The omicron variant seems
No longer to haunt people’s dreams
Thus, stocks are advancing
And markets financing
The craziest, wildest schemes
So, risk is no longer taboo
As narrative changes ensue
Chair Powell’s regained
Control, and contained
The fallout from his last miscue
Risk appetite is remarkably resilient these days as evidenced not only by yesterday’s US equity rally, but by the follow-on price action in Asia last night as well as Europe this morning. In fact, it seems the rare market that has not rallied at least 2% this morning. Naturally, this raises the question as to what is driving this sudden return to bullishness? Is it a widening view that the omicron variant is not going to result in more draconian government lockdowns? Well, based on the news that NYC has imposed new restrictions on people, requiring vaccinations for everyone aged 5 and older to enter any public building, that may not be the case. Perhaps the news that Austria has established fines of €600 for the first time someone is found not to be vaccinated with an increasing scale and jail time in that person’s future if they do not correct the situation, is what is easing concern.
At this point, arguably, it is too early to truly understand the nature of the omicron variant and its level of virulence, although it is clearly highly transmissible. Early indications are that it is not as deadly but also that none of the currently approved vaccines does much with respect to preventing either infection or transmission of this variant. However, global equity investors have clearly spoken and decided that any potential issues are either likely to be extremely short-term or extremely mild.
Perhaps this renewed risk appetite has been whetted by the idea that the Fed’s tapering will be a net positive for the market. On the surface, of course, that doesn’t seem to accord with the idea that it has been the Fed’s (and ECB’s) largesse of adding constant liquidity to the system that has been the major support for the equity rally. I’m sure you all have seen the graph that shows the growth in the Fed’s balance sheet overlain on the price action in the S&P 500, where the two lines are essentially the same. So, if more central bank liquidity has been the key driver of higher stock prices, how can reduced liquidity and threats(?) or indications of higher interest rates coming sooner help support stocks. That seems to run contra to both that thesis as well as the idea that inflation is good for stocks, with the second idea suffering from the concept that tighter monetary policy is designed to fight inflation.
But maybe, that is the key. For the cognitive dissonant equity bull, loose policy and high inflation are good for equity markets because loose policy will keep the economy growing faster than inflation can reduce real returns. On the other hand, tighter policy will fight inflation thus allowing lower nominal returns to remain competitive on a real basis. Or something like that. Frankly, it has become extremely difficult to understand the ever-changing rationales of equity bulls. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been right for a long time now, despite changes in underlying macroeconomic trends.
From its peak on November 22, to its bottom Friday, the S&P 500 fell about 5.25%, not even a correction, as defined in the current vernacular. That requires a 10% pullback. So, for all intents and purposes, this bull market has done nothing more than pause for a few days and is apparently trying to regain all its lost ground as quickly as possible. Remember this, though, trees do not grow to the sky, nor do markets rally forever. There continue to be numerous red flags as to the performance of equities; notably potentially tighter monetary policy, extremely high valuations, narrowing breadth of index performance and questions over future earnings growth amongst others. And any of these, as well as the many potential issues that are not even currently considered, can be a catalyst for a more significant risk-off event. In fact, the situation in the Treasury market, the curve is flattening quite rapidly, seems to be one clear warning that the future may not be as rosy as currently priced by the stock market. Do not take for granted that risk appetite will remain this robust indefinitely and plan accordingly.
But today that is not a concern! Risk is ON and in a big way. After yesterday’s US rally, we saw all green in Asia (Nikkei +1.9%, Hang Seng +2.7%, Shanghai +0.2%) and Europe (DAX +2.1%, CAC +2.2%, FTSE 100 +1.2%) with US futures all higher between 1.0% (DOW) and 1.8% (NASDAQ). In other words, all is right with the world! Interestingly, one of the stories making the rounds today is about yesterday’s Chinese reduction in the RRR, but that was literally yesterday’s news, well known throughout the entire session. I feel like there is something else driving things.
As to the bond market, while prices have fallen slightly, the movement is a lot less than would be expected given the strength of the equity rally. Treasury yields are higher by just 0.2bps while Bunds (+1.5bps), OATs (+0.9bps) and Gilts (+2.4bps) are all responding a little more in line with what would normally be expected. Data from Europe was slightly better than forecast with German IP (2.8%) and ZEW Expectations (29.9) both showing the economy there holding up better despite the ongoing lockdowns. Asian bonds also saw yields climb a bit making the process nearly universal.
Commodity prices are following the risk narrative with oil (+2.8%) rallying sharply for the second consecutive day and now trading nearly 15% off the lows seen Thursday! NatGas (+2.2%) is rebounding but still well below its highs seen in early October, while metals prices are all higher as well led by Cu (+0.7%) and Al (+1.2%) although both gold (+0.25%) and silver (+0.3%) are a bit firmer as well.
It will come as no surprise that the dollar is somewhat softer this morning given the environment as we see AUD (+0.7%), CAD (+0.5%) and NOK (+0.4%) all benefit from firmer commodity prices while the euro (-0.25%) is actually the laggard on the day, despite the rally in equities there. Perhaps the single currency is gaining some haven characteristics. In the emerging markets, TRY (+0.7%) is the leading gainer followed by THB (+0.6%) and BRL (+0.5%). One can simply recognize the extreme volatility in the lira given the ongoing policy missteps, so a periodic rally should be no surprise. As to the baht, it seems buyers are looking for China’s RRR cut to support the Chinese economy and by extension the Thai economy as well. Brazil is a more straightforward commodity story I believe. On the downside, CZK (-0.4%) and HUF (-0.3%) are the laggards as traders express mild concern that the central banks there may not keep up with rising inflation when they meet this week and next.
On the US data front, Nonfarm Productivity (exp -4.9%) and Unit Labor Costs (+8.3%) lead along with the Trade Balance (-$66.8B) at 8:30. One cannot help but look at the productivity and labor cost data and wonder how equity markets can continue to rally. Those seem to point to the worst of all worlds. As to the Fed, they are in their quiet period ahead of next Wednesday’s meeting, so nothing to report there.
While I may not agree with its underpinnings, risk is clearly in vogue this morning and I don’t see any reason for that to change today. In general, I would look for the dollar to continue to soften slightly, but also see limited scope for a large move. All eyes have turned to the Fed next week and will be anxiously awaiting Chair Powell’s explanations for whatever moves they make.
Good luck and stay safe