Filled With Froth

Said Jay, markets seem filled with froth
But let me tell you, we are loth
To even discuss
The tapering fuss.
To ZIRP and QE we are troth

Now, ask yourself what markets heard
Jay cooed like his favorite white bird
So, dollars were sold
Investors bought gold
With equity bulls undeterred

The Chairman was very clear yesterday afternoon in his press conference, the Fed is not anywhere near thinking about changing their current policy mix.  While paying lip service to the idea that if inflation turns out not to be ‘transitory’ they have the tools to address it, the overwhelming belief in the Mariner Eccles Building appears to be that by autumn, inflation will be a thing of the past and the Fed will still have their foot on the proverbial accelerator.

This does raise the question that, if economic growth is rebounding so smartly, why does the Fed need to buy $120 billion of assets each month and maintain their policy rate at 0.00%?  While I am just an FX guy, it seems to me that the current policy stance is more appropriate for an apocalyptic economic crisis, something like we suffered last year or in 2008-9, rather than for an economy that is growing at 7.0% or more.  But that’s just me.  Clearly, Chairman Powell and his committee are concerned that the economy cannot continue to grow on its own, else they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing.

When it comes to the tapering of asset purchases, Powell was also explicit that it is not nearly time to consider the idea.  Yes, we had one good NFP number, but we need a string of them to convince the Fed that we are past the worst of things.  Remember, the opening two lines of the Fed statement continue to be about Covid.  “The Federal Reserve is committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time, thereby promoting its maximum employment and price stability goals.  The COVID-19 pandemic is causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world.”  Until such time as that statement changes, we don’t need to hear the press conference to know that nothing is going to change.

With this in mind, let us consider the potential impact on markets.  Starting with Treasuries, it seems reasonable to assume that yields are reflective of investors collective view on inflation going forward.  The Fed has been purchasing $120 billion / month since last June and is not about to change.  At this stage, it would appear the market has factored those purchases into the current yield.  This means, future movements are far more likely to be indicative of the evolving view on inflation.  Yesterday, after the press conference, 10-year yields slipped by 4bps, but this morning, they have recouped those losses and we currently sit at 1.65%.  With commodity prices clearly still on a massive roll (WTI +1.4%, Cu +0.8%), while the Fed is convinced that any inflation will be transitory, it is not obvious that the rest of the market agrees.  Powell said the Fed would need to see a string of strong data.  Well, next week the early expectations for NFP are 888K, which would be two very strong months in a row.  Is that a string?  Certainly, it’s a line.  But I doubt it will move the needle at the Fed.  Maximum employment is still a long way off, and there will be no changes until then.  As inflation readings climb, and they will, Treasury yields will continue to climb as well.  There is nothing magical about 1.75%, the level reached at the end of March, and I expect that by the end of Q2, we will be looking at 10-year yields close to, or above 2.0%.

If Treasury yields are at 2.0%, what happens to equity markets?  In this case, it is not as clear cut as one might think.  First off, this Fed clearly has a different reaction function to data than previous iterations as they have been explicit that pre-emptive tightening to prevent potential future inflation is not going to happen.  This implies that any rise in yields is not reflective of expected Fed policy changes, but rather as a response to rising inflationary pressures.  History has shown that when inflation rises but stays below 3.0%, equity markets can remain buoyant, but once that threshold has been breached, it is a different story.  Remember, especially in the tech sector, but in truth quite generally, the reason low rates boost the stock market is because any discount cash flow model, when discounting at ultra-low rates means current values should be higher.  This is why rising yields become a problem for equity prices. In fact, it is reasonable to analogize being long growth stocks to being long bond duration, so when bond prices fall and yields rise accordingly the same thing happens to those stocks.  If this relationship holds going forward, and inflationary concerns do continue to percolate in the market, it would appear equity prices could be in for a bumpy ride.

Clearly, that is not yet the case (after all, inflation hasn’t yet reared its ugly head), as evidenced by the overnight price action in the wake of Powell’s comments.  Asia was strong (Nikkei +0.2%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +0.5%) and most of Europe is as well (CAC +0.55%, FTSE 100 +0.7%) although the German DAX (-0.25%) is a bit of a laggard this morning as concerns over Q1 GDP rise due to the third Covid wave.  US futures, though, are all-in with Jay, rising between 0.5% (Dow) and 1.0% (NASDAQ).  That makes sense given the assurances that there will be no tapering forever the foreseeable future.

As to the dollar, there are two different narratives at odds here.  On the one hand, the fundamentalists continue to point to a weaker dollar in the future as rising inflation tends to devalue a currency, and when combined with the massive fiscal deficit policy, a dollar decline becomes the only outlet available for pressure on the economy.  On the other hand, rising yields tend to support the dollar, so as Treasury yields continue to rise, if they stay ahead of the inflation statistics, there is reason to believe that the dollar has further to gain from here.  Of course, if inflation outstrips the rise in nominal yields such that real yields decline, we could easily have a situation with higher nominal Treasury yields and a much weaker dollar.  For now, the inflation data is lagging the Treasury market, but I suspect that by the end of May, that will not be the case, meaning the long-awaited dollar decline has a much better chance to get started then.

In the meantime, the dollar has softened ever so slightly this morning.  Versus G10 currencies, only JPY (-0.25%) has declined as the rebound in Treasury yields this morning seems to be garnering interest in the Japanese investment community.  But, while the dollar is softer vs. everything else, nothing has even moved 0.2%, which implies there is no news beyond the Fed.  In the EMG space, the dollar is also largely softer, led by HUF (+0.5%), THB (+0.45%) and INR (+0.45%).  HUF continues to benefit from the relatively hawkish stance of the central bank, while the baht rallied despite a reduction in the 2021 GDP estimate to 2.3% as Covid infections increase in the nation.  Meanwhile, INR appears to be the beneficiary of the Fed’s stance as clearly, the ongoing domestic disaster regarding its response to the latest wave of Covid infections cannot be seen as a positive.

On the data front, we start with Initial Claims (exp 540K) and Continuing Claims (3.59M) but also see the first look at Q1 GDP (6.6%), with a range of estimates from 4.5% to 10.0%!  With the Fed meeting behind us, we should start to hear from FOMC members again, but today only has Governor Quarles discussing financial regulation, a much drier subject than inflation.  Tomorrow, however, we will see the latest Core PCE data, and that has the chance to move things around.

As of now, the dollar remains on its back foot given the Fed’s clear message that tapering is a long way off and easy money is here for now.  However, if Treasury yields start to rise further, especially if they get back toward the 1.75% level, I expect the dollar will rebound.  On the other hand, if Treasuries remain quiet, the dollar probably has further to fall.

Good luck and stay safe
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