Doves in Retreat

It seems the transition’s complete
As every Fed dove’s in retreat
From Powell to Daly,
And like Andrew Bailey,
They want to end QE tout de suite

Regarding the Fed’s hawks, Mester, George, Bostic and Bullard, we already knew they were ready to end QE.  They have been saying so since much earlier this year, before two of their kettle were forced to resign in disgrace (you remember Rosengren and Kaplan).  Just yesterday, Cleveland’s Loretta Mester reiterated she was “very open” to quickening the tapering process in order to give the Fed the option to raise rates early next year if they deem it necessary.  But of more interest has been the transition of the erstwhile dovish contingent with Mary Daly’s apparent desire to quicken the taper amongst the most surprising given her consistently dovish leanings.  In fact, the only holdout that I can determine is Neel Kashkari from Minneapolis, who has yet to agree inflation is a problem.  However, no one is more important than Chairman Powell, who over the past two days, in testimony to Congress, made it clear that come the FOMC meeting on December 15th, the pace of tapering will be increased.

At least, that is the view to which the market is turning.  Equity market weakness, a flattening yield curve and rising volatility all demonstrate that investors and traders are beginning to adjust the strategies they have been following since QE1 in the wake of the GFC.  This helps explain how the stock market could decline more than 1% two days in a row (!) and why it has fallen, already, nearly 5% from its all-time-high set back on November 22.  While I am being somewhat facetious with respect to dramatizing the recent declines, there are many in the market who seem to believe these are unprecedented moves.

And it is this last issue which is likely to become a major concern for the Fed going forward.  More than a decade of Fed easy money has taught people to buy every dip in asset prices.  Post Covid Fed policy has encouraged people to lever up when they buy those dips and so margin debt has reached historic highs on both a nominal ($581 billion) and percentage of GDP (2.5%) basis.  The problem here arises if when stock prices decline, and margin calls are made. Just like the Fed is a price insensitive buyer of Treasuries, and index funds are price insensitive buyers of equities, margin calls result in price insensitive selling of equities.  When this happens, equity prices can decline VERY quickly.  Know, too, that exchanges can raise margin requirements intra-day, so if a decline starts at the open, they can raise margin requirements by lunchtime to protect their members.  All this matters because the sudden hawkish tilt by the Fed could cause a very severe reaction in the financial markets.  And if there is one thing about which we should all be sure, it is that a very sharp decline, anything over 10% in a short period, will be met with a change in behavior by those very same Fed hawks.  Talk is cheap.  Sticking to their guns because they are trying to address rampant inflation will make them all very unpopular, something which the current denizens of the Marriner Eccles building seem unlikely to be able to handle very well.

Is this the beginning of the end?  I don’t believe so, especially as nothing has actually changed yet.  However, when it comes to sentiment shifts, they can occur in a heartbeat, so do not rule anything out.  Of more importance, though, is what we can expect if the shift comes.

In a classic risk-off scenario, where margin selling is rampant and equity prices are falling sharply, there is very likely to be contagion, so equities worldwide will decline.  We are very likely to see Treasuries, Bunds and Gilts in demand, with yields there declining sharply.  However, I would expect that the sovereign debt of the PIGS nations will more likely follow the equity market than Bunds, so spreads will widen.  Commodity prices will come under severe pressure as this will be seen as a precursor to a recession. And the dollar will rise sharply vs. its EMG counterparts as well as the commodity bloc of the G10.  JPY and CHF are both likely to do very well while the enigma is the euro, although my sense is the single currency would decline, just not as aggressively as, say, SEK.  We are not at that point but be aware that the current market setup is such that the opportunity for a move of that nature is quite real.  If you read Mark Buchanan’s terrific book, Ubiquity, you will recognize the “fingers of instability” described there as being present in every market.  It just seems that those fingers are more prevalent currently. (If you haven’t read the book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.)

Ok, let’s take a tour of markets today.  Yesterday’s late day US equity decline saw a continuation in Tokyo (Nikkei -0.65%) although the Hang Seng (+0.55%) managed to rally while Shanghai (-0.1%) was roughly flat.  I believe HK benefitted from the word that China was going to force the tech companies listed in the US to delist likely driving them to the HK market.  Europe, too, has been following that late day sell-off with the DAX (-1.3%) leading the major exchanges lower, followed by the CAC (-1.0%) and FTSE 100 (-0.8%).  However, US futures are all pointing higher led by the DOW (+0.9%) as it seems two down days in a row are enough.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the bond market is behaving in a split fashion as well, with Treasury yields (+3.4bps) rising while European sovereigns (Bunds -1.2bps, OATs -2.0bps, Gilts -1.4bps) all slipping as risk is shed on the Continent.

The rebound thesis is alive and well in oil markets with WTI (+0.4%) edging higher, although it is off its early session highs.  NatGas (+0.15%) is a touch firmer while precious metals are mixed (Au -0.3%, Ag +0.4%).  Mixed also defines the industrial space with copper (+0.5%) doing well while aluminum (-0.6%) is under a bit of pressure.  One thing that is universal today, though is the ags, all of which are higher by between 0.5% and 1.5%.

Finally, mixed describes the dollar as well, with half the G10 rising and the other half falling on the session.  NOK (-0.35%) is the laggard, while GBP (+0.3%) is the leader.  However, given the relatively modest movement, and the lack of news or data, there can be many things leading to these movements.  In the EMG bloc, ZAR (+1.1%) is the leader despite (because of?) the omicron variant spreading so rapidly there.  Information on the issue of omicron’s impact remains very difficult to come by, but the market appears to be taking the stance that it will not be a very big deal as the rand has rallied 3.5% from its lows seen last week when the news first hit.  Away from that, RUB (+0.7%) and MXN (+0.7%) are the next best performers although both are outperforming their key export, oil.  On the downside, TRY (-1.2%) continues to fall with no end in sight.  Yesterday, President Erdogan sacked his FinMin and replaced him with a new, more pliant deputy, in order to be certain the central bank will continue cutting interest rates in the face of quickly rising inflation.  This currency has much further to fall.  Away from this, the decliners have been far less impressive led by THB (-0.4%) as local traders see concerns over the impact of the omicron variant.

On the data front, Initial (exp 240K) and Continuing (2003K) Claims are on the docket as all eyes turn to tomorrow’s NFP report.  Yesterday’s ADP data was right on expectations which will give comfort to those looking for 545K in the NFP tomorrow.

Bostic, Quarles, Daly and Barkin take the stage today on behalf of the Fed and I would expect to hear more about a faster taper from all of them as this is clearly the new message.  Looking at the dollar with all this in mind, it still appears to be following the 10-year trade more than the 2-year trade.  As such, if the curve continues to flatten, I would look for the dollar to continue to consolidate its recent gains.

One last thing, I will be out tomorrow so there will be no poetry.  However, my take is the NFP data is likely to be in line with expectations so not have much impact overall.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Transitory is Dead

Said Jay, transitory is dead
And now when we’re looking ahead
To our consternation
It seems that inflation
Has climbed up to levels we dread

The market heard this and was stunned
Thus, equities quickly were shunned
The dollar was bought
And everyone thought
They’re better off buying the Bund

Finally!  It only took Chairman Powell 9 months to accept the reality on the ground that inflation is not likely to disappear anytime soon.  He officially ‘retired’ the word transitory as a description and confessed that inflation has been more persistent than he and the Fed had forecast.  The question that was not addressed is why the Fed thought that the supply chain bottlenecks were going to be short-lived to begin with.  After all, the primary use of ultra-cheap funding by the corporate community has been capital structure rebalancing (i.e. share repurchases) as that was the most efficient way to improve company valuations.  At least their stock market valuations.  Thus, there was never any evidence that investment was flowing toward areas that were bottle(necke)d up.

Ironically, this was partly Powell’s fault as his continued confidence that inflation was transitory, and bottlenecks would ease discouraged any company from making the investments to ease those very same bottlenecks.  Consider this, why would a company spend money to increase capacity if the benefits to be gained would be so short-lived?  And so, investments were not made, capacity remained the same and the bottlenecks persisted.

But now the Fed has acknowledged that inflation is a problem and Mr Powell has indicated that the pace of tapering QE ought to be increased.  The market read this as a doubling of the pace and so QE is now set to end in March, at least according to the punditry.  We will find out more precisely come the FOMC meeting in two weeks’ time.

Ultimately, the problem for Powell and the Fed is that a more aggressive timeline to tighten policy could potentially have a fairly negative impact on both stock and bond markets.  If that is the case, and there is no reason to believe it won’t be, Mr Powell may find himself in a similar situation as Q4 2018, when comments regarding the fact that the Fed was “nowhere near neutral” interest rates, which implied further tightening, resulted in a 20% decline in the S&P 500 Index and led to the infamous Powell Pivot on Boxing Day, when the Fed stopped tightening and began to ease policy.  Can Powell withstand a 20% decline in the S&P 500 today?  I doubt it.  10%?  Even that will be tough.  In essence, Powell now finds himself caught between President Biden’s growing concerns over inflation and the market’s likely concerns over tighter policy.  If nothing else, we should finally learn the Fed’s true master as this plays out.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how markets have responded overnight.  While yesterday saw an immediate rejection of risk assets, the first bargain hunters have returned and equity markets were largely in the green overnight and on into this morning.  The Nikkei (+0.4%), Hang Seng (+0.8%) and Shanghai (+0.35%) all managed to rally amid mixed data (Japan’s PMI rising to 54.5, China’s Caixin PMI falling to 49.9) and despite ongoing concerns the omicron variant would lead to further lockdowns.

European bourses (DAX +1.4%. CAC +1.3%, FTSE 100 +1.3%) are all much firmer after the PMI data there was generally better than expected.  This is despite the fact that the OECD released its latest forecasts, slightly downgrading global growth for 2021 although maintaining its 2022 global growth forecast of 4.5%.  Pointed comments about the risks of the omicron variant accompanied the release as all the work was done before that variant became known.  Perhaps investors are looking at omicron and assuming it will delay tightening further, thus support equity values.  Finally, US futures are all pointing sharply higher this morning, at least 1.0% with NASDAQ futures +1.5% at this hour.

It should be no surprise, given risk is back in vogue, that bonds are selling off again.  The one thing that has been evident is that volatility in markets has increased and shows no signs of abating until there is a more coherent story and clarity on ultimate central bank policy.  This morning, Treasury yields (+3.6bps) have jumped as have Bunds (+2.7bps), OATs (+3.1bps) and Gilts (+5.6bps).  Perhaps more surprising is that Italian BTPs (+6.5bps) have been the worst performer on the continent as during a risk-on session, these bonds tend to outperform.  Asian bond markets performed in a similar manner as yields rallied everywhere there.

Commodity prices are at least making sense today as we are seeing strength virtually across the board.  Oil (+4.5%) is leading the energy space higher, although NatGas (-3.4%) remains disconnected and is the sole outlier.  Metals are firmer as both precious (Au +0.7%, Ag +0.2%) and industrial (Cu +0.45%, Al +0.7%, Sn +0.3%) see buying interest and agricultural prices are firmer as well.

The dollar, though, has less direction today with the G10 seeing commodity currencies stronger (NZD +0.35%, AUD +0.3%, CAD +0.25%) while financials are under modest pressure (CHF -0.2%, JPY -0.15%, EUR -0.15%).  Now, in fairness, none of these moves are that large and most likely they represent position adjustment more than anything else.  In the emerging markets, TRY (+1.8%) remains the most volatile, rising sharply (more than 8.5% at its peak) after the central bank announced they were intervening due to “unhealthy price formations” in the market.  It seems those price formations have been the result of President Erdogan continuing his campaign to lower interest rates in the face of soaring inflation.  But there were other gainers of note including MXN (+0.9%) backed by oil’s rebound, KRW (+0.8%) on the strength of stronger than forecast output data and CLP (+0.7%) on the rise in copper prices.

Data this morning brings ADP Employment (exp 525K), ISM Manufacturing (61.2) and Prices Paid (85.5) and at 2:00 this afternoon, the Fed releases the Beige Book.  Chairman Powell and Secretary Yellen testify to the House Financial Services Committee starting at 10:00, and remember, that was when the fireworks started yesterday.  I doubt we will see the same type of movement but be alert.

The dollar story has lost its conviction as previously, the thought of a more aggressive Fed would have led to a much firmer dollar.  However, we are not witnessing that type of price action here.  While I still believe that will impact the currency’s near-term movement, right now it appears that many currencies are trading on their own idiosyncratic issues without the benefit of the big picture.  If the Fed does taper more quickly and begin to raise rates, I do expect the dollar will benefit and we can see 1.10 or lower in the euro as there is absolutely no indication the ECB is going to follow suit.  However, I suspect that equity market pain will become too much for the Fed to tolerate, and that any dollar strength will be somewhat short-lived.  Payables hedgers should take advantage over the next few weeks/months, but if you are a receivables hedger, I think patience may be a virtue here.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Before Omicron

There once was a narrative told
Explaining the Fed still controlled
The market’s reaction
Preventing contraction
Thus, making sure stocks ne’er got sold

But that was before Omicron
Evolved and put more pressure on
The future success
Of Fed’ral largesse
With no real conclusion foregone

So, later this morning we’ll hear,
When Janet and Jay both appear,
In front of the Senate
If they’ve still the tenet
That all will be well by next year

Perhaps all is not right with the world.  At least that would be a conclusion easily drawn based on market activity this morning.  Once again, risk is being shed rapidly and across the board.  Not only that, but the market is completely rethinking the idea of tighter monetary policy by the Fed with the growing conclusion that it is just not going to happen, at least not on the timeline that had been assumed a few short days ago.

It seems that the Omicron variant of Covid is proving to be a bigger deal in investor’s eyes than had been originally assumed.  When this variant was first identified by South African scientists, the initial belief was it was more virulent but not as acute as the Delta variant.  So, while it was spreading quite rapidly, those who were infected displayed milder symptoms than previous variants.  (If you think about the biology of this, that makes perfect sense.  After all, every organism’s biologic goal is to continue to reproduce as much as possible.  If a virus is so severe that its host dies, then it cannot reproduce very effectively.  Thus, a more virulent, less severe strain is far more likely to remain in the world than a less virulent, more deadly strain, which by killing its hosts will die off as well.)

In the meantime, financial markets have been trying to determine just what type of impact this new strain is going to have on economies and whether it will induce another series of lockdowns slowing economic activity, or if it will be handled in a different manner.  And so far, there is no clear conclusion as evidenced by the fact that we saw a massive sell-off in risk assets Friday, a major rebound yesterday and another sell-off this morning.  If pressed, I would expect lockdowns to come back into vogue as despite questions over their overall efficacy, their imposition allows government officials to highlight they are ‘doing something’ to prevent the spread.  Additional bad news came from the CEO of Moderna, one of the vaccine manufacturers, when he indicated that the nature of this variant would likely evade the vaccines’ defense.

So, story number one today is Omicron and how this new Covid variant is going to impact the global economy.  Ironically, central bankers around the world must be secretly thrilled by this situation as the focus there takes the spotlight off their problem, rapidly rising inflation.

For instance, after yesterday’s higher than expected CPI prints in Spain and Germany, one cannot be surprised that the Eurozone’s CPI printed this morning at 4.9%, the highest level since the Eurozone was born in 1997, and far higher than any of the 40 economist forecasts published.  Madame Lagarde wasted no time explaining that this was all temporary and that by the middle of next year inflation would be back to its pre-pandemic levels, but it seems fewer and fewer people are willing to believe that story.  Do not mistake the run to the relative safety of sovereign bonds as a vote of confidence in the central bank community.  Rather that is simply seen as a less risky place to park funds than the equity market, which by virtually every measure, remains significantly overvalued.

This leads to the third major story of the day, the upcoming testimony by Chairman Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen in front of the Senate Banking Committee.  The pre-released opening comments focus on Omicron and how it can be a risk for both growth and inflation thus once again trying to divert attention from Fed policies as a problem by blaming exogenous events beyond their control.  Of course, this story will resolve itself starting at 10:00, so we will all listen in then.

Ok, with all that as prelude, a quick tour of markets shows just how much risk is in disfavor this morning.  Overnight in Asia we saw broad weakness (Nikkei -1.6%, Hang Seng -1.6%) although once again Shanghai was flat.  Europe is completely in the red (DAX -1.45%, CAC -1.25%, FTSE 100 -1.0%) and US futures are also pointing lower (DOW -1.2%, SPX -1.0%, NASDAQ -0.5%).

Meanwhile, bond markets are ripping higher with Treasuries (-5.1bps) leading the way as yields fall back to levels last seen in early September.  In Europe, Bunds (-2.1bps), OATs (-2.2bps) and Gilts (-4.0bps) are all seeing demand pick up with the rest of the Continent all looking at lower yields despite rising inflation.  Fear is clearly a powerful motivator.  Even in Asia we saw JGB’s (-1.9bps) rally as did Australian and New Zealand paper.

Commodity markets are having quite a day with some really mixed outcomes.  Oil (-2.5%) is back in the red after yesterday’s early morning rebound faded during the day, and although oil did close higher, it was well of the early highs.  NatGas (-5.0%) is falling sharply, which at this time of year is typically weather related.  On the other hand, gold (+0.5%) is bouncing from yesterday and industrial metals (Cu +1.4%, Al +1.6%, Sn +2.7%) are in clear demand.  It seems odd that on a risk-off day, these metals would rally, but there you have it.

Finally, the dollar can only be described as mixed this morning, with commodity currencies under pressure (NOK -0.4%, CAD -0.25%) while financial currencies (EUR +0.5%, CHF +0.5%, JPY +0
4%) are benefitting on receding expectations for a tighter Fed.  PS, I’m sure the risk off scenario is not hurting the yen or Swiss franc either.

Emerging market currencies are demonstrating a broader based strength with TRY (-1.6%) really the only major loser as further turmoil engulfs the central bank there and expectations for lower interest rates and higher inflation drive locals to get rid of as much lira as possible.  Otherwise, PLN (+0.8%) is leading the way higher as expectations for the central bank to raise rates grow with talk now the rate hike will be greater than 50 basis points.  But MYR (+0.8%) and CZK (+0.75%) are also showing strength with the ringgit simply rebounding after a 10-day down move as bargain hunters stepped in, while the koruna has benefitted from hawkish comments from the central bank governor.  It appears that most EMG central banks are taking the inflation situation quite seriously and I would look for further rate hikes throughout the space.

Aside from the Powell/Yellen testimony, this morning brings Case Shiller House Prices (exp 19.3%), Chicago PMI (67.0) and Consumer Confidence (111.0).  As well, two other Fed speakers, Williams and Clarida, will be on the tape, but it is hard to believe they will get much notice with Powell front and center.

The dollar appears to be back following the interest rate story, which means that if expectations of Fed tightening dissipate, the dollar will likely fade as well, at least versus the financial currencies.  Commodities have a life of their own and will continue to dominate those currencies beholden to them.  The tension between potential slower growth and rising inflation has not been solved, and while my view is the Fed will allow inflation to burn still hotter, keep in mind that if they do act to tighten policy, the dollar should find immediate support.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Future Pratfalls

In Germany, and too, in Spain
The people are feeling the pain
Of prices exploding
And therefore corroding
Their standards of living again

Meanwhile from the ECB’s halls
The comments from those know-it-alls
Show lack of concern
As each of them spurn
The idea of future pratfalls

In trading, ‘the trend is your friend’ is a very common sentiment and an idea backed with strong evidence.  One can think of this as analogous to Newton’s first law, i.e. a body in motion stays in motion.  So, when the price action in some market has been heading in one direction over time, it tends to continue in that direction.  This is the genesis of the moving average as a trading tool as the moving average is what defines the trend.  I highlight this because the concept is not restricted to trading but is also evident in many other price series, notably inflation.  When one looks at the history of inflation, it tends to trend in one direction for quite some time with major reversals relatively infrequent.  That is not to say a reversal cannot occur, but if one does, it tends to be the result of a long period of adjustment, not a quick flip of direction.

And yet, when listening to both Fed and ECB speakers lately, they would have you believe that the currently entrenched trend higher for prices is the aberration and that in a matter of months they will be back to their old concerns about deflation being the biggest problem for the economy.  One has to wonder at what evidence they are looking to come to that determination as certainly the recent data does not point in that direction.  Just this morning Spanish CPI (5.6%) printed at the highest level since 1992 while Italian PPI (25.3%) printed at the highest level in its history.  From Germany, we have seen CPI prints from several of its states (Hesse 5.3%, Baden Wuerttemberg 4.9%, Bavaria 5.3%, Saxony 5.0%) with the national number (exp 5.5%) due at 8:00 this morning.

Still, none of this seems to be having an impact on the thoughts of ECB members with Lagarde, Schnabel, Villeroy and de Cos all out explaining that this is a temporary phenomenon and that by the middle of next year CPI will be back at their 2.0% target or lower.  Maybe it will be so, but as Damon Runyon so aptly explained, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”  In other words, looking at the current trends, it seems far more likely that inflation remains high than suddenly turns around lower.  The biggest problem the central banks have now is that it has become common knowledge that inflation is rising, which means that individual behaviors are adjusting to a new price regime.  And if you listen to the central bank thesis that inflation expectations are a critical input, then they are really in trouble as inflation expectations are clearly rising.

At least the Fed has begun to discuss the idea of removing accommodation, although the Omicron variant of Covid may given them pause, but in Europe, it is not even on the table.  A discussion point that has been raised numerous times lately is the idea of a central bank policy error, either raising rates prematurely to battle phantom inflation or waiting too long to tighten policy and allowing inflation to become more entrenched.  While my money is on the latter, it is very clear that the ECB, at least, and still many Fed members, are far more concerned with the former.  Perhaps they are correct, and all these rising prices will quickly dissipate, and that would be great.  However, I am not counting on that outcome, nor should anyone else at this point until there is ANY proof the Fed or ECB are correct.

Meanwhile, Friday’s dramatic events seem to have been erased from memory as while there are still headlines regarding the Omicron variant, the collective market view appears to be that it is not going to result in another wave of lockdowns and therefore the economic impact will be relatively minor.  As such, we are seeing a reversal of fortune across most markets from their Friday price action.  It should be no surprise that the biggest change comes from oil (+4.75%) which has recouped about one-third of its losses and seems set to continue rebounding.  After all, if the consensus is that Omicron is not going to have much of an impact, then the supply/demand story hasn’t changed and that bodes well for oil prices moving higher.  Elsewhere in the commodity space NatGas (+7.4%) is rising sharply on the back of colder than normal weather, while metals prices (Au +0.1%, Ag +0.5%, Cu +1.7%, Al +1.2%) are all rebounding as well.

In the equity markets, Asia never got a chance to sell off like Europe and the US on Friday so caught up (down?) with the Nikkei (-1.6%) leading the way although the Hang Seng (-1.0%) also suffered.  Shanghai traded flat for the day.  Europe, however, which sold off sharply on Friday, with many markets down more than 4%, has rebounded somewhat this morning (DAX +0.7%, CAC +1.1%, FTSE 100 +1.2%) although these markets are obviously well lower than Thursday’s closing levels.  Finally, US equities sold off sharply in Friday’s abbreviated session, with all three indices down about 2.3% but this morning futures are all rebounding as well, up between 0.6% and 0.8%.

Bonds saw the most dramatic move on Friday, with Treasury yields tumbling 16 basis points while European yields all fell as well, albeit less dramatically.  This morning, with risk back in vogue, bonds are back under pressure with Treasuries (+6.8bps) leading the way but all of Europe (Bunds +2.7bps, OATs +1.5bps, Gilts +3.9bps) also seeing higher yields.

It should come as no surprise that the dollar is also reversing some of Friday’s price action with the commodity bloc doing well (SEK +0.4%, CAD +0.3%, AUD +0.3%) while the financials are under modest pressure (EUR -0.2%).  This movement is nothing more than a reaction to the Friday movement.  EMG currencies are seeing similar price action with the best performers the commodity bloc here (RUB +0.9%, ZAR +0.7%) while weakness has been seen in TRY (-3.45%) and CLP (-0.7%).  The former continues to suffer from President Erdogan’s comments about never raising interest rates to fight inflation while the peso is reacting to early polls showing the leftist, Gabriel Boric, leading ahead of the runoff presidential election in 3 weeks.

It is a week full of data culminating in Friday’s payroll report although it starts out slowly.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 19.35%
Chicago PMI 67.0
Consumer Confidence 110.7
Wednesday ADP Employment 525K
Construction Spending 0.4%
ISM Manufacturing 61.1
ISM Prices Paid 85.8
Fed Beige Book
Thursday Initial Claims 250K
Continuing Claims 2000K
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 535K
Private Payrolls 525K
Manufacturing Payrolls 45K
Unemployment Rate 4.5%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.4% (5.0% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.7
Participation Rate 61.7%
ISM Services 65.0
Factory Orders 0.5%

Source: Bloomberg

In addition to all that data, we hear from Chairman Powell (and Secretary Yellen) in front of the Senate and House on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as eight more Fed speakers during the week.  If I were a betting man, I would expect that the broad message will continue to be that while inflation is not a long-term problem, it is appropriate to continue to normalize monetary policy now.  And that will be the message right up until markets force them to make a choice by either selling off sharply and forcing an end to policy tightening or running to new highs dragging inflation expectations, as well as inflation, along with them.

Meanwhile, the dollar remains beholden to the latest whims.  If tightening is back on the table, then look for the dollar to resume its uptrend.  However, if Omicron, or something else, causes a change in the message, the dollar seems likely to pull back smartly.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The Kicker

Whatever we all used to think
‘Bout how growth might rapidly shrink
If Covid spread quicker
Prepare for the kicker
A new strain that spreads in a blink

While the plan was to let you all digest your Thanksgiving meals in peace, unfortunately, the news cycle is not prepared to cooperate.  Risk is waaaayyyyy off this morning as news of a new strain of Covid, B.1.1.529, has been identified in South Africa, but also in Botswana and Israel, albeit only a literal handful of cases so far, but whose attributes may be that it is not going to be able to be addressed by vaccines.  So the market reaction has been to sell any risk asset they hold, which has resulted in a serious risk-off session with equity markets around the world much lower (Nikkei -2.5%, Hang Seng -2.7%, Shanghai -0.6%, DAX -3.0%, CAC -3.75% and the FTSE 100 -2.9%), bond markets ripping higher with yields tumbling (Treasuries -9.6bps, Bunds -5.5bps, OATs -5.1bps, Gilts -10.5bps and even JGBs -1.5bps) and oil getting trashed (-5.3%).  Aside from bonds, the only other things higher this morning are gold (+1.0%) and the yen (+1.1%).  That’s not strictly true, the euro has performed better than you might have expected, rallying 0.7%, although most EMG currencies are under real pressure, as are the commodity linked G10 currencies like CAD (-0.9%), AUD (-0.55%) and NOK (-0.4%).

US futures are also pointing sharply lower (DOW -2.0%, SPX -1.6%, NASDAQ -1.0%), so be prepared for some red on the screens here as well.  The emerging consensus is that lockdowns are coming back, with Belgium imposing some overnight already, and travel bans are back with Israel and the UK already banning flights from South Africa.

Aside from the obvious health concerns that we will all be reevaluating; the point of this note is to discuss the impact on markets.  Well, the idea that the Fed is going to be raising rates more rapidly has been tossed aside, with talk that tapering is not only not going to accelerate, but potentially stop.  So, they will have reduced purchases by $15 billion/month and that will be it.  Recall, just Wednesday there were two 25 basis point rate hikes priced into Fed funds futures curves by the end of 2022, with a third due for February 2023.  Already one of those rate hikes has been priced out and if the news doesn’t improve soon, I would look for the others to go away as well.  If we are entering a new phase of Covid restrictions, the question will be how much more money governments around the world are going to throw at the problem, not when they are going to start removing accommodation.

So, the quick analysis is that inflation will quickly fall to the wayside as a concern around the world as governments everywhere react to this latest medical risk.  Of course, at this point, it no longer matters why prices are rising, it is simply the fact they are rising and that expectations for them to continue get further entrenched that is the problem.  Reading through comments from various companies in their recent earnings calls shows that most of them are anticipating raising prices to cover costs as frequently as quarterly.  Once again, this implies that holding ‘stuff’ rather than paper assets is going to be the best protection one can have for a while yet.

It is still too early to estimate how this new Covid strain will ultimately impact economies which is entirely dependent on government responses.  But if recent history is any guide, I would expect that the playbook remains; more fiscal spending, more monetizing of debt and higher inflation amidst platitudes of just how much those governments care about you, their citizens.

Also, do not be surprised if all those best laid plans of companies returning to offices get waylaid once again.

In the end, the reason companies hedge their FX exposure is to help reduce the variance in earnings, whether by moderating cash flow swings or balance sheet revaluation.  It is because markets respond to news of this nature in such extreme measures that hedging makes sense and that is not about to change.

But also, B.1.1.529 is yet another nail in the coffin of just-in-time manufacturing processes.  Just-in-case is going to become the new normal, with higher inventories in order that manufacturers and retailers can satisfy client demand, and that is a permanent change in pricing.  Any thoughts that inflation is going to go back down to sub 2% for an extended period are going to run headlong into reality over the next year, and it won’t be pretty.

To sum it up; risk is worthless today, hold havens.  As to all the tomorrows, prices will tend higher for a much longer time regardless of what bond markets seem to indicate.  Those markets no longer offer signals as in the past due to central bank interference.

And with those cheery thoughts, enjoy Black Friday and a full edition will be out on Monday.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Unchecked

In Europe, the maximum nation
Is facing the scourge of inflation
And so, they are calling,
To help it start falling,
For less money accommodation

But others in Europe reject
The idea inflation’s unchecked
T’would be premature
To tighten, they’re sure
As QE they want to protect

It appears there is a growing rift in the ECB as we are beginning to hear more opposing views regarding the nature of inflation and correspondingly as to the prescription to address the issue.  On the one hand, the hawks have been sharpening their talons with Germany’s Schnabel, Slovenia’s Vasle and Spain’s de Guindos having all warned of inflation’s surprising persistence and explaining that the risk is to the upside for higher inflation still.  Meanwhile, this morning we had an erstwhile Hawk, Austria’s Holzmann, and an uber-dove, Italy’s Panetta pushing back on that view and insisting that the inflation that has been afflicting Europe is being driven by “purely temporary factors” and that premature withdrawal of stimulus would be a mistake.

The surprising feature of this discussion is that the Spanish voice is hawkish while the Austrian is dovish.  Perhaps what that tells us is that, just like in the US, inflation has become a bigger political problem in Spain and the Socialist PM, Pedro Sanchez, is feeling the heat from the population there.  This would not be surprising given inflation is running at 5.4%, the highest level since the introduction of the euro in 1999.  Arguably, the fact that Robert Holzmann seems to be siding with the transitory camp is also quite the surprise, but as they say, politics makes strange bedfellows.  In the end, as long as Madame Lagarde remains at the helm, the doves remain in control.  As such, these comments sound very much like posturing for particular audiences.

Turning to other news, Germany is at the center of the most interesting stories today as local politics (the formation of a new government…finally) as well as data (IFO Expectations fell to 94.2) seem to be driving the euro bus, and with the euro, the rest of the markets.  A brief look at the proposed government shows a coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) which is a pro-growth, free markets group.  This unprecedented grouping of 3 parties remains tenuous, at best, if only because the underlying belief sets are very different.  It remains unclear how a party whose focus is on less government (FDP) is going to work effectively with a party whose focus is on bigger government (SPD).  Olaf Scholz will be the new PM, a man with long experience in politics and a widely respected name.  As I said before, politics makes strange bedfellows!

On the economic side, this morning’s IFO data was quite disappointing, with Expectations falling back to levels seen in the beginning of the year and reaching a point that foretells of a recession coming.  Adding this to the imminent lockdown scenario (Germany’s Covid caseload jumped by 54K yesterday, with a significant surge ongoing), leaves quite the negative impression for the German economy.  In fact, given this news, it becomes harder for the hawks to make their case as the central bank model continues to believe that slowing growth will slow inflation.  (And while that would be true for demand-pull inflation, the whole cost-push framework is different.)  At any rate, the result is a day where risk is being shed and havens sought.  This is especially so in Germany, where the DAX (-0.6%) is the weakest performer in Europe, while Bunds (-1.7bps) have rallied despite a terrible auction outcome as investors adjust asset mixes.  And the euro?  Down a further 0.3%, trading just above 1.1200, although it appears that there is further to run.

What about the rest of markets?  Well, the Nikkei (-1.6%) fell sharply as investors in Japan expressed concern that the Fed would begin to tighten, and it would have negative impacts throughout the world.  At least that is what they claim.  China, on the other hand saw much less movement with the Hang Seng (+0.1%) and Shanghai (+0.1%) seeing a mix of gainers and losers internally thus offsetting for the index as a whole.  The rest of Europe is generally softer (CAC -0.2%, Spain’s IBEX -0.3%), although the FTSE 100 is basically unchanged on the day.  And after a mixed day yesterday, US futures are pointing modestly lower, -0.2% or so across the board.

As to the rest of the bond market, Treasuries (-2.4bps) are finally rallying after seeing a dramatic 12 basis point rise in the past three sessions.  We have also seen OATs (-0.7bps) rally slightly and Dutch bonds (-1.6bps) all the havens.  It should not, however, be surprising that Italian BTPs (+1.2bps) and Greek bonds (+3.9bps) are being sold as they remain risk assets in full.

On the commodity front, oil, which has been suffering from the SPR release story, seems to have absorbed that risk and after rebounding yesterday is flat this morning.  While still below $80/bbl, my sense is this has further to run higher.  NatGas (-0.25%) is a touch lower in the US as is gold (-0.1%).  However, the industrial metals are performing far better (Cu +0.7%, Al +0.7%, Sn +0.4%).

Lastly, the dollar is generally having a good day again, as risk appetite wanes.  NZD (-0.6%) is the weakest G10 currency after the market was disappointed in their actions last night, only raising the base rate by 0.25% while the whisper number was 0.5%. SEK (-0.4%) is the next laggard, with the krona continuing to suffer on the view that the Riksbank will remain reluctant to tighten policy at all in the face of actions by the Fed and potentially the BOE.  The rest of the bloc is generally softer with only the haven, JPY (+0.1%), showing any strength.

In the EMG space, we need to look away from TRY (+5.6%) which is retracing some of yesterday’s remarkable decline, as it is destined for extreme volatility in the near future.  But elsewhere, there is actually a mixed result with BRL (+0.6%) and PHP (+0.5%) leading the gainers while THB (-0.7%) and RUB (-0.3%) lag the space.  The real is benefitting from the central bank announcement it will be auctioning off 14K contracts in the FX markets, part of their intervention process, while the Philippine peso has benefitted from further investment inflows to the local stock market.  On the flipside, the baht seems to be suffering from concerns that the lockdowns in Europe will reduce tourism there during the high season, while the ruble continues to suffer from concerns over potential military activity and the further negative impacts of sanctions that could follow.

Given tomorrow’s Thanksgiving holiday, all the rest of the week’s data will be released today:

Initial Claims 260K
Continuing Claims 2033K
GDP Q2 2.2.%
Durable Goods 0.2%
-ex Transport 0.5%
Personal Income 0.2%
Personal Spending 1.0%
Core PCE 0.4% (4.1% Y/Y)
Michigan Sentiment 67.0
New Home Sales 800K
FOMC Minutes

Source: Bloomberg

As the GDP data is a revision, it will not garner much attention.  Rather, all eyes will be focused on Core PCE, as if recent form holds, it will print higher than expectations, further forcing the Fed debate.  And of course, the Minutes will be parsed intently as traders try to divine just how quickly things may change next month, especially since Chairman Powell and Governor Brainerd have both been clear that inflation is their primary concern now.

At this point, there is nothing to stand in the way of the dollar and I expect that it will continue to grind higher for a while.  The hallmark of the move so far this month, where the single currency has fallen 3.0%, is that it has been remarkably steady with a majority of sessions showing modest declines.  That pattern seems likely to continue for now unless there is a change from either the Fed or the ECB, neither of which seems likely.  Hedge accordingly.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and poetry will return on Monday November 29th.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Sang the Blues

The President’s finally decided
That Lael and Jay have now divided
The tasks at the Fed
And both of them said
Inflation just won’t be abided

The bond market took in the news
And quickly adjusted its views
Thus, interest rates rose
While gold felt the throes
Of pain as goldbugs sang the blues

By now, we all know that Chairman Powell has been reappointed to his current role as Fed Chair and Governor Brainerd has been elevated to Vice-Chair.  The underlying belief seems to be that the Biden administration was not prepared for what would likely have been a much more difficult confirmation fight to get Brainerd as Chair and decided to husband whatever political capital they still have left to fight for their spending legislation.  Arguably, the most interesting part of the process was that both Powell and Brainerd, in their remarks, indicated that fighting inflation was a key priority.  As Powell said, “We will use our tools both to support the economy and strong labor market, and to prevent higher inflation from becoming entrenched.”  Now that is a wonderful sentiment, and of course, directly in line with the Fed’s Congressional mandate to “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long term interest rates.”  Alas for them both, the tools necessary for the different pieces of the mandate tend to be opposite in their nature.

However, the market response was clear as to its broad belief that tighter Fed policy is on the horizon.  Between those comments and what we heard last week from Governor Waller, vice-Chair Clarida and St Louis Fed President Bullard, it seems clear that the meeting in December is going to be all about the timing of the tapering.  While the progressive wing of the Democratic party remains steadfast in their belief in the power of MMT to deliver prosperity for all, it appears that the reality on the ground, namely that inflation is exploding higher, has become too big a problem to ignore for President Biden.

Here’s the thing.  The traditional tool for fighting rising inflation is to raise interest rates above the rate of inflation to create positive real yields.  Now, depending on how you define inflation; CPI, PCE, the core version of either, or the trimmed mean version of either, given where all of those measures currently stand, the minimum amount of rate increases is going to be 300 basis points, with a chance that it could be 400 or more.  Now, ask yourself how an economy that is leveraged to the hilt (total debt/GDP > 895%) will respond to interest rates rising by 300 or 400 basis points.  How about the stock market, with its current Shiller CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) above 39 compared to a median of 15.86 over the past 150 years?  How do you think that will respond to the interest rate curve rising by 300 or 400 basis points?  The picture is not pretty.

It remains to be seen just how much pain the Fed and the Administration can stand if the Fed actually does start to tighten policy more aggressively in the face of rapidly rising inflation.  Consider that in Q4 2018, the last time the Fed was trying to ‘normalize’ policy by allowing the balance sheet to run down slowly while also raising interest rates, stocks fell 20% and the result was the ‘Powell Pivot’ on Boxing Day that year, where the Chairman explained that tightening policy wasn’t actually that critical at the time and would end immediately.  At that time the same measure of debt/GDP was ‘merely’ 763% and the CAPE was 29.  We have much further to fall today, and I expect that when/if that starts to happen, the Fed will not blithely continue tightening policy to fight inflation.  Remember the idea that the Fed has painted themselves into a corner?  Well, this is the corner in which they have painted themselves.  They need to raise rates to fight inflation but doing so is likely to provoke a severely negative market, and potentially economic, reaction.

Now, while we are all waiting for that shoe to drop, let’s take a look at how markets responded to the news.  The first thing to note is the bond market, where 10-year yields rose 9 bps yesterday and that trend has continued this morning with yields higher by another 2.3bps.  With the 10-year currently yielding 1.65%, all eyes are on the 1.75% level, the peak seen in March, and the level many see as a critical technical level, a break of which could open up much higher yields.  It should not be surprising that we have seen higher yields elsewhere as well, with European sovereigns (Bunds +5.9bps, OATs +5.7bps, Gilts +4.8bps) responding to three factors this morning; the US market movement, better than expected preliminary PMI data across the continent and hawkish comments from both Isabel Schnabel and Klaas Knot, two ECB members. You may recall last week when I described some Schnabel comments as apparently dovish, and a potential capitulation of the remaining hawks on the ECB.  Apparently, I was mistaken.  Today she was much clearer about the risks of inflation being to the upside and that they must be considered.  If the hawks are in flight, bonds have further to decline.

In the equity markets, yesterday’s news initially brought a rally in the US, but by the end of the day, as bond yields rose, the NASDAQ, which is effectively a very long duration asset, fell 1.25%, although the rest of the US market fared far better.  The overnight session saw a more modest reaction with the Nikkei (+0.1%) and Shanghai (+0.2%) edging higher although the Hang Seng (-1.2%) suffered on weaker consumer and pharma stocks.  Europe has rebounded from its worst levels but is still lower (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.25%, FTSE 100 0.0%) despite (because of?) the PMI data.  I guess hawkish monetary policy trumps good economic data, a harbinger of what may be on the horizon.  At this hour, US futures are little changed, so perhaps there is good news in store.

News that the Biden administration is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the SPR along with releases by India and South Korea has weighed on oil prices (WTI -1.5%) although NatGas (+4.8%) is not following along for the ride.  Gold (-0.5%) got clobbered yesterday and is down 2.7% from Friday’s closing levels.  Clearly, inflation fighting by the Fed is not seen as a positive.  As to the rest of the metals complex, it is generally higher as expectations grow that demand around the world is going to pick back up.

Finally, in the FX market, the truly notable mover today is TRY (-11.2%!) which appears to be starting to suffer from a true run in the wake of President Erdogan’s praise of the recent interest rate cut and claiming that Turkey is fighting an “economic war of independence.”  It seems he’s losing right now.  Relative to that movement, nothing else seems substantial although MXN (-0.8%) is feeling pressure from declining oil prices while other EMG currencies slid on the broad strong dollar theme.  In the G10, NZD (-0.5%) is the weakest performer as long positions were cut ahead of the RBNZ meeting next week, but the bulk of the bloc is modestly lower as US interest rates continue to power ahead.

On the data front, we see the preliminary PMI data (exp 59.1 Mfg, 59.0 Services) and that’s really it.  Yesterday’s Existing Home Sales were better than expected, but really, today’s markets will continue to be driven by interest rates and views on how the Fed is going to behave going forward.  Taking Powell at his word means that tighter policy is coming which should help the dollar amid a broader risk-off sentiment.  Plan accordingly.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Somewhat Weak

In China, the PBOC
Whose policy, previously
Consisted of planks
Instructing the banks
To buy more and more renminbi

Has seemingly now changed its mind
With prop trading now much maligned
Instead, what they seek
Is yuan, somewhat weak
And banks that object will be fined

Let’s face it, constantly harping on inflation is getting tiresome.  While it remains the biggest topic in the market, we have discussed it extensively, and in fact, until there is some clarity as to the next Fed chair, it is very difficult to even try to determine how the Fed will respond going forward.  The word is that President Biden will be revealing his nomination tomorrow at which point we can game out potential future scenarios.

In the meantime, we have seen large movements in some emerging market currencies, and we have heard about some potential changes in policies underlying one of the less volatile ones, the Chinese renminbi.  One of the more surprising features of the dollar’s rally since summertime has been the fact that the renminbi has actually strengthened about 0.6% while the euro has declined nearly 8%.  In fairness, the euro has many self-inflicted problems that have been underlying its recent weakness, but the dollar, as measured by the Bloomberg dollar index, has risen by nearly 6%, implying there has been a lot of broad-based dollar strength.  This begs the question, why hasn’t the renminbi followed suit?

There are several potential answers to this question with the likelihood that each has been a part of the process.  Remember, for a mercantilist economy like China’s, a weaker currency tends to be the goal in an effort to improve the competitiveness of its exporters.  So, acceptance of a stronger currency demonstrates other priorities.

If nothing else, China plays the long game, historically willing to sacrifice short-term economic performance for the sake of a longer-term goal, often a political one.  And one of the things China is very keen to achieve is de-dollarization of its economy.  Given the growing antagonism between the US and China, President Xi has determined his nation is better served by an alternative to the US dollar in as many areas as possible.  One of those areas is in trade with other developing nations.  To the extent that the Chinese can convince other Asian, Middle Eastern or African nations to accept renminbi in exchange for their products, rather than dollars, it both strengthens Xi’s grip on those nations’ economies as well as reduces his reliance on the US led SWIFT system thus preventing any interference by the US.  As such, it is incumbent upon Xi to insure that CNY is a strong and stable currency, the exact words the PBOC uses to describe the renminbi in almost every press release.

Now, while this may have been at odds with short-term potential benefits, Xi understood the long-term benefits of removing as much of the Chinese economy from the dollar’s global sphere of influence as possible.  And it seems, that a major tool used to help maintain the renminbi’s strength has been the encouragement of local Chinese banks prop trading desks to continue to buy the currency.  There have long been stories of the PBOC whispering in the ear of Chinese banks to do just that, with the implication that the PBOC would prevent any significant weakness.

But that was then.  It seems now that the ongoing malaise in the Chinese economy, where growth forecasts continue to slide and expectations for another 50 basis point RRR cut are growing, has the PBOC apparently cracking down on prop desks buying too much CNY.  They have been instructed to monitor client activity and keep it at more ‘normal’ levels.  Some see that as a tacit admission that the previous policy, which was never explicit, was in fact a reality.  In addition, much will be made of the fixing, which last night was printed 0.2% weaker than expected.  Now, while 0.2% may not seem like much, in a currency with historical volatility around 3%, it is a signal.  In addition, the PBOC indicated that it would be ready to allow a “more flexible currency”, their code for weakness.  This is not to say the CNY is going to collapse, just that the unusual strength we have seen over the past six plus months is likely coming to an end.  Be warned.

Turning to the rest of the market this morning, the situation is somewhat mixed, with equity markets showing both gains and losses, although bond markets are under universal pressure.  Starting with equities, Asia gave no directional cues with the Nikkei (+0.1%) little changed while the Hang Seng (-0.4%) and Shanghai (+0.6%) gave confusing signals.  It seems that there is a very large sell order making the rounds in Evergrande stock, which is weighing on HK, while Shanghai responded to the first hints of easing by the PBOC.  Europe, which was modestly higher earlier in the session, has drifted to a mixed performance as well with the DAX (-0.1%) and CAC (-0.2%) both a touch softer although the FTSE 100 (+0.1%) has eked out a gain.  In the absence of any data releases, it seems that traders are biding their time for the next big thing.  US futures, on the other hand, are all firmer by about 0.35%, despite talk of a faster taper by more Fed speakers late last week.

Bond markets, though, are having a rougher time of things with Treasuries (+3.3bps) leading the way, but Bunds (+1.3bps) and Gilts (+2.5bps) both following along.  OATs are unchanged on the day, although have spent the bulk of the session with modestly higher yields.  The thing about yields, though, is that they remain range-bound and have shown little impetus to trend in either direction.  This is a market waiting for the next central bank discussion.

In the commodity space, oil continues under pressure as the thought of SPR releases in a coordinated manner from a number of nations continues to dog the price.  NatGas (-5.4%), interestingly, has tumbled after a larger than expected build in inventories, something US homeowners will welcome.  In the metals space, gold (-0.2%) is slightly softer and copper (-0.6%) is feeling a bit more strain.  However, aluminum (+0.6%) and nickel (+2.1%) show that this is not a universal issue.

As to the dollar, in the G10 the story is mixed with AUD (+0.3%) the best performer while SEK (-0.4%) is the worst.  However, these appear to be flow related movements as there has been no data or commentary from either nation.  The rest of the bloc has barely moved, +/- 0.1% for most of them, as traders await the next big idea.  In the emerging markets, CLP (+3.0%) is the big gainer as yesterday’s presidential election resulted in the conservative candidate performing far better than expected and investors now hoping that the country will maintain its investment friendly policies.  On the downside, RUB (-1.3%) and HUF (-0.6%) are in the worst shape with the former feeling pain based on concerns recent troop movements near the Ukraine border will result in an invasion and potential further sanctions, while the forint is suffering despite a more aggressive central bank as inflation there continues to ramp higher.  Expectations are growing for yet another rate hike as the fear is they are falling further behind the curve.

With the holiday before us, data is all crammed into the first three days this week, and most of it is on Wednesday:

Today Existing Home Sales 6.18M
Tuesday Manufacturing PMI 59.1
Services PMI 59.0
Wednesday Initial Claims 261K
Continuing Claims 2052K
GDP 2.2%
Durable Goods 0.2%
-ex Transport 0.5%
Personal Income 0.2%
Personal Spending 1.0%
Core PCE 0.4% (4.1% Y/Y)
New Home Sales 800K
Michigan Sentiment 66.9
FOMC Minutes

Source: Bloomberg

Consider that on the day before Thanksgiving, we are going to see some of the most important data of the month, and there will be relatively few people around.  If there is any surprise, we could see significant volatility.  In fact, for the week as a whole, the lack of liquidity is likely to result in a choppier market.  Keep that in mind if you need to execute anything of substance, but overall, the dollar’s recent rally seems likely to continue.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Risk’s In Retreat

In Germany, Covid’s widespread
And lockdowns seem likely ahead
But that hasn’t stopped
Inflation which popped
To levels the people there dread

The upshot is risk’s in retreat
As equities, traders, excrete
But bonds and the buck
Are showing their pluck
And havens now look mighty sweet

While Covid has obviously not disappeared, for a time it seemed much less important to investors and traders and so, had a lesser impact on price action.  But that was then.  During the past few weeks, Covid has once again become a much bigger problem despite the inoculation of large portions of the population in most developed countries.  Exhibit A is Austria, where they have imposed a full-scale vaccine mandate and have the police checking papers randomly to insure that anyone outside their home is vaccinated.  If you are found without papers, the penalty is prison.  However, Germany seems determined to catch up to Austria on this count, as the infection rate there climbs rapidly, and the healthcare system is getting overwhelmed.  There is talk that a nationwide lockdown is coming there as well, and soon.

Of course, what we learned during the first months of Covid’s spread was that when lockdowns are imposed, economic activity declines dramatically.  After all, in-person services all but end, and without government financial support, many people are unable to maintain their levels of consumption.  As such, the prospect of the largest economy in Europe going into a total lockdown is a pretty negative signal for future economic activity.  Alas for the authorities, the one thing that does not seem to be in retreat is inflation.  While Germany is contemplating a national lockdown, this morning it released its latest PPI data and in October, Producer Prices rose 3.8%, which takes their year-on-year rise to…18.4%!  This is the highest level since 1951 and obviously greatly concerning.  While some portion of these increased costs will be absorbed by companies, you can be sure that a substantial portion will be passed on to customers.  CPI is already at 4.6% and there is no indication that it is about to retreat.

And folks, this is Germany, the nation that is arguably the most phobic regarding inflation of any in the developed world.  Sure, Turkey and Argentina and Venezuela have bigger inflation problems right now.  So does Brazil, for that matter.  And many of these latter nations have long histories of inflation ruling the roost.  But ever since 1924, when the newly established Rentenbank helped break the Weimar hyperinflation, sound money and low inflation have been the hallmarks of German policy and politics.  So, the idea that any price index is printing in double digits, let alone nearly at 20% per annum, is extraordinary.  In fact, this is what makes yesterday’s comments from Isabel Schnabel, a German PhD economist and member of the ECB’s Executive Board, so remarkable.  For any German with sway over monetary policy to pooh-pooh the current inflation levels is unprecedented.  Even more remarkably, with Jens Weidmann leaving the role of Bundesbank President, Schnabel is on the short list to replace him.

This drama in Germany matters because if the Bundesbank, traditionally one of the most hawkish central banks, and the biggest counterweight to the ECB as a whole, is turning dovish, then the implications for the euro, as well as Eurozone assets, are huge.  If the Bundesbank will not be holding back Madame Lagarde’s push to do more, we can expect an expansion in QE from here and overall higher inflation going forward.  Both bonds and stocks will rally, as will the price of commodities in euros, while the euro itself will fall sharply.  In fact, this may be enough to offset any incipient dovishness from the Fed should Lael Brainerd wind up as Fed Chair.  It would certainly change medium and long-term views on the EURUSD exchange rate.  And you thought that the week before Thanksgiving would be quiet.

And so, it is a risk-off type day today.  While Asian equity markets managed more winners than losers (Nikkei +0.5%, Hang Seng -1.1%, Shanghai +1.1%), Europe is completely in the red (DAX -0.2%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 -0.5%) and US futures are pointing down as well, with DJIA futures (-0.6%) leading the way.

Bond markets are behaving exactly as would be expected on a risk-off day, with Treasury yields falling 4.6bps while European Sovereigns (Bunds -5.5bps, OATs -5.4bps, Gilts -5.8bps) have rallied even further.  In fact, German 30-year bunds have fallen into negative territory again for the first time since August.

If you want to see risk being shed, look no further than oil (-3.1%) which is lower yet again and seems to have found a short-term top.  It seems the news of SPR releases as well as slowing growth prospects has been enough to halt the inexorable rally seen since April 2020.  Interestingly, a number of other commodities are performing quite well with NatGas (+1.1%), copper (+0.9%) and aluminum (+0.7%) all nicely higher.  Gold (+0.2%) continues to edge up as well, with more and more inflows given its haven status.  Somewhat surprisingly, Bitcoin (-4.7%, -10.5% in the past week) is not similarly benefitting, although the narrative of it being digital gold remains strong.  Perhaps it was simply massively overbought!

Finally, the dollar is clearly king this morning, rallying strongly vs all its G10 peers except the yen (+0.35%), with NOK (-1.1%) the biggest laggard on the back of oil’s decline, although the SEK (-0.9%) and EUR (-0.7%) are no slouches either.  The funny thing about the euro was it spent all day yesterday climbing slowly after touching new lows for the move.  However, this morning, it is below 1.13 and pressing those lows from Wednesday with no end in sight.

EMG currencies are also under pressure across the board with HUF (-1.6%) the worst performer as it has unwound the gains seen from yesterday’s surprising large rate hike, and is now suffering as Covid spreads rapidly and it may soon be a restricted zone for travel from Europe.  CZK (-1.1%) is next in line, as it too, is in the crosshairs of authorities to prevent travel there due to Covid.  In fact, the entire CE4 is the worst bloc, but we are also seeing further weakness in TRY (-0.6%) after yesterday’s rate cut, and RUB (-0.5%) with oil’s slide as the cause.

There is no data to be released today and only two Fed speakers, Waller and Clarida, with the latter losing his clout as he will soon be exiting the FOMC.  There continues to be a wide rift between the hawks and doves on the Fed, but as long as Powell, Brainerd and Williams remain dovish, and they have, the very modest steps toward tapering are all we are likely to see.  The problem is that while we are all acutely aware of inflation and the problems it brings, the FOMC is lost in its models and sees a very different reality.  Not only that, inflation diminishes the real value of the US’s outstanding debt and so serves an important purpose for the government.  While there continues to be lip service paid to inflation as a problem, policy actions show a willingness to tolerate higher inflation for a much longer time.  Alas, it will be topic number one with respect to markets for a long time to come.

For now, the dollar is performing well against all the major currencies, but there are many potential twists in our future.  As I have said before, payables hedgers should be picking levels to add to their hedges.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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Prices Keep Rising

In Europe, though prices keep rising
The central bank is emphasizing
No rate hikes are near
In this or next year
So, traders, their views, are revising

Meanwhile in the States the reverse
Is true with inflation much worse
Now traders believe
The Fed’s on the eve
Of trying to tighten their purse

It cannot be surprising that inflation remains topic number one in the markets as its existence is driving virtually every narrative.  For instance, the choice for next Fed Chair is seen as having a direct impact on inflation based on the relative dovishness of Lael Brainerd vs. Jay Powell.  Too, as oil prices have risen so sharply over the past year, driving up the price of gas at the pump and inflation in general, the Biden Administration is now exhorting all nations to release oil from their strategic reserves in order to damp down those price pressures.  And what about wages, you may ask?  As per the WSJ this morning, here is the latest on the just agreed wage deal at Deere & Co, whose workers had been on strike for the past 5 weeks,

“Deere workers returning to assembly plants and warehouses will get an immediate 10% raise, and each worker will receive an $8,500 bonus. Additional 5% pay raises will be provided in 2023 and 2025, and lump-sum bonuses amounting to 3% of workers’ annual pay will be awarded in the three other years.
The deal approved Wednesday also will increase the base pay level for Deere’s continuous-improvement program by about 4%, giving workers more weekly pay from the program if their productivity meets the company’s goals. About two-thirds of UAW-represented Deere workers receive production-based compensation on top of their regular wages, according to the company.”

Apparently, the cost of the settlement is on the order of $3.5 billion, a very substantial portion of their forecast 2021 earnings estimates of $5.8 billion.  It strikes that either Deere is going to be raising prices (likely) to offset that margin compression, or its earnings numbers are going to diminish (also likely) thus putting pressure on its stock over time.  Recall, Chairman Powell has been adamant, and we have heard from numerous other Fed speakers as well, that wage inflation is not imminent and thus recent price rises are likely to be temporary.  This appears to be one more data point that makes the Fed story less plausible.

In Europe, however, there is a full-court press by ECB members to convince the investment and trading communities that they are not going to raise rates anytime soon as inflation there, too, is still transitory.  While it should be no surprise that Mario Centeno, the Portuguese central bank head and ECB member is all-in for never raising rates again, it is a huge surprise that Germany’s Isabel Schnabel is talking about the need to avoid premature tightening as deflation risks still haunt the Eurozone.  Her comments come despite CPI in Germany running at 4.5%, the highest since the reunification in the early 90’s and causing significant domestic strife.  If one was looking for a sign that the ECB doves have coopted the hawks to their side, there is no better indication than this!  As such, traders, who had been pricing for a 10bp rise in the deposit rate by the end of 2022 have pushed that view back nearly 12 months.

In sum, the battle between the central bank narratives and reality continues apace with the central banks, remarkably, holding their own in the face of growing evidence to dispute their claims.  And it is this battle that will continue to drive markets and help maintain volatility as each data point or comment has the ability to alter things at the margin.

So, as we look at markets this morning, remember the backdrop remains, Inflation, friend or foe?

Ok, how has risk appetite been affected by the latest news?  Well, US equities all moved lower yesterday and that carried over into Asia with the Nikkei (-0.3%), Hang Seng (-1.3%) and Shanghai (-0.5%) all in the red.  Part of that is because the Chinese property sector continues to weigh on sentiment there with the latest news that several large property companies, including Evergrande, are set to unload stakes in other companies to raise cash.  While these sales will be at great losses, the imperative for the cash is obvious.  Not surprisingly, selling large stakes of publicly held companies tends to weigh on their stock price and thus the market as a whole.

In Europe, the picture is more mixed (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.2%) with the UK seeming to suffer from growing concerns the Johnson government may invoke Article 16 from the Brexit deal which would suspend part of the Northern Ireland solution and could quickly evoke retaliation by the EU.  As to US futures, given it appears to be illegal for two consecutive down days in the equity markets, it should not be surprising that futures are pointing higher by between 0.2% and 0.5% at this hour.

Bond market price action is a very clear result of the central bank narrative as European sovereigns have all seen rallies (lower yields) while Treasuries remain under pressure as investors anticipate higher rates in the States.  This morning the 10-year Treasury yield is higher by 1 basis point while in Europe (Bunds -0.9bps, OATs -1.3bps, Gilts -2.7bps) the entire continent has seen demand pick up and yields decline.  Clearly, if the ECB remains full-bore on QE, it will support these prices for a long time.

Turning to the commodity markets, pretty much the entire space is softer today led by oil (-0.5%), gold (-0.2%) and copper (-0.7%).  But there is weakness across the rest of the industrial and precious metal space as well.  In fact, the only gainers on the day are NatGas (+1.8%) which looks very much like a rebound from its recent sharp sell-off, and the agricultural space, where the big 3 products are all firmer by a bit.

Turning to the FX markets, the dollar is under a bit of pressure this morning, which mostly seems like a pull-back from its recent strength.  Technically, it does seem overbought.  In the G10, NZD (+0.7%) is far and away the leading gainer after the RBNZ published their inflation expectations survey at the highest level in a decade and traders began to price in another 25 basis point rate hike at their meeting next week.  However, after that, the rest of the bloc has seen much more modest strength except for NOK (-0.1%) which is suffering from oil’s recent travails, and JPY (-0.1%) which may be reacting to news that the Kishida government is discussing yet more fiscal stimulus, this time to the tune of ¥78.9 trillion.

Emerging market currencies have a more mixed tone with the outlier continuing to be TRY (-2.1%) as the central bank remained true to form and cut its base rate to 15.0% despite runaway inflation.  Next worst is CLP (-0.7%) which has fallen as the finance ministry has stopped its regular dollar sales to maintain cash balances, but pulling support from the currency, and then we see both MXN (-0.55%) and ZAR (-0.5%) suffering on the back of commodity weakness.  On the plus side, HUF (+0.7%) is the big winner after the central bank raised rates by a more than expected 0.70% in their efforts to fight inflation.

On the data front this morning comes weekly Initial (exp 260K) and Continuing (2120K) Claims as well as the Philly Fed (24.0) and Leading Indicators (0.8%).  The Fed speaker onslaught slows a bit today with only four speakers, although despite yesterday’s plethora of speakers, it doesn’t appear we learned anything new.

For now, the broad narrative remains the Fed is going to be the first large central bank to tighten and that is driving the dollar higher.  While today we seem to be pausing for a bit, this story does not yet appear to have run its course.  Hence, I reiterate for payables hedgers, pick your levels and take advantage of the dollar’s strength for now.  orders are an excellent way to manage this risk.

Good luck and stay safe
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