Buying With Zeal

When markets are healthy, they’ve got
Investors who’ve sold and who’ve bought
All based on their views
Of critical news
As profits are actively sought

But these days most governments feel
It’s better that they should conceal
The idea of prices
Reflecting a crisis
And so they are buying with zeal

It remains difficult to understand the enthusiasm with which investors, if it truly is investors, are chasing after stock prices these days. Last night’s version of this story took place in Asia, where the Nikkei was the laggard of the major markets, only rising 1.8%. At the same time, in Hong Kong, home to the biggest recent crackdown on personal freedoms in the world, the stock market jumped 3.8%. Of course, that is nothing compared to China’s Shanghai Index, which rose 5.7% overnight, and is now higher by more than 9% YTD. Interestingly, it appears that the key driver of the equity rally in China was the plethora of headlines essentially telling the population to buy stocks! At this point, it is no longer clear to me that equity market prices contain any information whatsoever regarding the state of the companies listed. Certainly, the idea that they reflect millions of independent views of the future has been discarded. Rather, it appears that governments around the world have come to believe that higher stock prices equate to improved confidence, regardless of how those prices came about.

It is not hard to understand why this idea has gained government adherents, as every government wants its citizens to be confident and happy. The problem is that they have the causality backwards. Historically, the process worked as follows: stock performance reflected the views of millions of individual and institutional investors views on how companies would perform in the future. Expectations about earnings were crucial and those were tied to broad economic performance. Clearly, the level of interest rates played a role in these decisions, but so did issues like the business environment, the competitive environment and government policies on taxes and regulation. At that time, if the underlying features were aligned so that stock prices were rising, it was likely a result of an underlying confidence in the economy and its overall performance. But that is essentially ancient history at this point, having largely ended in 1987.

Ever since Black Monday, October 19,1987, and more importantly, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s promise to add as much liquidity as necessary to prevent a further collapse, the fundamental ideas of what the stock market describes and explains have been inverted. Governments worldwide have learned that if they support equity markets, it can lead to better economic outcomes, at least until the bubbles burst. But this is why we first got the Tech bubble of 1999-2000, which when it burst saw governments double down to inflate the housing bubble of 2007-09, which when it burst saw governments double down again to inflate the “everything” bubble, that in many ways still exists. A decade of ZIRP and NIRP has distorted any and all signals that equity markets may have offered in the past.

And so, it should be no surprise that governments around the world, who have piled one bad decision on top of another, should look for something they can still do which they believe will have a positive impact on their constituents. Hence, government support for stock markets is likely a permanent feature of the financial markets for the future. It is, of course, ironic that the Chinese Communist Party believes that the way to control their population is through markets, but, hey, whatever works is the mantra.

This, too, will end in tears, but for now, it is the reality with which we all must deal.

With this as preamble, a look around today’s session shows that the Asian (equity) flu has infected every market around the world. In Europe, the DAX and CAC (both +1.7%) are performing nicely, but not quite as well as the FTSE 100 (+1.9%) or nearly as well as Spain’s IBEX (+2.5%). US futures, meanwhile, are just getting warmed up, with current gains of between 1.2%-1.5%. Bond markets, though, are a little less risk drunk, although the 10-year Treasury yield has risen 1.5bps to 0.68%. But in Europe, pretty much every government bond market is seeing demand as yields there fall across the board. Once again, there seems to be a risk disconnect between markets.

While WTI prices are little changed, Brent has pushed higher by 0.5%, again a risk positive. And gold, despite all the equitiphoria, continues to rise, up another $4/oz and pushing ever closer to $1800. And what of the dollar you ask? Clearly on its back foot today, down vs. almost all its G10 brethren, with only CAD and JPY a touch weaker, and both by less than 0.1%. On the positive side, NOK is the big winner, up 0.7%, as it benefits from a combination of modestly higher Brent prices, general risk appetite and the fact that it is the worst performing G10 currency this year, so has the most ground to make up. But we are seeing solid gains in the euro and Swiss franc (0.4% each) as well as Aussie and Stockie. The pound, on the other hand, which is higher, is barely so.

In the EMG bloc, CNY is today’s king, having rallied 0.6% despite the fact that the PBOC fixed the currency weaker overnight. However, given the equity rally there, it cannot be that surprising. But almost the whole bloc is rallying today with MXN (+0.6%) and the CE4 (+0.4% on average) also benefitting from increased risk appetite. In fact, there is only one outlier on the downside, RUB (-0.65%) which despite Brent’s gains, is suffering as the virus continues to run amok in the country.

On the data front this week, there is not very much to excite:

Today ISM Non-Manufacturing 50.0
Tuesday JOLTS Job Openings 4.8M
Wednesday Consumer Credit -$15.0B
Thursday Initial Claims No forecasts yet
  Continuing Claims No forecasts yet
Friday PPI 0.4% (-0.2% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (0.5% Y/Y)

Source: Bloomberg

Clearly, the most surprising thing is that as of Monday morning, no economist is willing to opine on their Initial Claims views. While it could be due to the holiday, I have a feeling it is more related to the fact that most economists have lost faith in their models’ ability to accurately describe the economy. Certainly, the flattening of this curve calls into question the validity of the V-shaped recovery story, so it will be interesting to see when these estimates start to show up.

We do hear from two Fed members this week, Thomas Barkin and Mary Daly, but that story remains unchanged and will do so until at least the meeting at the end of this month, and probably until the September meeting.

So, to recap, risk is on as governments around the world encourage it as whole-heartedly as they can. And with it, the dollar remains under pressure for now.

Good luck and stay safe