More Price Inflation

The story of civilization
Is growth due to carbonization
But fears about warming
Have started transforming
Some policies ‘cross most each nation

Alas, despite recent fixation
On policy coordination
Alternatives to
Nat Gas are too few
Resulting in more price inflation

Perhaps there is no greater irony (at least currently) than the fact that governments around the world must secretly be praying for a very warm winter as their policies designed to forestall global warming have resulted in a growing shortage of fuels for heating and transportation.  Evergrande has become a passé discussion point as the overwhelming consensus is that the Chinese government will not allow things to get out of hand.  (I hope they’re right!)  This has allowed the market to turn its attention to other issues with the new number one concern the rapidly rising price of natural gas.  One of the top stories over the weekend has been the shuttering of petrol stations in the UK as they simply ran out of gasoline to pump.  Meanwhile, Nat Gas prices have been climbing steadily and are now $5.35/mmBTU in the US, up 4.2% today and 110% YTD.  As to the Europeans, they would kill for gas that cheap as it is currently running 3x that, above $16.00/mmBTU.

Apparently, policies designed to reduce the production of fossil fuels have effectively reduced fossil fuel production.  At the same time, greater reliance on less stable energy sources, like wind and solar power, have resulted in insufficient overall energy production.  While during the initial stages of Covid shutdowns, when economic activity cratered, this didn’t pose any problems, now that economies around the world are reopening with substantial pent-up demand for various goods and services, it has become increasingly clear that well-intentioned policies have resulted in dramatically bad outcomes.  While Europe appears to be the epicenter of this problem, it is being felt worldwide and the result is that real economic activity will decline across the board.  Hand-in-hand with that outcome will be even more price pressures higher throughout the world.  Policymakers, especially central bankers, will have an increasingly difficult time addressing these issues with their available toolkits.  After all, central banks cannot print natural gas, only more money to chase after the limited amount available.

The important question for market observers is, how will rising energy prices impact financial markets?  It appears that the first impacts are being felt in the bond markets, where in the wake of the FOMC meeting last week, yields have been climbing steadily around the world.  In the first instance, the belief is that starting in November, the Fed will begin reducing its QE purchases, which will lead to higher yields from the belly to the back of the curve.  But as we continue to see yields climb (Treasuries +3.3bps today), you can be sure the rationale will include rising inflation.  After all, our textbooks all taught us that higher inflation expectations lead to higher yields.

The problem for every government around the world, given pretty much all of them are massively overindebted, is that higher yields are unaffordable.  Consider that, as of the end of 2020, the global government debt / GDP ratio was 105%, while the total debt /GDP ratio was 356% (according to Axios).  That is not an environment into which central banks can blithely raise interest rates to address inflation in the manner then Fed Chair Volcker did in the late 1970’s. In fact, it is far more likely they will do what they can to prevent interest rates from rising too high.  This is the reason I continue to believe that while the Fed may begin to taper at some point, tapering will not last very long.  They simply cannot afford it.  So, while bond markets around the world are under pressure today (Bunds +1.8bps, OATs +2.8bps, Gilts +2.9bps), and by rights should have significant room to decline, this movement will almost certainly be capped.

Equity markets, on the other hand, have room to run somewhat further, as despite both significant overvaluation by virtually every traditional metric, as well as record high margin debt, in an inflationary environment, a claim on real assets is better than a claim on ‘paper’ assets like bonds.  While Asian markets (Nikkei 0.0%, Hang Seng +0.1%, Shanghai -0.8%) have not been amused by the rise in energy prices, European bourses are behaving far better (DAX +0.6%, CAC +0.4%, FTSE 100 +0.2%).  As an aside, part of the German story is clearly the election, where the Social Democrats appear to have won a small plurality of seats, but where there is no obvious coalition to be formed to run the country.  It appears Germany’s role on the global stage will be interrupted as the nation tries to determine what it wants to do domestically over the next few weeks/months.  In the meantime, early session strength in the US futures markets has faded away with NASDAQ futures (-0.4%) now leading the way lower.

Turning to the key driver of markets today, commodity prices, we see oil (WTI +1.25%) continuing its recent rally, and pushing back to $75/bbl.  We’ve already discussed Nat Gas and generally all energy prices are higher.  But this is not a broad-based commodity rally, as we are seeing weakness throughout the metals complex (Au -0.1%, Cu -0.3%, Al -0.2% and Sn -4.8%).  Agricultural prices are slightly softer as well.  It seems that the idea energy will cost more is having a negative impact everywhere.

Finally, the dollar is a beneficiary of this price action on the basis of a few threads.  First, given energy is priced in dollars, they remain in demand given higher prices.  Second, the energy situation in the US is far less problematic than elsewhere in the world, thus on a relative basis, this is a more attractive place to hold assets.  So, in the G10 we see SEK (-0.5%) as the laggard, followed by the traditional havens (CHF -0.25%, JPY -0.2%), as the dollar seems to be showing off its haven bona fides today. In the EMG bloc, THB (-0.8%) leads the way lower followed by ZAR (-0.7%) and PHP (-0.7%), with other currencies mostly softer and only TRY (+0.5%) showing any strength on the day.  The baht has suffered on traditional macro issues with concerns continuing to grow regarding its current account status, with the Philippines seeing the same issues.  Rand appears to have reacted to the metals complex.  As to TRY, part of this is clearly a rebound from an extremely weak run last week, and part may be attributed to news of a Nat Gas find in the Black Sea which is forecast to be able to provide up to one-third of Turkey’s requirements in a few years.

As it is the last week of the month, we do get some interesting data, although payrolls are not released until October 8th.

Today Durable Goods 0.6%
-ex Transportation 0.5%
Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 20.0%
Consumer Confidence 115.0
Thursday Initial Claims 330K
Continuing Claims 2805K
GDP Q2 6.6%
Chicago PMI 65.0
Friday Personal Income 0.2%
Personal Spending 0.6%
Core PCE 0.2% (3.5% Y/Y)
Michigan Sentiment 71.0
ISM Manufacturing 59.5
ISM Prices Paid 77.5

Source: Bloomberg

Naturally, all eyes will be on Friday’s PCE data as the Fed will want to be able to show that price pressures are moderating, hence their transitory story is correct (it’s not.) But I cannot help but see the House Price index looking at a 20.0% rise in the past twelve months and think about how the Fed’s inflation measures just don’t seem to capture reality.

Rising yields in the US seem to be beginning to attract international investors, specifically Japanese investors as USDJPY has been moving steadily higher over the past two weeks.  The YTD high has been 111.66, not far from current levels.  Watch that for a potential breakout and perhaps, the beginning of a sharp move higher in the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Flames of Concern

The story is still Evergrande
Whose actions last night have now fanned
The flames of concern
‘Til bondholders learn
If coupons will be paid as planned

Though pundits have spilled lots of ink
Explaining there’s really no link
Twixt Evergrande’s woes
And fears of new lows
The truth is they’re linked I would think

It must be very frustrating to be a government financial official these days as despite all their efforts to lead investors to a desired outcome, regardless of minor details like reality, investors and traders continue to respond to things like cash flows and liquidity, or lack thereof.  Hence, this morning we find ourselves in a situation where China Evergrande officially failed to pay an $83.2 million coupon yesterday and now has a 30-day grace period before they can be forced into default on the bond.  The concern arises because China Evergrande has more than $300 billion in bonds outstanding and another $300 billion in other liabilities and it is pretty clear they are not going to be able to even service that debt, let alone repay it.

At the same time, the number of articles written about how this is an isolated situation and how the PBOC will step in to prevent a disorderly outcome and protect the individuals who are on the hook continue to grow by leaps and bounds.  The true victims here are the many thousands of Chinese people who contracted with Evergrande to build their home, some of whom prepaid for the entire project while others merely put down significant (>50%) deposits, and who now stand to lose all their money.  Arguably, the question is whether or not the Chinese government is going to bail them out, even if they allow Evergrande to go to the wall.  Sanguinity in this situation seems optimistic.  Remember, the PBOC has been working very hard to delever the Chinese property market, and there is no quicker way to accomplish that than by allowing the market to reprice the outstanding debt of an insolvent entity.  As well, part of President Xi’s calculus will be what type of pain will be felt elsewhere in the world.  After all, if adversaries, like the US, suffer because of this, I doubt Xi would lose any sleep.

But in the end, markets this morning are demonstrating that they are beginning to get concerned over this situation.  While it may not be a Lehman moment, given that when Lehman was allowed to fail it was truly a surprise to the markets, the breadth of this problem is quite significant and the spillover into the entire Chinese property market, which represents ~25% of the Chinese economy, is enormous.  If you recall my discussion regarding “fingers of instability” from last week (Wednesday 9/15), this is exactly the type of thing I was describing.  There is no way, ex ante, to know what might trigger a more significant market adjustment (read decline), but the interconnectedness of Chinese property developers, Chinese banks, Chinese shadow financiers and the rest of the world’s financial system is far too complex to parse.  However, it is reasonable to estimate that there will be multiple knock-on effects from this default, and that the PBOC, no matter how well intentioned, may not be able to maintain control of an orderly market.  Risk should be off, and it is this morning.

It ought not be surprising that Chinese shares were lower last night with the Hang Seng (-1.3%) leading the way but Shanghai (-0.8%) not that far behind.  Interestingly, the only real winner overnight was the Nikkei (+2.1%) which seemed to be making up for their holiday yesterday.  European shares are having a rough go of it as well, with the DAX (-0.8%), CAC (-1.0%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) all under the gun.  There seem to be several concerns in these markets with the primary issue the fact that these economies, especially Germany’s, are hugely dependent on Chinese economic growth for their own success, so signs that China will be slowing down due to the Evergrande mess are weighing on these markets.  In addition, the German IFO surveys were all released this morning at weaker than expected levels and continue to slide from their peaks in June.  Slowing growth is quickly becoming a market meme.  After yesterday’s rally in the US, futures this morning are all leaning lower as well, on the order of -0.3% or so.

The bond market this morning, though, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  While Treasuries are doing what they are supposed to, rallying with yields down 2.6bps, the European sovereign market is all selling off despite the fall in equity prices.  So, yields are higher in Germany (Bunds +1.4bps) and France (OATs +2.2bps), with Italy (BTPs +5.0bps) really seeing some aggressive selling.  Gilts are essentially unchanged on the day.  But this is a bit unusual, that a clear risk off session would see alleged haven assets sell off as well.

Commodity markets are having a mixed day with oil unchanged at this hour while gold (+0.75%) is rebounding somewhat from yesterday’s sharp decline.  Copper (+0.1%) has edged higher, but aluminum (-1.4%) is soft this morning.  Agricultural prices are all lower by between 0.25% and 0.5%.  In other words, it is hard to detect much signal here.

As to the dollar, it is broadly stronger with only CHF +0.1%) able to rally this morning.  While the euro is little changed, we are seeing weakness in the Antipodean currencies (AUD, NZD -0.4%) and commodity currencies (CAC -0.2%, NOK -0.15%).  Granted, the moves have not been large, but they have been consistent.

In the EMG bloc, the dollar has put on a more impressive show with ZAR (-1.3%) and TRY (-0.9%) leading the way, although we have seen other currencies (PHP -0.6%, MXN -0.4%) also slide during the session.  The rand story seems to be a hangover from yesterday’s SARB meeting, where they left rates on hold despite rising inflation there.  TRY, too, is still responding to the surprise interest rate cut by the central bank yesterday.  In Manila, concern seems to be growing that the Philippines external balances are worsening too rapidly and will present trouble going forward.  (I’m not sure you remember what it means to run a current account deficit and have markets discipline your actions as it no longer occurs in the US, but it is still the reality for every emerging market economy.)

On the data front, we see only New Home Sales (exp 715K), a number unlikely to have an impact on markets.  However, we hear from six different Fed speakers today, including Chairman Powell, so I expect that there will be a real effort at fine-tuning their message.  Three of the speakers are amongst the most hawkish (Mester, George and Bostic), but of this group, only Bostic is a voter.  You can expect more definitive tapering talk from these three, but in the end, Powell’s words still carry the most weight.

The dollar remains in a trading range and we are going to need some exogenous catalyst to change that.  An Evergrande collapse could have that type of impact, but I believe it will take a lot more contagion for that to be the case.  So, using the euro as a proxy, 1.17-1.19 is still the right idea in my view.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Far From Surreal

The Fed explained that they all feel
A taper is far from surreal
The goal for inflation
Has reached satiation
While job growth ought soon seal the deal

Heading into the FOMC meeting, the consensus was growing around the idea that the Fed would begin tapering later this year, and the consensus feels gratified this morning.  Chairman Powell explained that, if things go as anticipated, tapering “could come as soon as the next meeting.”  That meeting is slated for November 2nd and 3rd, and so the market has now built this into their models and pricing.  In fact, they were pretty clear that the inflation part of the mandate has already been fulfilled, and they were just waiting on the jobs numbers.

An interesting aspect of the jobs situation, though, is how they have subtly adjusted their goals.  Back in December, when they first laid out their test of “substantial further progress”, the employment situation showed that some 10 million jobs had been lost due to Covid-19.  Since then, the economy has created 4.7 million jobs, less than half the losses.  Certainly, back then, the idea that recovering half the lost jobs would have been considered “substantial further progress” seems unlikely.  Expectations were rampant that once vaccinations were widely implemented at least 80% of those jobs would return.  Yet here we are with the Fed explaining that recovering only half of the lost jobs is now defined as substantial.  I don’t know about you, but that seems a pretty weak definition of substantial.

Now, given Powell’s hyper focus on maximum employment, one might ask why a 50% recovery of lost jobs is sufficient to move the needle on policy.  Of course, the only answer is that despite the Fed’s insistence that recent inflation readings are transitory and caused by supply chain bottlenecks and reopening of the economy, the reality is they have begun to realize that prices are rising a lot faster than they thought likely.  In addition, they must recognize that both housing price and rent inflation haven’t even been a significant part of the CPI/PCE readings to date and will only drive things higher.  in other words, they are clearly beginning to figure out that they are falling much further behind the curve than they had anticipated.

Turning to the other key release from the FOMC, the dot plot, it now appears that an internal consensus is growing that the first rate hike will occur in Q4 2022 with three more hikes in 2023 and an additional three or four in 2024.  The thing about this rate trajectory is that it still only takes Fed Funds to 2.00% after three more years.  That is not nearly enough to impact the inflationary impulse, which even they acknowledge will still be above their 2.0% target in 2024.  In essence, the dot plot is explaining that real interest rates in the US are going to be negative for a very long time.  Just how negative, though, remains the $64 trillion question.  Given inflation’s trajectory and the current school of thought regarding monetary policy (that lower rates leads to higher growth), I fear that the gap between Fed Funds and inflation is likely to be much larger than the 0.2% they anticipate in 2024.  While this will continue to support asset prices, and especially commodity prices, the impact on the dollar will depend on how other central banks respond to growing inflation in their respective economies.

Said China to its Evergrande
Defaulting on bonds is now banned
So, sell your assets
And pay dollar debts
Take seriously this command

CHINA TELLS EVERGRANDE TO AVOID NEAR-TERM DEFAULT ON BONDS

This headline flashed across the screens a short time ago and I could not resist a few words on the subject.  It speaks to the arrogance of the Xi administration that they believe commanding Evergrande not to default is sufficient to prevent Evergrande from defaulting.  One cannot help but recall the story of King Canute as he commanded the incoming tide to halt, except Canute was using that effort as an example of the limits of power, while Xi is clearly expecting Evergrande to obey him.  With Evergrande debt trading around 25₵ on the dollar, and the PBOC continuing in their efforts to wring leverage out of the system, it is a virtual guaranty that Evergrande is going under.  I wouldn’t want to be Hui Yan Ka, its Chairman, when he fails to follow a direct order.  Recall what happened to the Chairman of China Huarong when that company failed.

Ok, how are markets behaving in the wake of the FOMC meeting?  Pretty darn well!  Powell successfully explained that at some point they would begin slowing their infusion of liquidity without crashing markets.  No tantrum this time.  So, US equities rallied after the FOMC meeting with all three indices closing higher by about 1%.  Overnight in Asia we saw the Hang Seng (+1.2%) and Shanghai (+0.4%) both rally (Japan was closed for Autumnal Equinox Day), and we have seen strength throughout Europe this morning as well.  Gains on the continent (DAX and CAC +0.8%) are more impressive than in the UK (FTSE 100 +0.2%), although every market is higher on the day.  US futures are all currently about 0.5% higher, although that is a bit off the earlier session highs.  Overall, risk remains in vogue and we still have not had a 5% decline in the S&P in more than 200 trading days.

With risk in the fore, it is no surprise that bond yields are higher, but the reality is that they continue to trade in a pretty tight range.  Hence, Treasury yields are higher by 2.4bps this morning, but just back to 1.324%.  Essentially, we have been in a 1.20%-1.40%% trading range since July 4th and show no sign of that changing.  In Europe, yields have also edged higher, with Bunds (+1.6bps) showing the biggest move while both OATs (+0.9bps) and Gilts (+0.6bps) have moved less aggressively.

Commodity prices are mixed this morning with oil lower (-0.7%) along with copper (-0.25%) although the rest of the base metal complex (Al +0.6%, Sn +0.55%) are firmer along with gold (+0.3%).  Not surprisingly given the lack of consistency, agricultural prices are also mixed this morning.

The dollar, however, is clearly under pressure this morning with only JPY failing to gain, while the commodity bloc performs well (CAD +0.8%, NOK +0.6%, SEK +0.5%).  EMG currencies are also largely firmer led by ZAR (+0.9%) on the back of gold’s strength and PLN (+0.6%) which was simply reversing some of its recent weakness vs. the euro.  On the downside, the only notable decliner is TRY (-1.4%), which tumbled after the central bank cut its base rate by 100 basis points to 18% in a surprise move.  In fact, TRY has now reached a record low vs. the dollar and shows no signs of rebounding as long as President Erdogan continues to pressure the central bank to keep rates low amid spiraling inflation.  (This could be a harbinger of the US going forward if we aren’t careful!)

It is Flash PMI day and the European and UK data showed weaker than expected output readings though higher than expected price readings.  We shall see what happens in the US at 9:45. Prior to that we see Initial Claims (exp 320K) and Continuing Claims (2.6M) and we also see Leading Indicators at 10:00 (0.7%).  The BOE left policy on hold, as expected, but did raise their forecast for peak inflation this year above 4%.  However, they are also in the transitory camp, so clearly not overly concerned on the matter.

There are no Fed speakers today although we hear from six of them tomorrow as they continue to try to finetune their message.  The dollar pushed up to its recent highs in the immediate aftermath of the FOMC meeting, but as risk was embraced, it fell back off.  If the market is convinced that the Fed really will taper, and if they actually do, I expect it to support the dollar, at least in the near term.  However, my sense is that slowing economic data will halt any initial progress they make which could well see the dollar decline as long positions are unwound.  For today, though, a modest drift higher from current levels seems reasonable.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Avoiding a Crash

The Chinese have taken a stand
Regarding the firm, Evergrande
They’ve added more cash
Avoiding a crash
And now feel they’ve got things in hand

So, now all eyes turn to the Fed
And tapering timing, instead
The question at hand
Is can they withstand
Slow growth while still moving ahead?

Fear was palpable on Monday as China Evergrande missed an interest payment and concerns grew that a major disruption in Chinese debt markets, with the ability to spread elsewhere, was around the corner.  Yesterday, however, investors collectively decided that the world was not, in fact, going to end, and dip buyers got to work supporting equity markets.  The buyers’ faith has been rewarded as last night, the PBOC added net CNY70 billion to the markets to help tide over financing issues.  In addition, an oddly worded statement was released that Evergrande had addressed the interest payment due tomorrow via private negotiations with bondholders.  (Critically, that doesn’t mean they paid, just that the bondholders aren’t going to sue for repayment, hence avoiding a bankruptcy filing.)  As is always the case in a situation of this nature, nothing has actually changed at Evergrande so they are still bankrupt with a massive amount of debt that they will never repay in full, but no government, whether communist or democratic, ever wants to actually deal with the problem and liquidate.  This is the enduring lesson of Lehman Brothers.

Which means…it’s Fed day!  As we all know, this afternoon at 2:00 the FOMC will release the statement with their latest views and 30 minutes later, Chairman Powell will face the press.  At this time, the topic of most interest to everyone is the timing of the Fed’s reduction in asset purchases, aka tapering.  When we last left this story (prior to the Fed’s quiet period a week and a half ago, pretty much every Fed regional president (Kashkari excluded) and a few minor governors had indicated that tapering was appropriate soon.  On the other hand, the power center, Powell, Brainerd and Williams, had said no such thing, but had admitted that the conversation had begun.

You may recall that at the August FOMC meeting, the Fed indicated that the goal of “substantial further progress” had not yet been met with regard to the maximum employment mandate, although they begrudgingly admitted that the inflation side of the coin had been achieved.  (As an aside, while there has never been an answer to the question of how long an averaging period the Fed would consider with respect to their revamped average inflation target, simple arithmetic shows that if one averages the core PCE data from May 2020 through July 2021, the result is 2.0%.  If the forecast for the August core number, to be released on October 1, is correct at 3.6%, that means that one can head back to March 2020 and still show an average of 2.0%.  And remember, core PCE is not about to collapse back down to 2.0% or lower anytime soon, so this exercise will continue to expand the averaging period.)

Current expectations are that the initial tapering will start in either November or December of this year, and certainly by January 2022.  Clearly, based on the inflation mandate, we are already behind schedule, but the problem the Fed has is that the recent growth data has been far less impressive.  The August NFP data was quite disappointing at 235K, a 500K miss to estimates.  Not only that, while the July data was strong, the June data was also a major miss, which begs the question, was July the aberration or August?  Ask yourself this, will Chairman Powell, who is up for reappointment shortly, tighten policy into an economy where employment growth is slowing?  There is every possibility that tapering is put on hold for a few more months in order to be sure that monetary stimulus withdrawal is not premature.  The fact that a decision like that will only stoke the inflationary fires further will be addressed by an even more strident statement that inflation is transitory, dammit!  My point is, it is not a slam dunk that they announce tapering today.

For a perfect example as to why this is the case, look no further than the ECB, where today we heard another ECB member, the Estonian central bank chief, explain that when the PEPP runs out in March, it would be appropriate to expand the older APP program to pick up the slack.  In other words, they will technically keep their word and let the PEPP expire, but they will not stop QE.  The Fed, ECB and BOJ have all realized that their respective economies are addicted to QE and that withdrawal symptoms will be remarkably painful, so none of them are inclined to go through that process.  Can-kicking remains these central banks’ strongest talent.

OK, to markets ahead of the Fed.  Asia was mixed as the Nikkei (-0.7%) remains under pressure, clearly unimpressed by the BOJ’s ongoing efforts which were reiterated last night after their meeting.  However, Chinese equities (Hang Seng +0.5%, Shanghai +0.4%), not surprisingly, fared better after the liquidity injection.  In Europe, it is all green as further hints that the ECB will let the PEPP lapse in name only has investors confident that monetary support is a permanent situation.  So, the DAX (+0.55%), CAC (+1.1%) and FTSE 100 (+1.2%) are all poppin’.  US futures have also gotten the message and are firmer by about 0.5% this morning.

Bond markets are ever so slightly softer with yields edging up a bit.  Treasuries have been the worst performer although yields are only higher by 1.4bps.  In Europe, Bunds are unchanged while OATs and Gilts have risen 0.5bps each.

Commodity prices, on the other hand, have performed quite well this morning with oil (WTI +1.5%) leading energy higher and base metals (Cu +2.4%, Al +1.6%, Sn +3.6%) all much firmer although gold (0.0%) is not taking part in the fun.  Ags are also firmer this morning as the commodity space is finding buyers everywhere.

The dollar is somewhat softer this morning with NOK (+0.5%) leading the G10 and the rest of the commodity bloc also strong (CAD +0.3%, AUD +0.25%, NZXD +0.25%).  The one true laggard is JPY (-0.3%) which is suffering from the lack of a need for a haven along with general malaise after the BOJ.  In the EMG space, HUF (-0.75%) is the outlier, falling after the central bank raised rates a less than expected 15 basis points after three consecutive 30 basis point hikes, and hinted that despite inflation’s rise, less hikes would be coming in the future.  Away from that, though, there is a mix of gainers and loser with the commodity bloc strong (CLP +0.45%, ZAR +0.4%, RUB +0.4%) while commodity importers are suffering (INR -0.35%, PHP -0.25%, PLN -0.2%).

Ahead of the Fed we see Existing Home Sales (exp 5.89M), but really, look for a quiet market until 2:00 and the FOMC statement.  My view is they will be less hawkish than the market seems to expect, and I think that will be a negative for the dollar, but at this point, all we can do is wait.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Far From Benign

There once was a market decline
That seemed, at the time, to consign
Investors with shares
To turn into bears
An outcome quite far from benign

But that was a long time ago
As by afternoon all the flow
Was buying the dip
Thus, proving this blip
Was not a bull market deathblow

I wonder if stock prices declining for 18 hours now counts as a correction.  What had appeared to be the beginnings of a more protracted fall in stocks turned into nothing more than a modest blip in the ongoing bull market.  Some teeth were gnashed, and some positions lightened, but by 3:15pm, it was all over with a 1.3% rebound from that time to the close.  Granted, the S&P 500 did decline 1.7% on the day, but given the substantial buying impulse seen at the end of the day, as well as the change in tone of the market narrative, it certainly feels this morning like the worst is behind us.  While China Evergrande continues to be bankrupt, the new story is that despite its large size, it is not large enough to be a real catalyst for market destruction and, anyway, the PBOC would never let things get to a point where its bankruptcy would lead to contagion elsewhere in the Chinese markets/economy.

As to the last point, be careful with your assumptions.  While this is not meant to be a prediction, consider that President Xi Jinping has spent the last year cracking down on successful firms in China as they have amassed both wealth and power, something that an autocrat of Xi’s nature cannot abide.  So, a fair question to ask is, would Xi let the Chinese economy crash in order to consolidate his power even further?  While I don’t believe he would purposely do that, I would not rule out him allowing things to unfold in a manner he sees as beneficial to his ultimate plans, thus financial distress in China could well be in our future.  And if you are Xi Jinping, the idea that Western markets would react badly to an Evergrande collapse would only be a positive.  My point is, I don’t think you can rule out other motives in this situation.

At any rate, this literally seems like ancient history at this time, with markets all in the green and the market narrative of ‘buy the dip’ proving itself once again to be the proper course of action.  Pavlov himself could not have conditioned retail investors any better than the Fed and other central banks have done over the past decade.

So, with Evergrande in the rearview mirror, the market gets to (re)turn its focus to the FOMC meeting, which begins this morning and whose outcome will be announced at 2pm tomorrow.  That means we are back to talking about tapering.  Will they, or won’t they?  And if they do, when will they start?

The market consensus is clearly that tapering is coming with about two-thirds of market economists forecasting the first reduction in asset purchases will occur in November.  While there are some differing views on how they will taper, the consensus appears to be a reduction of $10 billion of Treasuries and $5 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month until they are done.  So, eight months of reductions takes us to next June if we start in November.  Of course, this assumes that there are no interruptions, and that the Fed leadership remains intact.

First, remember, Chairman Powell’s term is up in February, and while he remains the favorite to be reappointed, it seems the most progressive wing of the Democratic party wants to see someone else, with Lael Brainerd, a current Fed governor and past Treasury Undersecretary, seen as the leading alternative.  Ms Brainerd has consistently been even more dovish than Powell, and if she were to be confirmed for the Chair, it would be easy to believe she halted any tapering at that point.  After all, if one believes in MMT, (which by all accounts Ms Brainerd embraces), why would the Fed ever stop buying Treasuries?  Again, this is not predictive, just something to keep in mind.

Second, the tapering narrative is based on the idea that economic growth coming out of the Covid recession is self-sustaining and no longer needs central bank support.  But what if the recovery is more anemic than currently forecast.  The one consistency we have seen over the course of the past months is that forecasts for economic growth in Q3 and Q4 have declined dramatically.  For instance, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast model is pointing to 3.65% currently, down from 5.3% at the beginning of the month and 7.6% just two months ago.  Shortages of certain things still abound and prices on staples like beef, pork, and poultry, continue to rise rapidly.  In short, the situation in the economy is anything but clear.

In this case, the question really becomes, will the Fed turn its attention to inflation, or will it remain focused only on unemployment?  If the inflation heat reaches too high a temperature, then it would be easy to believe tapering will occur far more rapidly.  However, if growth remains the focus, then any reason to delay tapering will be sought.  I remain in the camp that while they may initiate tapering, the Fed will be buying bonds long after June 2022.  We shall see.

A quick turn to markets shows that all is right with the world!  Stocks are almost universally higher as Asia (Hang Seng +0.5%, Shanghai +0.2%) led the beginning of the rebound although Japan (Nikkei -2.1%) was still coming to grips with yesterday’s narrative coming out of their holiday.  Europe is strongly higher this morning (DAX +1.45%, CAC +1.4%, FTSE 100 +1.15%) as fear has rapidly dissipated.  And after the worst US equity session in months, futures this morning are higher by about 0.8% across the board.

It should be no surprise that bonds are for sale this morning with yields mostly higher.   Treasury yields, which fell 6bps yesterday, have bounced slightly, up 1.7bps this morning.  European sovereigns, which saw a lesser rally yesterday have barely sold off with nothing rebounding even a full basis point.  One noteworthy outlier is Greece, whose bonds are sharply higher with 10-year yields declining 4.6bps, after Greek central bank comments that the ECB would never stop buying Greek paper.

Commodity prices are generally firmer with oil (WTI +1.2%) leading although gold (+0.2%), copper (+0.95%) and aluminum (+1.0%) are all embracing the risk rebound.

And finally, the dollar, which had rallied so sharply yesterday morning, has given back all of those gains.  NOK (+0.8%) leads the G10 charge higher with CAD (+0.5%) next in line as oil’s rebound supports both currencies.  The rest of the bloc has seen less exuberance, generally between 0.1% and 0.25%, although JPY (-0.1%) has slipped as its haven status is no longer a benefit.

EMG currencies have seen a little less dramatic movement with the leading gainer CZK (+0.3%) followed by RUB (+0.25%) with the latter benefitting from oil while the former continues to find support based on views its central bank remains hawkish enough to raise rates.  Otherwise, the gainers have been quite modest, 0.2% or less with two currencies falling on the day, ZAR (-0.2%) and PLN (-0.25%).  In both cases, it appears the concerns lie with central bank policy prospects.  However, given the modest size of the decline, it is hardly a key issue.

On the data front, this morning brings Housing Starts (exp 1550K) and Building Permits (1600K), although with the FOMC meeting in the background, neither is likely to move the needle.  And that’s really it for the day as there are no speakers.  As long as we don’t see a bombshell from Evergrande, which seems unlikely in our time zone, today feels like a quiet session with potential modest further dollar weakness.  All eyes will continue to be on tomorrow’s FOMC announcement, and, more importantly, Chairman Powell’s comments at the press conference.  Until then, slow going is likely.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Would That, Fear, Provoke?

Remember when everyone said
That Jay and his friends at the Fed
Would taper their buying
While still pacifying
Investors, lest screens all turn red?

Well, what if before the Fed spoke
That Evergrande quickly went broke?
Would traders still bet
The buying of debt
Will end? Or would that, fear, provoke?

Fear is in the air this morning as concerns over the status of China Evergrande’s ability to repay its mountain of debt seriously escalate.  Remember, Evergrande is the Chinese property developer with more than $300 billion in debt outstanding, and that has said they will not be repaying an $84 million loan due today, with the prospect for interest payments due this Thursday also gravely in doubt.  One cannot be surprised that the Hang Seng (-3.3%) reacted so negatively this morning, after all, that is the Evergrande’s main listing exchange.  Other property developers listed there came under substantial pressure as well, with one (Sinic Holdings Group) seeing its price fall 87% before trading was suspended.

Of equal interest to the fact that equity markets are trembling on the Evergrande story is the plethora of press that continues to explain that even if Evergrande goes bust, any fallout will be limited.  Columnists and pundits point to the damage that occurred when the Fed allowed Lehman Brothers to go bust and explain that will never be allowed again.  And while I’m certain they are correct, financial officials have exactly zero interest in allowing that type of situation to repeat, it remains far from clear they can prevent it.  That is, of course, unless the Chinese government is going to step in and pay the debts, something that seems highly unlikely.  As I continue to read and hear how this situation is nothing like Lehman, having had a front row seat to that disaster, I cannot help but see a great many parallels, including many assurances that the underlying cause of that contagion, subprime mortgage loans, was a small portion of the market and any fallout would be controlled.  We all know how well that worked out.

Remember, too, that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been aggressively attacking different sectors of the Chinese economy, specifically those sectors where great wealth (and power) was amassed and has implemented numerous changes to the previous rules.  This is the key reason the Shanghai stock market has underperformed the S&P 500 by 25% over the past year.  One of Xi’s problems is that property development has been a critical part of the growth of China’s economy and a source of significant income to all the provinces and cities.  Proceeds from the sales of property have funded infrastructure as well as helped moderate taxes.  If Evergrande goes under, the impact on the entire Chinese economy seems likely to be significant.  And all this is happening while the growth in China’s credit impulse has been declining rapidly, portending slower growth there anyway.

History has shown that situations of this nature are rarely effectively contained and there is usually fallout across numerous different areas.  Consider that global equity market indices have been hovering just below all-time high levels with stretched valuations on any measure on the basis of TINA and FOMO.  But between the two key emotions evident in investing, fear and greed, I assure you, fear is by far the more powerful.  While anything can still happen, fear is starting to spread more widely today than last week as evidenced by the sea of red across all equity markets today.

If you think that the Fed is going to taper their asset purchases into a period of market weakness, you are gravely mistaken.  The combination of slowing growth and market fear will induce a call for more support, not less, and history has shown that ever since October 1987 and Alan Greenspan’s response to Black Monday, the Fed will respond with more money.  The question this time is, will it be enough to stop the fall?  Interesting times lie ahead.

Most of Asia was on holiday last night, with only Hong Kong and Australia (ASX 200 -2.1%) open.  But Europe is open for business and the picture is not pretty.  The FTSE 100 (-1.55%) is the best performing market today with the continent (DAX -2.15%, CAC -2.1%) emblematic of every market currently open.  US futures, meanwhile, are the relative winners with losses ‘only’ ranging from the NASDAQ (-1.1%) to the Dow (-1.6%).  Now, don’t you feel better?

It can be no surprise that bonds are in demand this morning as risk is undeniably ‘off’ across all markets.  Treasury yields have fallen 3.6bps amid a flattening yield curve, while European sovereigns have all seen price gains as well with yields there slipping between 2.6bps (OATs) and 3.2 bps (Bunds).  In every case, we are seeing yield curves flatten, which tends to imply an increasing expectation of weaker economic activity.

Commodity prices are broadly under pressure as well this morning, with oil (-2.0%) leading the way but weakness across industrial metals (Cu -2.0%, Al -0.65%, Sn -1.2%) and agriculturals (corn -1.6%, wheat -0.9%, soybeans -1.0%) as well.  Gold (+0.2%) on the other hand, seems to have retained some of its haven status.

Speaking of havens, the dollar, yen and Swiss franc remain the currencies of choice in a crisis, so it should be no surprise they are today’s leaders.  Versus the dollar, the yen (+0.4%) and franc (+0.2%) are the only gainers on the day.  Elsewhere in the G10, AUD (-0.55%), SEK (-0.5%), CAD (-0.5%) and NOK (-0.4%) are the worst performers.  Obviously, oil’s decline is weighing on the krone and Loonie, but AUD is feeling it from the rest of the commodity complex, notably iron ore (Australia’s largest export by value) which has fallen to $105/ton, less than half its price on July 15th!

In the emerging markets, RUB (-0.8%) is feeling the heat from oil, while ZAR (-0.55%) has metals fatigue.  But every EMG currency that was open last night or is trading right now is down versus the dollar, with no prospects of a rebound unless risk attitude changes.  And that seems unlikely today.

On the data front, aside from the Fed on Wednesday, it is a housing related week.

Tuesday Housing Starts 1550K
Building Permits 1600K
Wednesday Existing Home Sales 5.88M
FOMC Rate Decision 0.00%-0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 320K
Continuing Claims 2630K
Flash PMI Manufacturing 60.8
Friday New Home Sales 710K

Source: Bloomberg

As well as the Fed, on Thursday the Bank of England meets and while there is no expectation of a policy move then, there is increasing talk of tighter policy there as well.  Again, if fear continues to dominate markets, central banks are highly unlikely to tighten, and, in fact, far more likely to add yet more liquidity to the system.  Once the Fed meeting has passed, the FOMC members will get back out on the circuit to insure we understand what they are trying to do.  so, we will hear from five of them on Friday, and then a bunch more activity next week.

Today’s watchword is fear.  Markets are afraid and risk is being tossed overboard.  Absent a comment or event that can offset the China Evergrande led story, I see no reason for the dollar to do anything but rally.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Reason to Fear

In Europe, the price of Nat Gas
Has risen to new highs, alas
As winter comes near
There’s reason to fear
A rebound will not come to pass

As well the impact on inflation
Is likely to add to frustration
Of Madame Lagarde
As she tries so hard
To hide the debt monetization

Some days are simply less interesting than others, and thus far, today falls into the fairly dull category.  There has been limited new news in financial markets overall.  While the ongoing concerns over the imminent failure of China Evergrande continue to weigh on Asian stocks (Nikkei -0.6%, Hang Seng -1.5%, Shanghai -1.3%), the story that is beginning to see some light in Europe is focused on the extraordinary rise in Natural Gas prices.  As a point of reference, in the US, Nat Gas closed yesterday at $5.34/MMBtu, itself a significant rise in price over the past six months, nearly doubling in that time.  Europeans, however, would give their eye teeth for such a low price as the price in the Netherlands for TTF (a contract standard) is $22.61/MMBtu!  This price has risen nearly fourfold during the past six months and now stands more thar four times as costly as in the US.  Whatever concerns you may have had about your personal energy costs rising in the US, they are dwarfed by the situation in Europe.

This matters for a number of reasons beyond the economic (for instance, how will people in Europe afford to heat their homes in the fast approaching winter and continue to feed their families as well?)  but our focus here is on markets and economics.  Thus, consider the following:  Europe remains a manufacturing and exporting powerhouse and is reliant on stable supply and pricing of natural gas to power their factories.  Obviously, recent price action has been anything but stable, and given the European dependence on Russian gas supplies, there is a geopolitical element overhanging the market as well.  LNG can be a substitute, but Asian buyers have been paying up to purchase most of those cargoes, so Europe is finding itself with reduced supply and correspondingly rising prices.

The first big industrial impact came yesterday when a major manufacturer of fertilizer shut down two UK plants because the cost of Nat Gas had risen too far to allow them to be competitive.  Consider the chain of events here: first, closure of the plant means reduced overall output, as well as furloughed, if not fired, workers. Second, reduction in the supply of fertilizer means that the price for farmers will almost certainly rise higher, thus forcing farmers to either raise their prices or reduce production (or go out of business).  Higher food prices, which have already risen dramatically, will result in reduced non-food consumption and strain family budgets as it feeds into inflation.  Net, slower growth and higher prices are the exact wrong combination for any economy and one to be avoided at all costs.  Alas, this is very likely the type of future that awaits many, if not most, European countries, the dreaded stagflation.  The ECB has its work cut out to combat this issue effectively while the Eurozone economy sits on more than €11.3 trillion in debt.  I don’t envy Madame Lagarde’s current position.

Beyond the macroeconomic issues, what are the potential market impacts?  Here things, as always, are less clear, but thus far, we have seen one impact, and that is a declining euro (-0.4%).  In fact, all European currencies are falling today as it becomes clearer that economic activity across the pond is going to be further impaired by this situation.  It has been sufficient to offset perceived benefits of European economies reopening in the wake of the spread of the delta variant of Covid.  However, the upshot of this currency weakness has been equity market strength.  It seems that any concerns of the ECB considering tighter policy have been pushed even further into the future thus encouraging investors to continue to add risk to their portfolios.  Hence, this morning, in the wake of the ongoing rise in Nat Gas prices, we see European equities all in the green (DAX +0.5%, CAC +1.0%, FTSE 100 +0.45%).  Under the guise of TINA, weaker growth leads to continued low rates and higher stock prices.  What could possibly go wrong?

US markets are biding their time at this hour, with futures essentially unchanged and really, so are bond markets.  Of the major sovereigns, only Gilts (+1.8bps) have moved more than a fraction of a basis point this morning.  While risk may be on, it is not aggressively so.  Either that, or European banks are back to buying more and more of their national bonds tightening the doom loop that ultimately led to the Eurozone crisis in 2012.

Commodities?  Well, as it happens, after a multi-day rally, oil prices are consolidating with WTI (-0.25%) basically holding the bulk of the $10 in gains it has made in the past month.  Nat Gas, too, is consolidating this morning, down $0.16/MMBtu, although that represents 3% (Natty is very, very volatile!)  With the dollar rocking, we are also seeing weakness across the metals’ markets, both precious (gold -0.75%) and industrial (Cu -2.0%, Al -0.6%, Pb -1.6%).  In fact, the only commodity that is performing well today is Uranium, which is higher by a further 8.1%.

Finally, the dollar is king today, rising against 9 of its G10 counterparts with CHF (-0.5%) the laggard and only NZD (+0.1%) able to show any strength today.  The Kiwi story has been a much better than expected GDP print (2.8% vs 1.1% expected) leading to growing expectations of a 0.50% rate hike next month.  Meanwhile, the rest of the bloc is suffering from the aforementioned cracks in the rebound theory as well as broad-based dollar strength.  This strength has been universal in EMG markets, with every currency sliding against the greenback.  Thus far, the worst performer has been PLN (-0.6%) followed by THB (-0.5%) and HUF (-0.5%).  Beyond that, most currencies are down in the 0.2% range.  Interestingly, for both PLN and HUF, the market discussion is about raising interest rates with Hungary looking at 50bps while Poland has called for a “gentle” rise, assumed to be 0.25%.  As to THB, it seems the market has been reacting to a rise in the number of Covid cases which is perpetuating the Asian risk-off theme.

We have a full slate of data today at 8:30 with Initial (exp 323K) and Continuing (2740K) Claims; Philly Fed (19.0) and the biggest of the day, Retail Sales (-0.7%, 0.0% ex autos).  Tuesday’s Empire Manufacturing data was MUCH stronger than expected, so there will be some hope for Philly to beat.  But the Retail Sales data is the key.  Remember, this number started to slide once the stimulus checks stopped, and last month we saw a much worse than expected -1.1% outcome.  Given the uncertainty over the near-term trajectory of the economy, this will be seen as an important number.

Well, the dollar managed to strengthen despite lacking support from yields, certainly a blow to the dollar bears out there.  The thing is, against the G10, I continue to see the dollar in a range (1.17/1.19) and will need to see a break of either side to change views.  If forced to opine, I would say the medium-term trend for the dollar is gradually higher, but would need to see the euro below 1.17, or the DXY above 93.50 before getting too excited.

I will be out of the office tomorrow so no poetry until Monday.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Dissatisfaction

The Chinese would have us believe
Their growth targets, they will achieve
Alas, recent data
When looked at pro rata
Shows trust in their words is naïve

Meanwhile, in the UK, inflation
Is rising across that great nation
The market’s reaction
Is dissatisfaction
Thus, Gilts have seen depreciation

Just how fast is China’s GDP growing?  That is the question to be answered after last night’s data dump was distinctly worse than expected.  The big outlier was Retail Sales, which grew only 2.5% Y/Y in August, down from 8.5% in July and far below the expected 7.0% forecast.  But it was not just the Chinese consumer who slowed down their activity, IP rose only 5.3% Y/Y, again well below the July print of 6.4% and far below the forecast of 5.8%.  Even property investment was weaker than forecast, rising 10.9%, down from 12.7% in July and below the 11.3% forecast.  So, what gives?

Well, there seem to be several issues ongoing there, some of which may be temporary, like lockdowns due to the spreading delta variant of Covid, while others are likely to be with us for a longer time, notably the fallout from the bankruptcy of China Evergrande on the property market there.  The Chinese government is walking a very fine line of trying to support the economy without overstimulating those areas that tend toward speculation, notably real estate.  This is, however, extraordinarily difficult to achieve, even for a government that controls almost every lever of power domestically.  The problem is that the Chinese economy remains hugely reliant on exports (i.e. growth elsewhere in the world) in order to prosper.  So, as growth globally seems to be abating, the impact on China is profound and very likely will continue to detract from its GDP results.

Adding to the Chinese government’s difficulties is that the largest property company there, Evergrande, is bankrupt and will need to begin liquidating at least a portion of its property portfolio.  Remember, it has more than $300 billion in USD debt and the government has already said that interest and principal payments due next week will not be made.  A key concern is the prospect of contagion for other property companies in China, as well as for dollar bonds issued by other Chinese and non-US entities.  History has shown that contagion from a significant bankruptcy has the ability to spread far and wide, especially given the globalized nature of financial markets.  While we will certainly hear from Chinese officials that everything is under control, recall that the Fed assured us that the subprime crisis was under control, right before they let Lehman Brothers go under and explode the GFC on the world.  The point is, there is a very real risk that investors become wary of certain asset classes and risk overall which could easily lead to a more severe asset price correction.  This is not a prediction, merely an observation of the fact that the probability of something occurring has clearly risen.

Speaking of things rising, the other key story of the morning is inflation in the UK, which printed at 3.2%, its highest level since March 2012, and continues to trend higher.  This cannot be surprising given that inflation is rising rapidly everywhere in the world, but the difference is the BOE may have a greater ability to respond than some of its central bank counterparts, notably the Fed.  For instance, the UK debt/GDP ratio, while having risen recently to 98.8%, remains well below that of the rest of the G7, notably the Fed as the US number has risen to around 130%.  As such, markets have begun to price in actual base rate hikes by the BOE, looking for the base rate to rise to 0.50% (from 0.10% today) by the end of next year with the first hike expected in May.  While that may not seem like much overall (it is not really), it is far more than anticipated here in the US.  And remember, our CPI is running above 5.0% vs. 3.2% in the UK.

The upshot of the key stories overnight is that taking risk is becoming harder to justify for investors all over the world.  While there has certainly not yet been a defining break from the current ‘buy the dip’ mentality, fingers of instability* seem to be developing throughout financial markets globally.  The implication is that the probability of a severe correction seems to be growing, although the timing and catalyst remain completely opaque.

So, how has the most recent news impacted markets?  Based on this morning’s price action, there is clearly at least some concern growing.  For example, equity markets in Asia were all in the red (Nikkei -0.5%, Hang Seng -1.8%, Shanghai -0.2%) as the fallout of slowing Chinese growth and the China Evergrande story continue to weigh on sentiment there.  In Europe, the continent is under some pressure (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.5%) although the UK (FTSE 100 +0.1%) seems to be shaking off the higher than expected CPI readings.  As to US futures, as I type, they are currently marginally higher, about 0.2% each, but this follows on yesterday’s afternoon sell-off resulting in lower closes.  Nothing about this performance screams risk-on, although it is not entirely bad news.

The bond market seems a bit more cautious as Treasury yields have fallen further and are down 1.3bps this morning after a 4bp decline yesterday.  This is hardly the sign of speculative fever.  In Europe at this hour, yields are essentially unchanged except in Italy, where BTP yields have risen 1.6bps as concerns grow over the amount of leeway the Italian government has to continue supporting its economy.

Commodity markets show oil prices continuing to rise (WTI +1.35%) after inventory numbers continue to show drawdowns and Gulf of Mexico production remains reduced due to the recent hurricane Nicholas.  While gold prices are little changed on the day, both copper (+0.6%) and aluminum (+1.6%) are firmer on supply questions.  Certainly nothing has changed my view that the price of “stuff” is going to continue higher in step with the ongoing central bank additions of liquidity to markets and economies.

Finally, the dollar is under pressure this morning, which given the risk-off sentiment, is a bit unusual.  But against its G10 brethren, the greenback is lower across the board with NOK (+0.85%) the clear leader on the strength of oil’s rally, although we are seeing haven assets CHF (+0.4%) and JPY (+0.4%) as the next best performers.  The rest of the bloc has seen much lesser gains, but dollar weakness is clear.

The same situation obtains in the EMG markets, where the dollar is weaker against all its counterparts, although the mix of gainers is somewhat unusual.  ZAR (+0.5%) is the top performer on the back of strengthening commodity prices and it is no surprise to see RUB (+0.4%) doing well either.  But both HUF (+0.45%) and CZK (+0.4%) are near the top of the list as both have seen higher than forecast inflation readings recently and both central banks are tipped to raise rates in the next two weeks.  As such, traders are trying to get ahead of the curve there.  The rest of the bloc is also firmer, but the movement has been much less pronounced with no particular stories to note.

On the data front this morning, Empire Manufacturing (exp 17.9), IP (0.5%) and Capacity Utilization (76.4%) are on the docket, none of which are likely to change many opinions.  The Fed remains in their quiet period until the FOMC meeting next week, so we will continue to need to take our FX cues from other markets.  Right now, it appears that 10-year yields are leading the way, so if they continue to slide, look for the dollar to follow suit.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

*see “Ubiquity” by Mark Buchanan, a book I cannot recommend highly enough

Flames of Concern

While Fed commentary is banned
Inflation has certainly fanned
The flames of concern
And soon we’ll all learn
If prices are acting as planned

Meanwhile transitory’s the word
Jay’s used to describe what’s occurred
But most people feel
Inflation is real
And denial is naught but absurd

It is CPI day in the US today and recently the results have gained nearly as much attention as the monthly payroll data.  This seems reasonable given that pretty much every other story in the press touches on the subject, although as is constantly highlighted, the Fed pays attention to PCE, not CPI.  Nonetheless, CPI is the data that is designed to try to capture the average rate of increases in price for the ordinary consumer.  As well, virtually all contracts linked to inflation are linked to CPI.  So Social Security, union wage contracts and TIPS all use CPI as their benchmark.

Of course, the reason inflation is the hot topic is because it has been so hot over the past nine months.  Consider that since Paul Volcker was Fed Chair and CPI peaked at 14.8%, in 1980, there has been a secular decline for 40 years.  Now, for the first time since 1990, we are likely to have four consecutive Y/Y CPI prints in excess of 5.0%.  Although Powell and the FOMC have been very careful to avoid defining ‘transitory’, every month that CPI (and PCE) prints at levels like this serves to strain their credibility.

This is evidenced by a survey conducted by the New York Fed itself, which yesterday showed that the median expectation for inflation in one year’s time has risen to 5.2% and in three years’ time to 4.0%.  Both of these readings are the highest in the survey’s relatively short history dating back to 2013.  But the point is, people are becoming ever more certain that prices will continue rising.  And remember, while inflation may be a monetary phenomenon, it is also very much a psychological one.  If people believe that prices will rise in the future, they are far more likely to increase their demand for things currently in order to avoid paying those future high prices.  In other words, hoarding will become far more normal and expectations for higher prices will become embedded in the collective psyche.

In fact, it is this exact situation that the Fed is desperately trying to prevent, hence the constant reminders that inflation is transitory and so behavioral changes are unnecessary.  This is what also leads to absurdities like the White House trying to explain that except for the prices of beef, pork and poultry, food prices are in line with what would be expected.  Let’s unpack that for a minute.  Beef, pork and poultry are the three main protein sources consumed in this country, if not around the world, so the fact that those have risen in price makes it hard to avoid the idea that prices are rising.  But the second half of the statement is also disingenuous, “in line with what would be expected” does not indicate prices haven’t risen, only that they haven’t risen as much as beef etc.  I’m sure that when each of you heads to the supermarket to stock up for the week, you have observed the price of almost every item is higher than it was, not only pre-Covid, but also at the beginning of the year.  Alas, at this point, there is no reason to expect inflation to slow down.

Median expectations according to Bloomberg’s survey of economists show that CPI is forecast to have risen 0.4% in August with the Y/Y increase declining to 5.3% from last month’s 5.4% reading.  Ex food and energy, the forecasts are +0.3% and 4.2% respectively.  Now, those annual numbers are 0.1% lower than the July readings, which have many economists claiming that the peak is in, and a slow reversion to the lowflation environment we experienced for the past twenty years is going to return.  Counter to that argument, though, is the idea that the economy is cyclical and that includes inflation.  As such, even if there is an ebb for now, the next cycle will likely return us to these levels once again, if not higher.  PS, if the forecasts are accurate, as I mentioned before, this will still be the fourth consecutive month of 5+% CPI, a fact which makes it much easier for the masses to believe inflation has returned.  You can see why Powell and the entire FOMC continue to harp on the transitory concept, they are desperate to prevent expectations from changing because, as we’ve discussed before, they cannot afford to raise interest rates given the amount of leverage in the system.

Keeping all this in mind, it is easy to understand why the CPI data release has gained so much in importance, even to the Fed, who ostensibly focuses on PCE.  We shall see what the data brings.

In the meantime, the markets overnight have been mostly quiet with a few outlying events.  China Evergrande, the massively indebted Chinese property company has hired two law firms with expertise in bankruptcy.  This is shaking the Chinese markets as given the massive amount of debt involved (>$300 billion of USD debt) there is grave concern a bankruptcy could have significant knock-on repercussions across all sub-prime markets.  It should be no surprise that Chinese equity markets fell last night with Shanghai (-1.4%) and the Hang Seng (-1.2%) both under continued pressure.  However, the Nikkei (+0.7%) rose to its highest level since 1990, although still well below the peak levels from the Japanese bubble of the late ‘80s.  Europe is also mixed with the DAX (+0.1%) managing to eke out some gains while the rest of the continent slides into the red (CAC -0.4%, FTSE 100 -0.3%). US futures are basically unchanged this morning as we all await the CPI data.

Interestingly, despite a lot of equity uncertainty and weakness, bonds are also under pressure with yields rising across the board.  Treasuries (+1.2bps), Bunds (+1.9bps), OATs (+1.6bps) and Gilts (+3.8bps) have all sold off, with only Gilts making some sense as UK employment data was generally better than expected and indicative of a rebound in growth.

In the commodity markets, oil (WTI + 0.6%) continues to rebound as another hurricane hits the Gulf Coast and is shutting in more production.  But metals prices are under pressure led by copper (-1.25%) and aluminum (-1.0%).

As to the dollar, mixed is the best description I can give this morning.  In the G10, AUD (-0.5%) is the laggard after RBA Governor Lowe questioned why market participants thought the RBA would be raising rates anytime soon despite potential tapering in the US and Europe.  Australia is in a very different position and unlikely to raise rates before 2024.  On the plus side, NOK (+0.4%) continues to benefit from oil’s rebound and the rest of the bloc has seen much more modest movement, less than 0.2%, in either direction.

EMG markets are a bit weaker this morning, seemingly responding to the growing risk off sentiment as we see ZAR (-0.65%) and RUB (-0.5%) both under a fair amount of pressure with a long list of currencies declining by lesser amounts.  While declining metals prices may make sense as a driver of the rand, the ruble seems to be ignoring the oil price rally, as traders await the CPI data.  On the plus side, KRW (+0.45%) was the best performer as positions locally were adjusted ahead of the upcoming holiday there.

And that’s really the story as we await the CPI release.  The dollar, while softening slightly from its best levels recently, continues to feel better rather than worse, so I suspect we could see modest further strength if CPI is on target.  However, a miss in the print can have more significant repercussions, with a high print likely to see the dollar benefit  initially.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Outmoded

In Germany prices exploded
While confidence there has eroded
Now all eyes will turn
Back home where we’ll learn
On Tuesday if QE’s outmoded

The most disturbing aspect of the inflation argument (you know, is it transitory or not) is the fact that those in the transitory camp are willing to completely ignore the damage inflation does to household budgets.  Their attitude was recently articulated by the chief European economist at TS Lombard, Dario Perkins, thusly, “There is nothing inherently dangerous about inflation settling in, say, a 3-5% range instead of the 1-2% that’s been normal for the past decade.”  He continued, “the bigger risk is that hitherto dovish central bankers lose their nerve and raise interest rates until it causes a recession, like they’ve done in the past.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.  The simple math shows that at a 2% inflation rate, the price of something rises about 22% over the course of a decade.  So, that Toyota Camry that cost $25,000 in 2011 would cost $30,475 today.  However, at a 5% inflation rate over that time, it would cost $40,725, a 63% increase.  That’s a pretty big difference.  Add in the fact that wage gains have certainly not been averaging 5% per year and it is easy to see how inflation can be extremely damaging to anybody, let alone to the average wage earner.  The point is, while to an economist, inflation appears to be an abstract concept that is simply a number input into their models, to the rest of us, it is the cost of living.  And there is nothing that indicates the cost of living will stop rising sharply anytime soon.

This was reinforced overnight when Germany released its wholesale price index, which rose 12.3% in the past twelve months.  That is the highest rate of increase since 1974 in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo.  Now fortunately, the ECB is on the case.  Isabel Schnabel, the ECB’s head of markets explained, “The prospect of persistently excessive inflation, as feared by some, remains highly unlikely.  But should inflation sustainably reach our target of 2% unexpectedly soon, we will act equally quickly and resolutely.”  You know, they have tools!

On the subject of Wholesale, or Producer, Prices, while Germany’s were the highest print we’ve seen from a major economy, recall last week that Chinese PPI printed at 9.5%, in the US it was 8.3% and even in Japan, a nation that has not seen inflation in two decades, PPI rose 5.6% last month.  It appears that the cost of making “stuff” is rising pretty rapidly.  And even if the pace of these increases does slow down, the probability of prices declining is essentially nil.  Remember, the current central bank mantra is deflation is the worst possible outcome and they will do all they can to prevent it.  All I can say is, I sure hope everyone’s wages can keep pace with inflation, because otherwise, we are all at a permanent disadvantage compared to where things had been just a year or two ago.

Well, I guess there is one beneficiary of higher inflation…governments issuing debt.  As long as inflation grows faster than the size of their debt, a government’s real obligations decline.  And you wonder why the Fed insists inflation is transitory.  Oh yeah, for all of you who think that higher inflation will lead to higher interest rates, I wouldn’t count on that outcome either.  Whether or not the Fed actually tapers, they have exactly zero incentive to raise rates anytime soon.  And as to bonds, they have shown before (post WWII) that they are willing to cap yields at a rate well below inflation if it suits their needs.  And I assure you, it suits their needs right now.

So, what will all this do to the currency markets?  As always, FX is a relative game so what matters is the degree of change from one currency to the next.  The medium-term bearish case for the dollar is that inflation in the US will run hotter than in Europe, Japan or elsewhere, while the Fed caps yields in some manner.  The resultant expansion of negative real yields will have a significant negative impact on the dollar.  This argument will fail if one of two things occurs; either other central banks shoot for even greater negative yields, or, more likely, the Fed allows the back end of the curve to rise thus moderating the impact of negative real yields.  In either case, the dollar should benefit.  In fact, this is why the taper discussion is of such importance to the FX market, tapering implies higher yields in the back end of the US yield curve and therefore an opportunity for a stronger dollar.  Remember, though, there are many moving pieces, so even if the Fed does taper, that is not necessarily going to support the dollar all that much.

Ok, let’s look at this morning’s markets, where risk is largely being acquired, although there is no obvious reason why that is the case.  Equity markets in Asia were mixed with both gainers (Nikkei +0.2%, Shanghai +0.3%) and Losers (Hang Seng (-1.5%) as the ongoing Chinese crackdown on internet companies received new news.  It seems that the Chinese government is going to split up Ant Financial such that its lending business is a separate company under stricter government control.  Ali Baba, which is listed in HK, not Shanghai, fell sharply, as did other tech companies in China, hence the dichotomy between the Hang Seng and Shanghai indices.  But excluding Chinese tech, stocks were in demand.  The same is true in Europe where the screen is entirely green (DAX +1.1%, CAC +0.8%, FTSE 100 +0.8%) as it seems there is little concern about a passthrough of inflation, but great hope that reopening economies will perform well.  US futures are also looking robust this morning, with all three major indices higher by at least 0.5% as I type.

Funnily enough, despite the risk appetite in equities, bond prices are rallying as well, with 10-year Treasury yields lower by 1.7bps, and European sovereigns also seeing modest yield declines of between 0.5 and 1.0 bps. Apparently, as concerns grow over the possibility of a technical US default due to a debt ceiling issue, the safety trade is to buy Treasuries.  At least that is the explanation being offered today.

On the commodity front, oil (WTI +0.8%) is leading the way higher although we are seeing gains in many of the industrial metals as well, notably aluminum (+1.6%), which seems to be feeling some supply shortages.  Copper (-0.45%), surprisingly, is softer on the day, but the rest of that space is firmer.  I mentioned Uranium last week, and as an FYI, it is higher by 5% this morning as more and more people begin to understand the combination of a structural shortage of the metal and the increasing likelihood that any carbonless future will require nuclear power to be far more prevalent.

Finally, the dollar is broadly, although not universally, stronger this morning.  In the G10, only NOK (+0.2%) and CAD (+0.1%) have managed to hold their own this morning on the strength of oil’s rally.  Meanwhile, CHF (-0.7%) is under the most pressure as havens lose their luster, although the rest of the bloc has only seen declines of between -0.1% and -0.3%.  In the EMG bloc, THB (-0.75%) and KRW (-0.6%) lead the way lower as both nations saw equity market outflows on weakness in Asian tech stocks.  But generally, almost all currencies here are softer by between -0.2% and -0.4%.  the exceptions are TRY (+0.3%) and RUB (+0.25%) with the latter supported by oil while the former is benefitting from hope that the central bank will maintain tight policy to fight inflation.

On the data front, we have both CPI and Retail Sales leading a busy week:

Today Monthly Budget Statement -$175B
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 99.0
CPI 0.4% (5.3% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.3% (4.2% Y/Y)
Wednesday Empire Manufacturing 18.0
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 76.4%
Thursday Initial Claims 320K
Continuing Claims 2740K
Retail Sales -0.8%
-ex auto -0.1%
Philly Fed 19.0
Friday Michigan Sentiment 72.0

Source: Bloomberg

With no recent stimulus checks, Retail Sales are forecast to suffer greatly.  Meanwhile, the CPI readings are forecast to be a tick lower than last month, but still above 5.0% for the third consecutive month.  Certainly, my personal experience is that prices continue to rise quite rapidly, and I would not be surprised to see a higher print.  Mercifully, the Fed is in its quiet period ahead of next week’s FOMC meeting, so we no longer need to hear about when anybody thinks tapering should occur.  The next information will be the real deal from Chairman Powell.

The tapering argument seems to be the driver right now, with a growing belief the Fed will reduce its QE purchases and US rates will rise, at least in the back end.  That seems to be the genesis of the dollar’s support.  As long as that attitude exists, the dollar should do well.  But if the data this week points to further slowing in the US economy, I would expect the taper story to fade along with the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf