Tremors of Dread

This weekend we learned nothing new
‘Bout what central bankers will do
As they look ahead
With tremors of dread
That QE’s a major miscue

There is a bit of a conundrum developing as headlines shout about a surge in new cases of the coronavirus at the same time that countries around the world continue to reopen from their previous lockdowns. It has become increasingly apparent that governments everywhere have determined that the economic damage of the shutdown in response to Covid now outweighs the human cost of further fatalities from the disease. Of course, three months on from when the epidemic really began to rage in the West, there is also a much better understanding of who is most vulnerable and how to maintain higher levels of safe behavior, notably social distancing and wearing masks. And so, while there are still extremely vocal views on both sides of the argument about the wisdom of reopening, it is very clear economies are going to reopen.

Meanwhile, central banks continue to bask in the glow of broadly positive press that their actions have been instrumental in propping up the stock market preventing an even greater contraction of economic activity than what has actually played out. The constant refrain from every central bank speaker has been that cutting rates and expanding their balance sheets has been very effective. Oh, they are also prepared to do even more of both if they deem such action necessary because it turns out it wasn’t effective.

However, despite these encomiums about central bank perspicacity, investors find themselves at a crossroads these days. Risk assets continue to perform extremely well overall, with stocks having recouped most of their losses from March, but haven assets continue to demonstrate significant concern over the future as long-term government bond yields continue to point to near-recessionary economic activity over the medium and long term. At the end of the day, however, I think the only universal truth is that the global economy, and certainly financial markets, have become addicted to QE, and the central banks are not about to stop providing that liquidity no matter what else happens.

On this subject, this morning we had two very different visions espoused, with BOE Governor Bailey explaining that when things get better, QT will be the first response, not a raising of rates. Of course, we all remember the “paint drying” effect of QT in the US in 2018, and how it turns out removing that liquidity is really hard without causing a financial earthquake. At the same time, the ECB’s Madame Lagarde and her minions have been enthusiastically describing just how proportionate their QE purchases have been in response to the German Constitutional Court ruling from last month. Frankly, it would be easy for the ECB to point out the proportionality of buying more Italian debt given there is much more Italian debt than any other type in the EU. But I don’t think that was the German court’s viewpoint. At any rate, there is no reason to expect anything but ongoing QE for the foreseeable future. In fact, the only thing that can stop it is a significant uptick in measured inflation, but that has not yet occurred, nor does it seem likely in the next couple of quarters. So, the presses will continue to roll.

With this as background, a turn to the markets shows a fairly benign session overall. Equity market in Asia were very modestly lower (Nikkei -0.2%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai flat) while European markets are also a touch softer (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 flat) although US futures are pointing higher, with all three indices up about 0.75% as I type. Meanwhile, bond markets are also showing muted price action, although the tendency is toward slightly lower yields as Treasuries have decline 1bp and Bunds 2bps. While the direction here is consistent with a risk off session, the very slight magnitude of the moves makes it less convincing.

As to the dollar, it is definitely on its back foot this morning, falling against most G10 and many EMG currencies. Kiwi is atop the leaderboard this morning, rallying 0.6% with Aussie just behind at 0.5%, as both currencies recoup a bit of the past two week’s losses. In fact, that seems to be the story behind most of the G10 today, we are seeing a rebound from the dollar’s last two weeks of strength. The only exception is the yen, which is essentially unchanged, after its own solid recent performance, and NOK, which has edged lower by 0.15% on the back of a little oil price weakness.

In the EMG bloc, the picture is a bit more mixed with APAC currencies having suffered last night, led by KRW (-0.5%) as tensions with the North increase, and IDR (-0.35%) as the market demonstrated some concern over the future trajectory of growth and interest rates there. On the positive side, it is the CE4 that is showing the best gains today with PLN (+0.8%) far and away the best performer after posting a much better than expected Retail Sales number of +14.5%, which prompted the government to highlight the opportunity for a v-shaped recovery.

Looking ahead to data this week, nothing jumps out as likely to have a big impact.

Today Existing Home Sales 4.09M
Tuesday PMI Manufacturing 50.8
  PMI Services 48.0
  New Home Sales 635K
Thursday Initial Claims 1.35M
  Continuing Claims 19.85M
  Durable Goods 10.9%
  -ex transport 2.3%
  GDP Q1 -5.0%
Friday Personal Income -6.0%
  Personal Spending 8.8%
  Core PCE 0.0% (0.9% Y/Y)
  Michigan Sentiment 79.0

Source: Bloomberg

The thing about the PMI data is that interpretation of the data is more difficult these days as a rebound from depression levels may not be indicative of real strength, rather just less weakness. In fact, the bigger concern for policymakers these days is that the Initial Claims data is not declining very rapidly. After that huge spike in March, we have seen a substantial decline, but the pace of that decline has slowed alarmingly. It seems that we may be witnessing a second wave of layoffs as companies re-evaluate just how many employees they need to operate effectively, especially in a much slower growth environment. And remember, if employment doesn’t rebound more sharply, the US economy, which is 70% consumption based, is going to be in for a much longer period of slow or negative growth. I assure you that is not the scenario currently priced into the equity markets, so beware.

As to the dollar today, recent price activity has not been consistent with the historic risk appetite, and it is not clear to me which is leading which, stocks leading the dollar or vice versa. For now, it appears that the day is pointing to maintaining the overnight weakness, but I see no reason for this to extend in any major way.

Good luck and stay safe
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