Will a New Normal Emerge?

Recovery this year is set
To be best in decades, and yet
The central bank’s thumb
Will drive the outcome
By buying quadrillions in debt

The question is, after this surge
Will there be a natural urge
For things to go back
To pre-Covid’s track
Or will a new normal emerge?

The Wall Street aphorism, buy the rumor, sell the news, remains as valid today as it ever was.  The idea behind this concept, something to which I regularly point, is that by the time a particular piece of information has been released, the market has already absorbed the information in the price and is looking forward to the next price driver.  The result is that markets rally into good news and fall upon the release, and vice versa.  The most recent evidence that this remains a key to price action was Friday’s payroll report, where the outcome, in an illiquid market, was a much better than expected 916K NFP number with upward revisions of the previous two months.  And yet Treasury yields, which might have been expected to rise further on the news, have done nothing but decline since then.  Including today’s 1 basis point decline, the 10-year yield is lower by 6bps from the release and is now 10bps lower than the peak hit on March 30.  Is this the end of the yield rally?  Almost certainly not, but no market moves in a straight line.

I highlight this idea to discuss the latest forecast by the IMF and how this news may impact markets going forward.  Yesterday the IMF raised its global growth forecasts again, this time up to 6.0% in 2021 and 4.4% in 2022, representing increases of 0.5% and 0.2% respectively from their January analysis. The leadership in this growth is the US, now forecast to grow 6.4% by the IMF, and China, now forecast to grow 8.4% this year.  These are the fastest GDP growth numbers for the US since 1984, and we certainly all hope they are accurate.  After all, life is certainly better for everyone when the economy is growing rapidly.

But we have now seen a wave of higher forecasts for US GDP from official sources, like the Fed and IMF, and from private forecasters like Wall Street firms, with a strong consensus that the US is looking at GDP expansion this year well in excess of 6.0% and possibly as high as 7.0% or more.  And so I ask, isn’t that already in the price of most assets?

The broad bullish argument for risk is that global GDP growth is going to be much stronger in 2021 as the world’s economy rebounds from the Covid inspired recession of 2020.  And we have seen remarkable rallies in risk assets during this time, with the S&P 500 rising just a bit more than 80% in the twelve months following its nadir on March 24 last year.  All that occurred during a period where the virus was rampant but hopes for a vaccine would lead to an end to the government ordered shutdowns and a return to pre-covid type of economic activity.  While I grant that we have not seen all the shutdowns ended, the vaccine rollout has been impressive and is speeding up every day.  In fact, despite a pretty horrendous start to the process for Europe, the European Commission now believes that the continent will achieve herd immunity by the end of June!

So, if we know that all this is going to happen, haven’t risky assets already priced in this good news?  The other question that hangs over the current situation is the fact that this growth is entirely a product of the multiple trillions of dollars of government stimulus led by the US $5 trillion of fiscal injections, but also inclusive of QE, PEPP and QQE from the Fed, ECB and BOJ respectively, which totaled trillions more dollars of support.  Again, it begs the question, how much better can things be expected to get?

For instance, it is not unreasonable to expect that there will be permanent changes in the economy, specifically in the types of jobs that are available, especially for lower skilled workers.  If anything, the pandemic and resulting government lockdowns will have accelerated this process.  Remember, Chairman Powell has been clear that the Fed’s task will not be complete until the 10 million jobs that were lost as a result of government edicts are replaced. But what if that takes 5 years due to the structural changes in the economy?  Can the Fed maintain ZIRP while GDP growth is surging and inflation is rising alongside?  Historically, the answer would be no, but in the post-Covid world, that is no longer clear.  In fact, the one thing that has been truly consistent is that every government and supranational organization has warned every central bank to make sure they do not remove policy ease too soon.  The entire global political leadership is ‘all-in’ on the idea that printing money and spending it has no negative consequences.  In other words, it is no longer appropriate to worry we might wind up in an MMT world, we are already there!

This leads to the final question, will risk acquisition be unstoppable as a result of this new global thesis?  The famous American economist, Herbert Stein (Ben Stein’s father) made the statement, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  My observation is that printing money and the illusory growth that it brings cannot go on forever.  When this music stops, it will be a devastating fall.  But, as policymakers will do everything they can to prevent the stopping, this can go on for a while longer.  Simply be careful to not fall into the trap of believing stock prices are at “a permanently high plateau,” a comment another famous economist, Irving Fisher, made just weeks before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Ok, a super brief recap of markets shows that both Asia (Nikkei +0.1%, Hang Seng -0.9%, Shanghai -0.1%) and Europe (DAX -0.1%, CAC 0.0%, FTSE 100 +0.6%) were mixed with modest movement.  US futures are essentially unchanged at 8:00 as I finish typing.  Sovereign yields in Europe have edged lower by roughly 1 basis point, matching the Treasury market, but really not showing much in the way of activity.  Commodity prices are mixed with oil (+0.9%) rallying while metals (Au -0.6%, Cu -1.0%) are softer.

Finally, the dollar is showing little direction today with G10 currencies showing gains (NOK +0.3%) on oil’s rally and losses (AUD -0.5%) on metals price weakness.  But there is no dollar trend here.  In emerging markets, INR (-1.5%) was the biggest loser after the RBI left policy rates on hold, but not merely increased QE, but put a number on it where they will be buying INR1 trillion over the next quarter, driving Indian bond yields lower along with the rupee.  But away from that story, here, too, there is nothing of note with a mixed picture in the space.

On the data front, we see the Trade Balance (exp -$70.5B) this morning and then the FOMC Minutes are released at 2:00.  Today also brings a great deal of Fedspeak, but I remain highly confident that nothing from that story is going to change.

The dollar is wandering aimlessly today but remains closely tied to Treasury yields.  If yields resume their rally, look for the dollar to rebound.  However, if this correction in yields continues, the dollar has further to fall.

Good luck and stay safe

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