Investors Remain Unconcerned

There once was a time in the past
When market bears quickly amassed
Positions quite short
While they would exhort
Investors, their holdings, to cast

But these days the story has turned
So bears that go short now get burned
A global pandemic?
It’s just academic
Investors remain unconcerned

One has to be impressed with the current frame of mind of global investors as they clearly feel bulletproof. Or perhaps, one has to be impressed with the job that central bankers around the world have done to allow those feelings to exist.

The coronavirus is quickly becoming back page news, where there will be a tally of cases and deaths daily, morphing into weekly, as the investment community turns its attention to much more important things, like how many new streaming customers each of the streaming services picked up in Q4. It seems the fact that China’s economy is going to feel some extreme pain in Q1 is being completely dismissed. At least from the market’s perspective. And this is where the central banks get to take a bow. It turns out that overwhelming liquidity support is all one needs to make people forget about everything else. It is truly the opioid of the market masses.

So as you sit down this morning you will see that equity markets around the world are on a tear higher, with every market that has been open today in the green, most by well more than 1%. And don’t worry; US futures are all more than 1% higher as well. Everything is clearly fantastic!

Last night, the PBOC fixed the renminbi more than 0.5% stronger than the market would have indicated, thus demonstrating they would not let things get out of hand. Then after a weak opening, where equity indices there fell more than 2%, the government stepped in along with official buyers and turned the tide higher. Once this occurred, equity markets elsewhere in Asia took their cues and everything rallied. Risk was no longer anathema and we have seen that across all assets as havens come under pressure and other risk assets, notably oil has rebounded. The lifecycle of a negative event has grown increasingly shorter as central banks continue to demonstrate their willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to prevent a sell-off of any magnitude in any equity market.

This is not just a US phenomenon, but a global one. To me the question is: Is this peak financialization of the global economy? By that I mean are we now in a period where the real economy, the one where cars and other stuff are manufactured and food is grown, has become completely secondary to the idea that companies that do those things need to be entirely focused on their capital structure to be sure that they are appropriately overleveraged? While I recognize that I am old-fashioned in my thoughts, I cannot help but believe that we are going to see a pretty significant repricing of assets at some point in the not too distant future. In truth, despite the market’s insouciance with regard to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it is entirely possible that it continues to expand for several more months and that China, the second largest economy in the world and one representing 16% of total global economic activity, does not grow at all in Q1 while supply chains are closed and manufacturing around the world grinds to a much slower pace. Many recessions have been born of less than that. Just remember, trees don’t grow all the way to the sky, and neither do economies!

So let’s turn back to the other things ongoing in this morning’s session. Broadly speaking, the dollar is under modest pressure along with Treasury bonds and the Japanese yen. After all, safe havens do not boost your returns when Tesla is rallying 20% a day! There has been limited data today (Italian CPI +0.5% Y/Y) so FX markets are watching equities. Yesterday saw a big surprise in the US ISM data, which printed above 50 for the first time since July and has a number of analysts reconsidering their forecasts for slowing growth. The dollar definitely responded to this yesterday, rallying across the board as Fed funds futures backed off taking the probability of a rate cut by the Fed in July down to 85%. Remember, Friday that was at 100%.

Yesterday also saw the pound suffer significantly as the initial saber rattling by both the UK and the EU continued, which helped push the pound back to its key support level of 1.2950-1.3000. But as I said yesterday, this is simply both sides trying to get an advantage in the negotiation. While anything is possible, I continue to believe that a deal will be reached, or at the very least that a delay agreed on a timely basis. Boris is not going to jeopardize his power on this principle, remember he’s a politician first, and principles for them are fluid.

In the EMG bloc, pretty much every currency has rallied today as investors have quickly returned to those currencies with either higher yields (ZAR +0.6%, MXN +0.5%) or the best prospects assuming the coronavirus situation quickly dissipates (KRW +0.6%, CLP +0.6%, THB +0.5%). And in truth, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

In the US this morning we see December Factory Orders (exp 1.2%), generally not a major data point. There are no Fed speakers scheduled today which means that FX is going to be a secondary story. All eyes will be on equity markets and I expect that as risk assets are acquired, the dollar (and yen and Swiss franc) will continue to soften slowly.

Good luck
Adf

Despite Cash

In China the stock market sank
Despite cash from its central bank
But elsewhere it seems
The narrative deems
Investors, the Kool-Aid, have drank

So, it can be no surprise that after a one and a half week hiatus, the Chinese equity markets sold off dramatically (Shanghai -7.8%) when they reopened last night. After all, equity markets elsewhere in the world had all been under pressure for the entire time as the novel coronavirus spread seemed to accelerate. Of course, since Chinese markets closed for the Lunar New Year holiday, major global markets in the west had fallen only between 3.5% and 4.0%. But given China is the country whose economy will be most impacted, the ratio doesn’t seem wrong.

What we learned over the weekend, though, is that the acceleration has not yet begun to slow down. The latest data shows over 17,000 infected and over 300 deaths are now attributable to this illness. Most epidemiological models indicate that we have not reached the peak, and that it would not be surprising to see upwards of a quarter of a million cases within the next month or two. Remember too, this assumes that the information coming from China is accurate, which given the global reaction to the situation, may be a big ask. After all, I’m pretty sure President Xi Jinping does not want to be remembered as the leader of China when it unleashed a global pandemic. You can be sure that there will be a lot of finger-pointing in China for the rest of 2020, as some heads will need to roll in order to placate the masses, or at least to placate Xi.

But in what has been a classic case of ‘sell the rumor, buy the news’, equity markets in the rest of the world seem to have gotten over their collective fears as we see modest strength throughout Europe (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.2% FTSE +0.4%) and US futures are all pointing higher as well. So at this point in time, it appears that the market’s modest correction last week is seen as sufficient to adjust for what will certainly be weaker growth globally, at least in Q1 2020. Something tells me that there is further repricing to be seen, but for now, the default belief is that the Fed and other central banks will do “whatever it takes” as Signor Draghi once said, to prevent an equity market collapse. And that means that selling risk would be a mistake.

With that as prelude, let’s turn our attention to what is happening away from the virus. The biggest FX mover overnight has been the pound, which has fallen 1.1% after tough talk from both PM Boris Johnson and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. The market’s concern seems to be that there will be no agreement reached and thus come December, we will have a Brexit redux. I am strongly in the camp that this is just posturing and that come June, when the decision for an extension must be made, it will be done under the guise of technical aspects, and that a deal will be reached. Neither side can afford to not reach a deal. In fact, one of the key discussion points in Europe this morning is the fact that the EU now has a €6 billion hole in its budget and there is nobody able to fill the gap.

On the data front, Eurozone Manufacturing PMI data was modestly better than forecast, with the bloc-wide number at 47.9, still contractionary, but Italy, France and Germany all edging higher by a tenth or two. However, despite the modestly better data and the modest uptick in equity markets, the single currency is under some pressure this morning, down 0.25%, as the market adjusts its outlook for Fed activity. It remains pretty clear that the ECB is already doing everything it can, so the question becomes will the Fed ease more aggressively as we go forward, especially if we start to see weaker data on the back of the coronavirus situation. Friday’s market activity saw futures traders reprice their expectations for Fed rate cuts, with the first cut now priced for July and a second for December. And that rate change was what undermined the dollar during Friday’s session, as it suddenly appeared that the US would be stepping on the monetary accelerator. In fairness, if the quarantine in China continues through the end of Q1, a quick Fed rate cut seems pretty likely. We shall see how things evolve. However, this morning sees a bit less fear all over, and so less need for Fed action.

The other main mover in the G10 was NOK (-0.7%), which given how much oil prices have suffered, seems quite reasonable. There is a story that Chinese oil demand has fallen 20% since the outbreak, as the combination of factory closures and quarantines reducing vehicle traffic has taken its toll. In fact, OPEC is openly discussing a significant production cut to try to rebalance markets, although other than the Saudis, it seems unlikely other producers will join in. But away from those currencies, the G10 space is in observation mode.

In the emerging markets, it should be no surprise that CNY is much weaker, falling 1.1% on-shore (catching up to the offshore CNH) and trading below (dollar above) 7.00. Again, that seems pretty appropriate given the situation, and its future will depend on just how big a hit the economy there takes. Surprisingly, the big winner today is ZAR, which has rebounded 1.0% after Friday’s sharp decline which took the currency through the 15.0 level for the first time since October. In truth, this feels more like a simple reaction to Friday’s movement than to something new. If anything, this morning’s PMI data from South Africa was much worse than expected at 45.2, which would have seemingly undermined the currency, not bolstered it.

On the data front, this week will be quite active as we see the latest payroll data on Friday, and a significant amount of new data between now and then.

Today ISM Manufacturing 48.5
  ISM Prices Paid 51.5
  Construction Spending 0.5%
Tuesday Factory Orders 1.2%
Wednesday ADP Employment 158K
  Trade Balance -$48.2B
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 55.1
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Unit Labor Costs 1.2%
  Nonfarm Productivity 1.6%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 160K
  Private Payrolls 150K
  Manufacturing Payrolls -4K
  Unemployment Rate 3.5%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.3
  Participation Rate 63.2%
  Consumer Credit $15.0B

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, all eyes will be on the payrolls on Friday, although the ISM data will garner a great deal of attention as well. Last Friday’s core PCE data was right on the screws, so the Friday rate movement was all about coronavirus. With the FOMC meeting behind us, we get back to a number of Fed speakers, although this week only brings four. Something tells me there will be a lot of discussion regarding how they will respond to scenarios regarding China and the virus.

In the end, short term price action is going to be all about the virus and its perceived impact on the global economy. Any indication that the outbreak is slowing down will result in an immediate risk grab-a-thon. If it gets worse, look for havens to get bid up quickly.

Good luck
Adf

Leavers Cheer

The Governor, in his last meeting
Said data, of late, stopped retreating
There’s no reason why
We need to apply
A rate cut as my term’s completing

Yet all the news hasn’t been great
As Eurozone stats demonstrate
Plus Brexit is here
And though Leavers cheer
The impact, growth, will constipate

Yesterday saw a surprising outcome from the BOE, as the 7-2 vote to leave rates on hold was seen as quite a bit more hawkish than expected. The pound benefitted immensely, jumping a penny (0.65%) in the moments right (before) and after the announcement and has maintained those gains ever since. In fact, this morning’s UK data, showing growth in Consumer Credit and Mortgage Approvals, has helped it further its gains, and the pound is now higher by 0.2% this morning. (As to the ‘before’ remark; apparently, the pound jumped 15 seconds prior to the release of the data implying that there may have been a leak of the news ahead of time. Investigations are ongoing.) In the end, despite the early January comments by Carney and two of his comrades regarding the need for more stimulus, it appears the recent data was sufficient to convince them that further stimulus was just not necessary.

Of course, that pales in comparison, at least historically, with today’s activity, when at 11:00pm GMT, the UK will leave the EU. With Brexit finally completed all the attention will turn to the UK’s efforts to redefine its trading relationship with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the question at hand is whether UK growth will benefit in the short-term, or if we have already seen the release of any pent-up demand that was awaiting this event.

What we do know is that Q4 was not kind to the Continent. Both France (-0.1%) and Italy (-0.3%) saw their economies shrink unexpectedly, and though Spain (+0.5%) continues to perform reasonably well, the outcome across the entire Eurozone was the desultory result of 0.1% GDP growth in Q4, and just 1.0% for all of 2019. Compare that with the US outcome of 2.1% and it is easy to see why the euro has had so much difficulty gaining any ground. It is also easy to see why any thoughts of tighter ECB policy in the wake of their ongoing review make no sense at all. Whatever damage negative rates are doing to the Eurozone economies, especially to banks, insurance companies and pensions, the current macroeconomic playbook offers no other alternatives. Interestingly, despite the soft data, the euro has held its own, and is actually rallying slightly as I type, up 0.1% on the day.

It may not seem to make sense that we see weak Eurozone data and the euro rallies, but I think the explanation lies on the US side of the equation. The ongoing aftermath of the FOMC meeting is that analysts are becoming increasingly dovish regarding their views of future Fed activity. It seems that, upon reflection, Chairman Powell has effectively promised to ease policy further and maintain a more dovish overall policy as the Fed goes into overdrive in their attempts to achieve the elusive 2.0% inflation target. I have literally seen at least six different analyses explaining that the very modest change in the statement, combined with Powell’s press conference make it a lock that ‘lower for longer’ is going to become ‘lower forever’. Certainly the Treasury market is on board as 10-year yields have fallen to 1.55%, a more than 40bp decline this month. And this is happening while equity markets have stabilized after a few days of serious concern regarding the ongoing coronavirus issue.

Currently, the futures market is pricing for a rate cut to happen by September, but with the Fed’s policy review due to be completed in June, I would look for a cut to accompany the report as they try to goose things further.

Tacking back to the coronavirus, the data continues to get worse with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. The WHO finally figured out it is a global health emergency, and announced as much yesterday afternoon. But I fear that the numbers will get much worse over the next several weeks. Ultimately, the huge unknown is just how big an economic impact this will have on China, and the rest of the world. With the Chinese government continuing to delay the resumption of business, all those global supply chains are going to come under increasing pressure. Products built in China may not be showing up on your local store’s shelves for a while. The market response has been to drive the prices of most commodities lower, as China is the world’s largest commodity consumer. But Chinese stock markets have been closed since January 23, and are due to open Monday. Given the price action we have seen throughout the rest of Asia when markets reopened, I expect that we could see a significant downdraft there, at least in the morning before the government decides too big a decline is bad optics. And on the growth front, initial estimates are for Q1 GDP in China to fall to between 3.0% and 4.0%, although the longer this situation exists, the lower those estimates will fall.

Turning to this morning’s activity, we see important US data as follows:

Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 0.3%
Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
Chicago PMI 48.9
Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg

Arguably, the PCE number is the most important as that is what is plugged into Fed models. Yesterday’s GDP data also produces a PCE-type deflator and it actually fell to 1.3%. If we see anything like that you can be certain that bonds will rally further, stocks will rally, and rate cut probabilities will rise. And the dollar? In that scenario, look for the dollar to fall across the board. But absent that type of data, the dollar is likely to continue to take its cues from the equity markets, which at the moment are looking at a lower opening following in Europe’s footsteps. Ultimately, if risk continues to be jettisoned, the dollar should find its footing.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

Another Cut’s Quite Apropos

The Chair said, ‘inflation’s too low
And there’s something you all need to know
Lest prices soon rise
We’ll not compromise
Thus another cut’s quite apropos

There are a number of discussion topics in the market this morning so let’s get right to it.

First the Fed surprised exactly nobody yesterday afternoon by leaving policy unchanged, (except for a ‘technical’ adjustment to IOER, which they raised by the expected 5bps). However, the talk this morning is all about the tone of the statement and the ensuing press conference. In the end, it appears that the Fed is leaning slightly more dovish than they had seemed to be previously, with a still greater focus on inflation. Powell and friends appear to be increasingly concerned that inflation expectations are still declining, and are terrified of an ultimate outcome similar to the past two decades in Japan. As such, it appears they are getting set to move from an inflation target to a price level target. This means that if inflation runs below target for a period of time, as it has been doing ever since it was officially announced in 2012, they will be comfortable allowing it to run above target in order to make up ground. The conclusion is that the bar to raising rates is now impossibly high, at least assuming prices don’t follow the lead of Argentina or Venezuela. And if anything, especially with the impact of the coronavirus still just being discussed and modeled, the likelihood is for more rate cuts before the end of the year.

Speaking of the coronavirus, the WHO has suddenly figured out what the rest of the world has known for a week, this is a serious problem that is spreading quickly. The death toll is over 170 and the number of cases is quickly approaching 8000. The economic impact is growing as more and more companies halt activity in China, more flights are canceled to and from all cities in China, and fear spreads further. Last night, Taiwan’s stock market reopened for the first time in a week and fell 5.75%. Meanwhile the Taiwan dollar fell 1.0%. And the renminbi? Well onshore markets are still closed, and will be so through Monday, at least, but the CNH traded below 7.00 (dollar higher) in London early this morning and remains within basis points of that level as NY walks in. As I wrote on Monday, this will be the best indicator of sentiment as it is the only thing that can actively trade that reflects opinions on the mainland. It should be no surprise that the other Asian equity markets that were open also fell sharply (Nikkei -1.7%, Hang Seng -3.1%, KOSPI -1.7%) as investors just don’t know what to do at this stage. Fear remains the key driver, and will continue to be until there is some sense that the infection rate is slowing down. To date, that has not been the case.

And finally, the Old Lady just announced no change in the base rate, which according to the futures market had been a 50:50 chance. The pound’s response was an immediate pop and it is now higher by 0.4% on the day, making it the best performing G10 currency. Data early in the month prompted a number of dovish comments from three BOE members, including Governor Carney himself, but the data we have seen recently has shown much more positive momentum in the wake of PM Johnson’s December electoral victory. Clearly, a number of fears have receded and tomorrow is the big day, when the UK officially leaves the EU. The EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal, as the UK’s Parliament did last week. So the UK has reclaimed its total sovereignty and now must make its own way in the world. As I have said all along, while there is a risk that no trade deal is agreed by year end, I think the odds are vanishingly small that Boris will risk his current political strength by pushing things to that level. Come summer, a short delay will be agreed and eventually a deal will be signed. Meanwhile, the US will be seeking a deal as well. Overall, I like the pound throughout the year on the twin features of an increasingly weaker USD (QE related) and the positivity of the situation on the ground there.

And those are the three big stories of the morning. We did get some data, notably the German employment report which showed the Unemployment Rate remained unchanged at 5.0%, while the number of people unemployed fell by…2k. This was better than the expected 5k increase in unemployment, but can we step back for a moment and consider what this actually means. Do you know how many people are employed in Germany? I didn’t think so. But the answer is 41.73 million. So, this morning’s data, showing a net change of 7k vs. expectations represents exactly a 0.0167% improvement. In other words, IT DOESN’T MATTER. And I think we need to consider this issue on a regular basis. So much is made of a number being better or worse than expected when most of the time it is well within the margin of error of any estimate. Nonetheless, the euro has edged higher this morning, by just 0.15%, but my goodness it has been stable of late. And quite frankly, in the short term, barring a massive uptick in coronavirus cases which changes broad risk sentiment, I see no reason for it to do much. Ultimately, I still like the single currency to edge higher throughout the year on the back of my weaker dollar call.

This morning brings two more data points in the US, with Initial Claims (exp 215K) and Q4 GDP (2.0%) released at 8:30. However, unless the GDP number is significantly different from expectations, the market focus will remain on the coronavirus issue. Equity markets in Europe are under pressure (DAX -1.1%, CAC -1.4%) and US futures are pointing in the same direction, with all 3 indices leaning about 0.75% lower. Meanwhile, Treasury yields continue to fall with the 10-year now at 1.56%, its lowest level in three months. With no Fed speakers on the docket, today is a risk day, and that arrow is pointing lower. Look for EMG currencies to suffer, while the yen benefits.

Good luck
Adf

Just Look What You’ve Wrought!

On Monday it seems we all thought
That crises were sold and not bought
On Tuesday we learned
Those sellers got burned
Chair Powell; just look what you’ve wrought!

hubris: noun
hu·bris | \’hyü-brƏs \
Definition of hubris : exaggerated pride or self-confidence
Example of hubris in a sentence
//It takes remarkable hubris to survey the ongoing situation regarding the 2019-nCoV virus and decide that Monday’s 1.5% decline in the S&P 500 was a buy signal.

I saw a note on Twitter this morning that really crystalized the current market condition. All prices are based on flow, not value. It is a fool’s errand to try to determine what the underlying value of any financial asset is these days, as it has no relevance regarding the price of that asset. This is most evident in the equity markets, but is equally true in the currency markets as well. So for all of us who are trying to determine what possible future paths are for market movements, the primary focus should be on how favored they are, for whatever reason, compared to the rest of the investment universe. In fact, this is the key outcome of the financialization of the global economy. And while this is just fine, maybe even great, when flows are driving equity prices, and other assets, higher, it will be orders of magnitude worse going the other way.

But the bigger issue is the financialization of the economy. Prior to the financial crisis and recession of 2008-2009, there seemed to be a reasonable balance between finance and production within the global economy. In other words, financial questions represented a minority of the impact on how companies were managed and on how much of anything was produced. This balance, which I would have put at 80% production / 20% finance, give or take a nickel, was what underpinned the entire economics profession. Finance was simply a relatively small part of every productive endeavor with the goal of insuring production could continue.

But in the wake of that recession, the fear of allowing massively overpriced markets to actually clear resulted in central banks stepping in and essentially taking over. The initial corporate reaction was to take advantage of the remarkably low interest rates and refinance their businesses completely. The problem was that since markets never cleared, there was still a dearth of demand on an overall basis. This is what led to a decade of subpar growth. Remember, the average annual GDP growth in the decade following the GFC was about 1.5%, well below the previous decade’s 3.0%. At the same time, the ongoing shortening of attention spans, especially for investors, forced corporate management to figure out how to make more money. Unfortunately, the fact that slow GDP growth prevented an actual increase in profits forced senior management to look elsewhere. And this is when it quickly became clear that levering up corporate balance sheets, while ZIRP and NIRP were official policy, made a great deal of sense. If a company couldn’t actually make more money, it sure could make it seem that way by issuing debt and buying back stock, thus reducing the denominator in the key metric, EPS.

And that is where we are today, in an economy that continues to grow at a much slower pace than prior to the financial crisis, but at the same time allows ongoing growth in a key metric, EPS, through financial engineering.

Which brings me back to the idea of flow. It is financial flows that determine the future paths of all assets, so the more money that is made available by the central banking community (currently about $100 billion per month of new cash), the higher the price assets will fetch. Let me say that they better not stop providing that new cash anytime soon.

With that as a (rather long) preamble, today’s market discussion is all about the Fed. This afternoon at 2:00 we will get the latest communique and then Chairman Powell will meet the press at 2:30. Current expectations are for no policy changes although there seems to be a growing view that the ongoing coronavirus situation, and its likely negative impact on Chinese/global GDP growth, will force a more dovish hue to both the statement and the press conference. Remember, the Fed is currently going through a major policy review, similar to that of the ECB, as they try to determine what tools are best to manage the economy achieve their mandated goals going forward. Given that ongoing policy review, it would take a remarkable catalyst to drive a near-term policy change, and apparently a global pandemic doesn’t rise to that standard.

Oh yeah, what about that coronavirus? Well, the death toll is now above 130, and the number of cases is touching 10,000, far more than seen in the SARS outbreak of 2003. (And I ask, if so many are skeptical of Chinese economic data, why would we believe that this data is accurate, especially as it would not reflect China in a positive light?) At any rate, while the Hang Seng fell sharply last night, its first session back since last week, the rest of the global equity market seems pretty comfortable. And hey, Apple earnings beat big time (congrats), so all is right with the world!!

What will this do to flows in the FX market? Broadly speaking, the dollar continues to see small gains vs. its G10 brethren as US rates remain the highest around. Granted Canadian rates are in the same place, but with oil’s recent decline, and growing concern over the housing bubble in Canada’s main cities, it seems like the dollar is safer to earn those rates. At the same time, many emerging markets currently carry rates that are far higher than in the US, and what we saw yesterday was significant interest in owning those currencies, especially MXN, RUB, BRL and COP, all of which gained between 0.5% and 1.0% in yesterday’s session. While those currencies have edged lower this morning, the flow story remains the key driver, and if markets maintain their hubris, the carry trade will quickly return.

On the data front, yesterday’s US Consumer Confidence number was much better than expected at 131.6. This morning we saw slightly better than expected GfK Consumer Confidence in Germany (9.9 vs. 9.6 exp) and better than expected French Consumer Confidence (104 vs 102). That is certainly a positive, but it remains to be seen if the spread of the coronavirus ultimately has a negative impact here. Ahead of the Fed, there is no important US data, so we are really in thrall to the ongoing earnings parade until Chairman Powell steps up to the mic. As to the dollar, it continues to perform well, and until the Fed, that seems likely to continue.

Good luck
Adf

FOMC Tryst

While problems in China persist
And risk is still on the blacklist
More talk is now turning
To Powell concerning
Tomorrow’s FOMC tryst

The coronavirus remains the primary topic of conversation amongst the economic and financial community as analysts and pundits everywhere are trying to estimate how large the impact of this spreading disease will be on economic output and growth. The statistics on the ground continue to worsen with more than 100 confirmed deaths from a population of over 4500 confirmed cases. I fear these numbers will get much worse before they plateau. And while I know that science and technology are remarkable these days, the idea that a treatment can be found in a matter of weeks seems extremely improbable. Ultimately, this is going to run its course before there is any medication available to address the virus. It is this last idea which highlights the importance of China’s actions to prevent travel in the population thus reducing the probability of spreading. Unfortunately, the fact that some 5 million people left the epicenter in the past weeks, before the problem became clear, is going to make it extremely difficult to really stop its spread. Today’s news highlights how Hong Kong and Macau are closing their borders with China, and that there are now confirmed cases in France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the US as well as many Asian nations.

With this ongoing, it is no surprise that risk appetite, in general, remains limited. So the Asian stock markets that were open last night, Nikkei (-0.6%), KOSPI (-3.1%), ASX 200 (-1.35%) all suffered. However, European markets, having sold off sharply yesterday, have found some short term stability with the DAX unchanged, CAC +0.15% and FTSE 100 +0.2%. As to US futures, they are pointing higher at this hour, looking at 0.2%ish gains across the three main indices.

Of more interest is the ongoing rush into Treasury bonds with the 10-year yield now down to 1.57%, a further 3bp decline after yesterday’s 7bp decline. In fact, since the beginning of the year, the US 10-year yield has declined by nearly 40bps. That is hardly the sign of strong growth in the underlying economy. Rather, it has forced many analysts to continue to look under the rocks to determine what is wrong in the economy. It is also a key feature in the equity market rally that we have seen year-to-date, as lower yields continue to be seen as a driver of the TINA mentality.

But as I alluded to in my opening, tomorrow’s FOMC meeting is beginning to garner a great deal of attention. The first thing to note is that the futures market is now pricing in a full 25bp rate cut by September, in from November earlier this month, with the rationale seeming to be the slowing growth as a result of the coronavirus’s spread will require further monetary stimulus. But what really has tongues wagging is the comments that may come out regarding the Fed’s review of policy and how they may adjust their policy toolkit going forward in a world of permanently lower interest rates and inflation.

One interesting hint is that seven of the seventeen FOMC members have forecast higher than target inflation in two years’ time, with even the most hawkish member, Loretta Mester, admitting that her concerns over incipient inflation on the back of a tight labor market may have been misplaced, and that she is willing to let things run hotter for longer. If Mester has turned dovish, the end is nigh! The other topic that is likely to continue to get a lot of press is the balance sheet, as the Fed continues to insist that purchasing $60 billion / month of T-bills and expanding the balance sheet is not QE. The problem they have is that whatever they want to call it, the market writ large considers balance sheet expansion to be QE. This is evident in the virtual direct relationship between the growth in the size of the balance sheet and the rally in the equity markets, as well as the fact that the Fed feels compelled to keep explaining that it is not QE. (For my money, it is having the exact same impact as QE, therefore it is QE.) In the end, we will learn more tomorrow afternoon at the press conference.

Turning to the FX markets this morning, the dollar continues to be the top overall performer, albeit with today’s movement not quite as substantial as what we saw yesterday. The pound is the weakest currency in the G10 space after CBI Retailing Reported Sales disappointed with a zero reading and reignited discussion as to whether Governor Carney will cut rates at his last meeting on Thursday. My view remains that they stay on the sidelines as aside from this data point, the recent numbers have been pretty positive, and given the current level of the base rate at 0.75%, the BOE just doesn’t have much room to move. But that was actually the only piece of data we saw overnight.

Beyond the pound, the rest of the G10 is very little changed vs. the dollar overnight. In the EMG bloc, we saw some weakness in APAC currencies last night with both KRW and MYR falling 0.5%, completely in sync with the equity weakness in the region. On the positive side this morning, both CLP and RUB have rallied 0.5%, with the latter benefitting on expectations Retail Sales there rose while the Chilean peso appears to be seeing some profit taking after a gap weakening yesterday morning.

Yesterday’s New Home Sales data was disappointing, falling back below 700K despite falling mortgage rates. This morning we see Durable Goods (exp 0.4%, -ex Transport 0.3%), Case Shiller Home Prices (2.40%) and Consumer Confidence (128.0). At this stage of the economic cycle, I think the confidence number will have more to tell us than Durable Goods. Remarkably, Confidence remains quite close to the all-time highs seen during the tech bubble. But it bodes well for the idea that any slowdown in growth in the US economy is likely to be muted. In the end, while the US economy continues to motor along reasonably well, nothing has changed my view that not-QE is going to undermine the value of the dollar as the year progresses.

Good luck
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Truly a Curse

In China, it’s gotten much worse
This virus that’s truly a curse
How fast will it spread?
And how many dead?
Ere treatment helps it to disperse.

Despite the fact that we have two important central bank meetings this week, the Fed and the BOE, the market is focused on one thing only, 2019-nCoV, aka the coronavirus. The weekend saw the number of confirmed infections rise to more than 2800, with 81 deaths as of this moment. In the US, there are 5 confirmed cases, but the key concern is the news that prior to the city of Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) #fom locked down, more than 5 million people left town at the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday. While I am not an epidemiologist, I feel confident in saying that this will seem worse before things finally settle down.

And it’s important to remember that the reason the markets are responding has nothing to do with the human tragedy, per se, but rather that the economic impact has the potential to be quite significant. At this point, risk is decidedly off with every haven asset well bid (JPY +0.35%, 10-year Treasury yields -7bps, gold +0.8%) while risk assets have been quickly repriced lower (Nikkei -2.0%, DAX -2.0%, CAC -2.1%, FTSE 100 -2.1%, DJIA futures -1.4%, SPX futures -1.4%, WTI -3.0%).

Economists and analysts are feverishly trying to model the size of the impact to economic activity. However, that is a Sisyphean task at this point given the combination of the recency of the onset of the disease as well as the timing, at the very beginning of the Lunar New year, one of the most active commercial times in China. The Chinese government has extended the holiday to February 2nd (it had been slated to end on January 30th), and they are advising businesses in China not to reopen until February 9th. And remember, China was struggling to overcome a serious slowdown before all this happened.

It should be no surprise that one of the worst performing currencies this morning is the off-shore renminbi, which has fallen 0.8% as of 7:00am. In fact, I think this will be a key indicator of what is happening in China as it is the closest thing to a real time barometer of sentiment there given the fact that the rest of the Chinese financial system is closed. CNH is typically a very low volatility currency, so a movement of this magnitude is quite significant. In fact, if it continues to fall sharply, I would not be surprised if the PBOC decided to intervene in order to prevent what it is likely to believe is a short-term problem. There has been no sign yet, but we will watch carefully.

And in truth, this is today’s story, the potential ramifications to the global economy of the spreading infection. With that in mind, though, we should not forget some other featured news. The weekend brought a modestly surprising outcome from Italian regional elections, where Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the League, could not overcome the history of center-left strength in Emilia-Romagna and so the current coalition government got a reprieve from potential collapse. Salvini leads in the national polls there, and the belief was if his party could win the weekend, it would force the governing coalition to collapse and new elections to be held ushering in Salvini as the new PM. However, that was not to be. The market response has been for Italian BTP’s (their government bonds) to rally sharply, with 10-year yields tumbling 18bps. This has not been enough to offset the risk-off mentality in equity markets there, but still a ray of hope.

We also saw German IFO data significantly underperform expectations (Business Climate 95.9, Expectations 92.9) with both readings lower than the December data. This is merely a reminder that things in Germany, while perhaps not accelerating lower, are certainly not accelerating higher. The euro, however, is unchanged on the day, as market participants are having a difficult time determining which currency they want to hold as a haven, the dollar or the euro. Elsewhere in the G10, it should be no surprise that AUD and NZD are the laggards (-0.85% and -0.65% respectively) as both are reliant on the Chinese economy for economic activity. Remember, China is the largest export destination for both nations, as well as the source of a significant amount of inbound tourism. But the dollar remains strong throughout the space.

Emerging markets are showing similar activity with weakness throughout the space led by the South African rand (-1.0%) on the back of concerns over the disposition of state-owned Eskom Holdings, the troubled utility, as well as the general macroeconomic concerns over the coronavirus outbreak and its ultimate impact on the South African economy. Meanwhile, the sharp decline in the price of oil has weighed on the Russian ruble, -0.9%.

As I mentioned above, we do have two key central bank meetings this week, as well as a significant amount of data as follows:

Today New Home Sales 730K
  Dallas Fed Manufacturing -1.8
Tuesday Durable Goods 0.5%
  -ex Transport 0.3%
  Case Shiller Home Prices 2.40%
  Consumer Confidence 128.0
Wednesday Advance Goods Trade Balance -$65.0B
  FOMC Rate Decision 1.75% (unchanged)
Thursday BOE Rate Decision 0.75% (unchanged)
  Initial Claims 215K
  GDP (Q4) 2.1%
Friday Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
  Chicago PMI 49.0
  Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg
Regarding the BOE meeting, the futures market is back to pricing in a 60% probability of a rate cut, up from 47% on Friday, which seems to be based on the idea that the coronavirus is going to have a significant enough impact to require further monetary easing by central banks. As to the Fed, there is far more discussion about what they may be able to do in the future as they continue to review their policies, rather than what they will do on Wednesday. Looking at the spread of data this week, we should get a pretty good idea as to whether the pace of economic activity in the US has changed, although forecasts continue to be for 2.0%-2.5% GDP growth this year.

And that’s really it for the day. Until further notice, the growing epidemic in China remains the number one story for all players, and risk assets are likely to remain under pressure until there is some clarity as to when it may stop spreading.

Good luck
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