Christine Lagarde’s Goal

This morning, Christine Lagarde’s goal
Is focused on how to cajole
The market to see
That her ECB
Has total command and control

Ahead of the ECB statement and the subsequent press conference this morning, markets are mostly biding their time.  Monday’s risk-off session is but a hazy memory and everyone is completely back on board for the reflation trade despite rising numbers of Covid cases as well as newly imposed lockdowns by governments throughout the world.  While that may seem incongruous, apparently, the belief is that any such lockdowns will be for a much shorter period this time than we saw last year, and so the impact on economic activity will be much smaller.

With a benign backdrop, it is worthwhile, I believe, to consider what we are likely to see and hear from the ECB and how it may impact markets.  We already know that they have changed their inflation target from, “close to, but below 2.0%” to ‘2.0%’.  In addition, we have been told that there is a willingness to accept a period of time where inflation runs above their target as the ECB seeks to fine-tune both the message and the outcome.  Of course, when you think about what CPI measures, it is designed to measure the average rate of price increases for the population as a whole, the idea of fine-tuning something of this nature is ridiculous.  Add to that the extreme difficulty in measuring the data (after all, what exactly makes up the consumer basket? and how does it change over time?  and isn’t it different for literally every person?) and the fact that central banks are concerned if inflation prints at 1.7% or 2.0% is ludicrous.  As my friend @inflation_guy (you should follow him on Twitter) always explains, you cannot reject the null hypothesis that 1.7% and 2.0% are essentially the same thing in this context.  In other words, there is no difference between 2.0% inflation, where central bankers apparently feel comfortable, and 1.7% inflation, where central bankers bemoan the impending deflationary crisis.

As well, the ECB is going to explain their new asset purchase process.  Currently, there are two programs, the Public Sector Purchase Program (PSPP) which is the original QE program and had rules about adhering to the capital key and not purchasing more than 33% of the outstanding debt of any nation in order to prevent monetizing that debt.  Covid brought a second program, the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program (PEPP), which had no such restrictions regarding what was eligible and how much of any particular nation’s bonds could be acquired but was limited in size and time.  Granted they both expanded the size of the program twice and extended its maturity, but at least they tried to make believe it was temporary.  The recent framework review is likely to allow PEPP to expire in March 2022, as currently planned, but at the same time expand the PSPP and its pace of purchases so that there will be no difference at all to the market.  In other words, though they will attempt to describe their policies as ‘new’, nothing is likely to change at all.

Finally, they apparently will be altering their forward guidance to promise interest rates will remain unchanged at current levels until inflation is forecast to reach or slightly surpass 2% and remain there for some time within the central bank’s projection period of two to three years.  Given the decades long lack of inflationary impulse in the Eurozone due to anemic underlying economic growth and ongoing high unemployment, this essentially means that the ECB will never raise rates again.  The ongoing financial repression being practiced by central banks shows no sign of abating and the ECB’s big framework adjustment will do nothing to change that outcome.

Will any of this matter?  That is debatable.  First, the market is already fully aware of all these mooted changes, so any price impact has arguably already been seen.  And second, have they really changed anything?  I would argue the answer to that is no.  While the descriptions of policies may have changed, the actions forthcoming will remain identical.  Interest rates will not move, and they will continue to purchase the same number of bonds that they are buying now.  As such, despite a lot of tongue wagging, I expect that the impact on the euro will be exactly zero.  Instead, the single currency will remain focused on the Fed’s (remember the FOMC meets next week), interest rate policy and the overall risk appetite in the market.

Turning to markets ahead of the ECB announcement we see that risk remains in vogue with strong gains in Asia (Hang Seng +1.85, Shanghai +0.35%, Nikkei closed) and Europe (DAX +0.9%, CAC +0.8%) although the FTSE 100 is barely changed on the day.  US futures are all green and higher by about 0.2% at this hour.

Bond markets have calmed down after a few very choppy days with Treasury yields backing up 1bp and now back to 1.30%, nearly 18 basis points above the low print seen Monday.  European sovereigns are mixed with Gilts seeing yields edge up by 0.8bps, while OATs have seen yields slide 0.8bps and Bunds are unchanged on the day.  Of course, with the ECB imminent, traders are waiting to see if there is any surprise forthcoming so are being cautious.

Oil prices continue their sharp rebound from Monday’s virtual collapse, rising another 0.6% and now firmly back above $70/bbl.  It turns out that Monday was a great opportunity to buy oil on the cheap!  Precious metals continue to disappoint with gold (-0.4%) slipping back below $1800/oz, although really just chopping around in a range.  Copper is firmer by 0.8% this morning but the rest of the non-ferrous group is slightly softer.

As to the dollar, it is under pressure virtually across the board this morning as there is certainly no fear visible in markets.  In the G10, NOK (+0.9%) is the leader on the back of oil’s rebound with the rest of the bloc seeing broad-based, but shallow, gains.  In the emerging markets, HUF (+0.55%) is the leader after recent comments from a central banker that they will be raising rates until their inflation goal is met.  (So old school!)  Meanwhile, overnight saw strength in APAC currencies (PHP +0.45%, IDR +0.4%, KRW +0.35%) as positive risk sentiment saw foreign inflows into the entire region’s stock markets.

We do get some data this morning starting with Initial (exp 350K) and Continuing (3.1M) Claims at 8:30 as well as Leading Indicators (0.8%) and Existing Home Sales (5.90M).  Fed speakers remain incommunicado due to the quiet period so as long as the ECB meets expectations the dollar should continue to follow its risk theme, which today is risk-on => dollar lower.

Good luck and stay safe
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