The Bottom’s Not In

Attention this morning’s returned
To Treasuries, where we have learned
The bottom’s not in
As yields underpin
The dollar that once had been spurned

Plus ça change, plus ça même chose.

During the past several weeks, there have been a number of stories that seemed designed to shift our attention away from what has been the major market driver in 2021…the Treasury market.  But despite the Ever Given running aground, despite the forced liquidation of Archegos Capital Management and despite Covid’s resurgence throughout Europe and additional mooted lockdowns there, the clear driver of market activity remains US Treasury yields, specifically in the back end of the curve.  As I type this morning, the 10-year has risen 5.7bps on the session with the yield now 1.765%, its highest level since January 22, 2020.  This movement has dragged up yields across the US yield curve, with 5-year yields fast approaching 1.0% while even 2-year yields, which remain anchored by the Fed’s promises to keep the Fed Funds rate at its current level through at least 2023, has edged up by 1.4 basis points.

And this movement is not isolated to the United States, as sovereign yields across the board are higher today with European markets looking at gains of between 5.5bps and 7.5 bps, while overnight saw Australian yields climb 9.2 basis points.  But it is clearly the Treasury market in the lead.  The current story seems to revolve around the ongoing outperformance of the US economy vis-à-vis those of Europe and much of Asia, the success of the US vaccine program and the promise of yet another fiscal stimulus bill coming from the Biden administration.  That trifecta dwarfs all other nations’ activities and so has seen ongoing flows into US equity markets as well as into the dollar.  And the thing is, for now, it is hard to see what can derail this story in the short-term.  In fact, with the latest payroll data due to be released Friday and expected to show a substantial gain in the number of jobs, while more and more states reduce Covid inspired economic restrictions, things seem like they will only get better.

And perhaps things will only get better.  Perhaps we have passed the worst of the pandemic.  Perhaps all Covid inspired restrictions will be relaxed and people will head back out on vacations and to movies and theme parks. Perhaps shopping malls will regain their allure as people look for anyplace to go that is not inside their own home.  In this case, as the service sector reopens along with the jobs attendant to that process, the Fed would likely be able to justify a very gradual reduction in some of their stimulus.  And this could all happen.  But, so could we wake up tomorrow to learn that pigs really can fly.

Instead, while there is no doubt that the US remains the driving force in the economy right now, as it leads other nations out of the pandemic, the imbalances that have developed due to the policies implemented during the pandemic will take a very long time to unwind.  In addition, they pose a very real threat to the stability of markets and economies.  For instance, how will nations around the world address the issue of the massive rise in their debt/GDP ratios.  While servicing costs right now are tenable given the historically low level of interest rates, investors may well start demanding higher yields to compensate for the growing riskiness of those portfolios.  After all, we have seen many nations default on their debt in the past, with Greece and Argentina just the two latest on the list.

But rising yields will force governments to choose between honoring their debt promises, or paying for their activities, a choice no elected politician ever wants to make.  It is not unreasonable to assume that this choice will be forced on countries by the markets (and in fact, is starting to be forced as we watch yield curves steepen) with two potential outcomes; either the central bank caps yields to insure that debt service remains viable, or the debt is restructured by the central bank who will monetize it.  Either situation will almost certainly result in rising inflation, not of the asset kind, but will also result in a situation where those tools that central banks claim they have to fight inflation will not be available.  After all, if they are capping yields, they cannot very well raise rates to fight inflation.

It is this endgame that has some very thoughtful people concerned, as when this situation has arisen in the past, and after all, there is nothing new under the sun, the result has been a combination of much more significant inflation and debt defaults.  Now, in the US, the idea of a debt default seems quite impossible.  However, the idea of higher inflation, especially given the Fed’s stated desire to see inflation rise, is much easier to accept.  And after all, given the newly stated desire to achieve an average inflation rate, with a desire to see higher than 2.0% inflation readings for some indeterminate amount of time, how will the Fed know when they’ve seen enough?  The point is, the Fed, and every central bank, still has a very difficult task ahead of them to maintain stability while supporting the economy.  And there is no guarantee that their actions will work.

With that joyous thought in mind, a quick look at other markets beyond bonds shows that equities remain supported with widespread gains overnight (Nikkei +0.15%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +0.6%), while European bourses are all green as well (DAX +0.6%, CAC +0.55%, FTSE 100 +0.25%).  US futures, however, are starting to fade, led by the NASDAQ (-0.8%) although SPX futures (-0.2%) have turned lower as well.  Remember, the NASDAQ, with its predominantly growth-oriented companies, is similar to a long-term bond, as higher yields reduce the current discounted value of its future growth.

Commodity markets are under pressure this morning as well with oil (-1.5%) falling back a bit further, and both base and precious metals all under the gun.  This commodity story is synchronous with the combination of rising yields and…a rising dollar.  And the dollar continues to rise, against all early year supposition.

Versus the G10, it is higher against all comers, with JPY (-0.5%) leading the way lower and breaking above 110 for the first time in a year.  However, this move looks far more sustainable than the price action seen in the immediate wake of the initial Covid panic.  Quite frankly, in the short-term, there is no reason to think USDJPY cannot rise to 115.00.  But the weakness is universal with SEK (-0.4%) and NOK (-0.3%) also continuing lower.  While the latter is undermined by the oil decline, the Swedish krona remains the highest beta G10 currency, and is simply leading the euro (-0.25%) on its downward path.

EMG currencies are not in any better shape with TRY (-2.2%) by far the worst performer as more bets get piled on that the new central bank governor will be cutting interest rates soon at the behest of President Erdogan.  INR (-1.2%) is the next worst performer, suffering as state-run banks were seen actively buying dollars in the market ahead of their fiscal year-end, cleaning up their balance sheets.  But pretty much the entire bloc is lower by between 0.2% and 0.4% on the simple fact that the dollar is growing in demand as US yields lead the way higher.

On the data front, two minor releases today, Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 11.2%) and Consumer Confidence (96.9) are unlikely to have much impact as the market looks forward to the employment situation starting with tomorrow’s ADP Employment report and then Friday’s NFP data.

Adding it all up comes to the idea that the current trends, higher yields and a higher dollar, remain firmly entrenched and I see no reason for them to change in the near future.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf