Desperate Straits

In Europe, the growth impulse faded
As governments there were persuaded
To lock people down
In city and town
While new strains of Covid invaded

Contrast that with here in the States
Where GDP growth resonates
Tis no real surprise
That stocks made new highs
And bond bulls are in desperate straits

There is no better depiction of the comparative situation in the US and Europe than the GDP data released yesterday and today.  In the US, Q1 saw GDP rise 6.4% annualized (about 1.6% Q/Q) after a gain of 4.3% in Q4 2020.  This morning, the Eurozone reported that GDP shrank -0.6% in Q1 after declining -0.7% in Q4 2020.  In other words, while the US put together a string of substantial economic growth over the past 3 quarters (Q3 was the remarkable 33.4% on this measure), Europe slipped into a double dip recession, with two consecutive quarters of negative growth following a single quarter of rebound.  If you consider how markets behaved in Q1, it begins to make a great deal more sense that the dollar rallied sharply along with Treasury yields, as the economic picture in the US was clearly much brighter than that in Europe.

But that is all backward-looking stuff.  Our concerns are what lies ahead.  In the US, there is no indication that things are slowing down yet, especially with the prospects of more fiscal stimulus on the way to help goose things along.  As well, Chairman Powell has been adamant that the Fed will not be reducing monetary accommodation until the economy actually achieves the Fed’s target of maximum employment.  Essentially, this has been defined as the reemployment of the 10 million people whose jobs were eliminated during the depths of the Covid induced government lockdowns.  (Its stable price target, defined as 2.0% average inflation over time, has been kicked to the curb for the time being, and is unimportant in FOMC discussions…for now.)

At the same time, the fiscal stimulus taps in Europe are only beginning to drip open.  While it may be a bit foggy as it was almost a full year ago, in July 2020 the EU agreed to jointly finance fiscal stimulus for its neediest members by borrowing on a collective level rather than at the individual country level.  This was a huge step forward from a policy perspective even if the actual amount agreed, €750 billion, was really not that much relative to the size of the economy.  Remember, the US has already passed 3 separate bills with price tags of $2.2 trillion, $900 billion and just recently, $1.9 trillion.  But even then, despite its relatively small size, those funds are just now starting to be deployed, more than 9 months after the original approval.  This is the very definition of a day late and a dollar euro short.

Now, forecasts for Q2 and beyond in Europe are much better as the third wave lockdowns are slated to end in early to mid-May thus freeing up more economic activity.  But the US remains miles ahead on these measures, with even NYC declaring it will be 100% open as of July 1st.  Again, on a purely economic basis, it remains difficult to look at the ongoing evolution of the Eurozone and US economies and decide that Europe is the place to be.  But we also know that the monetary story is critical to financial markets, so cannot ignore that.  On that score, the US continues to pump more money into the system than the ECB, offering more support for the economy, but potentially undermining the dollar.  Arguably, that has been one of the key drivers of the weak dollar narrative; at some point, the supply of dollars will overwhelm, and the value of those dollars will decrease.  This will be evident in rising inflation as well as in a weakening exchange rate versus its peers.

The thing is, this story has been being told for many years and has yet to be proven true, at least in any significant form.  In the current environment, unless the Fed actually does ease policy further, via expanded QE or explicit YCC, the rationale for significant dollar weakness remains sparse.  Treasury yields continue to define the market’s moves, thus, that is where we must keep our attention focused.

Turning that attention to market activity overnight, whether it is because it is a Friday and traders wanted to square up before going home, or because of the weak data, risk is definitely on the back foot today.  Equity markets in Asia were all red led by the Hang Seng (-2.0%) but with both the Nikkei and Shanghai falling 0.8% on the session.  Certainly, Chinese PMI data were weaker than expected (Mfg 51.1, Services 54.9) both representing declines from last month and raising questions about the strength of the recovery there.  At the same time, Japanese CPI remains far below target (Tokyo CPI -0.6%) indicating that whatever policies they continue to implement are having no effect on their goals.

European bourses are mixed after the weaker Eurozone data, with the DAX (+0.2%) the star, while the CAC (-0.2%) and FTSE 100 (0.0%) show little positive impetus.  Looking at smaller country indices shows lots of red as well.  Finally, US futures are slipping at this hour, down between -0.4% and -0.7% despite some strong earnings reports after the close.

Perhaps the US markets are taking their cue from the Treasury market, where yields continue to edge higher (+1.2bps) with the idea that we have seen the top in rates fading quickly.  European sovereign bonds, however, have seen demand this morning with yields slipping a bit as follows: Bunds (-1.8bps), OATs (-1.2bps) and Gilts (-1.3bps). Perhaps the weak economic data is playing out as expected here.

Commodities are under pressure this morning led by WTI (-1.9%) but seeing weakness in the Agricultural space (Wheat -0.7%, Soy -0.9%) as well.  The one thing that continues to see no end in demand, though, is the base metals with Cu (+0.3%), Al (+0.9%) and Sn (2.2%) continuing their recent rallies.  Stuff is in demand!

In the FX markets, the day is shaping up to be a classic risk-off session, with the dollar firmer against all G10 counterparts except the yen (+0.1%) with SEK (-0.55%) and NOK (-0.5%) the leading decliners.  We can attribute Nokkie’s decline to oil prices while Stockie seems to be demonstrating its relatively high beta to the euro (-0.3%). EMG currencies have far more losers than gainers led by ZAR (-0.7%), TRY (-0.65%) and RUB (-0.6%).  The ruble is readily explained by oil’s decline while TRY is a bit more interesting as the latest central bank governor just promised to keep monetary policy tight in order to combat inflation. Apparently, the market doesn’t believe him, or assumes that if he tries, he will simply be replaced by President Erdogan again.  The rand’s weakness appears to be technical in nature as there is a belief that May is a particularly bad month to own rand, it having declined in 8 of the past 10 years during the month of May, and this is especially true given the rand has had a particularly strong performance in April.

On the data front, today brings a bunch more information including Personal Income (exp 20.2%), Personal Spending (+4.1%), Core PCE Deflator (1.8%), Chicago PMI (65.3) and Michigan Sentiment (87.5).  Given the Fed’s focus on PCE as their inflation measure, it will be important as a marker, but there is no reason to expect any reaction regardless of the number.  That said, every inflation reading we have seen in the past month has been higher than forecast so I would not be surprised to see that here as well.

In the end, though, it is still the Treasury market that continues to drive all others.  If yields resume their rise, look for a stronger dollar and pressure on equities and commodities.  If they were to head back down, so would the dollar while equities would find support.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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