In Brussels, the table is set
As Boris and Ursula bet
That dinner together
Will be the bellwether
To ending the hard Brexit threat
So, appetite for risk is whet
With central banks sure to abet
More equity buying
As they keep on trying
To buy every last piece of debt
There hasn’t been this much interest in a meal in Europe since the one painted by DaVinci some 530 years ago. Clearly, the big story is this evening’s dinner date between UK PM Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, where they will make what appears to be the final attempt to get some political agreement on the last issues outstanding in order to complete the Brexit trade deal. With just over three weeks before the UK exits the EU, time is clearly of the essence at this stage. I remain confident that an agreement will be reached as it is in both sides’ collective interest to do so. Rather, the current political theater is seen as necessary, again for both sides, in order to demonstrate they did everything they could to achieve the best possible outcome. After all, Boris is going to have to cede some portion of UK sovereignty, and the EU is going to have to cede some adherence to their extraordinarily large canon of laws.
The FX market seems to share my opinion as the pound has rallied more than 1% since I wrote yesterday and is currently firmer by 0.7% since yesterday’s close. As I wrote last week, I remain convinced that the market has not actually priced in a successful completion of a deal, rather that the pound’s performance over the past several months, a nearly 10% rise since July 1st, has simply been reflective of the broad dollar decline and not a bet on a positive Brexit outcome. As such, I believe there is a good amount of upside potential for the pound in the event of a positive result, perhaps as much as 3% right away, and 5%-6% over time. Similarly, if a deal is not reached, a 5% decline is in the cards. But, for now, all we can do is wait to hear the outcome. Dinner is at 8pm in Brussels, so likely there will be little news before 4pm this afternoon.
Away from the Brexit story, however, the market discussion continues to revolve around prospects for a quick implementation of the Covid-19 vaccine and the resumption of pre-pandemic economic activity. One of the conundrums in this regard is that despite what appears to be a growing belief that the vaccine will solve the covid crisis, thus enabling a return to economic growth, the central banking community will continue to inject unfathomable sums of liquidity into banks, (and by extension markets and maybe even the economy), to support economic growth. It seems a bit duplicative to me, but then I’m just an FX salesman sans PhD. After all, if the vaccine will allow people to revert to their former selves, what need is there for central banks to keep buying bonds? (And in some cases, equities. As an aside, yesterday the BOJ reached a milestone as the largest equity holder in Japan, outstripping the government pension fund, GPIF, and now in possession of nearly 8% of the entire market there.)
The thing is, there is no prospect that this behavior is going to change. For instance, tomorrow the ECB’s final meeting of the year will conclude, and they are expected to expand the PEPP by at least €500 billion and extend the tenor of the program between six months and a year. In addition, they are expected to expand the TLTRO III program (targeted long-term refinancing operations) by another year, and there were even some hints at a rate cut there. The latter would be extraordinary as the current rate is -1.0%. This means that European banks that borrow funds in this program pay -1.0% (receive 1.0% pa) as long as they lend these funds on to corporate and business clients, with no restrictions on what they can charge. Balances in this program have fallen from €1.3 trillion to just €180 billion since the summer, so it is believable that the rate will change. The ECB particularly likes this program as they believe it really encourages business loans.
Something else to watch in tomorrow’s meeting is whether either the statement, or Madame Lagarde in her press conference opening, discusses the exchange rate. Since the euro first traded above 1.20 back in September, which brought an immediate response from the ECB via some jawboning, the single currency had really done very little, until November, when the latest move higher began. Now, after a 4% rally, it would not be surprising for the ECB to once again mention the importance of a “competitive” (read: weak) euro. With inflation in the Eurozone remaining negative, Lagarde and company simply cannot afford for the euro to rise much further. And none of this discussion includes what may well come from the FOMC next week!
But on to today’s activity. Risk appetite continues to be strong where equity markets in Asia (Nikkei +1.3%, Hang Seng +0.75%) and Europe (DAX +0.8%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.4%) are all continuing yesterday’s modest gains. The one exception here is Shanghai (-1.3%) which seemed to respond to inflation data overnight (CPI -0.5%). The cause here seems to be declining pork prices (remember last year the Asian Swine Flu resulted in the culling of Chinese herds and dramatic price rises) but also the expectation that the PBOC is not going to change course with respect to forcing the deleveraging of the real estate sector and concomitant bubble there.
Bond markets are behaving as one would expect in a risk-on scenario, with Treasury yields reversing yesterday’s 2bp decline, while Bunds and OATs have both seen yields edge higher by 1 basis point. Oil prices have rallied 1.5%, partly on risk attitude and partly on the story of an attack on Iraqi oil assets disrupting supply. Finally, gold, which has really been rebounding since the end of last month, has given up 0.65% this morning.
Lastly, the dollar is generally softer today, against most G10 and EMG currencies. AUD (+0.9%) is the leader this morning after the Westpac Consumer Confidence Survey printed at a much higher than expected 112.0. For reference, that was the highest print since October 2010! But as mentioned, the pound is firmer, as is virtually the entire bloc, albeit with less impressive moves.
In emerging markets, HUF (+0.8%) is the leading gainer, followed by PLN (+0.7%) and CZK (+.4%), all of which are far outperforming the euro (+0.1%). It seems that the EU Stimulus deal, which was being held up by Hungary and Poland over language regarding the rule of law, has finally been agreed by all parties, with those three nations set to receive a significant boost when it is finally implemented next year. On the flip side, TWD (-0.4%) was the worst performer as a late session sell-off wiped out early gains. At this point, there is no obvious catalyst for the move, which looks very much like a large order going through an illiquid market onshore.
There is no data of note this morning and no speakers either. Risk appetite remains the driver, with not only vaccine euphoria, but also hopes for a US stimulus bill rising as well. In other words, everything is fantastic! What could possibly go wrong?
As long as equities continue to rally, the dollar is likely to remain under pressure, but with the ECB on tap for tomorrow, I don’t expect a breakout, unless something really positive (or negative) comes out of dinner in Brussels.
Good luck and stay safe