De Minimis Sellin’

There once was a Fed Chair named Yellen
Whose term saw di minimis sellin’
Of bonds or of stocks
As from her soapbox
She promised a balance sheet swellin’

But now she’s the Treasury Sec
And her goal’s to get a blank check
For spending, not saving
Though that might be paving
The way to a financial wreck

Investors continue to add to their risk portfolios this morning amid the never-ending hopes for yet more fiscal stimulus from the US.  This can be seen most clearly from the combination of rising stock prices and rising bond yields.  In classic risk-on fashion, the ongoing speculative mania continues to drive equity markets higher around the world.  Asia is uniformly green, with the Nikkei (+2.1%) leading the way but strength in Shanghai (+1.0%) and Hong Kong (+0.1%).  The concern for the latter has to do with the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday and the fact that the link between the mainland and Hong Kong stock markets will be turned off during that period, thus reducing inflows. Meanwhile, Europe is also firmer across the board with Italy’s FTSE MIB (+1.4%) the leader as investors gain confidence that Super Mario Draghi will be as “successful” a PM as he was an ECB President.  But the FTSE 100 (+0.95%), CAC (+0.6%) and DAX (+0.3%) are all firmer with the DAX lagging on the back of weaker than expected IP data (0.0%, exp +0.3%) indicating that the ongoing lockdowns in Germany, which are slated to continue for another 6 to 8 weeks, are taking a toll.  And don’t worry, US futures are all green too, higher by roughly 0.4% each.

The second piece of this puzzle is the bond market, which is behaving exactly as expected in a risk-on session by selling off nicely.  In fact, Treasury yields have touched new highs for the move with the 10-year at 1.19% (+2.9bps) while 30-year bonds have just traded to 2.00% for the first time since Feb 19 of last year, right as the Covid crisis was beginning.  But this is not an isolated US feature, we are seeing higher yields throughout Europe, Italy excepted, as Bunds (+2.6bps), OATs (+2.5bps) and Gilts (+3.3bps) are all under pressure today.  Why, you may ask, are European bond markets selling off if the story is US stimulus?  Because it’s one big global trade, and if the $1.9 trillion stimulus package gets passed, the idea is a faster US recovery will support European and Asian companies that sell into the US.

Of course, politics being what it is, even control of the House and Senate doesn’t mean that passing a bill this large is easy.  And this is where Ms Yellen comes in, she needs to forcefully make the case passage is critical for the nation’s economy.  The problem is that the recent data trend, which has been generally better than expected (excluding Friday’s jobs data) points to the fact that perhaps not so much stimulus is needed.  So, on the Sunday morning talk shows she was emphatic in her comments that it is critical, and that erring by spending too much is a significantly better mistake than spending too little.  Interestingly, even some left-leaning economists don’t back that view.  Notably, Larry Summers, former director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, and Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist at the IMF, have highlighted the risks to this package on two fronts; first, it could result in inflation and second, it may prevent the passage of other legislation focused on infrastructure and green investment deemed more important.

Now, the one thing we know about Congress is that virtually none of the members of either the House or Senate have any understanding of economics or finance.  As such, they take their cues from their financial backers staffers and the pronouncements of eminent economists from their side of the aisle.  And this is what makes the Summers and Blanchard comments noteworthy, they are both clearly left of center and both are arguing for less Covid stimulus. Janet has her work cut out for her to get what she wants.  Ironically, the fact that this package may not be passed until March is probably a positive for stocks, after all, that means another 4-6 weeks of stimulus hopes!

A quick look at commodity prices shows that virtually every commodity price is higher this morning led by oil (+1.3%), but with strength in precious metals (gold +0.4%, silver +1.0%) and agriculturals (wheat +0.7%, corn +0.6%).  Again, this is a risk-on market.

The one piece of the relation trade narrative that continues to fail, however, is the weak dollar story.  For now, before inflation data starts to rise sharply and real yields tumble, rising US rates are leading to a rising US dollar.  So, this morning the pound (-0.4%) is the laggard, but the weakness is across the board.  Even NOK (-0.1% and CAD (-0.15%) are softer despite the ongoing oil price rally.  In fact, the entire commodity bloc is suffering despite firmer commodity prices.  This is true in emerging markets as well which is led lower by ZAR (-1.0%) and both BRL (-0.7%) and MXN (-0.7%) today.  The rand story continues to be virus related as the vaccine rollout stalls given the realization that the new strain of virus is not responding well to the AstraZeneca vaccines they have.  In fact, the vaccine story is part of the LATAM problems, but of greater consequence is the fact that as US yields rise, the carry trade is becoming less attractive, and both these currencies are beneficiaries of carry.  On the plus side in EMG, KRW (+0.35%) is the best performing currency around after virus restrictions were eased somewhat amid declining infection statistics.

Speaking of statistics, it is a very quiet week on the data front, with CPI the marquis number on Wednesday.

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 97.5
JOLTs Job Openings 6.4M
Wednesday CPI 0.3% (1.5% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (1.5% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 760K
Continuing Claims 4.41M
Friday Michigan Sentiment 80.9

Source: Bloomberg

Regarding the CPI data, it has printed higher than the survey in all but one month since June and given the ongoing inflationary pressures of higher commodity prices and supply chain issues, my sense is we will see that again.  On the speaking front, just three Fed speakers this week, Mester today, Bullard tomorrow and then Chairman Powell speaks Wednesday afternoon.  This makes Wednesday the day to watch.  Until then, I expect the market will focus on stimulus matters and equity prices.  If US yields continue to rise I suspect the dollar will test resistance again, with the key level in the euro at 1.1910.  Once again, nothing has changed my medium-term view about dollar weakness, and last week did see a halving of the long euro positions in the CFTC data, but for now, I feel like the dollar still has the upper hand.

Good luck and stay safe