Deeper Downturn

There once was a virus that spread
Worldwide, leaving too many dead
Its summer vacation
Has led to frustration
That governments, people, misled

Now lockdowns have made a return
From London to Paris to Bern
And ECB voices
All highlight the choices
More QE or deeper downturn

As another week draws to a close, market activity has been relatively muted.  It seems that participants are biding their time waiting for an outcome on at least one of the big current stories.  Will Brexit talks continue and be successful or will Boris decide there is no chance and simply prepare for a no-deal outcome?  Will the second wave of Covid infections running rampant in Europe slow down, or will this wave be even larger than the first with a bigger negative impact on the economy?  And finally, what is going to happen in the US presidential election?

And let’s face it, those are three really big questions with no clear answers at this time.  But let’s quickly try to address them in order and see if we can discern potential market responses.

Brexit – we have already passed the deadline Boris had originally issued for a deal, although he has since recanted and said if the EU demonstrates they are interested in “intensifying” the talks, the UK will work even harder to reach a deal.  Unfortunately, the indications from the EU are less promising as French President Macron remains adamant that French fishing vessels have unfettered access to UK waters in any deal.  While there are signs the rest of Europe are annoyed with Macron over this stance, his unwillingness to compromise, as of yet, means there has been no movement.  The other sticking point, the level of UK state aid to its companies, seems much more tractable to solve. However, right now, no deal is in sight.

Trying to game out the market impact of this binary outcome is dependent on an estimate of what is currently priced into the market.  Several indicators, including CFTC positioning and some proprietary bank positioning indicators, show that the market remains net long Sterling.  As the pound appears overvalued at current levels, it seems the likelihood of a large rally in the event of a positive outcome is quite limited.  Rather, the future for the pound is likely lower.  In the event of a no-deal Brexit, a move toward 1.20 is quite realistic by year end.  Whereas, a positive outcome is more likely to see just a moderate, ‘sell the news’ response, perhaps back toward 1.25-1.28.

The second wave of infections is clearly a growing problem.  More localized lockdowns are being imposed in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain with talk of more coming in Italy and throughout Eastern Europe.  This is in addition to the curfew in Paris which is equally problematic.  Not surprisingly, ECB members have been vocal about the need and ability of the central bank to do even more, implying that the PEPP is going to get quite a boost by December.  Once again, I will highlight that the Fed has made it quite clear they have limited ability to do anything else, although they will certainly try, which means that on a relative basis, other countries are going to ease their monetary policy further.  In this case, that bodes ill for the future direction of the euro, which I think has every possibility of drifting back to 1.15 in the short run and 1.10 over time, ceteris paribus.

But the big ceteris is the US presidential election.  The polls point to a Biden victory, although I’m sure nobody has forgotten that the same polls pointed to a Clinton victory four years ago.  Betting markets are also leaning that way, although with far less confidence.  As to the market, based on my readings, it appears that a large majority of market participants agree with the polls and have positioned accordingly.  Remember, too, that control of Congress is a crucial point in anticipating any potential market movement.  So here goes:

Blue wave – Biden wins and Democrats retake Senate:  given the platform of much higher capital gains and corporate taxes and massive spending, equity markets seem likely to fall sharply this year as investors take profits at current tax rates, and the dollar to fall alongside them.  I would want to own gold in this scenario.

Biden win with Republican Senate:  much less impact as divided government gets less done.  Arguably, we will fund the budget on continuing resolutions for four years, rather than any big new programs getting enacted.  The market response here is likely to be far more benign, with range trading rather than steep trends.

Trump win with Democratic House:  No change to current situation means further efforts at tax cuts and deregulation, but unlikely to see tax hikes.  The US has the chance to be the cleanest shirt in the dirty laundry basket and draw in more investment and prop up dollar strength.

Trump win and Republican House (admittedly low probability):  dollar strength as US continues to focus on as much economic growth as possible, with more stimulus and more tax cuts.

At this point, all these questions remain open, but by New Year’s Eve, we will have answered at least two of the three for sure.

As to markets today, there is really very little to tell.  Equities in Asia were mixed (Nikkei -0.4%, Hang Seng +0.9%) but are performing well in Europe (DAX +1.1%, CAC +1.8%) as the ECB comments seem to have investors believing more stimulus is on its way.  US futures have edged higher in the past hour, but are still only pointing to gains of 0.2% or so.

Interestingly, bond markets are rallying with yields continuing their recent downtrend.  Treasury yields are lower by 1bp after having backed up a few yesterday afternoon.  European markets are seeing roughly 2 basis point declines across the board.  In fact, bunds are back at their lowest level (-0.635%) since the panic of late March when Covid first struck Europe.  Bonds there are certainly pricing in a slowing economy in the Eurozone.

Finally, the dollar is mixed.  Against its G10 counterparts, it is +/-0.2% with the Brexit story by far the most impactful.  GBP (-0.2% as I write) was higher by 0.3% just minutes ago, as it wiggles on each headline.  But the bloc is generally uninteresting.  As to emerging markets, it is largely the same story, with a pretty even mix of gainers and losers.  Here, though, the movement has been a bit larger with ZAR (+0.5%) the best performer, perhaps on strength in the metals markets, followed by CNY (+0.4%) where everyone is looking for strong GDP numbers on Monday.  On the downside, KRW (-0.4%) is bottom of the barrel today after a higher than expected Unemployment rate was reported.

Data this morning brings Retail Sales (exp 0.8%, 0.4% ex autos), IP (0.5%), Capacity Utilization (71.8%) and Michigan Sentiment (80.5).  Yesterday’s Initial Claims data was quite disappointingly high and bodes ill for the growth story here.  But in the end, the ongoing uncertainty and confusion over the three issues raised above imply a lack of direction in the near term, although choppiness could well be on the menu.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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