The UK’s Current Plight

In England, the doves are in flight
Explaining that NIRP is alright
But hawks keep maintaining
That zero’s restraining
Despite the UK’s current plight

What we’ve learned thus far in 2021 is that Monday is risk-off day, at least, so far.  Yesterday, for the second consecutive week, risk was under pressure as equity markets everywhere fell, while the dollar rallied sharply.  But just like last week, where risk was avidly sought once Monday passed, this morning has seen a rebound in many equity markets, as well as renewed pressure on the dollar.

But aside from a very early assessment of a potential pattern forming, this morning brings a dearth of market-moving news.  Perhaps the most interesting is the battle playing out inside the BOE, where Silvana Tenreyo, one of the more dovish MPC members, has been making the case that in the current situation, the UK should cut the base rate into negative territory.  Her analysis, as well as that of other central banks like the ECB, SNB and Danish central bank, have shown that there are many benefits to the policy and that it has been quite effective.  Of course, those are three of four central banks (the BOJ is the other) that currently maintain negative rates, so it would be pretty remarkable if those studies said NIRP was a failure.  The claim is that NIRP increases the amount of lending that banks extend, thus encouraging spending and investment as well as weakening the currency to help the export industries in the various countries.  And the studies go on to explain that all these factors help drive inflation higher, a key goal of each of those central banks.

Now, there is no question that those are the theoretical underpinnings of NIRP, alas, it is hard to find the data to support this.  Rather, these studies tend to give counterfactual analyses, that indicate if the central banks had not gone negative, things would have been worse.  For instance, let’s look at CPI in the Eurozone (-0.3%), Switzerland (-0.8%) and Denmark (+0.5%).  Not for nothing, but those hardly seem like data that indicate inflation has been supported.  In fact, in each of these countries, inflation was going nowhere fast before the pandemic, although I will grant that Covid has depressed the numbers further to date.  And how about the currency?  Well, one of the biggest stories of the past six months has been how the dollar has declined nearly 10% against these currencies.  Once again, the concept of a weaker currency seems misplaced.

The point here is that the discussion is heating up in the UK, with the independent MPC members pushing for a move below zero, while the BOE insiders are far more reluctant, explaining that the banking system would see serious harm.  (I think if one looks at the banking system in Europe, it is a fair statement that the banks there are not performing all that well, despite (because of?) 6 years of NIRP.  The BOE counterpoint was made this morning by Governor Bailey who explained there were still many issues to be addressed and implied NIRP was not likely to be implemented in the near future.  With all this as background, it should be no surprise that the pound has been the best performer in the G10 today, rising 0.6%, after Bailey’s comments squashed ideas NIRP was on its way soon.

But the dollar, overall, is softer today, not nearly reversing yesterday’s gains (except vs. the pound), but generally under pressure.  However, there is precious little that seems to be driving markets this morning, other than longer term stories regarding fiscal stimulus and Covid-19.

So, a quick tour of markets shows that Asian equity markets shook off the weakness in the US yesterday and rallied nicely.  The Nikkei (+0.1%) was the laggard, as the Hang Seng (+1.3%) and Shanghai (+2.1%) showed real strength.  Europe, on the other hand, is showing a much more mixed picture, wit the DAX (+0.1%) actually the best performer of the big 3, while the CAC (0.0%) and FTSE 100 (-0.6%) are searching for buying interests.  The FTSE is likely being negatively impacted by the pound’s strength, as there is a narrative that the large exporters in the index are helped by a weak pound and so there is a negative correlation between the pound and the FTSE.  The problem with that is when running the correlation analysis, over the past two years, the correlation is just 0.08% and the sign is positive, meaning they move together, not oppositely.  But it is a nice story!  And one more thing, US futures are green, up about 0.25% or so.

Bond markets are selling off this morning as yields continue to rise on expectations that the future is bright.  10-year Treasury yields are up to 1.16%, which is a new high for the move, having rallied a further 1.2bps this morning.  But we are seeing the same type of price action throughout Europe, with yields higher by between 1.7 bps (Bunds) and 4.0bps (Italian BTP’s), with Gilts (+2.3bps) and OATs (+2.0bps) firmly in between.  What I find interesting about this movement is the constant refrain that H1 2021 is going to be much worse than expected, with the Eurozone heading into a double dip recession and the US seeing much slower than previously expected growth as many analysts have downgraded their estimates to 1.0% from 4.0% before.  At the same time, the message from the Fed continues to be that tighter policy is outcome based, and there is no indication they are anywhere near thinking about raising rates.  With that as background, the best explanation I can give for higher yields is concerns over inflation.  Remember, CPI is released tomorrow morning, and since the summer, almost every release was higher than forecast.  As I have written before, the Fed is going to be tested as to their tolerance for above target inflation far sooner than they believe.

The inflation story is supported, as well, but this morning’s commodity price moves, with oil higher by 1.3% and gold higher by 0.8%.  In fact, I believe that inflation is going to become an increasingly bigger story as the year progresses, perhaps reaching front page news before the end of 2021.

Finally, as mentioned above, the dollar is under broad-based, but generally modest pressure this morning.  After the pound, AUD (+0.35%) and CAD (+0.25%) are the leading gainers, responding to the firmer commodity prices, although NOK (0.0%) is not seeing any benefit from oil’s rise.  In the EMG space, it is also the commodity linked currencies that are leading the way, with ZAR (+0.9%), RUB (+0.8%) and MXN (+0.5%) topping the list.  Also, of note is the CNY (+0.3%) which is back to levels last seen in June 2018, as the strengthening trend their continues.

On the data front, the NFIB Small Business Optimism index showed less optimism, falling to 95.9, well below expectations, again pointing to a slowing growth story in H1.  The only other data point from the US is JOLT’s Job Openings (exp 6.4M), which rarely has any impact.  I would like to highlight, in the inflation theme, that Brazilian inflation was released this morning at a higher than expected 4.52% in December, which is taking it back above target and to levels last seen in early 2019.  If this continues, BRL may become a high yielder again.

Finally, we hear from 6 different Fed speakers today, but again, unless they all start to indicate tighter policy, not just better economic outcomes, in H2, while the dollar may benefit slightly, it will not turn the current trend.  And that’s really the story, the medium-term trend in the dollar remains lower, but for now, absent a catalyst for the next leg (something like discussion of YCC or increased QE), I expect a bit of choppiness.

Good luck and stay safe
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