market was looking distressed
So, Jay clearly thought it was best
To tell everyone
The Fed had begun
To buy corporates at his behest
Frankly, I’m stunned. Anyone who believes that the Fed is focusing on any variable other than the S&P 500 was completely disabused of that notion yesterday. While I know it seems like it was weeks ago, yesterday morning there was concern that Chairman Powell’s comments last week about a long, tough road to recovery were still top of mind to market participants. Concerns over a rising infection rate in some states and countries were growing thus driving investors to react negatively. After all, if the mooted second wave of Covid comes and the nascent economic revival is squashed at the outset, the case for the V-shaped recovery and stratospheric stock prices would quickly die. And so, Chairman Powell responded by explaining that the Fed would expand the SMCCF* program to start buying individual bonds today. Remember, the initial story was ETF’s were the only purchases to be made. Now, the Fed is effectively cherry-picking which investors it wants to help as certainly the companies whose bonds the Fed buys will not be getting any of that money. Or will they? Perhaps the hope is that if the Fed owns individual corporate bonds, in the coming debt jubilee, they will tear up those bonds as well as their Treasuries, thus reducing leverage in a trice.
A debt jubilee, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a government sanctioned erasure of outstanding debts. Its origins are in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, when every 50 years there was a call for the release of all debts, both monetary and personal (indenture). Of course, in the modern world it is a bit more difficult to accomplish as all creditors would be severely impacted by the concept. All creditors except one, that is, a nation’s central bank.
Now that we are in a fiat currency system where central banks create money from nothing (paraphrasing Dire Straits), any public debt that they hold on their balance sheets can simply be forgiven by decree, thus reducing the leverage outstanding. While there would seem to be some inflationary consequences to the action (after all, an awful lot of funds would be instantly freed up to chase after other goods, services and investments), the modern central bank viewpoint on inflation is that it is dangerously low and a problem at current levels, so those consequences are likely to be quickly rationalized away. Thus, if the Fed owns individual corporate bonds, especially of highly indebted companies, they will be able forgive those, reduce leverage and support those companies’ prospects to maintain a full-sized staff. You see, the rationalization is it will support employment, not help investors.
To be clear, there is no official plan for a debt jubilee, but it is something that is gaining credence amongst a subset of the economics community. Especially because of the inherent concerns over near- and medium-term growth due to Covid-19, as future consumer behavior is likely to be very different than past consumer behavior, I expect that a debt jubilee is something about which we will hear a great deal more going forward. Nonstop printing of money by the world’s central banks is not a sustainable activity in the long run. Neither is it sustainable for governments to run deficits well in excess of GDP. A debt jubilee is a potential solution to both those problems, and if it can be accomplished by simply having central banks tear up debt, other creditors will not be destroyed. Truly a (frightening) win-win.
It can be no surprise that the stock market reacted positively to the news, turning around morning losses to close higher by 0.85% in the US with the sharpest part of the move happening immediately upon the statement’s release at 2:15 yesterday. This euphoria carried over into Asia with remarkable effect as the Nikkei (+4.9%) and KOSPI (+5.3%) exploded higher while the rest of the region merely saw strong gains of between 1.4% (Shanghai) and 3.9% (Australia). And naturally, Europe is a beneficiary as well, with the DAX (+2.8%) leading the way, but virtually every market higher by more than 2.0%. US futures? Not to worry, all three indices are currently higher by more than 1.1%.
In keeping with the risk-on attitude, we also saw Treasury bonds sell off in the afternoon with yields rising a bit more than 4bps since the announcement. In Europe, bund yields are higher as are gilts, both by 2.5bps, but the PIGS are basking in the knowledge that their future may well be brighter as we are seeing Portugal (-2bps), Italy (-5.5bps), Greece (-6.5bps) and Spain (-3bps) all rallying nicely.
And finally, the dollar, which had started to show some strength yesterday, has also reversed most of those gains and is broadly, though not deeply, softer this morning. In the G10, the pound is the leader, higher by 0.45%, as the market ignored Jobless Claims in the UK falling by 529K, only the second worst level on record after last month’s numbers, and instead took heart that a Brexit deal could well be reached after positive comments from both Boris Johnson and the EU leadership following a videoconference call earlier today. While nothing is confirmed, this is the best tone we have heard in a while. However, away from the pound gains are limited to less than 0.25% with some currencies even declining slightly.
In the emerging markets, the leading gainer is KRW (+0.75%) despite the fact that North Korea blew up the Joint Office overnight. That office was the sight of ongoing discussions between the two nations and its destruction marks a significant rise in hostility by the North. In my view, the market is remarkably sanguine about the story, especially in light of its response to the news out of India, where Chinese soldiers ostensibly attacked and killed three Indian soldiers in the disputed border zone. There, the rupee fell 0.25% on the report as concerns grow over an escalation of tensions between the two nations. But aside from those two currencies, there were many more gainers in APAC currencies as funds flowed into local stock markets on the Fed inspired risk appetite.
On the data front, we see Retail Sales (exp 8.4%, 5.5% ex autos) as well as IP (3.0%) and Capacity Utilization (66.9%), with all three numbers rebounding sharply from their lows set in April. We saw a similar rebound in German ZEW Expectations (63.4 and its highest since 2006), but recall, that is based on the change of view month to month.
Chairman Powell testifies to the Senate this morning, so all ears will be listening at 10:00. Yesterday we heard from two Fed speakers, Dallas’s Kaplan and San Francisco’s Daly, both of whom expressed the view that a rebound was coming, that YCC was not appropriate at this time and that the Fed still had plenty they could do, as they made evident with yesterday afternoon’s announcement.
While equity markets continue to react very positively to the central bank activities, the dollar seems to be finding a floor. In the end, investment flows into the US still seem to be larger than elsewhere and continue to be a key driver for the dollar. Despite a positive risk appetite, it appears the dollar has limited room to fall further.
Good luck and stay safe
*Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility