Make Hay

The Fed, today’s, finally set
To start to buy corporate debt
Meanwhile the UK
Did start to make hay
With its largest Gilt issue yet

While markets are fairly docile this morning, there are four interesting stories to note, all of which are likely to have bigger impacts down the road.

The first of these emanates from the Mariner Eccles Building in Washington, where the FOMC will begin to implement its Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF), purchasing its first investment grade bond ETF’s. Ironically, in their effort to stabilize corporate credit markets that are suffering a hangover of excess issuance prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the Fed is going to ramp up margin debt for the purchases. A little ‘hair of the dog’ it seems is the best idea they have. Consider, the process of these purchases is that the Treasury has deposited $37.5 billion into an SPV account which will serve as collateral for that SPV to purchase up to 10x that amount in securities. Talk about speculative! If the SPV purchases its full allotment, then the Fed will effectively be increasing the total amount of margin debt outstanding by nearly 80%. Granted, there is no concern about the Fed being able to pay for these securities in actuality, it’s just the legal questions that may arise if they fall in price by more than 10% and the Fed has actual losses on its balance sheet. Naturally, the idea is that with the Fed buying, there is almost no possibility that prices could fall. However, do not believe that for a moment, just as we have seen in the Treasury market, despite the Fed buying $ trillions worth, bond prices still decline all the time. And don’t forget what we saw in March, when yields rocketed higher for a period of time. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is that US equity futures have been trading either side of flat despite this new money entering the market.

The second interesting story comes from across the pond, where the UK issued gilts via a syndicate for the first time, offering a new 10-year bond and garnering £65 billion pounds of demand, a record amount of attraction. It seems that one of the things that got buyers excited was a comment by BOE Deputy Governor Broadbent hinting that negative rates are not out of the question as the Old Lady seeks to insure sufficient policy support for the economy.

While on the subject of negative rates, it is worth noting that two Fed regional presidents, Bostic and Evans, were both circumspect as to the need for the Fed to ever go down that road. That is certainly good news, but one cannot forget the language change made in September of last year when the Fed stopped referring to the “zero lower bound” and began calling it the “effective lower bound”. Observers far more prescient than this one have noted that the change clearly opens the door for negative rates in the future. There is certainly no indication that is on the cards right now, but it is not an impossibility. Keep that in mind.

From Austria, Herr PM Kurz
Admitted that fiscal transfers
Are what are required
Lest Rome is inspired
To exit, which no one prefers

Another interesting headline this morning comes from Vienna, where Austrian PM Sebastian Kurz explained that the only way Italy can survive is via debt mutualization by the EU, as there is no way they will ever be able to repay their debt. While it is refreshing to hear some truth, it is also disconcerting that in the very next comment, PM Kurz explained there was no way that Austria was comfortable with that course of action. While Austria stood ready to support Italy, they would not take on their obligations. Of course, this is the fatal flaw in the EU, the fact that the Teutonic trio of Germany, Austria and the Netherlands are the only nations that can truly help fund the crisis but are completely unwilling to do so. I once again point to the German Constitutional Court ruling last week as a sign that the euro is likely to remain under pressure for a time to come. While this morning it is now higher by 0.2%, it remains near the bottom of its recent range with ample opportunity to decline further. Beware the ides of August, by which time the ECB will have responded to the court.

And finally, it must be noted that it is raining in Norway. By this I mean that the Government Pension Fund of Norway, the world’s largest wealth fund, is going to be selling as much as $41 billion in assets in order to fund the Norwegian government and its response to the crisis. This is exactly what a rainy-day fund is meant for, so no qualms there. But it does mean that we are going to see some real selling pressure on financial assets as they liquidate that amount of holdings, many of which are in US stocks. NOK, however, has been the beneficiary, rallying 0.8% this morning on the news. Given the krone has been the worst performing G10 currency this year, it has plenty of room to rally further without having any negative economic impacts.

Those are the most interesting headlines of the day, and the ones most likely to have a market impact. However, today, for the first time in a while, there is not much market impact in any markets. Equity prices in Asia were modestly softer, while those in Europe are mixed but edging higher. Bond prices are within a tick or two of yesterday’s closing levels, and the dollar is having a mixed session, although I would estimate that on net it is slightly weaker.

On the data front, it has been extremely quiet overnight with a few Sentiment indicators in France and Japan, as well as the NFIB here in the US, all printing terrible numbers, but none quite as terrible as the median forecasts. My observation is that analysts are now expanding their view of just how bad things are and beginning to overstate the case. As for this morning, we have CPI on the docket, with expectations of a 0.4% headline print and 1.7% core print. While inflation may well be in our future given the combination of monetary and fiscal policy response, it is not in the near future.

Barring some other news story, markets seem pretty happy to consolidate for a change, and I expect that is what we will see today. However, nothing has changed my view that a substantial repricing of risk is still in our future, and with it, a stronger dollar. While we don’t know what the catalyst will be, I have my eye on the ECB response to the German Constitutional Court ruling.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Bright Line

In Europe there is a bright line
Twixt nations, those strong, those supine
The Germans and Dutch
Refuse to give much
While Italy wilts on the vine

Once again, the EU has failed to accomplish a crucial task and once again, market pundits are calling for the bloc’s demise. The key story this morning highlights the failure of EU FinMins, after a 16-hour meeting yesterday, to reach a support deal for the whole of Europe. The mooted amount was to be €500 billion, but as always in this group, the question of who would ultimately pick up the tab could not be agreed. And that is because, there are only three nations, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, who are in a net financial position to do so. Meanwhile, the other twenty-four nations all have their collective hands out. (And you wonder why the UK voted to leave!) Ultimately, the talks foundered on the desire by the majority of nations to mutualize the costs of the support (i.e. issue Eurobonds backed by the full faith and credit of the entire EU), while the Germans, Dutch and Austrians would not agree. Realistically, it is understandable why they would not agree, because in the end, the obligation will fall on those three nations to pick up the tab. But the outcome does not bode well for either the present or the future.

In the current moment, the lack of significant fiscal support is going to hamstring every EU nation, other than those three, in their attempts to mitigate the impacts of shutting down economies to halt the spread of Covid-19. But in the future, this issue is the latest manifestation of the fundamental flaw in the EU itself.

That flaw can be described as follows: the EU is a group of fiercely competitive nations masquerading as a coherent whole. When the broad situation is benign, like it is most of the time, and there is positive economic growth and markets are behaving well, the EU makes a great show of how much they do together and all the things on which they agree. However, when the sh*t hits the fan, it is every nation for themselves and woe betide any attempt by one member to collaborate with another on a solution. This makes perfect sense because, despite the fact that they have constructed a number of institutions that sound like they are democratically elected representatives of each nation, the reality is in tough times, each nation’s political class is concerned first and foremost with its own citizenry, and only when that group is safeguarded, will they consider helping others. At this point, in the virus crisis, no nation feels its own citizens are safe, so it would be political suicide to offer help to others. (Asking for help is an entirely different matter, that’s just fine.) In the end, I am confident that this group will make an announcement of some sort that will describe the fantastic cooperation and all they are going to do to support the continent. But I am also confident that it will not include a willingness by the Teutonic three to pay for the PIGS.

The initial market impact of this failure was exactly as expected, the euro (-0.5%) declined along with the other European currencies (SEK -0.75%, NOK -1.25%) and European equity markets gave back some of their recent gains with the DAX and CAC both falling around 1.5%. Meanwhile, European government bonds saw Italian, Spanish and Greek yields all rise, as hoped for support has yet to come. However, the EU is nothing, if not persistent, and the comments that have come out since then continue to suggest that they will arrive at a plan by the end of the week. This has been enough to moderate those early moves and at 7:00, as New York walks in the door, we see markets with relatively modest changes compared to yesterday’s closing levels.

In the G10 currencies, while the dollar remains broadly stronger, its gains are far less than seen earlier. For example, NOK is the current laggard, down 0.35%, while SEK (-0.3%) and EUR (-0.2%) are next in line. The pound has actually edged higher this morning, but its 0.1% gain is hardly groundbreaking. However, it is interesting to note that the non-EU currencies are outperforming those in the EU.

Emerging market currencies have also broadly fallen, with just a few exceptions. The worst performer today is INR (-0.9%), which seems to be responding to the growth in the number of coronavirus cases there, now over 5,000. But we are also seeing weakness, albeit not as much, from EU members CZK (-0.35%), BGN (-0.3%) and the rest of the CE4. The one notable gainer today is ZAR (+0.5%) which seems to be benefitting from a much smaller than expected decline in a key Business Confidence indicator. However, I would not take much solace in that as the data is certain to get worse there (and everywhere) before it gets better.

Overall, though, the market picture is somewhat mixed today. The FX market implies some risk mitigation, which is what we are seeing in the European equity space as well. However, US equity futures are all pointing slightly higher, about 0.5% as I type, and oil prices are actually firmer along with most commodities. In other words, there is no clear direction right now as market participants await the next piece of news.

The only data point we see today in the US is the FOMC Minutes, but I don’t see them as being that interesting given both how much the Fed has already done, thus leaving less things to do, and the fact they have gone out of their way to explain why they are doing each thing. So I fear today will be dependent on the periodic reports of virus progression. At the beginning of the week, it seemed as though the narrative was trying to shift to a peak in infections and better data ahead. Alas, that momentum has not been maintained and we have seen a weries of reports where deaths are increasing, e.g. in Spain and New York to name two, where just Monday it was thought things had peaked. Something tells me that the virus will not cooperate with a smooth curve of progress, and that more volatility in the narrative, and thus markets, lays ahead. We are not yet near the end of this crisis, so hedgers, you need to keep that in mind as you plan.

Good luck
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