Overkill

The talk in the market is still
‘Bout German high court overkill
While pundits debate
The bond program’s fate
The euro is heading downhill

Amid ongoing dreadful economic data, the top story continues to be the German Constitutional Court’s ruling on (rebuke of?) the ECB’s Public Sector Purchase Program, better known as QE. The issue that drew the court’s attention was whether the ECB’s actions to help support the Eurozone overall are eroding the sovereignty of its member states. Consider, if any of the bonds that are bought by the central banks default, it is the individual nations that will need to pay the cost out of their respective budgets. That means that the unelected officials at the ECB are making potential claims on sovereign nations’ finances, a place more rightly accorded to national legislatures. This is a serious issue, and a very valid point. (The same point has been made about Fed programs). However, despite the magnitude of the issues raised, the court gave the ECB just three months to respond, and if they are not satisfied with that response, they will bar the Bundesbank from participating in any further QE programs. And that, my friends, would be the end. The end of the euro, the end of the Eurozone, and quite possibly the end of the EU.

Remember, unlike the Fed, which actually executes its monetary policy decisions directly in the market, the ECB relies on each member nation’s central bank to enter the market and purchase the appropriate assets. So, the ECB’s balance sheet is really just a compilation of the balance sheets of all the national central banks. If the Bundesbank is prevented from implementing ECB policy on this score, given Germany’s status as the largest nation, and thus largest buyer in the program, the effectiveness of any further ECB programs would immediately be called into question, as would the legitimacy of the entire institution. This is the very definition of an existential threat to the single currency, and one that the market is now starting to consider more carefully. It is clearly the driving force behind the euro’s further decline this morning, down another 0.5% which makes 1.5% thus far in May. In fact, while we saw broad dollar weakness in April, as equity markets rallied and risk was embraced, the euro has now ceded all of those gains. And I assure you, if there is any doubt that the ECB will be able to answer the questions posed by the court, the euro will decline much further.

The euro is not the only instrument under pressure from this ruling, the entire European government bond market is falling today. Now, granted, the declines are not that sharp, but they are universal, with every member of the Eurozone seeing bond prices fall and yields tick higher. This certainly makes sense overall, as the ECB has been the buyer of (first and) last resort in government bond markets, and the idea that they may be prevented from acting in the future is a serious concern. Simply consider how much more debt all Eurozone nations are going to need to issue in order to pay for their fiscal programs. Across the entire Eurozone, forecasts now point to in excess of €1 trillion of new bonds this year, already larger than the ECB’s PEPP. And if there is a second wave of the virus, forcing a reclosing of economies with a longer period of lockdown, that number is only going to increase further. Without the ECB to absorb the bulk of that debt, yields in Eurozone debt will have much further to climb. The point is that this issue, which was initially seen as minor and technical, may actually be far more important than anything else. And while the odds are still with the ECB to continue with business as usual, the probability of a disruption is clearly non-zero.

Away from the technicalities of the German Constitutional Court, there is far less of interest in the markets overall. Equity markets are mixed, with gainers and losers in both the Asian session as well as Europe. US futures, at this time, are pointing higher, with all three indices looking toward 1% gains at the open. And the dollar is broadly, though not universally, higher.

Aside from the euro’s decline, we have also seen weakness in the pound (-0.4%) after the Construction PMI (the least impactful of the PMI measures) collapsed to a reading of 8.2, from last month’s dreadful 39.2. This merely reinforces what type of hit the UK economy is going to take. On the plus side, the yen is higher by 0.3%, seemingly on the back of position adjustments as given the other risk signals, I would not characterize today as a risk-off session.

In the EMG space, there are far more losers than gainers today, led by the Turkish lira (-1.0%) and the Russian ruble (-0.8%). The lira is under pressure after new economic projections point to a larger economic contraction this year of as much as 3.4%. This currency weakness is despite the central bank’s boosting of FX swaps in an effort to prevent a further decline. Meanwhile, despite oil’s ongoing rebound (WTI +3.6%) the ruble seems to be reacting to recent gains and feeling some technical selling pressure. Elsewhere in the space, we have seen losses on the order of 0.3%-0.5% across most APAC and CE4 currencies. The one exception to the rule is KRW, which rallied 0.6% overnight as expectations grow that South Korea is going to be able to reopen the bulk of its economy soon. One other positive there is that demand for USD loans (via Fed swap lines) has diminished so much the BOK is stopping the auctions for now. That is a clear indication that financial stress in the nation has fallen.

On the data front, this morning brings the ADP Employment number (exp -21.0M), which will be the latest hint regarding Friday’s payroll data. Clearly, a month of huge Initial Claims data will have taken its toll. Yesterday’s Fed speakers didn’t tell us very much new, but merely highlighted the fact that each member has their own view of how things may evolve and none of them are confident in those views. Uncertainty remains the word of the day.

For now, the narratives of the past several weeks don’t seem to have quite the strength that they did, and I would say that the focus is on the process of economies reopening. While that is very good news, the concern lies after they have reopened, and the carnage becomes clearer. Just how many jobs have been permanently erased because of the changes that are coming to our world in the wake of Covid-19? It is that feature, as well as the nature of economic activity afterwards, that will drive the long-term outcome, and as of now, no clear path is in sight. The opportunity for further market dislocations remains quite high, and hedgers need to maintain their programs, especially during these times.

Good luck and stay safe
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It’s Now or Never

Like Elvis said, it’s now or never
For Boris’s Brexit endeavor
The Irish are chuffed
As Coveney huffed
He’s not, but he thinks he’s so clever

Around 7:00 this morning, PM Boris Johnson will be addressing the Tory party at their annual convention and the key focus will be on his plan to ensure a smooth Brexit. The early details call for customs checks several miles away from the border on both sides with a time limit of about four years to allow for technology to do the job more effectively. However, he maintains that the whole of the UK will be out of the EU and that there will be no special deal for Northern Ireland. His supporters in Northern Ireland, the DUP, appear to have his back. In addition, he is reportedly going to demand that an agreement be reached by October 11 so that it can be agreed in Parliament as well as throughout the EU.

Interestingly, the Irish are still playing tough, at least according to Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who said that the leaked details formed “no basis for an agreement.” Of course, as in everything to do with this process, there are other views in Ireland with Irish PM Varadkar seemingly far more willing to use this as a basis for discussion. His problem is the Fianna Fail party, a key coalition member, is unhappy with the terms. I say this is interesting because in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Ireland’s economy will be the one most severely impacted, with estimates of 4%-5% declines in GDP in 2020.

With respect to the market, it is difficult to untangle the effect of the latest Brexit news from the dreadful economic data that continues to be released. This morning’s UK Construction PMI fell to 43.3, within ticks of the lows seen during the financial crisis in 2009. The pound has suffered, down 0.4% as I type, although it was even softer earlier in the session. The FTSE 100 is also weak, -1.8%, although that is very much in line with the rest of the European equity markets (CAC -1.6%, DAX -1.3%) and is in synch with the sharp declines seen yesterday in the US and overnight in Asia.

Speaking of yesterday’s price action, it was pretty clear what drove activity; the remarkably weak ISM Manufacturing print at 47.8. This was far worse than forecast and the lowest print since June 2009. It seems pretty clear at this point that there is a global manufacturing recession ongoing and the question that remains is, will it be isolated to manufacturing, or will it spill over into the broader economy. Remember, manufacturing in the US represents only about 11.6% of GDP, so if unemployment remains contained and services can hold up, there is no need for the US economy to slip into recession. But it certainly doesn’t help the situation. However, elsewhere in the world, manufacturing represents a much larger piece of the pie (e.g. Germany 21%, China 40%, UK 18%) and so the impact of weak manufacturing is much larger on those economies as a whole.

It is this ongoing uncertainty that keeps weighing on sentiment, if not actually driving investors to sell their holdings. And perhaps of most interest is that despite the sharp equity market declines yesterday, it was not, by any means, a classic risk-off session. I say this because the yen barely budged, the dollar actually fell and Treasuries, while responding to the ISM print at 10:00am by rallying more than half a point (yields -7bps), could find no further support and have not moved overnight. If I had to describe market consensus right now, it would be that everyone is unsure of what is coming next. Will there be positive or negative trade news? Will the impeachment process truly move forward and will it be seen as a threat to the Administration’s plans? Will Brexit be soft, hard or non-existent? As you well know, it is extremely difficult to plan with so many potential pitfalls and so little clarity on how both consumers and markets will react to any of this news. I would contend that in situations like this, owning options make a great deal of sense as a hedge. This is especially so given the relatively low implied volatilities that continue to trade in the market.

Turning to the rest of the session, a big surprise has been the weakness in the Swiss franc, which has fallen 0.6% this morning despite risk concerns. However, the Swiss released CPI data and it was softer than expected at -0.1% (+0.1% Y/Y) which has encouraged traders to look for further policy ease by the SNB, or at least intervention to weaken the currency. But just as the dollar was broadly weaker yesterday, it has largely recouped those losses today vs. its G10 counterparts. Only the yen, which is up a scant 0.15%, has managed to show strength vs. the greenback. In the EMG space, KRW has been the biggest mover, falling 0.55% overnight after North Korea fired another missile into the sea last night, heightening tensions on the peninsula there. Of course, given the negative data (negative CPI and sharply declining exports) there is also a strong case being made for the BOK to ease policy further, thus weakening the won. Beyond that, however, the EMG currency movement has been mixed and modest, with no other currency moving more than 25bps.

This morning after Boris’s speech, all eyes will turn to the ADP employment data (exp 140K) and then we have three more Fed speakers this morning, Barkin, Harker and Williams. Yesterday, we heard from Chicago Fed president Charles Evans, who explained that he felt the economy was still growing nicely and that the two rate cuts so far this year were appropriate. He did not, however, give much of a hint as to whether he thought the Fed needed to do more. Reading what I could of the text, it did not really seem to be the case. My impression is that his ‘dot’ was one of the five looking for one more cut before the September meeting.

And that’s what we have for today. Barring something remarkable from Boris, it appears that if ADP is in line with expectations, the dollar is likely to consolidate this morning’s gains. A strong print will help boost the buck, while a weak print, something on the order of 50K, could well see the dollar cede everything it has gained today and then some.

Good luck
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Certainty’s Shrinking

The data from yesterday showed
That Services growth hadn’t slowed
But ADP’s number
Showed job growth aslumber
An outcome that doesn’t, well, bode

This morning it’s Mario’s turn
To placate the market’s concern
His toolkit keeps shrinking
And certainty’s sinking
That he can prevent a downturn

The glass is always half-full if you are an equity trader, that much is clear. Not only did they interpret Chairman Jay’s words on Tuesday as a rate cut was coming soon (although he said no such thing), but yesterday they managed to see the combination of strong ISM Non-Manufacturing data (56.9 vs exp 55.5) and weak ADP Employment data (27K vs exp 180K) as the perfect storm. I guess they see booming profits from Services companies alongside rate cuts from the Fed as job growth slows. At any rate, by the end of the day, equity markets had continued the rally that started Tuesday with any concerns over tariffs on Mexican imports relegated to the dustbin of last week.

Meanwhile the Treasury market continues to have a different spin on things with 10-year yields still plumbing multi-year depths (2.10%) while the 5yr-30yr spread blows out to its steepest (88bps) since late 2017. The interpretation here is that the bond market is essentially forecasting a number of Fed rate cuts as the economy heads into recession shortly. It isn’t often that markets have such diametrically opposed views of the future, but history has shown that, unfortunately in this case, the bond market has a better track record than the stock market. And there is one other little tidbit of market data worth sharing, the opposing moves of gold and oil. Last week was only the third time since at least the early 1980’s that gold prices rallied at least 5.2% while oil fell at least 8.7%, an odd outcome. The other two times? Right before the Tech Bubble burst and right before the Global Financial Crisis. Granted this is not a long track record, but boy, it’s an interesting outcome!

The point is, signs that economic growth is slowing in the US are increasing. One thing of which we can be sure is that while slowing growth elsewhere may not lead to a US recession, a US recession will absolutely lead to much slower growth everywhere else in the world. Remember, the IMF just this week reduced their GDP growth forecasts yet again for 2019, and their key concern, the deteriorating trade situation between the US and the rest of the world, is showing no signs of dissipating.

Into this mix steps Mario Draghi as the ECB meets today in Vilnius, Lithuania (part of their annual roadshow). At this point, it is clear the ECB will define the terms of the new TLTRO’s with most analysts’ views looking for very generous terms (borrowing at -0.4%) although the ECB has tried to insist that these will only last two years rather than the four years of the last program. There is also talk of the ECB investigating further rate cuts, with perhaps a tiered structure on which reserves will be subject to the new, lower rate. And there is even one bank analyst forecasting that the ECB will restart QE come January 2020. Futures markets are pricing in a rate cut by Q1 2020, which is certainly not the direction the ECB intended when they changed their forward guidance to ‘rates will remain where they are through at least the end of the year.’ At that time, they were thinking of rate hikes, but that seems highly unlikely now.

With all of this in mind, let us now consider how this might impact the FX market. As I consistently point out, FX is a relative game. This means that expectations for both currencies matter, not just for one. So, the idea that the Fed has turned dovish, ceteris paribus, would certainly imply the dollar has room to fall. But ceteris is never paribus in this world, and as we are likely to hear later today at Draghi’s press conference, the ECB is going to be seen as far more dovish than just recently supposed. (What if the TLTRO’s are for three years instead of two? That would be seen as quite dovish I think.) The point is that while the signs of a weaker US economy continue to grow, those same signs point to weakness elsewhere. In the end, while the dollar may still soften further, as expectations about the Fed race ahead of those about the ECB or elsewhere, that is a short-term result. As I wrote earlier this week, 2% or so further weakness seems quite viable, but not much more than that before it is clear the rest of the world is in the same boat and policy eases everywhere.

FX market activity overnight has shown the dollar to be under modest pressure, with the euro up 0.3% while the pound and most of the rest of the G10 are up lesser amounts (0.1%-0.2%). However, many EMG currencies remain under pressure with MXN -0.75% after Fitch downgraded its credit rating to BBB-, the lowest investment grade, and weakness in ZAR and TRY helping to support the broad dollar indices. But in the big picture, the dollar remains in a trading range as we will need to see real policy changes before there is significant movement.

Turning to this morning’s data, aside from the Draghi presser at 8:30, we also see Initial Claims (exp 215K), the Trade Balance (-$50.7B), Nonfarm Productivity (3.5%) and Unit Labor Costs (-0.8%). But the reality is that, especially after yesterday’s ADP number, all eyes will be on tomorrow’s NFP print. In the event that ADP was prescient, and we see a terrible number, watch for a huge bond market rally and a weaker dollar. But if it is more benign, around the 185K expected, then I don’t see any reason for markets to change their recent tune. Expectations of future Fed rate cuts as ‘insurance’ will help keep the dollar on its back foot while supporting equities round the world.

Good luck
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Percent Twenty-Five

The story, once more’s about trade
As Trump, a new threat, has conveyed
Percent twenty-five
This fall may arrive
Lest progress in trade talks is made

President Trump shook things up yesterday by threatening 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports unless a trade deal can be reached. This is up from the initial discussion of a 10% tariff on those goods, and would almost certainly have a larger negative impact on GDP growth while pushing inflation higher in both the US and China, and by extension the rest of the world. It appears that the combination of strong US growth and already weakening Chinese growth, has led the President to believe he is in a stronger position to obtain a better deal. Not surprisingly the Chinese weren’t amused, loudly claiming they would not be blackmailed. In the background, it appears that efforts to restart trade talks between the two nations have thus far been unsuccessful, although those efforts continue.

Clearly, this is not good news for the global economy, nor is it good news for financial markets, which have no way to determine just how big an impact trade ructions are going to have on equities, currencies, commodities and interest rates. In other words, things are likely more uncertain now than in more ‘normal’ times. And that means that market volatility across markets is likely to increase. After all, not only is there the potential for greater surprises, but the uncertainty prevailing has reduced liquidity overall as many investors and traders hew to the sidelines until they have a better idea of what to do. And, of course, it is August 1st, a period where summer vacations leave trading desks with reduced staffing levels and so liquidity is generally less robust in any event.

Moving past trade brings us straight to the central bank story, where the relative hawkishness or dovishnes of yesterday’s BOJ announcement continues to be debated. There are those who believe it was a stealth tightening, allowing higher 10-year yields (JGB yields rose 8bps last night to their highest level in more than 18 months) and cutting in half the amount of reserves subject to earning -0.10%. And there are those who believe the increased flexibility and addition of forward guidance are signals that the BOJ is keen to ease further. Yesterday’s price action in USDJPY clearly favored the doves, as the yen fell a solid 0.8% in the session. But there has been no follow-through this morning.

As to the other G10 currencies, the dollar is modestly firmer against most of them this morning in the wake of PMI data from around the world showing that the overall growth picture remains mixed, but more troubling, the trend appears to be continuing toward slower growth.

The emerging market picture is similar, with the dollar performing reasonably well this morning, although, here too, there are few outliers. The most notable is KRW, which has fallen 0.75% overnight despite strong trade data as inflation unexpectedly fell and views of an additional rate hike by the BOK dimmed. However, beyond that, modest dollar strength was the general rule.

At this point in the session, the focus will turn to some US data including; ADP Employment (exp 185K), ISM Manufacturing (59.5) and its Prices Paid indicator (75.8), before the 2:00pm release of the FOMC statement as the Fed concludes its two day meeting. As there is no press conference, and the Fed has not made any changes to policy without a press conference following the meeting in years, I think it is safe to say there is a vanishingly small probability that anything new will come from the meeting. The statement will be heavily parsed, but given that we heard from Chairman Powell just two weeks ago, and the biggest data point, Q2 GDP, was released right on expectations, it seems unlikely that they will make any substantive changes.

It feels far more likely that this meeting will have been focused on technical questions about how future Fed policies will be enacted. Consider that QE has completely warped the old framework, where the Fed would actually adjust reserves in order to drive interest rates. Now, however, given the trillions of dollars of excess reserves, they can no longer use that strategy. The question that has been raised is will they try to go back to the old way, or is the new, much larger balance sheet going to remain with us forever. For hard money advocates, I fear the answer will not be to their liking, as it appears increasingly likely that QE is with us to stay. Of course, since this is a global phenomenon, I expect the impact on the relative value of any one currency is likely to be muted. After all, if everybody has changed the way they manage their economy in the same manner, then relative values are unlikely to change.

Flash, ADP Employment prints at a better than expected 219K, but the initial dollar impact is limited. Friday’s NFP report is of far more interest, but for today, all eyes will wait for the Fed. I expect very limited movement in the dollar ahead of then, and afterwards to be truthful.

Good luck
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