Growth’s Embers

Said Madame Lagarde, come December
There’s something you all must remember
It’s not ‘bout the size
But how we comprise
Our policy to fan growth’s embers

For a consensus driven institution, the ECB is, apparently, finding it pretty hard to arrive at a consensus on what the promised policy expansion should contain.  You may recall that at their meeting in late October, the ECB appeared pretty explicit that they would be increasing monetary support at the upcoming meeting.  The narrative quickly developed that another €500 billion of PEPP purchases would be appropriate, although there were some ideas that the ECB could expand the APP, their original QE program.  With this in mind, it is crucial to remember that markets typically take the most simplistic approach toward any analysis, and so respond to numbers.  Subtleties are either misunderstood or ignored by the trading community as they require far too much time to appreciate before responding.  After all, it is much easier for algorithms (and traders) to be programmed to buy on a large number and sell on a small number than to dig into the meaning of the words offered up by the ECB.

Keeping this in mind, it is quite interesting that recently, we have started to hear from numerous ECB members that the size of the program adjustments are not as important as their nature.  (Now where have we heard that before?)   Just this morning, Madame Lagarde herself was quoted as follows, “What is really important is that we make sure that the financing conditions are stable, are conducive to economic recovery as it comes.”  She also emphasized that “[market participants must] not only know that the level of financing is going to be there, but that it will be available for a period for time that will last long enough.”  Reading between the lines, this sounds like the mooted €500 billion expansion that has been the market baseline premise since the October meeting, is not going to be realized.  Looking back over the past week, comments from numerous other ECB members, including Chief Economist Philip Lane, as well as Finland’s Olli Rehn, Belgium’s Yves Mersch and Spain’s Pablo Hernandez de Cos have also highlighted that size doesn’t matter, but instead it is the nature and duration of the program that is important.

What are we to make of this change in emphasis?  Initially there are two conclusions that can be drawn.  First, some of the more hawkish members of the ECB; Germany, Austria and the Netherlands most likely, have made it clear that they don’t want to see an unlimited amount of asset purchases as those three nations still believe that central bank financing of government spending is a bad idea.  Thus, the fact that central bankers from more dovish countries are trying to temper expectations is playing to the hawks.

But there is another, more intriguing possibility, and that is that the ECB, who has been terrified of an overly strong euro, has realized that the Chinese renminbi’s consistent strength vs. the dollar (+8.6% since late May) has now been sufficient to offset the euro’s appreciation since that same time.  Essentially, the euro saw a very sharp rise from May through August but has been biding its time since then while the renminbi has been steadily climbing almost every day.  The point is, on a trade-weighted basis, the euro is no longer nearly as strong as it was in August, and so if EURUSD rises a bit further, the ECB may not be too troubled.  This is not to imply that they will be happy to see the euro go screaming up through 1.25 anytime soon, but if it trades to 1.20 or 1.21, it will probably not be ringing alarm bells.

Putting it all together leads me to believe that the ECB no longer is feeling quite as stressed about the euro’s strength vs. the dollar this summer, and so does not feel compelled to increase QE by that much in order to prevent a further rise.  The $2.2 trillion question (that is roughly the amount of EURUSD transacted each day according to the BIS) is, if the ECB disappoints the narrative, despite their claims, and the euro rallies sharply, what will they do then?  Poor Christine already has enough trouble speaking to the market effectively.  If this message gets muddled, it will really create problems, as well as the chance for an emergency program early next year.

With that in mind, let’s look at today’s activities.  After a modest sell-off in the US yesterday, Asia had another mixed session with the Nikkei (-1.1%) falling for a second day after its long run of gains, while the Hang Seng (+0.5%) and Shanghai (+0.2%) both finished with small pluses.  The European markets are all green, but the movement has been de minimis, with the DAX and CAC (+0.2% each) essentially leading the way while the FTSE 100 is simply flat.  Certainly, there is no massive risk-on attitude apparent.  Finally, US futures are all modestly higher at this hour, but 0.2% is a good description here as well.

Bond markets are also fairly muted this morning with Treasury yields essentially unchanged, having retraced half of the vaccine related movement of the past week.  European markets are similarly little changed, except for Greek bonds, where yields have fallen nearly 5 basis points.  But the rest of the curve is within one basis point of yesterday’s levels.  Again, it is hard to discern much risk attitude here.

Oil prices have pushed higher by 1% this morning but have not yet reclaimed the heights seen in the wake of the vaccine announcement.  Gold, meanwhile, has been wandering aimlessly of late, although there is a growing hubbub about Bitcoin, which has traded to $18k this morning.

Finally, to the dollar, which is clearly under pressure virtually across the board this morning.  In the G10 space, NOK (+0.55%) is the leader, following oil prices higher as ongoing enthusiasm over a vaccine driven recovery continues to be felt.  But we are seeing gains in SEK (+0.4%), once again showing its deserved status as a high beta currency, and JPY (+0.2%), which has recouped more than half of its very sharp decline seen last Monday in the wake of the first vaccine announcement.  As this doesn’t appear to be a risk-off scenario, I would attribute the yen’s gains more to the dollar’s broad weakness than anything else.  However, do not be surprised if we test, and this time break, 103.00 before too long.

Emerging market currencies are also broadly stronger, but the movement has been fairly contained.  Leading the pack is CLP (+0.7%) as copper prices are benefitting from the vaccine enthusiasm, as well as RUB (+0.6%) on the back of oil’s strength.  After that, the gains are far less impressive, but they are evident across all three major blocs.  On the downside, today’s notable loser is THB (-0.5%) as the central bank there commented on the baht’s recent strength (+3.0% in the past two weeks) and is set to unveil a package to rein in that strength.

On the data front, yesterday saw weaker than expected Retail Sales numbers here in the States, although that didn’t have much impact on things.  Overnight we have seen CPI data from Europe, which was largely in line with expectations and remains right near 0.0%.  This morning brings Housing Starts (exp 1460K) and Building Permits (1567K), which also seem unlikely to have much impact.  Four more Fed speakers are on the docket, but unlike the ECB, there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement on what needs to be done in the US (more fiscal stimulus, please!)

And that’s it really.  The dollar’s weakness feels a bit overdone in the very short term, but with this new attitude by the ECB, if I am correct, an eventual grind toward 1.21 seems possible.  However, do not mistake that for a dollar collapse in any way, shape or form.

Good luck and stay safe