No Antidote

In Georgia, today’s runoff vote
For Senate is no antidote
To nationwide fears
The quartet of years
To come, more unease, will promote

Investors expressed their dismay
By selling stocks all yesterday
As well, though, they sold
The buck and bought gold
Uncertainty’s with us to stay

Markets certainly got off to an inauspicious start yesterday as a number of concerns regarding upcoming events, as well as the possibility that some markets are overextended, combined to induce a bit of risk reduction.  Clearly, the top story is today’s runoff election in Georgia, where both US Senate seats are up for grabs.  The Republicans currently hold a 50-48 majority, but if both seats are won by the Democratic candidates, the resulting 50-50 tie will effectively give the Democrats control of the Senate as any tie votes will be broken by the Vice-President.  In that event, the Democrats should be able to institute their platform which, ostensibly, includes infrastructure spending, the Green New Deal, or parts thereof, and more substantial stimulus to address the impact of the coronavirus.

This blue wave redux has been a key topic in markets of late.  You may recall that heading into the election in November, when the polls were calling for the original blue wave, the market anticipated a huge amount of fiscal stimulus driving significantly larger Federal budget deficits.  The ensuing Treasury bond issuance required to fund all this spending was expected to result in a much steeper yield curve, a continuing rally in the stock market as the economy recovered (and this was before the vaccine) and a declining dollar.  As the runoff election approached, markets started to replay that scenario which has, until yesterday, led to successive new all-time high closes in equity indices as well as a steeper Treasury yield curve.  As well, the dollar has remained under pressure, as that remains one of the strongest conviction trades of 2021.

But yesterday, and so far this morning, we are seeing a potential change of heart, or perhaps just a note of caution.  Because if the Republicans retain one of the two seats, that will put paid to the entire blue wave hypothesis.

Of course, there is another possibility that is driving investor caution, and that is the idea that markets, especially equity markets, remain extremely frothy at current levels.  Certainly, on a historical basis, valuation indicators like P/E or Shiller’s CAPE, or Price/Book or even Total Market Cap/GDP are at historically high extremes.  Is it possible that the market has already priced in every conceivable positive event to come?  There are those who would make that argument, and if they are correct, then the required catalyst for a correction of some sorts is likely not that large.  For instance, if the Republicans win even one seat, the entire stimulus bandwagon may never get going, let alone any of the more widescale projects.  And that could well be enough to force a rethinking of the endless stimulus theory with a resultant revaluation of investment risks.

One of the things that always bothered me about the blue wave hypothesis was the idea that the Treasury yield curve would steepen, and the dollar would decline.  Historically, a steeper yield curve has indicated a strengthening US economy which has drawn investment and strengthened the dollar.  I don’t believe that relationship will change, however, a weaker dollar does make sense if you consider how the Fed is likely to respond to rising Treasury yields; namely with Yield Curve Control (YCC).  The US government cannot afford for interest rates to rise substantially, especially as the amount of debt issued continues to grow rapidly.  In fact, the only way it can continue to pay interest on the growing pile of debt is to make sure that interest rates remain at historically low levels.  The implication is that if the Treasury continues to flood the market with issuance, the Fed will be required to buy all of it, and then some, in order to prevent yields from rising.  And whether it is explicit, or implicit, that YCC is going to result in increasingly negative real yields in the US (as inflation is almost certainly going higher).  Now, if you wanted a catalyst to drive the dollar lower, increasing negative real yields is a perfect solution.  While that may not be such a benefit for investors and savers, it will help the Fed retain the upper hand in the global policy ease race, and with it, help undermine the value of the dollar.  It is, in fact, the basis for my views this year.  All that from the Georgia run-off elections!  Who would have thunk?

As to markets this morning, yesterday’s weakness remains fairly widespread in the equity space, as all European bourses are lower (DAX -0.4%, CAC -0.5%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) after a mixed Asian session (Nikkei -0.4%, Hang Seng +0.6%, Shanghai +0.7%).  In fact, Shanghai reached its highest level since August 2015, the previous bubble we saw there.  US futures, meanwhile, are little changed at this hour as traders await the first indications from the Georgia elections.

Bond markets are broadly lower this morning, with Treasury yields higher by 1.3bps and most European bonds showing similar rises in their yields.  On the one hand this is unusual, as bonds generally benefit from a risk off mood.  On the other hand, if I am correct about the move toward negative real yields, bonds will not be a favored investment either and could well underperform going forward, at least until the central banks increase their purchases.

Another beneficiary of negative real yields in the US is gold, which rallied sharply yesterday, more than 2%, and is up a further 0.3% this morning, back at $1950/oz.  Oil, meanwhile, is starting to move higher as well, up 1.8%, as some optimism over the outcome of the OPEC+ meeting is adding to the broad commodity rally.

And finally, the dollar is generally weaker this morning, down against all its G10 counterparts and many of its EMG counterparts as well.  In the G10, SEK (+0.6%) is the leader, which appears to simply be an example of its higher beta relative to the euro or pound vs. the dollar. But we are also seeing the commodity bloc perform well (AUD +0.5%, CAD +0.3%, NOK +0.3%) alongside their main exports.  However, this is clearly a dollar weakness story as the yen (+0.25%) is rallying alongside the rest of the bloc.

Interestingly, in the EMG group, ZAR (-1.35%) is the worst performer, followed by RUB (-0.6%), neither of which makes sense based on the G10 performance as well as that of commodities.  However, it is important to remember that short dollar is one of the most overindulged positions in markets, and the carry trade has been a favorite with both these currencies benefitting from that view.  This looks like a bit of position unwinding more than anything else.  On the positive side in this bloc, the CE4 remain solid and are leading the way, while LATAM currencies are little changed on the open.

On the data front, this week brings a lot of new information culminating in the payroll report on Friday.

Today ISM Manufacturing 56.7
ISM Prices Paid 65.0
Wednesday ADP Employment 50K
Factory Orders 0.7%
FOMC Minutes
Thursday Initial Claims 803K
Continuing Claims 5.1M
Trade Balance -$67.3B
ISM Services 54.5
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 50K
Private Payrolls 50K
Manufacturing Payrolls 16K
Unemployment Rate 6.8%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (4.5% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.8
Participation Rate 61.5%
Consumer Credit $9.0B

Source: Bloomberg

Last Thursday saw a stronger than expected Chicago PMI and yesterday’s PMI data was strong as well, so the economy remains a bit enigmatic, with manufacturing still robust, but services in the dumps.  The payroll expectations are hardly inspiring, and with lockdowns growing in the States, as well as worldwide, it doesn’t bode well for Q1 at least, in terms of GDP growth.  We also hear from seven Fed speakers this week, which could well be interesting if anyone is set to change their tune regarding how long easy money will remain the norm.  However, I doubt that will happen.

The dollar remains on its back foot here, and I see no reason for it to rebound in the short run absent a change in the underlying framework.  By that I mean, something that will imply real yields in the US are set to rise.  Alas, I don’t see that happening in the near future.

Good luck and stay safe
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