Said Madame Lagarde, it’s not clear
If the PEPP need extend past next year
It could be the case
We’ll slow down the pace
Of purchases if things cohere
Yesterday’s ECB meeting presented mixed messages to the market as it has become evident there is a growing split between the hawks and doves. While policy was left unchanged, as universally expected, the question of the disposition of the PEPP was front and center. Once again, Madame Lagarde indicated that they would continue supporting the economy, but that the need to utilize the entire amount of authorized spending power could be absent. Despite the fact that she admitted Q1 GDP growth would likely be negative, thus causing a second recession, she would not commit to full utilization, let alone any additional monetary stimulus. Rather, she discussed “financing conditions” which need to remain “favorable” for the ECB to be happy. Alas, there is no definition of what those conditions are, nor how to track them. She mentioned a number of indicators they monitor including; bank lending, credit conditions, corporate yields, and sovereign bond yields, but not which may have more or less importance nor how they combine them. There doesn’t appear to be an index of any sort although as part of their ongoing strategic review, they are investigating whether or not to create one. In the end, though, it appears they are very keen to insure they don’t get pinned down to a mechanical reaction function based on either economic or financial indicators. Instead, they will continue to wing it.
As to the growing split, it is becoming evident that the hawkish contingent, almost certainly led by Germany but likely including the Frugal Four, has been pushing back on any additional stimulus as they already see sufficient money in the system. Remember, German DNA has been informed by the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic in the 1930’s and Bundesbankers, like Jens Weidmann, everywhere and always see the specter of too much money leading to a recurrence of that outcome. While that hardly seems like a possible outcome in the current situation, especially with most European countries extending lockdowns through February now, thus further stressing the economy, they know that debt monetization is the first step toward hyperinflation. And while the ECB will never explicitly monetize the debt, they can pretty easily do it implicitly. All that has to happen is for them to permanently reinvest the proceeds of maturing sovereign debt into the same securities, and that money will be permanently in the system.
Consider, because of the ECB’s construction, with 19 central bank members, the way policy is promulgated is that each national central bank is instructed to purchase sovereign bonds issued by their own country in a given amount. So, the Banca d’Italia buys BTP’s and the Bundesbank buys bunds. If instructions from the ECB council are to replace maturing debt with newly issued debt constantly, then the country never has to repay the bond, and therefore, the money injection is permanent, i.e. debt monetization. It seems likely, this is the hawks’ major concern. It is almost certainly why they insist on repeating the idea that full utilization of the PEPP is not a given, and why Lagarde cannot follow her instincts to throw more money at the second recession. But of course, this is anathema to the hawks, who want to see the collective ECB balance sheet slowly wound down. In the end, this tension will inform the ECB’s actions going forward, which implies, to me, that the ECB will be less dovish than some other central banks, namely the Fed, and which implies the euro could well head somewhat higher over time.
And perhaps, despite a clear risk-off theme for today’s trading activity, that is why the euro is retaining a better bid than its G10 brethren. As equity markets around the world pare back some of their recent gains (Nikkei -0.4%, Hang Seng -1.6%, Shanghai -0.4%, DAX -0.85%, CAC -1.2%, FTSE 100 -0.7%), the clear message is risk is to be reduced heading into the weekend. And yes, US futures are all pointing lower as well, between -0.5% and -0.8%. Meanwhile, bond markets are playing their part, true to form, on this risk-off day, with Treasury yields lower by 1.9bps, Bunds by 2.0bps and Gilts by 2.5bps. However, Italian BTPs have seen yields climb 3.6bps as the market responds to this newly created concern that the ECB will not be supporting Italy as they had in the past. Add to that the ongoing political concerns in Italy, where PM Conte has just indicated he may be forced to call a new election, and the fact that today’s PMI data showed the recent lockdowns have really been crushing the economy there, and BTP’s are behaving like the risk asset they truly are, rather than the haven asset they aspire to be.
Commodity prices are under pressure across the board this morning, led by oil (-2.5%) but seeing the same in gold (-1.1%) and the entire agricultural bloc, with prices down between 0.8% (cotton) and 2.4% (soft red wheat).
This brings us back to the dollar, which is broadly higher this morning in both G10 and EMG space. The euro (+0.1%) is the star performer today, as per the above discussion, but beyond that and the CHF (+0.05%), the rest of the bloc is weaker. NOK (-0.8%) leads the way down with the rest of the commodity bloc (AUD -0.7%, NZD -0.5%, CAD -0.5%) not quite as badly impacted. At the same time, EMG currencies are also under broad pressure led by RUB (-1.4%) on weaker oil, MXN (-1.0%) and BRL (-1.0%) both on weaker commodities and general risk aversion, and ZAR (-0.9%) as its main export, gold, falls. As to the positive side of the ledger, only minor East European currencies, BGN and RON (both +0.05%), have managed to eke out any gains, apparently tracking the euro ever so slightly higher.
The data picture has not helped inspire any risk taking this morning as preliminary PMI data for January showed weakness throughout. As we have seen, manufacturing continues to hold up fairly well, but services have seen no respite. Of all those countries reporting today, the UK was in the worst shape (PMI Services 38.8, down from 49.4) but the Eurozone as a whole (Services 45.0) was no great shakes. It is abundantly clear that Europe is in the midst of a double-dip recession. On the US calendar, the preliminary PMI data is released (exp Manufacturing 56.5, Services 53.4) and then Existing Home Sales (6.56M) at 10:00. One thing we learned yesterday is that the housing market in the US remains quote robust.
But, with the Fed still in its quiet period until the meeting next Wednesday, and Yellen’s testimony done and dusted, FX is going to be reliant on other markets for direction. If risk continues to be shed, the dollar should be able to hold its own, and even edge a bit higher. But if equity markets manage to reverse course, then the dollar could well head back lower.
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe