Nothing to Fear

There is an old banker named Jay
Who, later, this St Patrick’s Day
Will tell us that rates
Right here in the States
Won’t change ‘til the jobless get pay

Inflation is nothing to fear
As there’s no sign it will appear
But should it arise
More tools he’ll devise
To kill it by end of this year

Welcome to Fed day folks, with the eyes of all market participants anxiously awaiting the stilted prose that is presented every six weeks.  At this point, there is no concern that the Fed is going to actually change policy as it stands, rather the anticipation is all about what they imply about the future path of activity.

Generally, the Fed statement will start off discussing the nature of the economy and their subjective assessment before going on to describe the actions they are taking.  As this is a quarter-end meeting, their team of PhD’s will have produced new economic forecasts, which based on the recently passed stimulus bill, as well as the recent trend of improving economic activity, is likely to highlight real GDP growth in 2021 of at least 5.0%.  There are many calls on the Street for growth rates topping 7% this year, so 5% would hardly be seen as aggressive.  In addition, while the Fed is acutely aware that inflation numbers are going to rise in the near-term, as the base effects of last year’s Covid inspired economic disaster will now form the comparison, we have consistently heard that any inflation will be transitory and so is of no concern at this time.

The question is, how will they justify continued ZIRP and QE with GDP growth of 5% or more?  And, the answer is that Chair Powell will simply focus on the unemployment situation and once again explain that until those 10 million jobs that were lost to Covid are regained, the Fed will be striving to achieve maximum employment.  It is doubtful there will be any mention of rising yields in the statement, but you can be sure that the first question in the press conference will take up the subject, as will a number of others.

The other thing we get at this quarter-end meeting is the latest dot plot, which is a compilation of each of the FOMC members’ views of where interest rates will be over the next 3 years as well as in the ‘long run’.  The median outcome for each year has become the key statistic and last time it showed that rates were not expected to rise until after 2023, although the longer term view was that 2.5% was likely over time.  However, currently the market is pricing a 0.25% rate hike by December 2022 and two more in 2023 which is far more than the Fed had indicated.  Of great interest to all will be whether this view is changing at the Fed, and some tightening is expected prior to 2023.  Certainly, the bond market is pushing that narrative, with yields continuing to press higher (10-year treasuries are +3bps this morning and, at 1.65%, trading at a new high for the move.)

Remember, too, that prior to the Fed’s quiet period, when the bond market was selling off and yields rising, Powell and friends showed insouciance over the issue, declaring it a vote of confidence in the economy.  At least two weeks ago, there was little concern over rising yields and how they might impact the Fed’s efforts to stimulate further job growth.  Is that still the case?  Since Powell last spoke, the 10-year yield has risen another 9 basis points and shows no signs, whatsoever, of stopping soon.

So, there you have it, the Fed needs to walk that fine line of explaining things are getting better but there is no reason for them to stop providing stimulus.  History has shown that the market reaction comes from the press conference, not the statement, as the nuance of some comment or answer to a question can easily be misinterpreted by market players, and more importantly these days, by algorithms.  FWIW, I anticipate that Powell will continue to slough off any concerns about rising yields and a steepening yield curve and remain entirely focused on the front end.  While I expect several more ‘dots’ to highlight a rise in rates, it would truly be shocking if the median changed.  And in the end, if the Fed looks comfortable with rising yields, they will continue to rise, and with them, I would look for the dollar to follow.

Ahead of the news, markets have been in a holding pattern.  In Asia, the major equity markets were essentially unchanged overnight, with no movement of even 0.05%.  European bourses are generally ever so slightly softer this morning (CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.3%) although the DAX (+0.1%) has managed to eke out a gain so far.  As to US futures, they too are mixed, with NASDAQ futures (-0.5%) amongst the worst performing of all markets today, although the other two main indices are little changed.

Not only are Treasury yields higher, but we are seeing that price action throughout Europe, with Bunds (+1.9bps), OATs (+2.0bps) and Gilts (+3.3bps) all following the Treasury market.  Either inflation concerns are starting to pick up, or belief in a rebound is starting to pick up, although given the continuation of lockdowns in Europe, and their recent extensions, the latter seems like a harder story to swallow.

Commodity prices are softer pretty much across the board, with oil (-1.15%) leading the way, although weakness in both the base and precious metals is evident as well as in the agricultural space.  And lastly, the dollar is beginning to edge higher as I type, although not by any significant amounts.  In the G10 space, AUD (-0.35%), SEK (-0.3%) and CHF (-0.3%) are the leading decliners although one would be hard pressed to find a fundamental rationale for the movement.  With all eyes on the Fed, essentially all movement so far has been position adjustments amid much lighter than normal trading activity.

In the Emerging markets, RUB (-1.25%) is the weakest of the bunch after a surprising comment by President Biden hit the tape, “Biden says he thinks Putin is a killer.”  Them’s fightin’ words, and it would not be surprising to see an escalation of a war of words going forward, although it is not clear this would impact any currency other than the ruble.  Beyond that, MXN (-0.5%) is the next worst performer, arguably following oil as well as the growing concerns that rising inflation in emerging markets is going to force policy tightening and slowing growth.  This evening, the Banco do Brazil will be announcing their policy with the market anticipating a 0.50% rate hike, the first of many as inflation there continues to run higher than target.  This is being seen as a harbinger of other central bank actions, where they will be forced to fight inflation at the expense of economic activity, and that typically is negative for a currency at the beginning of the battle.

On the data front, today brings Housing Starts (exp 1560K) and Building Permits (1750K) ahead of the FOMC decision this afternoon.  While those numbers are a bit softer than last month, the longer-term trend remains firmly upward.  And then it’s the Fed and Mr Powell’s comments that will drive everything.  Ahead of the Fed, I anticipate limited movement overall, but my expectations are that Powell will continue to ignore rising yields and focus strictly on the front end of the curve as well as the unemployment situation.  If the stories about Secretary Yellen being unconcerned about rising yields are correct, and they are quite believable, then look for the curve to steepen further, and the dollar to test key resistance levels against most of its counterparts.

Good luck and stay safe

Central Banks Fear

The one thing that’s been crystal clear
Is yields have exploded this year
The question at hand
Since this wasn’t planned
Is what, most, do central banks fear?

For Jay and the FOMC
The joblessness rate is the key
For Christine its growth
And prices, as both
Refuse to respond to her plea

While the bond market has taken a respite from its headlong rush to higher yields, there is no evidence we have seen the top.  Rather, it feels very much like the market has positioned itself for the next leg higher in yields, potentially to kick off after tomorrow’s FOMC meeting.  If you recall, the last Fedspeak on the topic was by Chairman Powell and he was essentially dismissive of the issue as a non-event.  The consistent story has been that higher yields in the back end of the curve is a sign that the economy is picking up and they are doing their job properly, in other words it is a vote of confidence in the Fed.  And he was unambiguous in his discussion regarding the potential to tighten policy; it ain’t gonna happen for at least two to three more years, which is their timeline as to when the employment situation will recover to pre-Covid levels.  Remember, Powell has been explicit that he will not be satisfied until another 10 million jobs have been created and filled.

It has been this intense focus on the employment situation that has driven the Fed narrative that neither inflation or higher yields are of consequence for now or the foreseeable future.  Thus, all the positive US data, both economic and vaccine related, has served to increase expectations of a strong economic rebound consistently supported by front end interest rates remaining at zero.

But the interplay between rising yields and the speed of the recovery remains open to question.  In addition, there is the question of just how high yields can go before the Treasury gets uncomfortable that financing all this deficit spending is going to become problematic.  After all, if yields continue to rise, at some point the cost of carrying all the debt is going to become quite painful for the government.

In fact, it is this issue that has been a key feature of many forecasts of market behavior for the rest of this year and next; at some point, probably sooner rather than later, the Fed is going to step in and cap yields.  But what if the Treasury is looking at this problem from a different perspective, not what actual yields are, but the size of their debt service relative to the economy?  On that measure, despite a more than doubling of Treasury debt outstanding since 2007, interest expense is currently a smaller percentage of GDP than it was back then.  It is important to remember that Treasury debt matures monthly, not just T-bills, but also old notes and bonds, and when those notes and bonds were issued, ZIRP didn’t exist so many carry coupons much higher than the current replacements.  The upshot is that debt service costs have been declining despite the growth in the nominal amount of debt outstanding and are forecast to continue declining for the next 3 years according to the CBO.  So, maybe, Jay is serious that he is unworried about the current level of yields in the 10-year bucket and beyond.

If this thesis is correct, the implications for other markets going forward are significantly different than I believe many are currently considering.  For instance, a further rise in yields will start to have a significant negative impact on equity prices as all of the discounted cash flow models that currently assume zero rates forever to justify the current level of valuations will come crashing back to reality and there will be a realization that price-earnings multiples are unsustainable at current levels.  As well, the dollar bearish theme will likely get destroyed, as it is predicated on the idea that real yields will decline with rising inflation and capped yields.  If yields are not capped, but instead respond to rising inflation expectations by going higher unchecked, the dollar will be a huge beneficiary.  Precious metals?  They will suffer, although base metals should hold their own as growth will support demand and supply continues to be lacking, especially new supply.  And I would be wary of EMG debt as that rising dollar will wreak havoc on emerging market economies.

Perhaps it is the last thing that will cause the Fed to blink, since if the rest of the world slides into another recession amid increased demand for dollars, history has shown the Fed will ease policy to halt that slide.  Of course, for the past thirty years, any significant decline in the US equity market has been sufficient to get the Fed to ease policy, with Q4 2018 the most recent pre-pandemic episode.  But that means those valuations will compress, at least somewhat, before the Fed responds.

Add it all up and we have the opportunity for significantly more volatility in markets going forward, something hedgers need to heed.

As to today, ahead of the Retail Sales release this morning, and of course the FOMC tomorrow, markets are continuing in their quiet consolidation overall, though with a modest risk-on bias.

Equity market screens are all green with gains in Asia (Nikkei +0.5%, Hang Seng +0.7%, Shanghai +0.8%) and Europe (DAX +0.5%, CAC +0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.5%) pretty solid everywhere.  US futures are showing gains in the NASDAQ (+0.5%), but little movement in the other two indices.

Bond markets are also quietly higher, with very modest yield declines in Treasuries (-0.5bps), Bunds (-0.5bps) and Gilts (-1.0bp).  In fact, looking at my screen shows only Italian BTP’s (+1.9bps) and Greek 10-years (+2.8bps) falling as both nations impose stricter lockdowns.  Even JGB’s (-1.0bp) are a bit firmer as market participants await the BOJ’s policy framework Friday.

Commodity prices are under a bit of pressure this morning with oil (-1.3%) leading the way but base metals pretty much all lower as well.  As to the precious metals, they are little changed on the day and are the market with, perhaps, the keenest interest in the Fed meeting tomorrow.  If yields are going to continue to climb unabated, gold and silver will decline.

Finally, the dollar is having a mixed session as well, with a pretty equal split of gainers and losers against the greenback.  In the G10, SEK (+0.3%) and CHF (+0.3%) lead the way higher although both appear to be continuing a consolidation move of the past week.  On the downside, GBP (-0.3%) is the laggard after the EU brought new legal action against the UK on a Brexit related matter.  As to the rest of the space, the movements have been even smaller and essentially irrelevant.

In Emerging Markets, TRY (+0.8%) is the leading gainer as bets grow that the central bank will be raising rates later this week.  Next in line was KRW (+0.6%) which benefitted from large net inflows into the bond market, but after that, things are much less interesting.  On the downside, while there are a number of currencies that have declined this morning, the movements, all 0.2% or less, just don’t need a rationale, they are simply trading activity.

Data wise, we see Retail Sales this morning (exp -0.5%, 0.1% ex autos) a far cry from last month’s stimulus check induced jump of 5.3%.  We also see IP (0.3%) and Capacity Utilization (75.5%) a little later, but the reality is that if Retail Sales is uninteresting, markets are likely to continue to drift until tomorrow’s FOMC meeting.

For today, there seems very little likely to occur, but beware the Fed, if they really are going to allow yields to rise further, we could see some real changes in viewpoint for both equity markets and the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe


Said Janet, the risk remains “small”
Inflation could come to the ball
But if that’s the case
The tools are in place
To stop it with one conference call

/ (h)yoobrəs/
noun: excessive pride or self-confidence

Is there a risk of inflation?  I think there’s a small risk and I think it’s manageable.”  So said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Sunday morning on the talk show circuit.  “I don’t think it’s a significant risk, and if it materializes, we’ll certainly monitor for it, but we have the tools to address it.”  (Left unasked, and unanswered, do they have the gumption to use those tools if necessary?)

Let me take you back to a time when the world was a simpler place; the economy was booming, house prices were rising, and making money was as easy as buying a home with 100% borrowed money (while lying on your mortgage application to get approved), holding it for a few months and flipping it for a profit. This was before the GFC, before QE, before ZIRP and NIRP and PEPP and every acronym we have grown accustomed to hearing.  In fact, this was before Bitcoin.

In May 2007, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, responding to a reporter’s question regarding the first inklings of a problem in the sector told us,  “Given the fundamental factors in place that should support the demand for housing, we believe the effect of the troubles in the sub-prime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited.”  Ten months later, as these troubles had not yet disappeared, and in fact appeared to be growing, Bennie the Beard uttered his most infamous words, “At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the sub-prime market seems likely to be contained.

Notice anything similar about these situations?  A brewing crisis in the economy was analyzed and seen as insignificant relative to the Fed’s goals and, more importantly, inimical to the Fed’s desired outcomes.  As such, it is easily dismissed by those in charge.  Granted, Janet is no longer Fed chair, but we have heard exactly the same story from Chairman Jay and can look forward to hearing it again on Wednesday.

Of course, Bernanke could not have been more wrong in his assessment of the sub-prime situation, which was allowed to fester until such time as it broke financial markets causing a massive upheaval, tremendous capital losses and economic damage and ultimately resulted in a series of policies that have served to undermine the essence of capital markets; creative destruction.  While hindsight is always 20/20, it does not detract from the reality that, as the proverb goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But right now, the message is clear, there is no need to be concerned over transient inflation readings that are likely to appear in the next few months.  Besides, the Fed is targeting average inflation over time, so a few months of above target inflation are actually welcome.  And rising bond yields are a good thing as they demonstrate confidence in the economy.  Maybe Janet and Jay are right, and everything is just ducky, but based on the Fed’s track record, a lot of ‘smart’ money is betting they are not.  Personally, especially based on my observations of what things cost when I buy them, I’m with the smart money, not the Fed.  But for now, inflation has been dismissed as a concern and the combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus are moving full speed ahead.

Will this ultimately result in a substantial correction in risk appetite?  If Yellen’s and Powell’s view on inflation is wrong, and it does return with more staying power than currently anticipated, it will require a major decision; whether to address inflation at the expense of slowing economic growth, or letting the economy and prices run hotter for longer with the likelihood of much longer term damage.  At this stage, it seems pretty clear they will opt for the latter, which is the greatest argument for a weakening dollar, but perhaps not so much vs. other fiat currencies, instead vs. all commodities.  As to general risk appetite, I suspect it would be significantly harmed by high inflation.

However, inflation remains a future concern, not one for today, and so markets remain enamored of the current themes; namely expectations for a significant economic rebound on the back of fiscal stimulus leading to higher equity prices, higher commodity prices and higher bond yields.  That still feels like an unlikely trio of outcomes, but so be it.

This morning, we are seeing risk acquisition with only Shanghai (-1.0%) falling of all major indices overnight as Tencent continues to come under pressure after the government crackdown on its financial services business.  But the Nikkei (+0.2%) and Hang Seng (+0.3%) both managed modest gains and we have seen similar rises throughout Europe (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) despite the fact that the ruling CDU party in Germany got clobbered in weekend elections in two states.  US futures are also pointing higher by similar amounts across the board.

Bond markets, interestingly, have actually rallied very modestly with Treasury yields lower by 1.2 basis points, and similar yield declines in both Bunds and OATs.  That said, remember that the 10-year did see yields climb 8 basis points on Friday amid a broad-based bond sell-off around the world.  In other words, this feels more like consolidation than a trend change.

Commodity markets have also generally edged higher, with oil (+0.35%), gold (+0.1%) and Aluminum (+1.0%) showing that the reflation trade is still in play.

Given the modesty of movement across markets, it seems only right that the dollar is mixed this morning, with a variety of gainers and laggards, although only a few with significant movement.  In the G10 this morning, SEK (-0.7%) is the worst performer as CPI was released at a lower than expected 1.5% Y/Y vs 1.8% expected.  This has renewed speculation that the Riksbank may be forced to cut rates back below zero again, something they clearly do not want to do.  But beyond this, price action has been +/- 0.2% basically, which is indicative of no real news.

In EMG currencies, it is also a mixed picture with ZAR (+0.7%) the biggest gainer on what appear to be carry trade inflows, with TRY (+0.6%) next in line as traders anticipate a rate hike by the central bank later this week.  Most of LATAM is not yet open after this weekend’s change in the clocks, but the MXN (+0.3%) is a bit firmer as I type.  On the downside, there is a group led by KRW (-0.3%) and HUF (-0.25%), showing both the breadth and depth (or lack thereof) of movement.  In other words, movement of this nature is generally not a sign of new news.

On the data front, all eyes are on the FOMC meeting on Wednesday, but we do get a few other releases this week as follows:

Today Empire Manufacturing 14.5
Tuesday Retail Sales -0.5%
-ex autos 0.1%
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 75.5%
Wednesday Housing Starts 1555K
Building Permits 1750K
FOMC Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 700K
Continuing Claims 4.07M
Philly Fed 24.0
Leading Indicators 0.3%

Source: Bloomberg

While Retail Sales will garner some interest, the reality is that the market is almost entirely focused on the FOMC and how it will respond to, or whether it will even mention, the situation in the bond market.  Certainly, a strong Retail Sales report could encourage an even more significant selloff in bonds, which, while seemingly embraced by the Fed, cannot be seen as good news for the Treasury.  After all, they are the ones who have to pay all that interest. (Arguably, we are the ones who pay it, but that is an entirely different conversation.)

As to the dollar, while it has wandered aimlessly for the past few sessions, I get the sneaking suspicion that it is headed for another test of its recent highs as I believe bond yields remain the key market driver, and that move is not nearly over.

Good luck and stay safe

Our Fear and Our Dread

Said Madame Lagarde, don’t misread
The fact that our PEPP has lost speed
The quarter to come
A good rule of thumb
Is twice as much is guaranteed
This morning, though, markets have said
That’s just not enough to imbed
The idea your actions
Of frequent transactions
Will offset our fears and our dread
As we walk in this morning, there is a distinct change in tone in the markets from yesterday.  It seems that the initial impressions of yesterday’s two big events, the ECB meeting and the 30-year auction, were fleeting, and fear, once again, has taken over.
A quick recap shows that ECB President Lagarde, in responding to the growing questions about the reduced pace of ECB PEPP purchases, promised to significantly increase them during the next quarter.  While she refused to quantify ‘significantly’, the analyst community is moving toward the idea that means at least doubling the weekly purchase amounts to ~€25 billion.  At the same time, we heard from several ECB members this morning that this action did not presage increasing the size of the PEPP, which still has approximately €1 trillion in firepower remaining.  Lagarde emphasized the flexible nature of the program and explained that varying the speed of purchases is exactly why that flexibility was created.  However, despite today’s comments, Lagarde also assured us that, if necessary, the ECB could recalibrate the program, which is lawyer/central bank speak for increase the size.
The market liked what it heard, and the result was a bond rally on both sides of the Atlantic.  Several hours later, the results of the Treasury’s 30-year auction were released and, while not fantastic, were also not as disastrous as the 7-year auction from two weeks ago.  In the end, bond yields basically ended the day flat, equities rallied, and the dollar was under pressure all day.  Risk had regained its allure and the bulls were back in command.
Aahh, the good old days.  This morning, it is almost as though Madame Lagarde never said a word, or perhaps said too many.  Bond markets are selling off sharply, with 10-year Treasury yields higher by 7 basis points and above 1.60%, while European sovereigns are weaker across the board, led by UK gilts (+5.4bps), but with most continental bonds showing yield gains of 2.0-3.0 basis points.  So, what happened to all the goodwill from yesterday?
Perhaps that goodwill has fled from fears of rising inflation after President Biden (sort of) laid out his plan for vaccinating the entire nation by May and reopening the economy by summer.  Many analysts have pointed to the massive increase in savings and combined that with the newest stimulus checks to come (as soon as this weekend according to Treasury Secretary Yellen) and forecast a huge spending surge, significant economic growth and rising inflation. After all, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast is at 8.35%, which while slightly lower than a few weeks ago, is still an extremely rapid pace for the US economy.  This pundit, however, questions whether or not that spending surge will materialize.  Historically, after a deeply shocking financial event like we have just experienced, behaviors tend to change, with the most common being a tendency to maintain a higher savings ratio.  As such, expectations for a massive consumer boom may be a bit optimistic.
Or, perhaps the goodwill has disappeared after further crackdowns by Chinese authorities on its most successful companies, with TenCent now under the gun, receiving fines and being reined in following their efforts to crush Ant Financial.  The Hang Seng certainly felt it, falling 2.2% overnight, although Shanghai (+0.5%) and the Nikkei (+1.7%) were still euphoric from yesterday’s US equity rally.  Rapidly rising Brazilian inflation (5.2% vs. 3.0% target) could be the cause, as concerns now increase that the central bank, when it meets next week, will be raising rates 0.50% to battle that, despite the economic weakness and ongoing Covid related stresses.
There is, however, one other potential cause of the bond market’s poor performance, which I believe is leading to the general risk-off attitude; but it is a sort of inside baseball issue.  The Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) is part of bank regulation that was designed to insure banks would remain stable during hard times and not need to be bailed out, a la 2008.  However, during the initial stresses of the Covid crisis, the Fed suspended the need for banks to count Treasury securities and bank reserves as part of that ratio, thus allowing banks to hold more of those assets on their books while remaining within the regulations.  But this exemption is due to expire on March 31, which means banks either need a LOT more equity capital, or they need to shrink their balance sheet by selling off those excess Treasuries.  And, of course, selling Treasuries is much easier and exactly what we have seen in the past two weeks.  If the Fed does not give further guidance on this issue, and lets it expire, bonds probably have further to fall.  Ironically, that doesn’t seem to fit with what the Fed really wants to happen, as the higher yields would result in tighter financial conditions, especially if equity markets sold off in sync.  So, my guess is the Fed blinks and rolls the exemption over for at least 6 months, but until we know, look for bouts of selling in bonds and all the ensuing market reactions that come with that.
Just like today’s, where European markets are lower (DAX -0.6%, CAC -0.1%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) although in the latter two cases not by much and US futures are also lower, especially the tech laden NASDAQ (-1.4%) although also SPX (-0.4%). 
Commodity prices are also under a bit of pressure with oil (-0.25%) slipping a bit as well as precious (gold -1.0%) and base (copper -1.25%) metals.  In fact, today is also seeing weakness throughout the agricultural sector, with declines of the 0.75%-1.75% range across the board.
And what of the dollar, you ask?  Stronger across the board, with yesterday’s leading gainers showing the way lower today.  NZD (-0.75%), SEK (-0.7%) and CHF (-0.7%) are in the worst shape, but in truth, the entire G10 is under pretty significant pressure with only CAD (-0.15%) showing any signs of holding up as Canadian government bond yields rise right along with US yields. 
Emerging market currencies are also under significant pressure this morning, led by TRY (-1.5%) but seeing MXN (-1.3%) and ZAR (-1.0%) also suffering greatly.  In fact, all of LATAM and the CE4 are under significant pressure today but then all of them had seen substantial strength yesterday.  In fact, the two-day movement in many of these currencies is virtually nil.  Their futures will depend on a combination of the ongoing evolution of US interest rates and their unique  domestic situation.  If rising inflation is ignored in order to support these economies, look for much further weakness in that nation’s currency.  In other words, there is every chance that the dollar gains strength broadly against this bloc in the next several months.
On the data front, today brings PPI (exp 2.7%, 2.6% core) and Michigan Sentiment (78.5).  Certainly, that PPI data looks like inflation is in the pipeline, but the relationship between PPI and CPI is not nearly as strong as you might think, with just a 0.079% correlation over the past 5 years, although it does have a stronger relationship to core PCE (0.228%).  But if history is any guide, the market will not be flustered by any print at all. 
So, today is shaping up as risk-off with both bonds and stocks selling and no commentary from the Fed coming.  Just like yesterday’s risk appetite fed stronger currencies, it appears the opposite is true today.  I don’t expect to see substantial further gains, but a modest continuation of the dollar rally does feel like it is in the cards.
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe

On Edge

Two fears have the market on edge
Inflation that many allege
Will drive bond yields higher
Thus, causing a dire
Result, pushing stocks off the ledge

But right now, the bulls rule the roost
As inflation has not been produced
So, Jay and Christine
Have no need to wean
The market from QE’s large boost

Yesterday morning’s CPI release was a touch softer than expected, thus helping to abate fears of the much-mooted inflationary surge arriving soon.  (PS, it is clear that starting next month the CPI data will be much higher, given the year over year comps, with the key question being will that continue through the summer and beyond.)  In the meantime, bond investors, who had clearly been concerned over the rising inflation story, relaxed a bit and bought more Treasuries.  The result was that the early morning rise in yields was unwound.  Of course, the other big news yesterday was the 10-year Treasury auction which was received by the market with general aplomb.  While there was a 1 basis point tail, the bid-to-cover ratio at 2.37 was right in line with recent averages.  One little hiccup, though, was indirect bidders (usually foreign governments) continued their declining participation, falling to 56.8%, with the implication that natural demand for Treasuries is truly sinking.  This latter point is critical because, given the amount of new money the Treasury will need to borrow this year and going forward, it will increase pressure on the Fed to absorb more (i.e. increase QE), or yields will definitely climb.

However, that apparently, is a story for another day.  Equity markets reveled in the low inflation print and modest bond market rally, while the dollar fell pretty much across the board, reversing all of its early gains.

Which brings us to this morning’s ECB meeting, where the question is not about a change in policy, as quite clearly no policy change is in the offing, but rather about the ECB’s utilization and reaction function of its current policy programs.  While sovereign yields have stabilized for the past several sessions, the fact remains that they have not fallen back anywhere near the levels seen at the beginning of the year.  The question market participants have is exactly what will constitute a tightening in financial conditions that might bring a response.

As mentioned yesterday, the ECB has been consistently underutilizing the PEPP compared to recent months, with weekly purchases falling to a net €12 billion despite the rise in yields.  So, it would seem that the ECB does not believe the current yield framework is a hindrance to the economy.  However, you can be sure that Madame Lagarde will field several questions on the topic at this morning’s press conference as market participants try to determine the ECB’s pain threshold.  The last we heard on the topic was that they were carefully watching the market with some of the more dovish members calling for a more active stance to prevent a further climb in yields.

And remember, the ECB is not only focused on sovereign yields, but on the exchange rate as well, which is also officially a key indicator.  With the US inflation story getting beaten back, and US yields slipping, the euro’s concomitant rise will not be welcome.  Now, we remain well below the early January highs in the single currency, but if the euro has bottomed, and more importantly starts that long-term rise that is so widely expected, the ECB will find themselves in yet another sticky situation.  These, however, are stories for a future date, as today the euro is firmly in the middle of recent ranges while sovereign yields are slipping a bit.

With two potential landmines behind us, risk appetite has been reawakened, with asset purchases across virtually all classes.  For instance, overnight saw equity market strength across the board (Nikkei +0.6%, Hang Seng +1.65%, Shanghai +2.4%) although Europe’s early gains have mostly diminished and markets are little changed ahead of the ECB (DAX -0.1%, CAC +0.1%, FTSE 100 -0.35%).  US futures, though, are largely booming, led by the NASDAQ (+1.9%) but seeing solid gains in the other indices as well.

On the bond front, Treasury yields are lower by 1.9 basis points, back to 1.50%, while we are seeing more modest declines in the major European bond markets, on the order of 0.5bps for all of them.

Oil prices are firmly higher (WTI +1.2%) as is the entire energy complex.  Metals prices, too, are rising with both precious and base seeing a resumption of demand.  Meanwhile agricultural prices are generally moving up in sync.  Once again, to the extent that commodity price rises are a harbinger of future inflation, the signs are clearly pointing in that direction.

The dollar, meanwhile, which reversed yesterday’s early gains to close lower across the board, has continued in that direction with further losses this morning.  CHF (+0.5%) leads the way in the G10, which given the fact it had been the biggest loser over the past month, falling more than 5.6%, should be no surprise.  But the rest of the bloc is seeing gains in the commodity focused currencies with AUD (+0.45%), NZD (+0.4%) and CAD (+0.3%) next in line.  Perhaps the biggest surprise is that NOK (0.0%) is not along for the ride.

EMG currencies are also broadly firmer led by BRL (+1.6%) which is following on yesterday’s 2.5% rally as the central bank has been actively intervening to stem the real’s recent weakness.  Concerns remain over rising inflation, and expectations for rising policy rates are growing there, which would likely support the currency even more.  But we are seeing strength in ZAR (+1.0%), CLP (+1.0%) and MXN (+0.65%) as well, clearly all benefitting from the commodity story.  However, virtually the entire bloc is firmer given today’s increasing risk-on attitude.

Aside from the ECB meeting, with the statement published at 7:45 and the press conference at 8:30, we see Initial Claims (exp 725K), Continuing Claims (4.2M) and the JOLTs Job Openings survey (6.7M).  Again, no Fed speakers so look for the dollar to follow risk attitude and the movement in real yields.  Those are both pointing toward a lower dollar as the day progresses, and I see no reason to fight that absent comments from a surprising source.  Unless Madame Lagarde fumbles the press conference, look for this little risk bounce to continue.

Good luck and stay safe

Powell’s Dismay

The ECB’s Christine Lagarde
Is finding that markets are hard
As bond yields keep climbing
She needs more pump priming
Or Europe will truly be scarred

Meanwhile in the US today
The 10-year sale gets underway
A sloppy result
Just might catapult
More QE, to Powell’s dismay

Markets have had a relatively uneventful evening as participants await some important new information.  The first clue will come this afternoon when the results of the US 10-year bond auction are released.  Remember, this interest rate is arguably the most important rate in the world, as it serves as the basis for trillions of dollars of debt in both the public and private sectors.  And while the on-the-run 10-year bond is probably the single most liquid security in the world, its recent volatility belies that statement.  In fact, this morning, ahead of the auction, we are seeing selling pressure with the yield rising 3.3 basis points to 1.56%, within spitting distance of its recent highs and up a pretty remarkable 65 basis points year-to-date.

The reason today’s auction of $38 billion is being so keenly watched is that two weeks ago, the 7-year note auction was flat out awful, with a long tail and low indirect interest.  This means that there wasn’t really that much demand, especially from investors, as opposed to the primary dealers who are forced to bid.  That auction served as the catalyst for the 15-basis point rise in the 10-year the last week of February.  You may recall that coincided with a 100-point decline in the S&P 500 and commensurate declines in equity markets around the world.

And that is why this is seen as so critical.  With the knowledge that the House is voting on the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill today, and it will certainly pass along a party-line vote, investors recognize that there is going to be a lot more issuance upcoming.  After all, the government will need to borrow a lot of money to fund that stimulus.  If this benchmark auction goes poorly, meaning it doesn’t generate substantial bidding interest outside the primary dealers, we could well be in for another sharp decline in equity markets as the bond market sells off further.  Remember, too, the Fed is in its quiet period so will not be able to make comments in order to support the market.

Yesterday saw an impressive rebound by equity markets around the world after a serious bout of selling almost everywhere.  A good result today is likely to help keep that going, but a poor auction will almost certainly show that yesterday was the proverbial “dead cat bounce.”  And folks, if the auction goes poorly, look for the dollar to make new highs against pretty much every currency, especially emerging market counterparts., but the G10 too.

Which brings us to the ECB and Madame Lagarde.  Today is the first day of the ECB’s March meeting and the market is putting pressure on them as well.  As Treasury yields have climbed, so too have European government bond yields, with, for instance, 10-year bund yields 30 basis points higher on the year, albeit still firmly in negative territory at -0.30%.  But the question being raised is why the ECB hasn’t been more active with its PEPP program during this yield rally.  After all, we have heard from a number of different ECB members that they are closely monitoring sovereign yields and they explicitly told us that was a key benchmark for them.  And yet, their net purchases through the PEPP have declined during the past several weeks to €14.8 billion a week, down from the more than €18 billion they had been purchasing previously.  So, clearly, they have the capacity to do more.  Why then haven’t they been more active?  At this point, nobody really knows, and you can be certain that at tomorrow’s press conference it will be a hot topic.

Of course, it may be that they want to leave themselves extra ammunition in the event the Treasury auction goes poorly and there is another bond market rout.  But that is a far more cynical stance than I would attribute to any central bank.  The risk for the ECB is that European sovereign yields begin to rise faster than Treasury yields both crimping economic support and simultaneously supporting the euro.  And the one thing we know is the ECB wants a weaker euro, in fact they desperately need a weaker euro to help their exporting economies as well as to try to stoke their much-desired inflation.  As Ricky Ricardo used to say, ‘Christine, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!’

So, as we await the results of the auction, let’s take a quick tour of the overnight price action.  The best description of markets is mixed, with modest overall activity.  In the equity space, the Hang Seng (+0.5%) led the way on the high side, while both the Nikkei and Shanghai were essentially flat on the session.  Australia’s ASX 200, meanwhile, fell 0.8%.  As I said, mixed.  The story is no different in Europe with the CAC (+0.6%) the leader with the DAX (+0.3%) doing fine but the FTSE 100 (-0.2%) slipping back a bit.  And so, it cannot be surprising that US futures are behaving in the same manner, with NASDAQ (-0.3%) suffering while DOW (+0.25%) is slightly higher and SPX futures are little changed.

Other than the Treasury market, the yield picture is also mixed, with major European bond markets +/- 0.5bps or less.  This looks like a market biding its time for the two big stories to come.  Intrigue continues to build in Japan where the results of the BOJ’s review will be announced at their meeting next week and we have heard from Kuroda-san that there will be no change in the 10-year yield curve target while a key deputy, Amamiya-san, has left the door open to a widening of that 0.20% range around 0.0%.

In the commodity world oil (+0.5%) is firmer, but just looking at the products, that modest rally is not universal.  Metals are mixed (that word keeps coming up) with copper and aluminum both higher while tin and zinc are lower.  Precious metals are modestly softer as well after a huge rally yesterday.

And finally, the dollar is the one thing not really mixed, but rather broadly higher this morning.  Against the G10, only NOK (0.0%) has managed to hold its own on the back of the oil rally, while CHF (-0.4%) and JPY (-0.3%) are both suffering on what appears to be their lagging interest rate performance.  In the EMG bloc, TRY (+0.5%) is the only gainer of note, however, its movement appears to be positioning related rather than fundamental.  On the downside, there is a broad range of weaker currencies across all three main geographies, although none is weaker by more than 0.3%.  Again, it appears that traders are biding their time for news.

On the data front, today is CPI day with expectations for a 0.4% M/M (1.7% Y/Y) headline rise and a 0.2% M/M (1.4% Y/Y) ex food & energy print.  Based on the past 9 months, I would expect the odds are for a beat on the high side as we have seen in 6 of those readings.  And then it’s the auction.  We remain in the Fed’s quiet period, so look for the dollar to meander this morning and take its cues from the auction like every other market starting at 1:00pm when the results are released.  My money is on a less than stellar auction, higher yields, lower stocks and a stronger dollar.  We shall see.

Good luck and stay safe

Right From the Script

While last night, the 10-year yield slipped
It’s still reading right from the script
Of trading much higher
As growth does transpire
And vaccines are rapidly shipped
Investors, though, caution, have shown
As high yields have caused a full-blown
Correction in tech
And currency wreck
Just proving the future’s unknown
Price action throughout markets overnight has largely been a correction of what has turned out to be a surprising rout in tech stocks and a surprising rally in the dollar.  Quickly recapping the consensus views as the year began, the combination of more fiscal and monetary stimulus and a ramped up vaccination rate would lead to a reopening of the US (and world) economy, much faster growth, higher Treasury yields, rising stock prices and a weaker dollar as increased risk appetite led to dollar selling.  Positioning for those views was both widespread and large as investors looked forward to another banner year.  Oops!
As so often happens in markets, even if views are correct in the long run, when a new consensus is reached it means that, pretty much all the investment that is heading in that direction has already arrived, and the result is that those positions tend to lose out as the excitement fades.  And arguably, that is what we have seen in general, although not universally.  Despite last night’s modest bond rally (Treasury yields -5.9bps), the yield curve remains both higher and steeper than at the beginning of the year and appears to have room for further movement in that direction.
One of the strongest views that exists is that the Fed will not (cannot) allow Treasury yields to rise beyond a certain, unknown, point, as the cost to the government would be devastating.  That has certainly been my view and informs my belief that when that happens, the dollar will reverse its recent strength and decline sharply alongside real US yields.  But what if the Fed means what they say when describing the rise in long-term yields as a good thing?  How might that play out?
The first thing to note is that the yield curve (which I will define as the 2yr-10yr spread) is currently at 137bps, obviously well above the levels seen at the beginning of the year and showing no signs of stopping.  The one thing of which we can be confident right now is that the 2yr yield seems unlikely to move with the Fed maintaining ZIRP up front, so the spread will be entirely dependent on the movement in the 10-year.  But a quick look at the history of the spread shows that the current level is merely in the middle of the range with at least five different times in the past 30 years where this spread rose well over 200 basis points, the most recent being during the Taper Tantrum in 2013 when it reached 260 basis points.  Now, ask yourself what would happen if 10-year Treasury yields rose to 2.75%.  How do you think that would play out in the equity market?  In FX? And for the economy as a whole?
Arguably, this type of interest rate movement would be the result of much faster growth and inflation in the US than currently forecast and seen elsewhere in the world.  (As an aside, the OECD today raised their forecast for US GDP growth in 2021 to 6.5%).  If that forecast is accurate, and if inflation simply gets to the Fed’s 2.0% target, that means nominal GDP will be 8.5%!  How can that square with a 10-year yield of 2.75%, let alone today’s 1.55%.  It would seem that something has to give here.  Two potential relief valves are the dollar, which would need to rally much more sharply than we have seen (think EURUSD at 1.05-1.10) or inflation rising more than 2.0%, perhaps as high as 3.5%-4.0%.  History has shown that in situations like that, equity markets tend to underperform.  And maybe that’s the key.  Most of these forecasts for the strong equity, higher interest rate, weaker dollar outcome were based on the idea that central banks and governments could find the perfect mix of policies to achieve these goals.  If there is anything about which we can be sure, other than 2-year yields are not going to rise, it is that neither central banks nor governments have any idea what the proper mix of policies is to achieve those goals.  This is why economic and market activity remain volatile, because the constant tweaks and changes have many unexpected side effects.
This is not to imply that the yield curve is going to steepen that much, just that it cannot be ruled out, and if that happens, you need to be ready for a great deal more market volatility.
Which takes us to the current session. 
In China, the powers that be
Are worried they’re starting to see
A market decline
That could well define
New weakness in President Xi
Overnight saw mixed risk appetite with both the Nikkei (+1.0%) and Hang Seng (+0.8%) rising, but Shanghai (-1.8%) having a rough session.  In fact, the decline in stocks on the mainland has been so great that the Chinese government has called in the plunge protection team, which saw action last night to try to prevent a further rout (Shanghai -10% in pat 3 weeks), although obviously they were unable to prevent the process continuing.  As China continues to register concern over bubbles, it is reasonable to expect further declines in this market, as well as many of the other Asian markets that are linked.
Europe, on the other hand, is feeling better this morning with gains pretty much across the board (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.3%, FTE 100 +0.6%), which seem to have ignored modes downward revisions to some Q4 economic data (GDP -0.7%).  And finally, US futures are all firmly higher, notably NASDAQ (+2.2%), which is rebounding from its 11% decline over the past 3 weeks.
European bond markets are rallying alongside Treasuries, with Bunds (-5.3bps) and OATs (-5.2bps) a good descriptor of the entire continent’s price action.  Given the type of movement we have seen throughout government bonds worldwide, it would not be a huge surprise to see a further correction before the next leg higher in yields.
On the commodity front, oil prices are leading things higher (+0.6%) although the decline in yields has also supported gold (+1.4%) which is coming off a very difficult stretch.  Base metals are mixed as are agriculturals, with the current price action almost certainly a consolidation before the next leg higher for both segments.
And finally, the dollar, which is almost universally weaker this morning.  In the G10, AUD (+0.65%) is the leading gainer, but is merely emblematic of the commodity price action as we have seen the other commodity linked currencies in this bloc perform well (NOK +0.6%, CAD +0.45%).  In the EMG space, TRY (+1.5%) is the leading gainer, which during a risk on session is quite normal, with ZAR (+0.9%) and MXN (+0.8%) joining in the fun.  CE4 currencies are also performing well (CZK +0.8%, PLN +0.6%).  However, there are a couple of laggards, notably BRL (-0.7%), KRW (-0.6%) and TWD (-0.5%).  The latter two suffered from ongoing equity outflows from international investors, linked to China’s equity woes, while BRL is suffering from concerns over new political problems President Bolsonaro.
On the data front, NFIB Small Business Optimism was released this morning at a worse than expected 95.8, which, while better than expected, demonstrates some still ongoing concerns over the state of the economy.  Clearly, there are no Fed speakers today, so FX is very likely to follow the risk appetite today.  This modest dollar correction lower seems more like a reaction to what had been a surprisingly powerful dollar rally than a reversal.  So my gut tells me that the dollar will rebound along with yields as the week progresses.
Good luck and stay safe

Covid’s Predations

There once was a time when reflation
Was cause for widespread celebration
Because it implied
That growth nationwide
Recovered from Covid’s predation

But lately concerns have been rising
That markets are destabilizing
As data that’s good
Does more than it should
To raise yields, thus need tranquilizing

There is an ongoing battle in markets these days, between the G10 central banks, led by the Fed, and the bond market and its investors and traders.  What we know with certainty is that the central banks are keen to maintain their easy money policies for a much longer period of time as they await clear economic recovery and a higher, but steady, inflation level.  In the past week we have heard from a number of different central bank speakers, notably Jay Powell and Christine Lagarde, that current policy settings are appropriate, and that while the sharp move higher in 10-year yields has “caught their eye” there is no indication they will respond.

But the other thing of which we are pretty certain is that markets love to test central banks when they think they have an edge.  And while the equity market mantra for the past decade has been, ‘don’t fight the Fed’, that is not really a bond market sentiment.  Rather, bond investors and traders will frequently make their collective views known via significant selling pressure driving interest rates up to a point where the central bank blinks.  And it certainly feels like that is an apt description of the current market price action.

The problem for the central banks is that they currently find themselves fighting this battle with one hand tied behind their back, and it is their own fault.  Remember, one of the key ‘tools’ that central banks use is forward guidance and verbal intervention to sway market opinion.  But the current timing is such that both the ECB and Fed have meetings upcoming and are in their self-imposed quiet periods, where central bank members are not supposed to make public comments that could impact markets.  And this means that they are unable to make comments implying imminent action if markets continue to misbehave.  Of course, the Fed could simply start buying longer dated debt in the market without announcing that is what they are doing, but while that may have been an acceptable methodology thirty years ago, the Fed’s MO these days is that they feel they must explain everything they do, so seems highly unlikely.

Thus we have a situation where bond investors see news stories like the passage by the Senate of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, the increased rate of vaccinations throughout the US population and the rapidly declining pace of infection and have jumped to the conclusion that the recovery in the US is going to be both sooner and more robust than earlier forecasts.  This, in turn, has them believing that inflation is going to pick up and that the Fed will be forced to raise rates to cool the economy.  At the same time, Powell (and Lagarde) could not have been more explicit in their comments that current policy is appropriate, and they have no intention of adjusting it until they achieve their goals.  And, by the way, those goalposts have moved quite a bit since the last tightening cycle, such that headline gains in economic data is not nearly good enough, instead they are focused on subsectors of that data like minority employment and wage growth, historically the last part of the economy to benefit from a recovery.

Add it all up and you have a situation where the bond market is observing much faster growth and raising rates accordingly while the Fed is looking at the pockets of the economy where things move more slowly and trying to boost them.  The Fed’s problem is higher rates are not helping their cause, nor are they helping to maintain easy financial conditions.  And their other current problem is they can’t even talk about it for another 9 days.  Markets can wreak a great deal of havoc in a period that long as evidenced by this morning’s rising 10-year yields and declining stock futures during the first day of that quiet period.

Which is a perfect segue into today’s session, where risk is largely under pressure.  Last night saw weakness throughout Asian equity indices with the Nikkei (-0.4%), Hang Seng (-1.9%) and Shanghai (-2.3%) all lower although there were pockets of strength in the commodity producing countries.  Europe, on the other hand, is broadly higher this morning led by Italy’s FTSE MIB (+2.0%) but seeing strength elsewhere (DAX +1.3%, CAC +0.9%) on news that the European vaccination program is scheduled to pick up the pace.  US futures, though, are continuing to feel the pressure from higher US yields, especially in the tech space as the NASDAQ (-1.5%) leads the decline with the S&P (-0.5%) and DOW (-0.1%) not nearly as badly impacted.

But Treasury yields continue to rise with the 10-year higher by another 2.5 basis point this morning and pressing 1.60% again, a level it touched Friday after the much better than expected payroll report.  However, in Europe, bonds are mixed with Bunds (+0.7bps) a bit softer while OATs and Gilts have both seen yields edge lower by 0.5bps.

Commodity prices continue to perform well in response to the improving data and increasing vaccination rates with oil (+0.3%) modestly higher and maintaining the highest levels seen in more than 2 years.  In the metals markets, base metals are mixed while precious metals continue to suffer from rising US yields.  And finally, agricultural products continue their steady rise higher.

Lastly, the dollar continues to benefit from higher yields as it is higher vs. literally every one of its counterparts in both the G10 and EMG.  There is no need to discuss specific stories here as this is a universal dollar strength situation, where investors are beginning to unwind emerging market positions as well as their short dollar views.  While those positions remain elevated in comparison to historical levels, they have been reduced by about 40% from the peak shorts seen last

On the data front, arguably the most important data point this week is Wednesday’s CPI, but there is a bit more than that coming out.

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 96.5
Wednesday CPI 0.4% (1.7% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (1.4% Y/Y)
Thursday ECB meeting -0.5% (unchanged)
Initial Claims 725K
Continuing Claims 4.2M
JOLTs Job Openings 6650K
Friday PPI 0.4% (2.7% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (2.6% Y/Y)
Michigan Sentiment 78.0

Source: Bloomberg

I think it could be instructive to see that PPI data as well, which could be a harbinger of CPI in the coming months.  Now I know that Jay has explained this will be transient, and he may well be right, but history shows the bond market will need to see proof inflation is transient before calming down.

Obviously, there are no Fed speakers scheduled and we don’t hear from the ECB until Thursday, so market participants have free reign to do what they see is correct.  Currently, rising rates has called into question the validity of the tech stock boom and seen a rotation into value stocks.  Meanwhile, rising rates has also seen general pressure on stock indices and the dollar continues to benefit from that scenario.  As I have written many times, historically a steeper US yield curve meant a strong dollar, and as the curve continues to bear steepen, it is hard to call a top for the greenback.

Good luck and stay safe

Not On His Watch

Rumors were rampant
Kuroda would let yields rise
Oops! Not on his watch
Perhaps Chairman Powell should look east for clues on how to manage bond market expectations, as his efforts yesterday can only be termed a disaster.  However, Haruhiko Kuroda was quite successful in talking down the back end of the JGB curve, and the BOJ didn’t have to spend a single dime yen. 
Last night, Kuroda-san was speaking to parliament on a number of issues when he was asked, point blank, if the BOJ was considering widening the yield band on 10-year JGB’s.  He replied, “Personally, I believe it’s neither necessary nor appropriate to expand the band.  There’s no change in the importance of keeping the yield curve stable at a lower level.”  And just like that, JGB yields tumbled across the board with 10-year yields falling 5bps to 0.05%.  The genesis of the question came about as rumors have been constant that during the ongoing BOJ policy review, with conclusions set to be announced later this month, the BOJ would allow a wider band around their 10-year YCC target of 0.0% as a means of steepening the yield curve to help the banking sector.  But clearly, that is not on the cards, so whatever changes may be announced next month, it seems that portion of the current policy is remaining unchanged. The market response was immediate in bond markets, but also in FX as the yen quickly fell 0.5% and is now trading at its weakest level since last June.  Perhaps what is more interesting about the yen’s move is the trajectory of its declines, which are starting to go parabolic.  Beware a much weaker yen, with a short-term test of 110 seemingly on the cards.
Chair Jay tried quite hard to explain
That joblessness is still the bane
Of policy goals
Thus, rising payrolls
Are needed ere rates rise again
But what he said, and markets heard
Was different and that is what spurred
A bond market rout
And stock buying drought
While dollar buys were undeterred
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Chairman Powell made his last comments yesterday before the quiet period begins ahead of the mid-March FOMC meeting.  In an interview he explained that the FOMC remains quite far from its goals of maximum employment and stable (2% inflation) prices and that they would not be altering policy until those goals are achieved.  However, he did not indicate that they would be expanding their current easy money stance, either by expanding QE or extending the tenor of purchases, and he remained sanguine when asked about the steepening of the yield curve, explaining that it was a positive sign of growth expectations.
Alas, it is not that simple for the Fed as they have put themselves in a very difficult position.  Financial conditions, while seemingly an amorphous term, actually has some precision.  The Chicago Fed has an index with 105 variables but Goldman Sachs has created a much simpler version with just 4 variables; riskless interest rates (10-year yields), equity valuations (S&P 500), Credit Spreads (CDX) and the exchange rate (DXY).  Directionally, conditions are tightening when yields rise, stocks fall, credit spreads widen and the dollar rises, which is exactly what is happening right now!  In fact, in the wake of the Powell comments, they all got tighter.  Now, I’m pretty sure that was not Powell’s intention, but nonetheless, it was the result. 
The problem Powell and the Fed have is that, like Pavlov’s dogs, markets begin to drool at the sound of a Powell speech in anticipation of further easy money to prop things up.  But the market has extended this concept to the back end of the curve, not just the front, and the Fed, unless they change policy, has far less control out there.  It was this setup that put the pressure on Powell to ease policy further, and when he did not change his tune, the market had a little fit. 
Now, remember, the Fed is in its quiet period for the next 12 days, 8 of which will see markets open and trading.  Markets have a history of testing the Fed when they want something, and the Fed’s reaction function, ever since Maestro Alan Greenspan was Fed Chair in 1987 during the Black Monday stock market rout, has been to flood the market with more liquidity when markets sell off.  With that in mind, I would not be surprised to see 10-year yields test 2.0% in the next two weeks as the market tries to force the Fed’s hand.  Be prepared for more volatility and tighter financial conditions as defined by the index I described above.
Which leads us to today’s market activity, where risk is clearly under some pressure ahead of the payroll report this morning.  In Asia, equities were broadly, but not deeply, lower (Nikkei -0.25%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai -0.1%) while in Europe, early losses every where have eased and the picture is now mixed (DAX -0.6%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.4%).  US futures, which had been in negative territory all evening have turned higher and are currently up by roughly 0.15%.
Bonds, however, are universally softer with yields rising everywhere (except JGB’s last night).  So, Bunds (+1.2bps), OATs (+1.5bps) and Gilts (+4.2bps) lead the yield parade higher with Treasuries currently unchanged, although this is after yesterday’s 8bp rout.  Australian ACGBs continue to sell off sharply with yields higher by another 6bps overnight which takes that move to 63bps in the past month.
On the commodity front, OPEC+ surprised markets yesterday by leaving production unchanged vs. an expectation that they would increase it by 1 million bpd, which resulted in a sharp rally in oil prices which has continued this morning.  WTI (+2.5%) is now above $65/bbl for the first time since October 2018.  Base metals have rallied as well while precious metals are still suffering from the higher real yields attached to higher nominal yields.
And finally, the dollar, which is higher vs. almost every one of its counterparts this morning, with only NOK (+0.2%) and RUB (+0.3%) benefitting from the oil rally enough to overcome the dollar’s yield effect.  But elsewhere in the G10, AUD (-0.7%) and NZD -0.75%) are leading the way lower with GBP (-0.55%) also under the gun.  Now, we are seeing yields rise in all these currencies, but a big part of this move is clearly position unwinding as the massive short dollar positions that have been evident since Q4 2020 are starting to feel more pressure and getting unwound.  The euro, too, is softer, -0.3%, which has taken it below its previous correction lows, and technically opens up a test of the 200-day moving average at 1.1825.
In the EMG bloc, the weakness is widespread with CE4 currencies leading the euro lower, LATAM currencies (CLP -0.65%, MXN -0.6%, BRL -0.25%) all under pressure and most APAC currencies having performed poorly overnight, including CNY (-0.3%) which fell despite the new Five Year plan forecasting GDP growth above 6.0% this year.
And finally, the data story where we have payrolls this morning:

Nonfarm Payrolls


Private Payrolls


Manufacturing Payrolls


Unemployment Rate


Participation Rate


Average Hourly Earnings

0.2% (5.3% Y/Y)

Average Weekly Hours


Trade Balance


Source: Bloomberg
The thing is, while this number usually means a lot, I think there is asymmetric risk attached today.  A weak number will not do anything, while a strong number could well see the next leg of the bond market rout and ensuing stock market weakness.  Traders, when they are in the mood to test the Fed, will jump on any excuse, and this would be a good one.
For right now, the dollar has the upper hand, and I see no reason for that to change until we hear something different from the Fed.  And that is two weeks away!
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe

No Paradox

In Europe, the ECB hawks
Explained in their most recent talks
The rising of late
In THE 10-year rate
Was normal and no paradox

At home, hawks are also reduced
To cheering the 10-year yield’s boost
Since Powell’s a dove
And rules from above
The hawks can’t shake him from his roost

In a world where every central bank is adding massive amounts of liquidity, how can you determine which central bankers are hawks and which are doves?  Since no one is allowed to make the case that short-term rates should be raised to try to slow down rising inflation, the next best thing for the hawks to do is to cheer on the rise in longer term yields.  And that continues to be the number one story in markets around the world, rising bond yields.  Yesterday saw Treasury yields rise 9 basis points as investors continue to see US data point to rising inflationary pressures.  The ISM Services Price Index rose to its highest level since 2008, just like we saw in the Manufacturing Index on Monday.  Even official inflation measures continue to print a bit higher than forecast, a sign that underlying price pressures are quite widespread.

In the past, this type of economic data would encourage the hawkish contingent of every central bank to argue for raising the short-term rate.  But hawkish views appear to have been written by Dr Seuss, as they have been removed from the canon of financial discussion.  Which leaves the back end of the curve the only place where they can express their views.  And so, we now hear from Klaas Knot, Dutch central bank president that rising government bond yields are a “positive story”, while Jens Weidmann, Bundesbank president explained that these moves are not “a particularly worrisome development.”  We have heard the same thing from Fed speakers as well, although not universally, as the doves, notably Lael Brainerd, hint at Fed action to prevent an unruly market.  My take is an unruly market is one that goes in the opposite direction to their desires.

But despite the central bank commentary, it is becoming ever clearer that inflationary pressures are rising around the world.  We have spent the past 40 years in an environment of constantly decreasing inflation as a combination of globalization and technological advancement have reduced the cost of so many things.  And while technology continues to march forward, globalization is under severe attack, even from its previous political cheerleaders.  This is evident in the current US administration, where strengthening and localizing supply chains is a goal, something that will clearly increase costs.  Add to that increased shipping costs alongside capacity shortages and rising energy costs, and you have the makings of a higher price regime.  (An anecdote on rising price pressures: a friend of mine who lives in Paris told me the prices of the following foods; fresh salmon €60/kg, 1 grapefruit €2.25 and 1 avocado €2.65.  I checked my supermarket app and found the following prices here in New Jersey; fresh salmon $9.99/lb, 1 grapefruit $1.00 and 1 avocado $2.50.  Prices are high and rising everywhere!)

The final piece of this puzzle is broad economic activity, which the data continues to show has seen a real burst in the US, although there is still concern over the employment situation.  Every survey has shown the US economy growing rapidly in Q1 with the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast currently at 10%.  Adding it all up leads to the following understanding; it is not only the Fed that is willing to run the economy hot, but every G10 central bank, which means that monetary support will continue to flow for years to come.  Combining that activity with the massive fiscal support and the still significant supply bottlenecks that were a result of the government shutdowns in response to Covid brings about a scenario where there is a ton of money in the system and not enough goods to satisfy the demand.  If central banks don’t tap the breaks, rising prices and price expectations will lead to rising yields, and ultimately to declining equities.  The only asset class that will continue to perform is commodities, because owning “stuff” will be a better trade than owning paper assets.  And that’s enough of those cheery thoughts.

On to today’s markets, where, alas, risk is being jettisoned around the world.  After yesterday’s tech led selloff in the US, Asian equity markets really got hammered (Nikkei -2.1%, Hang Seng -2.1%, Shanghai -2.1%) and European markets are also under the gun (DAX -0.45%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 -1.0%).  US futures?  All red at this hour, down about 0.3%, although that is off the lows seen earlier this morning.

Bond yields, meanwhile, despite my discussion of how they are rising, have actually slipped back a bit this morning in classic risk-off price action.  So, Treasuries (-1.9bps), Bunds (-2.6bps), OATs (-2.1bps) and Gilts (-4.1bps) are all rallying.  But this is not a trend change, it is merely indicative of the fact that now that yields have backed up substantially, the concept of government bonds as an effective risk mitigant is coming back in vogue.  After all, when 10-yr Treasuries yield 0.7%, it hardly offers protection to a portfolio, but at more than double that rate, it is starting to help a little in times of stress.

Commodity prices are mixed this morning with oil taking back early session losses to sit unchanged as I type, but base metals in the midst of a modest correction after a remarkable rally for the past several months.  This morning copper (-4.1%) and Nickel (-8.2%) are leading the way lower, but with the ongoing economic activity and absence of new capacity, these are almost certainly temporary moves.  Gold, which has been under significant pressure lately seems to have found a floor, perhaps only temporarily, at $1700, but given the dollar’s ongoing strength, it cannot be surprising gold remains under pressure.

As to the dollar, I would say it is very modestly stronger today, although what had earlier been virtually universal has now ebbed back a bit.  In the G10, CHF (-0.4%) and JPY (-0.3%) are the worst performers, which given the risk attitude is actually quite surprising.  I think the Swiss story is actually a Polish one, where Poland has refused to support local banks who took out CHF loans and have been suffering from currency strength far outstripping the interest rate benefits.  It seems, concern is growing that these loans may be restructured and ultimately impact the Swiss banks and Swiss economy.  Meanwhile, the yen’s weakness stems from a poor response to a 30-year bond sale last night, where yields rose 3.5 bps amid a very weak bid-to-cover ratio for the sale.  Perhaps even the Japanese are getting tired of zero rates!  But away from those two currencies, the rest of the bloc is +/- 0.2% or less, indicating nothing of real interest is going on.

EMG currencies are also mixed with Asian currencies suffering amid the broad risk off environment overnight and CE4 currencies lower on the back of euro weakness.  On the plus side, BRL (+0.7%) and MXN (+0.6%) are the leading gainers, which appears to be an ongoing reaction to aggressive central bank of Brazil intervention to try to prevent further weakness there.  In this space too, the broad risk appetite will continue to remain key.

On the data front we see a bunch of stuff starting with Initial Claims (exp 750K) and Continuing Claims (4.3M), but we also see Nonfarm Productivity (-4.7%), Unit Labor Costs (6.6%) and Factory Orders (2.1%) this morning.  Perhaps of more importance we hear from Chairman Powell today, right at noon, and all eyes and ears will be focused on how he describes recent market activity as well as to see if he hints at any type of Fed response.  Many pundits, this one included, believe there is a cap to how high the Fed will allow yields to rise, the question is, what is that cap.  I have heard several compelling arguments that 2.0% is where things start to become uncomfortable for the Fed, but ultimately, I believe that it will depend on the data.  If the data starts to show that the economy is under pressure before 2.0% is reached, the Fed will step in at that time and stop the madness.  Until then, as we have heard from central bankers worldwide, higher yields in the back end are a good thing, so they will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future.  And yes, that means that until US inflation data starts to print higher, and real yields start to decline, the dollar is very likely to retain its bid.

Good luck and stay safe