He once said, “Whatever it takes”
To fix all the prior mistakes
Is what he would do
And Draghi came through
Though that was ere Covid outbreaks
But now Italy’s in a bind
As Conte, the PM, resigned
So, Draghi’s first choice
(And markets rejoice)
To lead a land that’s much maligned
***FLASH*** Mario Draghi accepts mandate to form new Italian government!
Now that GameStop fever is ebbing, far more quickly than Covid-19 I might add, it is time to look elsewhere for market drivers and sentiment. With this in mind, we turn to the nation that puts the “I” in PIGS, Italy. My personal experience in Italy is that it is a beautiful country, with extraordinary history and even better food. The people are warm and welcoming, and it is truly a delightful place. Alas, it is also, historically, one of the worst run nations on earth. Attention to detail and a sense of urgency are two things that tend to be missing from the Italian culture, but both are necessary to be able to govern effectively. Thus, it is not surprising that Italy has had 66 different governments since the end of WWII, with the most recent one falling two weeks ago. The norm has been for coalitions, often fractious, to come together on short-term issues and then fall apart when longer term questions need to be addressed.
This is an apt description of the current situation, where PM Giuseppe Conte, a law professor with no previous political experience, was tapped to lead a disparate coalition of center-left and radical-left parties in an effort to prevent Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, a right-wing party, from taking control. While this effort stumbled along for nearly two years, it recently foundered when a key supporter of the coalition, Matteo Renzi, withdrew his support and Conte lost a vote of no-confidence in the Italian Senate. Conte has been unable to piece together another coalition which leaves two choices; the President, Sergio Mattarella, can appoint someone else to try to do so, or elections must be held.
Enter Mario Draghi. Since his time as ECB President ended in 2019, he has been relatively quiet on most issues, and has not been willing to get involved in the morass of Italian politics at all. Arguably, because of that, he remains the most popular public figure (non sports or entertainment) in the country. And so, President Mattarella is meeting with Draghi today to ask him to form a new government with wide latitude to do “whatever it takes” to fix Italy’s many problems. While the early word from political figures there is mixed, at best, the market thinks this is the best idea since sliced bread. This is clear from both the equity market, where the FTSE MIB has rallied by a world-beating 2.7% today, as well as from the bond market, where BTPs have rallied sharply with yields falling 9.2 basis points and the spread to bunds has fallen to just over 100 basis points, its tightest level since 2016.
Remember, Italy has been one of the worst hit nations from Covid, as the infections appeared there early and the economy is hugely reliant on tourism and services, exactly the areas Covid destroyed. Add to that the government’s general incompetence which has slowed the distribution of the vaccines (although in fairness, this seems to be true throughout Europe, Germany included) and you have a situation where the economy, which shrunk 9.0% in 2020, remains on course to shrink again through at least the first half of 2021. It is not clear, by any means, that Draghi will accept the position, nor if he does, if he will be able to bring together the disparate views in the Italian congress to pass legislation that helps the situation. But, boy, the markets are all-in on the trade!
The Draghi story has been icing on the market bullish cake this morning with risk continuing to be embraced as US stimulus talks turn away from the bipartisan idea and therefore toward a quicker passage under budget reconciliation terms (where the Senate does not have a chance to filibuster). As well, in many nations we have seen upticks in data releases, although there are still some, notably China, where the data is falling short of estimates.
Starting with equities, Asia saw strength in the Nikkei (+1.0%) and Hang Seng (+0.2%) but Shanghai (-0.5%) fell after Caixin PMI Services data (52.0) fell short of expectations and pretty significantly from last month’s reading of 56.3. While still above the key 50.0 level, momentum in China appears to be stalling for now. Europe is all green, but Italy is truly the outlier. The DAX (+0.7%) comes next and then the CAC (+0.3%) and FTSE 100 (+0.2%) are both positive, but just barely. As to US futures, after yesterday’s strong session, with all three indices rising around 1.5%, and after some strong earnings reports yesterday afternoon, futures are higher by modest amounts, led by the NASDAQ’s 0.6% climb.
Bond markets are offering the same message, with yields higher in Treasuries (2.1bps), bunds (1.1bps) and Gilts (1.1bps). Meanwhile, the bonds of the PIGS are all rallying on the combination of general risk attitude and the hope that good news in Italy will spread.
Oil continues its winning ways, rising another 0.5% this morning which puts WTI above $55/bbl, a level many technicians believe opens the way for a sharper rally from here. Gold, after a dreadful day yesterday, is still under modest pressure, down 0.15%, but silver, after an even more dreadful day yesterday, having fallen more than 8%, is actually bouncing a bit, and up 0.5% as I type.
Finally, the dollar is generally stronger vs. G10 currencies, with only AUD and NZD (both +0.1%) showing any life. The kiwi story is based on stronger than expected employment data indicating the economy is rebounding and more monetary support may not be necessary, while Aussie seems to be benefitting from strong PMI data. But otherwise, the dollar is on top this morning, with broad-based gains although they are not substantial. SEK (-0.4%) is the worst performer, followed by the pound (-0.25%) and euro (-0.25%), both of which saw underwhelming PMI services data. In the EMG bloc the picture is more mixed, with both gainers and losers, although it is hard to piece together a coherent story. The CE4 are the laggards, down 0.3% on average as they track the euro. LATAM is also underperforming, although both MXN and BRL are softer by just 0.2%. On the plus side, RUB (+0.3%) leads the way, arguably on oil’s uptick, and then some APAC currencies eked out marginal gains as well. However, given the modest magnitude of movement, this feels an awful lot like position adjustments.
On the data front today we see ADP Employment (exp 50K) and ISM Services (56.7). The former will attract more attention than the latter, in my view, as the market looks ahead to Friday’s NFP data. It would also be a mistake if I did not mention that Eurozone CPI was released this morning at a much higher than expected 0.9% (1.4% core) which is hard to reconcile with the collapsing economic activity. Although perhaps, inflation is not dependent on demand as much as supply, and central bankers have it completely wrong. Nah.
For now, the dollar’s correction continues, and we are right at the 1.2010 level that proved the breakout point in December. At this stage, a move to 1.1950 seems a good bet, but we will need to see many more positions unwind if we are to overcome the dollar weakness narrative. The confusing part is the ongoing equity rally alongside the dollar rally, something we have not seen for quite a while. But that doesn’t mean it can’t continue for a while longer. I still like the dollar to fall in H2, but right now, momentum is building for further dollar strength.
Good luck and stay safe