A Kettle of Hawks

There once was a kettle of hawks
Who regularly gave earnest talks
When prices would rise
They would then surmise
T’was time to forget Goldilocks

But now they’re a bevy of doves
The type every borrower loves
Who, if prices rose
Would never propose
That they would give rates, up, a shove

While today’s activity roster includes the Bank of England rate decision (no change) and QE target (possible change), I want to review yesterday’s Fedspeak as I believe it is crucial to continue our understanding of the policy evolution.

Three Fed regional presidents spoke; Chicago’s Mike Evans, a known dove; Boston’s Eric Rosengren, historically slightly more hawkish than centrist; and Cleveland’s Loretta Mester, historically one of the most hawkish Fed members.  All three made clear that they are unconcerned over the almost certain rise in inflation in the short-term, with all three convinced this is a ‘transitory’ phenomenon that will work itself out by the end of 2022.  Rosengren was particularly colorful in his description as he compared his view of general price increases upcoming to the situation right at the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns regarding toilet paper.  “My view is that this acceleration in the rate of price increases is likely to prove temporary,” he said.  He continued, “Toilet paper and Clorox were in short supply at the outset of the pandemic, but manufacturers eventually increased supply, and those items are no longer scarce.  Many of the factors raising prices this spring are also likely to be similarly short-lived.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would beg to differ with his assessment, specifically on the two items he mentioned, toilet paper and Clorox.  While there is no question that both items are readily available today as opposed to the situation twelve months ago, it is also very clear that the prices of both items have risen substantially.  In fact, my anecdotal evidence from the local Shop-Rite is that prices of these two items have risen at least 35% in the past twelve months, and there is no evidence that these prices are going to decline anytime soon.  After all, as a manufacturer, why would you reduce prices if customers are still buying your product?  So, while supply has improved, it has done so at the expense of higher prices.  In my book, this is the very definition of inflation.

Regarding the topic of tapering, Evans was dismissive of the idea at all and surprisingly, Mester showed no interest in the discussion in the near term.  Rosengren, however, did indicate that it was possible the situation by the end of this year could warrant a discussion, although he would sooner halt purchases of mortgage bonds than Treasuries as he mentioned the possibility that housing prices could get ‘frothy’.  Ya think?  A quick look at the recent Case Shiller House Price Index shows it has risen by nearly 12% in the past year nationwide, the fastest level since March 2006, right in the middle of the housing bubble whose bursting caused the GFC.  Perhaps this is what is meant by “frothy” in Chairman Powell’s eyes.

From London, the market’s awaiting
The Old Lady’s econ re-rating
While wondering if
She’ll offer a sniff
Of when QE might start abating

The UK’s post-pandemic growth trajectory has been far closer to the US than of the EU as PM Johnson’s government has done an excellent job of getting a large proportion of its population inoculated allowing for a reopening of the economy.  Recent data has been strong and as more restrictions are eased; prospects continue to be relatively bright.  Not dissimilar to the Fed’s situation, the Bank of England will find themselves raising their GDP growth forecasts while maintaining their ongoing monetary policy support.  Or will they?  There is talk in the market that the BOE may well discuss the initial timing of tapering purchases while they upgrade their forecasts.  Precedent was set last week when the Bank of Canada did just that, not merely discussing tapering, but actually cutting the amount of purchases by 25%.  Will the BOE follow suit?

Analyst expectations are that they will not change policy at all and explain it in the same manner as the Fed, that while inflation in the near-term may rise above their 2.0% target, this will be a temporary phenomenon and is no cause for concern.  However, any hint that tapering may be coming sooner than the current program’s target end date later this year is likely to be quite supportive of the pound, so keep that in mind.  That said, ahead of the meeting, the pound is essentially unchanged on the day at 1.3900.

Stronger growth forecasts, as well as strong earnings numbers, continue to support equity markets, although while they are not falling, rallies have been modest at best.  In fact, there is growing concern that the tech sector, which has clearly been the leader in the post pandemic equity rally, is starting to falter more seriously.  Last night saw gains in the Nikkei (+1.8%) and Hang Seng (+0.8%) but a modest decline in Shanghai (-0.2%) on its return from Golden Week.  Europe, despite strong German Factory Orders (+3.0%) and Eurozone Retail Sales (+2.7%) has been unable to make any real headway (DAX 0.0%, CAC 0.0%, FTSE 100 +0.2%).  US futures are similarly lackluster, with all three major indices higher by 0.1% at this hour.  Could it be that economic and earnings strength is fully priced in at these levels?

**BOE leaves policy unchanged, as expected**

Bond markets, on the other hand, are holding their own overall.  While Treasury yields are unchanged on the day, they slid 2.5bps yesterday and are now closer to their recent lows than highs.  In Europe, sovereigns are showing the smallest of rallies with yields in both Bunds and OATs lower by 0.5bps while Gilt yields are unchanged.  At this point, it appears that bond traders and investors are starting to believe the central banks regarding the idea of transitory inflation.  While that would be a wonderful outcome, I fear that there is far more permanent inflation scenario unfolding.

Commodity prices are mixed this morning with oil (-0.75%) soft but metals, both base and precious firmer.  In fact, iron ore has reached record high levels, rising 6.5% this week, and approaching $200/ton.  Again, rising input prices are not disappearing.

As to the dollar, it is generally softer this morning, albeit not substantially so.  In the G10, CHF (+0.4%) is the leading gainer but the European currencies are all solidly higher, between 0.2% and 0.3%, although the pound’s move occurred just since the BOE announcement.  However, commodity currencies have underperformed here and are little changed on the day.

In the emerging markets, THB (-0.45%) was the laggard after the central bank left rates on hold amid a surge in reported Covid infections.  KRW (-0.25%) was next worst as there were a surprisingly large amount of equity outflows from the KOSPI.  On the positive side, IDR (+0.8%) was the biggest mover as Indonesia saw significant equity inflows as well as increased interest in the carry trade.  ZAR (+0.7%) is benefitting from the rise in gold (+0.25%) as well as the metals complex generally.  Otherwise, while gains have been broad-based, they have been shallow.

This morning’s data brings Initial Claims (exp 538K), Continuing Claims (3.62M), Nonfarm Productivity (4.3%) and Unit Labor Costs (-1.0%).  However, all eyes are turned to tomorrow’s NFP report, which despite a slightly softer than expected ADP Employment number yesterday (742K, exp 850K), has seen the forecast rise to essentially 1.0 million.

Treasury bond yields have lost their mojo for now and have been able to ignore any signs of imminent inflation.  It seems that the Fed chorus of transitory inflation is having the desired impact and preventing yields from running away higher.  As long as Treasury yields remain under control, especially if they drift lower, then the dollar will remain under modest pressure.  So far, nothing has occurred to change that equation.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The Specter of Growth

The specter of growth’s in the air
So, pundits now try to compare
Which central bank will
Be next to instill
The discipline they did forswear

In Canada, they moved last week
On Thursday, Sir Bailey will speak
Now some pundits wonder
In June, from Down Under
The RBA will, easing, tweak

But what of Lagarde and Chair Jay
Will either of them ever say
Our goals are achieved
And so, we’re relieved
We’ve no need to buy bonds each day

On lips around the world is the question du jour, has growth rebounded enough for central banks to consider tapering QE and reining in monetary policy?  Certainly, the data continues to be impressive, even when considering that Y/Y comparisons are distorted by the government-imposed shutdowns last Spring.  PMI data points to robust growth ahead, as well as robust price rises.  Hard data, like Retail Sales and Personal Consumption show that as more and more lockdowns end, people are spending at least some portion of the savings accumulated during the past year. Meanwhile, bottlenecks in supply chains and lack of investment in capacity expansion has resulted in steadily rising prices adding the specter of inflation to that of growth.

While no developed market central bank head has yet displayed any concern over rising prices, at some point, that discussion will be forced by the investor community.  The only question is at what level yields will be sitting when central banks can no longer sidestep the question.  But after the Bank of Canada’s surprise move to reduce the amount of weekly purchases at their last meeting, analysts are now focusing on the Bank of England’s meeting this Thursday as the next potential shoe to drop.  Between the impressive rate of vaccination and the substantial amount of government stimulus, the UK data has been amongst the best in the world.  Add to that the imminent prospect of the ending of the lockdowns on individual movement and you have the makings of an overheating economy.  The current consensus is that the BOE may slow the pace of purchases but will not reduce the promised amount.  Baby steps.

Last night, the RBA left policy on hold, as universally expected, but the analyst community there is now looking for some changes as well.  Again, the economy continues to rebound sharply, with job growth outstripping estimates, PMI data pointing to a robust future and inflation starting to edge higher.  While the inoculation rate in Australia has been surprisingly low, the case rate Down Under has been miniscule, with less than 30,000 confirmed cases amid a population of nearly 26 million. The point is, the economy is clearly rebounding and, as elsewhere, the question of whether the RBA needs to continue to add such massive support has been raised.  Remember, the RBA is also engaged in YCC, holding 3-year yields to 0.10%, exactly the same as the O/N rate.  The current guidance is this will remain the case until 2024, but with growth rebounding so quickly, the market is unlikely to continue to accept that as reality.

These peripheral economies are interesting, especially for those who have exposures in them, but the big question remains here in the US, how long can the Fed ignore rising prices and surging growth.  Just last week Chairman Powell was clear that a key part of his belief that any inflation would be transitory was because inflation expectations were well anchored.  Well, Jay, about that…5-year Inflation breakevens just printed at 2.6%, their highest level since 2008.  A look at the chart shows a near vertical line indicating that they have further to run.  I fear the Fed’s inflation anchor has become unmoored.  While 10-year Treasury yields (+2.3bps today) have been rangebound for the past two months, the combination of rising prices and massively increased debt issuance implies one of two things, either yields have further to climb (2.0% anyone?) or the Fed is going to step in to prevent that from occurring.  If the former, look for the dollar to resume its Q1 climb.  If the latter, Katy bar the door as the dollar will fall sharply as any long positions will look to exit as quickly as possible.  Pressure on the Fed seems set to increase over the next several months, so increased volatility may well result.  Be aware.

As to today’s session, market movement is mostly risk-on but the dollar seems to be iconoclastic this morning.  For instance, equity markets are generally in good shape (Hang Seng +0.7%, CAC+0.5%, FTSE 100 +0.6%) although the DAX (-0.35%) is lagging.  China and Japan remain on holiday.  US futures, however, are a bit under the weather with NASDAQ (-0.4%) unable to shake yesterday’s weak performance while the other two main indices hover around unchanged.

Sovereign bond markets have latched onto the risk-on theme by selling off a bit.  While Treasuries lead the way, we are seeing small yield gains in Europe (Bunds +0.5bps, OATs +0.6bps, Gilts +0.5bps) after similar gains in Australia overnight.

Commodity markets continue to power higher with oil (+1.9%), Aluminum (+0.4%) and Tin (+1.0%) all strong although Copper (-0.1%) is taking a breather.  Agricultural products are also firmer but precious metals are suffering this morning, after a massive rally yesterday, with gold (-0.5%) the worst of the bunch.

Of course, the gold story can be no surprise when looking at the FX markets, where the dollar is significantly stronger across the board.  For instance, despite ongoing commodity strength, and the rally in oil, NZD (-0.9%), AUD (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.5%) are leading the way down, with GBP (-0.25%) the best performer of the day.  The pound’s outperformance seems linked to the story of a modest tapering of monetary policy, but overall, the dollar is just quite strong today.

The same is true versus the EMG bloc, where TRY (-1.0%) is the worst performer, but the CE4 are all weaker by at least 0.4% and SGD (-0.5%) has fallen after announcing plans for a super strict 3-week lockdown period in an effort to halt the recent spread of Covid in its tracks.  The only gainer of note is RUB (+0.4%) which is simply following oil higher.

Data this morning brings the Trade Balance (exp -$74.3B) as well as Factory Orders (1.3%, 1.8% ex transport), both of which continue to show economic strength and neither of which is likely to cause any market ructions.

Two more Fed speakers today, Daly and Kaplan, round out the messaging, with the possibility of Mr Kaplan shaking things up, in my view.  He has been one of the more hawkish views on the FOMC and is on record as describing the rise in yields as justified and perhaps a harbinger of less Fed activity.  However, he is not a current voter, and Powell has just told us clearly that there are no changes in the offing.  Ultimately, this is the $64 trillion question, will the Fed blink in the face of rising Treasury yields?  Answer that correctly and you have a good idea what to expect going forward.  At this point, I continue to take Powell at his word, meaning no change to policy, but if things continue in this direction, that could certainly change.  In the meantime, nothing has changed my view that the dollar will follow Treasury yields for the foreseeable future.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

No line in the Sand

The story from Janet and Jay
Continues to point to a day
In two years, nay three
That both can foresee
A rate hike could be on the way

Until then, while growth should expand
No policy changes are planned
If prices should rise
Though, we’ll recognize
There’s simply no line in the sand

With a dearth of new news overnight, the market appears to be consolidating at current levels awaiting the next big thing.  With that in mind, market participants continue to parse the words of the numerous central bank and financial officials who have been speaking lately.  Atop this list sits the second day of testimony by Fed Chair Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen, who yesterday were in front of the Senate Banking Committee.  While several senators tried to get a clearer picture of potential future activities from both Powell and Yellen, they have become quite practiced at not saying anything of note in these settings.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to be learned was, when Yellen was being questioned about her change of heart on the growth of the Federal debt load (in 2017 she publicly worried over a debt/GDP ratio of 75% vs. today’s level of 127%), she repeated her new belief that the Federal government has room to borrow trillions of more dollars to fund their wish list.  “My views on the amount of fiscal space that the United States [has], I would say, have changed somewhat since 2017.  Interest payments on that debt relative to GDP have not gone up at all, and so I think that’s a more meaningful metric of the burden of the debt on society and on the federal finances.” She explained.  It is remarkable what a change of venue will do to one’s opinions.  Now that she is Treasury Secretary, and wants to spend more money, it appears much easier for her to justify the new borrowing required.

At the same time, Chair Powell explained that the rise in bond yields was of no concern and that it represented a vote of confidence in the growth of the economy.  We heard this, too, from Atlanta Fed President Bostic yesterday, and this is clearly the new mantra.  So, while 10-year yields have backed off their recent highs by a few basis points, be prepared for further movement higher as positive data gets released.  The bond market has a history of testing the Fed in times like this, and remember, history also shows that when the 2yr-10-yr spread starts to steepen, it doesn’t stop until it reaches 250-275 basis points, which is more than one full percent higher than its current level.  I expect to see that test sometime this summer, as inflation rises.  Beware the impact on risk assets in that scenario.

But other than that, and of course the fact that the Ever Given remains wedged side-to-side in the Suez Canal, there is very little happening in markets today. (Apparently, the economic cost to the global economy of this incident is $400 million per HOUR!  And consider what it is doing to the concept of just-in-time delivery for supply chains.  We have not yet felt the full impact of this event.)

A quick tour of markets shows that Asian equity markets were mixed, with the Nikkei (+1.1%), by far the best performer, while the Hang Seng (0.0%) and Shanghai (-0.1%) essentially tread water.  European markets are mostly red, but the movement has been minimal.  The DAX (-0.2%), CAC (-0.2%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) are perfectly representative of pretty much the entire European equity space.  Meanwhile, US futures are edging higher (NASDAQ +0.4%, SPX +0.25%, DOW +0.2%) after yesterday’s late day sell-off.  Anecdotally, one of the things I have noticed lately is that the US equity markets tend to close nearer their trading lows than highs, which is a far cry from their behavior up through January, where late day price action almost always pushed prices higher.  The other thing that is changing is that the huge retail push into single stock options has been fading lately.  Perhaps it’s not as easy to make money in the stock market as it was claimed several weeks ago.

As to the bond market, we continue to see modest strength in the European sovereign market, where the ECB’s impact is clear to all.  This morning, in contrast to Treasury yields edging slightly higher (+0.5bps), we are looking at yield declines of between 1.3bps (OATs) and 2.5bps (Gilts) with Bunds in between.  There is no question that the ECB’s purchase numbers this week will be close to last week’s rather than near their longer-term average.  As an aside, we heard from BOE chief economist Haldane this morning and he explained that the UK economy could be set for a “rip roaring” move higher in Q2 given the amount of savings available to spend as long as the vaccine roll-out continues apace.

On the commodity front, despite the ongoing disruption in the Suez, oil prices have slipped back by 1.3%, although continue to hold above the psychologically important $60/bbl level.  As to metals prices, they have drifted down as well, along with most agricultural products.  Again, the movements here are not substantial and are indicative of modest position adjustments rather than a new trend of any sort.

Lastly, turning to the dollar, it too has had a mixed session, with both gains and losses across the spectrum.  In the G10, AUD (+0.4%) is the leader, followed by the GBP (+0.3%) and then lesser gains amongst most of the rest.  Meanwhile, JPY (-0.35%) has been the laggard in the group.  Aussie was the beneficiary of short covering as well as exporter interest taking advantage of its recent declines, while the pound seems to have been responding to the Haldane comments of potential strong growth.  As to the yen, while there are some concerns the BOJ may cut back on its JGB purchases, it appears the yen was a victim of some importer selling ahead of the Fiscal year end next week.

EMG currencies are also mixed, with gainers led by RUB (+1.0%), ZAR (+0.7%) and MXN (+0.45%) while the laggards have a distinctly Asian flavor (THB -0.35%, MYR -0.35%, TWD -0.3%).  The ruble appears to be benefitting from a trading bounce after a 3-day losing streak, while the rand is gaining ahead of a central bank meeting today, although expectations are for no policy change given the still low inflation readings in the country.  On the downside, the Bank of Thailand left policy on hold, as expected, but forecast a narrowing of the current account surplus, thus weakening the baht.  Meanwhile, both the ringgit and the Taiwan dollar are suffering from concerns over continued USD strength in combination with some technical moves.  Overall, the bloc remains beholden to the dollar, so should the buck start to gain vs. the G10, look for these currencies to suffer more acutely.

As it is Thursday, we start the day with Initial Claims (exp 730K) and Continuing Claims (4.0M), but also see a Q4 GDP revision (4.1%, unchanged) along with some of the ancillary GDP readings that tend to be ignored.  In addition, we hear from five more Fed speakers, but it is hard to believe that any of them is going to have something truly new to tell us.  We already know they are not going to raise rates until 2023 at the earliest and that they are comfortable with higher inflation and higher bond yields.  What else is there?

With all this in mind, I keep coming back to the Treasury market as the single key driver of markets overall.  If yields resume their rising trend, look for the dollar to rally and equities to fade.  If yields edge back lower, there is room for modest dollar weakness.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

To Sell or To Buy

As markets await CPI
For signals to sell or to buy
The Fed looks for ways
This reading to raise
But not for an outcome too high

Overnight activity in the markets has been fairly dull as investors and traders await a series of events that will unfold as the day progresses.  On the data front, Jan CPI readings are due with expectations as follows:

CPI (M/M) 0.3%
CPI (Y/Y) 1.5%
-ex food & energy (M/M) 0.2%
-ex food & energy (Y/Y) 1.5%

Source : Bloomberg

The one consistent thing about CPI readings since the nadir last May is that the outcome has been higher than forecast in 7 out of those 8 readings.  Perhaps it is time for economists to reconsider the variables in their forecasting models.  The implication is that inflation, which the Fed continues to avow is far too low, may not be as low as they say.

Now, despite the fact that the Fed (and pretty much every major central bank) has decided to ignore inflation readingsa until they get too high, instead focusing on supporting economic activity, the market still cares about inflation.  This is made clear by the ongoing discussion on real interest rates which are simply the result of the nominal interest rate less the inflation reading.  For example, while 10-year Treasury yields have risen to 1.15%, the real rate, using the December core CPI reading of 1.6%, is -0.45%.  When applied to the current 2-year Treasury yield of 0.115%, the real yield falls to -1.485%.

And this is where it starts to get interesting.  It turns out that investors are extremely focused on real yields as demonstrated by their correlation to different assets, notably the dollar and gold, but also stocks.  It is these negative real yields that continue to drive the search for yield which has resulted in non-investment grade (aka junk) bonds to be in such demand.  In fact, these less creditworthy instruments now yield less than 4.0%, a historic low, and not nearly enough to compensate for the risk of default.  But for investors, the real yield is +2.35%, far higher than they can receive elsewhere, and so worthy of the risk.  (When you read about those worrywarts who claim that central banks have distorted markets beyond recognition, this is the type of thing they are highlighting.)

But it is not just fixed income investors who focus on the real yield.  These yields impact virtually every investment.  Consider, for a moment, gold, an asset which pays no dividend and has no cash flow.  When real interest rates are high, there is a significant opportunity cost to holding the precious metal.  But as real yields decline below zero, that opportunity cost converts into a benefit which is why the correlation between real yields and gold is strongly negative (currently -0.31% with strong statistical significance).

Or consider the dollar.  There are many things that go into determining the dollar’s value at any given time, but clearly, interest rates are one of them.  After all, interest rates are a key feature of every currency discussion and define the activity in the carry trade.  Now, the dollar’s historic haven status along with that of Treasury bonds means that when things get bad, investors flock to both dollars and Treasuries which drives nominal, and therefore real, yields lower.  But in more benign circumstance, when there is no panic, relative real yields is a key driver in the FX market, with negative real US yields associated with a weaker dollar.  In fact, this is my main thesis for the second half of 2021, that inflation will continue to rise while the Fed will cap Treasury yields (because they have to) and the dollar will suffer accordingly.

Which brings us back to this morning’s CPI reading.  My sense is that we are reaching the point where the market will take higher inflation readings as a dollar negative, so beware any surprise in the data.

Adding to today’s mix, and arguably a key reason that overnight markets have been so dull, is that we are set to hear from three major central bank heads, starting with Madame Lagarde this morning, the BOE’s Andrew Bailey at noon and then our very own Chairman Jay at 2:00 this afternoon.  Keep in mind the following themes when listening: the ECB is carefully monitoring the exchange rate; the BOE has instructed banks to prepare for NIRP although claims this is not a policy change, and the Fed remains unconcerned if inflation were to rise to 2.5% or 3.0%.  All of this points to the idea that real yields, around the world, are going to decline further.  Sorry savers!

Now to the markets this morning.  While Asian equity markets performed well (Nikkei +0.2%, Hang Seng +1.9%, Shanghai +1.4%), the same is not true in Europe, where there is a mixture of red and green on the screen.  Here we see the FTSE 100 (+0.3%) as the leader, while both the CAC (-0.1%) and DAX (-0.2%) can find no traction today.  Finally, US futures are all higher by about 0.3% after consolidating yesterday at their recent closing highs.

Bond markets are under very modest pressure this morning with Treasury yields higher by 1 basis point and similar moves seen in Europe.  The one exception is Italy, which has seen 10-year yields decline to a new record low of 0.499% as investors anticipate great things from Mario Draghi’s turn as Prime Minister.

In the commodity markets, oil (+0.5%) continues to grind higher in its drive for $60/bbl, while gold is little changed on the day.  Base metals are all modestly higher but agriculturals are actually backing off a bit this morning.  Again, the picture is best described as mixed.

Finally, the dollar is also themeless today, with G10 currencies seeing modest strength from Europe (CHF +0.1%, GBP +0.1%, EUR flat) while NZD (-0.4%) leads the way lower for the Asian bloc.  However, there has been no data, or comments, yet, that would explain the movement.  This smacks of position adjustments as the recent dollar rebound tops out.

EMG currencies have similarly shown no general direction with both gainers and losers about equally split.  KRW (+0.9%) is the big winner after short positions were closed out ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that begins tonight.  But beyond that, the winners saw gains of 0.2% or less, hardly the stuff of dreams.  Meanwhile, on the negative front, BRL (-0.6%) is opening in the worst spot as concerns grow over the fiscal situation as the country seems set to increase Covid related expenditures with no plans on how to pay for them.  The next worst performer is CZK (-0.5%) but this is more difficult to discern as there has been neither news nor data to drive the market.  This has all the earmarks of a significant flow that the market has not yet fully absorbed.

And that’s really it for the day.  The big picture remains that the dollar has bounced from its correction highs but has not yet been able to convincingly turn back down.  This argues for a few more sessions of choppiness unless we receive new news.  Perhaps CPI will be much higher (or lower) than expected, either of which can drive movement.  Or perhaps we will hear something new from one of the three central bank heads today which will change opinions.  But for now, choppy with nowhere to go seems the most likely outcome.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Contracted, Not Grown

There once was a continent, grand
Whose culture and history fanned
Both science and art
Which helped to jumpstart
Expansion across all the land

But lately the data has shown
That Europe’s contracted, not grown
This bodes ill for those
Who purchased euros
As markets take on a new tone

Entering 2021, one of the highest conviction trades amongst the analyst and investment community was that the dollar would decline sharply this year.  After all, it fell broadly and steadily in 2020 from the moment it peaked in mid-March on the initial pandemic fears.  But the narrative that developed was that the Fed would be the king of all monetary easers, pumping so much liquidity into markets that the surfeit of dollars would simply drive the value of the greenback lower vs. all its main counterparts.  Adding to the tale was the election of Joe Biden as president, and the belief that he would be able to enact massive stimulus to help reflate the economy, thus adding fiscal stimulus to the Fed’s already humongous monetary efforts.  The pièce de résistance was the Georgia runoff elections, when the Democrats gained effective control of the Senate, and so all of these dreams seemed destined to come true.

However, there was always one conundrum that never made sense, at least to me, and that was the idea that the dollar would decline while the US yield curve steepened.  The thesis was that all the fiscal stimulus would result in massive Treasury issuance (check), which would result in higher yields as the market had trouble absorbing all that debt (partial check) and then the dollar would decline sharply (oops).  The problem is that historically, as the US yield curve steepens, the dollar typically rallies.

The other quibble with this narrative was that it seemed to ignore the facts on the ground in Europe.  It was never realistic to believe that the ECB would sit back and allow the euro to rally sharply without responding.  And of course, that is exactly what we have seen.  In the past three weeks, we have heard from numerous ECB speakers, including Madame Lagarde, that the exchange rate is quite important in their deliberations.  The proper translation of that comment into English is, if the euro keeps rallying, we will directly respond via further easing or even intervention if necessary.  Remember, Europe can ill afford a strong euro from both a growth and inflationary perspective, and they will do all they think they can to prevent it from coming about.

At the same time, there is another issue that the dollar bears seemed to neglect, the pathetic state of affairs in the Eurozone economy, as well as the vast incompetence displayed throughout the continent with respect to the inoculation of their populations with the new Covid vaccines. Based on current trends, the US and UK will have vaccinated 75% of their respective populations by the end of 2021.  Italy, Germany and France are looking at 2024 at the earliest to achieve the same milestone.  Ask yourself how beneficial that will be for the Eurozone economy if the current lockdowns remain in place for the next 2-3 years.

The one possible saving grace for this view is that the Fed responds more aggressively to any steepening of the yield curve.  While Europe cannot afford for the euro to rise, the US cannot afford for interest rates to rise, at least not very much.  While yields have clearly risen from their summer lows, they remain extremely accommodative.  However, if yields should start to rise further, say because inflation starts to accelerate, the Fed seems destined to stop that move, either explicitly, via YCC, or tacitly via extending and expanding QE such that they absorb all the new Treasury issuance and prevent yields from rising.  Of course, this will result in much deeper negative real yields which, in my view, will be what leads to the dollar’s eventual decline.  Given Europe’s much duller inflationary pulse, it will be much harder for the ECB to drive real yields in Europe as low as in the US.  But that is a story for the second half of 2021, not the first.

Which brings us to today’s activity.  The discussion above was prompted by the much weaker than expected Eurozone Retail Sales data released this morning, with December’s monthly growth at 2.0% and the Y/Y number at just 0.6%, half of expectations.  And this was before the extended and expanded lockdowns in January.  It is increasingly evident that the Eurozone is in its second recession in just over a year, again, hardly a rationale to buy its currency.  Which makes it completely unsurprising that the euro has declined yet again, -0.4%, and breaking below the psychological 1.20 level.  For those keeping track, this is he fourth consecutive day of declines and it is pretty easy to look at a chart and see a downtrend developing.  In fact, since its peak on January 7, the euro is down a solid 3%.

But the dollar is performing well against all its G10 brethren, and most EMG counterparts as well.  SEK (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.5%) are the worst performers with the latter somewhat surprising given that oil (+0.75%) continues to rally.  It seems that both these countries are seeing doubts over their ability to inoculate their populations from Covid similar to the Eurozone, so it should not be surprising that their currencies decline.  The same is true of CAD (-0.25%) where the current trend for vaccinations shows it will take a full ten years to vaccinate 75% of Canada’s population!  I imagine the pace will increase, but it does demonstrate the futility so far.  CAD, however, has not been as weak as the euro given the benefits from the rising oil price seem to be offsetting some of its other problems.

In the Emerging markets, ZAR (-0.8%) is the worst performer today, falling on a combination of broad dollar strength and concerns over the possibility of a debt crisis as the nation’s debt/GDP ratio has climbed rapidly to 80%, and with its still high yields, debt service ability is becoming a bigger problem.  Of course, there is also a new strain of Covid, first identified there, that has increased virulence and is working against the economy.  With the euro lower, it is no surprise that the CE4 have followed it down, and we are also seeing weakness in MXN (-0.6%), again, after central bank comments indicating possible rate cuts in the future.  On the flipside, TRY (+0.5%) is the star performer today, continuing to gather interest given its world-beating interest rate structure and promises from the central bank to maintain those yields.

While I skipped over both equity and bond markets today, it is only because there was precious little movement in most cases and certainly no discernible trend.

On the data front, yesterday saw better than expected ADP Employment and ISM Services prints, once again highlighting the differences between the US and Europe.  This morning brings a raft of data as follows: Initial Claims (exp 830K), Continuing Claims (4.7M), Nonfarm Productivity (-3.0%), Unit Labor Costs (4.0%) and Factory Orders (0.7%).  With Payrolls tomorrow, all eyes will be on the Initial Claims number, but it is hard to believe any print will change market sentiment.

Finally, the BOE met this morning and left policy unchanged, as expected.  However, they did tell banks to start preparing for negative interest rates going forward.  While they claim the policy is not imminent, it seems unlikely that they are asking banks to prepare for a low probability event.  Despite significant evidence that negative rates do not help the economy, although they do help stock prices, the BOE looks like it is going to ignore that and go there anyway.  The only analyses that showed NIRP was beneficial was produced by the central banks that are operating under NIRP.  This cannot be good for the pound over time.

For the day, the dollar is starting to gain momentum to move higher, and I think a slow continuation of this move is likely.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The UK’s Current Plight

In England, the doves are in flight
Explaining that NIRP is alright
But hawks keep maintaining
That zero’s restraining
Despite the UK’s current plight

What we’ve learned thus far in 2021 is that Monday is risk-off day, at least, so far.  Yesterday, for the second consecutive week, risk was under pressure as equity markets everywhere fell, while the dollar rallied sharply.  But just like last week, where risk was avidly sought once Monday passed, this morning has seen a rebound in many equity markets, as well as renewed pressure on the dollar.

But aside from a very early assessment of a potential pattern forming, this morning brings a dearth of market-moving news.  Perhaps the most interesting is the battle playing out inside the BOE, where Silvana Tenreyo, one of the more dovish MPC members, has been making the case that in the current situation, the UK should cut the base rate into negative territory.  Her analysis, as well as that of other central banks like the ECB, SNB and Danish central bank, have shown that there are many benefits to the policy and that it has been quite effective.  Of course, those are three of four central banks (the BOJ is the other) that currently maintain negative rates, so it would be pretty remarkable if those studies said NIRP was a failure.  The claim is that NIRP increases the amount of lending that banks extend, thus encouraging spending and investment as well as weakening the currency to help the export industries in the various countries.  And the studies go on to explain that all these factors help drive inflation higher, a key goal of each of those central banks.

Now, there is no question that those are the theoretical underpinnings of NIRP, alas, it is hard to find the data to support this.  Rather, these studies tend to give counterfactual analyses, that indicate if the central banks had not gone negative, things would have been worse.  For instance, let’s look at CPI in the Eurozone (-0.3%), Switzerland (-0.8%) and Denmark (+0.5%).  Not for nothing, but those hardly seem like data that indicate inflation has been supported.  In fact, in each of these countries, inflation was going nowhere fast before the pandemic, although I will grant that Covid has depressed the numbers further to date.  And how about the currency?  Well, one of the biggest stories of the past six months has been how the dollar has declined nearly 10% against these currencies.  Once again, the concept of a weaker currency seems misplaced.

The point here is that the discussion is heating up in the UK, with the independent MPC members pushing for a move below zero, while the BOE insiders are far more reluctant, explaining that the banking system would see serious harm.  (I think if one looks at the banking system in Europe, it is a fair statement that the banks there are not performing all that well, despite (because of?) 6 years of NIRP.  The BOE counterpoint was made this morning by Governor Bailey who explained there were still many issues to be addressed and implied NIRP was not likely to be implemented in the near future.  With all this as background, it should be no surprise that the pound has been the best performer in the G10 today, rising 0.6%, after Bailey’s comments squashed ideas NIRP was on its way soon.

But the dollar, overall, is softer today, not nearly reversing yesterday’s gains (except vs. the pound), but generally under pressure.  However, there is precious little that seems to be driving markets this morning, other than longer term stories regarding fiscal stimulus and Covid-19.

So, a quick tour of markets shows that Asian equity markets shook off the weakness in the US yesterday and rallied nicely.  The Nikkei (+0.1%) was the laggard, as the Hang Seng (+1.3%) and Shanghai (+2.1%) showed real strength.  Europe, on the other hand, is showing a much more mixed picture, wit the DAX (+0.1%) actually the best performer of the big 3, while the CAC (0.0%) and FTSE 100 (-0.6%) are searching for buying interests.  The FTSE is likely being negatively impacted by the pound’s strength, as there is a narrative that the large exporters in the index are helped by a weak pound and so there is a negative correlation between the pound and the FTSE.  The problem with that is when running the correlation analysis, over the past two years, the correlation is just 0.08% and the sign is positive, meaning they move together, not oppositely.  But it is a nice story!  And one more thing, US futures are green, up about 0.25% or so.

Bond markets are selling off this morning as yields continue to rise on expectations that the future is bright.  10-year Treasury yields are up to 1.16%, which is a new high for the move, having rallied a further 1.2bps this morning.  But we are seeing the same type of price action throughout Europe, with yields higher by between 1.7 bps (Bunds) and 4.0bps (Italian BTP’s), with Gilts (+2.3bps) and OATs (+2.0bps) firmly in between.  What I find interesting about this movement is the constant refrain that H1 2021 is going to be much worse than expected, with the Eurozone heading into a double dip recession and the US seeing much slower than previously expected growth as many analysts have downgraded their estimates to 1.0% from 4.0% before.  At the same time, the message from the Fed continues to be that tighter policy is outcome based, and there is no indication they are anywhere near thinking about raising rates.  With that as background, the best explanation I can give for higher yields is concerns over inflation.  Remember, CPI is released tomorrow morning, and since the summer, almost every release was higher than forecast.  As I have written before, the Fed is going to be tested as to their tolerance for above target inflation far sooner than they believe.

The inflation story is supported, as well, but this morning’s commodity price moves, with oil higher by 1.3% and gold higher by 0.8%.  In fact, I believe that inflation is going to become an increasingly bigger story as the year progresses, perhaps reaching front page news before the end of 2021.

Finally, as mentioned above, the dollar is under broad-based, but generally modest pressure this morning.  After the pound, AUD (+0.35%) and CAD (+0.25%) are the leading gainers, responding to the firmer commodity prices, although NOK (0.0%) is not seeing any benefit from oil’s rise.  In the EMG space, it is also the commodity linked currencies that are leading the way, with ZAR (+0.9%), RUB (+0.8%) and MXN (+0.5%) topping the list.  Also, of note is the CNY (+0.3%) which is back to levels last seen in June 2018, as the strengthening trend their continues.

On the data front, the NFIB Small Business Optimism index showed less optimism, falling to 95.9, well below expectations, again pointing to a slowing growth story in H1.  The only other data point from the US is JOLT’s Job Openings (exp 6.4M), which rarely has any impact.  I would like to highlight, in the inflation theme, that Brazilian inflation was released this morning at a higher than expected 4.52% in December, which is taking it back above target and to levels last seen in early 2019.  If this continues, BRL may become a high yielder again.

Finally, we hear from 6 different Fed speakers today, but again, unless they all start to indicate tighter policy, not just better economic outcomes, in H2, while the dollar may benefit slightly, it will not turn the current trend.  And that’s really the story, the medium-term trend in the dollar remains lower, but for now, absent a catalyst for the next leg (something like discussion of YCC or increased QE), I expect a bit of choppiness.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Infinite Easing

Until “further progress” is made
On joblessness, Jay won’t be swayed
From infinite easing
Which stocks should find pleasing
Explaining how he will get paid

As well, one more time he inferred
That Congress was being absurd
By not passing bills
With plenty of frills
So fiscal relief can be spurred

We’re going to keep policy highly accommodative until the expansion is well down the tracks.”  This statement from Chairman Powell in yesterday’s post-meeting press conference pretty much says it all with respect to the Fed’s current collective mindset.  While the Fed left the policy rate unchanged, as universally expected, they did hint at the idea that additional QE is still being considered with a subtle change in the language of their statement.  Rather than explaining they will increase their holdings of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities “at least at the current pace”, they now promise to do so by “at least $80 billion per month” in Treasuries and “at least $40 billion per month” in mortgages.  And they will do this until the economy reaches some still unknown level of unemployment alongside their average 2% inflation target.

What is even more interesting is that the Fed’s official economic forecasts were raised, as GDP growth is now forecast at 4.2% for 2021 and 3.2% for 2022, each of these being raised by 0.2% from their September forecasts.  At the same time, Unemployment is expected to fall to 5.0% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022, again substantially better than September’s outlook of 5.5% and 4.6% respectively.  As to PCE Inflation, the forecasts were raised slightly, by 0.1% for both years, but remain below their 2% target.

Put it all together and you come away with a picture of the Fed feeling better about the economy overall, albeit with some major risks still in the shadows, but also prepared to, as Mario Draghi declared in 2012, “do whatever it takes” to achieve their still hazy target of full employment and average inflation of 2%.  For the equity bulls out there, this is exactly what they want to hear, more growth without tighter policy.  For dollar bears, this is also what they want to hear, a steady supply increase of dollars that need to wash through the market, driving the value of the dollar lower.  For the reflatonistas out there, those who are looking for a steeper yield curve, they took heart that the Fed did not extend the duration of their purchases, and clearly feel better about the more upbeat growth forecasts, but the ongoing lack of inflation, at least according to the Fed, means that the rationale for higher bond yields is not quite as clear.

After all, high growth with low inflation would not drive yields higher, especially in the current world with all that liquidity currently available.  And one other thing argues against much higher Treasury yields, the fact that the government cannot afford them.  With the debt/GDP ratio rising to 127% this year, and set to go higher based on the ongoing deficit spending, higher yields would soak up an ever increasing share of government revenues, thus crowding out spending on other things like the entitlement programs or defense, as well as all discretionary spending.  With this in mind, you can be sure the Fed is going to prevent yields from going very high at all, for a very long time.

Summing up, the last FOMC meeting of the year reconfirmed what we already knew, the Fed is not going to tighten monetary policy for many years to come.  For their sake, and ours, I sure hope inflation remains as tame as they forecast, because in the event it were to rise more sharply, it could become very uncomfortable at the Mariner Eccles Building.

In the meantime, this morning brings the last BOE rate decision of the year, with market expectations universal that no changes will be forthcoming.  That makes perfect sense given the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, although this morning we heard from the EU’s top negotiator, Michel Barnier, that good progress has been made, with only the last stumbling blocks regarding fishing to be agreed.  However, in the event no trade deal is reached, the BOE will want to have as much ammunition as possible available to address what will almost certainly be some major market dislocations.  As I type, the pound is trading above 1.36 (+0.8% on the day) for the first time since April 2018 and shows no signs of breaking its recent trend.  I continue to believe that a successful Brexit negotiation is not fully priced in, so there is room for a jump if (when?) a deal is announced.

And that’s really it for the day, which has seen a continuation of the risk-on meme overall.  Looking at equity markets, Asia saw strength across the board (Nikkei +0.2%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +1.1%), although Europe has not been quite as universally positive (DAX +0.8%, CAC +0.4%, FTSE 100 0.0%).  US futures markets are pointing higher again, with all three indices looking at 0.5%ish gains at this time.

The bond market is showing more of a mixed session with Treasuries off 2 ticks and the yield rising 0.7bps, while European bond markets have all rallied slightly, with yields declining across the board between 1 and 2 basis points. Again, if inflation is not coming to the US, and the Fed clearly believes that to be the case, the rationale for higher Treasury yields remains absent.

Commodity markets are feeling good this morning with gold continuing its recent run, +0.7%, while oil prices have edged up by 0.3%.  And finally, the dollar is on its heels vs. essentially all its counterparts this morning, in both G10 and EMG blocs.  Starting with the G10, NOK (+1.0%) is the leader, although AUD and NZD (+0.8% each) are benefitting from their commodity focus along with the dollar’s overall weakness.  In fact, the euro (+0.3%) is the laggard here, while even JPY (+0.4%) is rising despite the risk-on theme.  This simply shows you how strong dollar bearishness is, if it overcomes the typical yen weakness attendant to risk appetite.

In the emerging markets, it is also the commodity focused currencies that are leading the way, with ZAR (+0.9%) and CLP (+0.75%) on top of the leaderboard, but strong gains in RUB (+0.7%), BRL (+0.6%) and MXN (+0.5%) as well.  The CE4, have been a bit less buoyant, although all are stronger on the day.  But this is all of a piece, stronger commodity prices leading to a weaker dollar.

On the data front, I think we are in an asymmetric reaction function, where strong data will be ignored while weak data will become the rationale for further risk appetite.  This morning we see Initial Claims (exp 815K), Continuing Claims (5.7M), Housing Starts (1535K), Building Permits (1560K), and Philly Fed (20.0).  Yesterday saw a much weaker than expected Retail Sales outcome (-1.1%, -0.9% ex autos) although the PMI data was a bit better than expected.  But now that the Fed has essentially said they are on a course regardless of the data, with the only possible variation to be additional easing, data is secondary.  The dollar downtrend is firmly entrenched at this time, and while we will see reversals periodically, and the trend is not a collapse, there is no reason to believe it is going to end anytime soon.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Most Pundits Agree

No matter what skeptics might say
The Old Lady didn’t delay
They boosted QE
So, Sunak, Rishi
Can spend more each night and each day

But here, when the FOMC
Meets later, most pundits agree
They will not arrange
A policy change
Instead, for more fiscal they’ll plea

As markets are wont to do, they have effectively moved beyond the uncertainty of the US election outcome to the next big thing, in this case central bank activity.  You may recall that on Tuesday morning we learned the RBA cut interest rates again, down to 0.10% and installed a QE program of A$100 billion.  And while these days, A$100 billion may not seem like much, it does represent more than 5% of the Australian economy.  Of course, that action was mostly lost in the election fever that gripped markets at that time.  However, that fever has broken, and the market has come to terms with the fact there is no blue wave.  This has forced participants to collectively create a new narrative which seems to go as follows: gridlock in the US is good for markets because the Fed will be required to do even more, and thus monetary policy will remain easy for an even longer time.  This, as well as the expected lack of a massive stimulus package, is the driver behind the Treasury rally, which is continuing this morning as 10-year yields have fallen a further 3 basis points (30-year yields have fallen even more as the curve continues to flatten.)

Helping along the new narrative, and right on cue, the Bank of England stepped in and increased their QE program by a more than expected £150 billion this morning, allowing Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, the leeway to expand fiscal support for the economy as the government there imposes a month long lockdown to try to arrest the spread of Covid-19.  Thus, in the UK, the monetary and fiscal policies are aligned in their efforts to prevent an economic collapse while fighting the effects of Covid.  Naturally, markets have voted in favor of further central bank largesse, and as expectations grow for even more support to come, equity investors are buying as quickly as they can.

Which leads us to the FOMC meeting today.  Cagily, they arranged for this meeting to be two days after the election, as they clearly don’t want to become the big story.  Rather, I’m certain that despite each members’ penchant to speak constantly, this is one time they will be as quiet as possible.  Part of this is due to the fact that there is exactly zero expectation that there will be any change in policy.  Rates are already at the effective lower bound, and thus far the Fed has not been willing to countenance the idea of negative rates.  Not only that, their forward guidance has been clear that rates will not be ‘normalized’ until at least 2023, and then, only if it makes sense to do so.  As to QE, they are already engaged in an unbounded program, purchasing $80 billion of Treasuries and $40 billion of Mortgage-backed securities each month.  Certainly, they could increase those numbers, but given the US Treasury has just significantly revised their expected issuance lower, (given the lack of a stimulus bill to fund), the Fed is already scooping up a huge percentage of the paper that exists.  With all that in place, what more can they do?  After all, if they say they won’t raise rates until 2024, will that actually matter?  I think not.  Instead, the one thing on which we can count is that the Statement, and Chairman Powell in the press conference, will repeat the point that more fiscal stimulus is what is needed.

The upshot is that, the most important par of the election outcome, is with regards to the Senate, which while it seems clear the Republicans have held their majority, could possibly turn blue.  But unless that happens, at this stage, the market has clearly turned its attention beyond the election and is voting favorably for more central bank support.  So, let’s see how things are behaving this morning.

After a strong US rally yesterday, especially in the NASDAQ, Asia took the baton and sprinted ahead as well with the Nikkei (+1.7%), Hang Seng (+3.25%) and Shanghai (+1.3%) all having strong sessions.  In fact, as I look through every APAC market, only Vietnam and Laos had negative days, otherwise every Asian nation rallied across every one of their indices.  Europe is no different, with every market in the green (DAX +1.7%, CAC +1.25%, FTSE 100 +0.5%, as well as all the sundry others), and US futures (DOW +1.4%, SPX +1.9%, NASDAQ +2.6%) are pointing to another big day here.

Bonds, as mentioned above, are also still feeling the love as only the UK appears to be adding to the fiscal mix and so central bank support will continue to drive activity until that changes.  This means that while Bunds, OATS and Gilts are all only marginally changed, the PIGS are seeing substantial demand with yields falling 3 basis points for all of them

Gold is doing well, up $15/oz on what seems to be the idea that fiat currencies will continuously be devalued and so something else will serve as a better store of value.  (Bitcoin, by the way, is also rallying sharply, +5% this morning, as many continue to see it as an alternative to gold.)  Oil, on the other hand, is a bit lower this morning, -1.0%, although that is after having rallied nearly 16% so far this week, so a modest correction doesn’t seem out of order.

Finally, the big loser today has been the dollar, which is weaker vs. essentially every other currency.  In the G10, NOK (+1.1%) is the leader, despite the fact that oil is correcting.  More interestingly, EUR (+0.7%) is rallying despite the fact that there is no expectation for Fed activity, and the relative stances of the Fed and ECB remains unchanged.  Now if there is not going to be a blue wave, and therefore no massive fiscal expansion in the US, I’m at a loss as to why the dollar should be sold.  Today, however, selling dollars is the story.

The same is true in the EMG bloc, with RUB (+2.2%) the runaway leader, but 1% or greater gains seen throughout EMEA and LATAM currencies.  Even IDR (+1.3%) which last night posted worse than expected GDP growth, has seen strength.  As long as the narrative continues to be that election uncertainty is a dollar negative, it appears the dollar has further to fall.  That said, I see no cause for a collapse of any type.

Aside from the FOMC today, we see some data as follows: Initial Claims (exp 735K), Continuing Claims (7.2M), Nonfarm Productivity (5.6%) and Unit Labor Costs (-11.0%).  Yesterday, amidst the election discussion, we missed the fact that ADP Employment rose a much less than expected 365K, and the ISM Services number printed at a worse than expected 56.6.  Perhaps, belatedly, that negative news has been impacting the dollar.  But my sense is this is narrative driven and unless the Fed truly shocks one and all, I expect the dollar can drift lower still for the rest of the session.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Not So Amused

While Covid continues to spread
Chair Jay, for more stimulus pled
But President Trump
Said talks hit a bump
And ‘til the election they’re dead

The market was not so amused
With stock prices terribly bruised
So, as of today
Investors must weigh
The odds more Fed help is infused

Although nobody would characterize today as risk-on, the shock the market received yesterday afternoon does not seem to have had much follow through either.  Of course, I’m referring to President Trump’s tweet that all stimulus negotiations are off until after the election.  One need only look at the chart of the Dow Jones to know the exact timing of the comment, 2:48 yesterday afternoon.  The ensuing twenty minutes saw that index fall more than 2%, with similar moves in both the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ.  And this was hot on the heels of Chairman Powell pleading, once again, for more fiscal stimulus to help the economy and predicting dire consequences if none is forthcoming.

At this point, it is impossible to say how this scenario will play out largely because of the political calculations being made by both sides ahead of the presidential election next month.  On the one hand, it seems hard to believe that a sitting politician would refuse the opportunity to spend more money ahead of an election.  On the other hand, the particular politician in question is unlike any other seen in our lifetimes, and clearly walks to the beat of a different drummer.  The one thing I will say is that despite the forecasts of impending doom without further stimulus, the US data continues to show a recovering economy.  For instance, yesterday’s record trade deficit of -$67.2 billion was driven by an increase in imports, not something that typically occurs when the economy is slowing down.  One thing we have learned throughout the Covid crisis is that the econometric models used by virtually every central bank have proven themselves to be out of sync with the real economy.  As such, it is entirely possible that the central bank pleas for more stimulus are based on the idea that monetary policy has done all it can, and central bankers are terrified of being blamed for the economic problems extant.

Speaking of central bank activities and comments, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has been getting some press lately as the UK economy continues to deal with not merely Covid-19, but the impending exit from the EU.  Last month, the BOE mentioned they were investigating negative interest rates, but comments since then seem to highlight that there are but two of the nine members of the MPC who believe there is a place for NIRP.  That said, the Gilt market is pricing in negative interest rates from two to five years in maturity, so there is clearly a bigger community of believers.  While UK economic activity has also rebounded from the depths of the Q2 collapse, there is a huge concern that a no-deal Brexit will add another layer of difficulty to the situation there and require significantly more government action.  The BOE will almost certainly increase its QE, with a bump from the current £745 billion up to £1 trillion or more.  But, unlike the US, the UK does not have the advantage of issuing debt in the world’s reserve currency, and at some point, the cost of further fiscal stimulus may prove too steep.  As to the probability of a Brexit deal, it seems that much rides on French President Macron’s willingness to allow the French fishing fleet to sink shrink and allow the UK to manage their own territorial waters.

With this as the backdrop, a look at markets this morning shows a mixed bag on the risk front.  Asian equity markets saw the Nikkei (-0.05%) essentially unchanged although the Hang Seng (+1.1%) got along just fine.  Shanghai remains closed for holidays.  European bourses seem to be taking their cues from the Nikkei, as modest declines are the rule of the day.  The DAX (-0.35%) and the CAC (-0.2%) are both edging lower, and although the FTSE 100 is unchanged, the rest of the continent is following the German lead.  Interestingly, US futures are higher by between 0.3%-0.5%, not necessarily what one would expect.

Bond markets, once again, seem to be trading based on different market cues than either equities or FX, as this morning the 10-year Treasury yield has risen 4 basis points, and is trading back to the recent highs seen Monday.  One would be hard-pressed to characterize today as a risk-on session, where one might typically see investors sell bonds as they rotate into equities, so clearly there is something else afoot.  Yesterday’s 3-year Treasury auction seemed to be pretty well-received, so there is, as yet, no sign of fatigue in buying US debt.  There is much discussion here about the possibility of a contested election, yet I would have thought that is a risk scenario that would drive Treasury buying.  To my inexpert eyes, this appears to be driven by more inflation concerns.  Next week we see CPI again, and based on the recent trend, as well as personal experience, there has been no abatement in price pressures.  And unless the Fed starts buying the long end of the Treasury curve (something Cleveland’s Loretta Mester suggested yesterday), or announces yield curve control, there is ample room for the back end to sell off further with yields moving correspondingly higher, regardless of Fed activity.  And that would bring a whole set of new problems for the US.

Finally, one would have to characterize the dollar as on its back foot this morning.  While not universally lower, there are certainly more gainers than losers vs. the greenback.  In the G10 space, NOK (+0.5%) and SEK (+0.4%) are leading the way, which given oil’s 2.5% decline certainly seems odd for the Nocky.  As for the Stocky, there is no news nor data that would have encouraged buying, and so I attribute the movement to an extension of the currency’s recent modest strength which has seen the krona gain about 2% in the past two weeks.  Meanwhile, JPY (-0.4%) continues to sell off, much to the delight of Kuroda-san and new PM Suga.  Here, too, there is no news or data driving the story, but rather this feels like position adjustments.  It was only a few weeks ago where there was a great deal of excitement about the possibility of the yen breaking out and heading toward par.  That discussion has ended for now.

Emerging markets are generally better this morning as well, led by MXN (+0.85%) which is gaining despite oil’s decline and the landfall of Hurricane Delta, a category 3 storm.  If anything, comments from Banxico’s Governor De Leon, calling for more stimulus and explaining that the recovery will be uneven because of the lack of fiscal action, as well as the IMF castigating AMLO for underspending on stimulus, would have seemed to undermine the currency.  But apparently not.  Elsewhere, the gains are less impressive with HUF (+0.5%) and ZAR (+0.35%) the next best performers with the former getting a little love based on increased expectations for tighter monetary policy before year end, while ZAR continues to benefit, on days when fear is in the background, from its still very high real interest rates.

The only data of note today is the FOMC Minutes this afternoon, but are they really going to tell us more than we have heard recently from virtually the entire FOMC?  I don’t think so.  Instead, today will be a tale of the vagaries of the politics of stimulus as the market will await the next move to see if/when something will be agreed.  Just remember one thing; the Fed has already explained pretty much all the easing it is going to be implementing, but we have more to come from both the ECB and BOE.  That divergence ought to weigh on both the euro and the pound going forward.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Risk is in Doubt

The chatter before the Fed met
Was Powell and friends were all set
To ease even more
Until they restore
Inflation to lessen the debt

And while Jay attempted just that
His efforts have seemed to fall flat
Now risk is in doubt
As traders clear out
Positions from stocks to Thai baht

Well, the Fed meeting is now history and in what cannot be very surprising, the Chairman found out that once you have established a stance of maximum policy ease, it is very difficult to sound even more dovish.  So, yes, the Fed promised to maintain current policy “…until labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment and inflation has risen to 2 percent and is on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”  And if you really parse those words compared to the previous statement’s “…maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals”, you could make the case it is more dovish.  But the one thing at which market participants are not very good is splitting hairs.  And I would argue that is what you are doing here.  Between the old statement and Powell’s Jackson Hole speech, everybody already knew the Fed was not going to raise rates for a very long time.  Yesterday was merely confirmation.

In fact, ironically, I think the fact that there were two dissents on the vote, Kaplan and Kashkari, made things worse.  The reason is that both of them sought even easier policy and so as dovish as one might believe the new statement sounds, clearly some members felt it could be even more dovish than that.  At the same time, the dot plot added virtually nothing to the discussion as the vast majority believe that through 2023 the policy rate will remain pegged between 0.00%-0.25% where it is now.  Also, while generating inflation remains the animating force of the committee, according to the Summary of Economic Projections released yesterday, even their own members don’t believe that core PCE will ever rise above 2.0% and not even touch that level until 2023.

Add it all up and it seems pretty clear that the Fed is out of bullets, at least as currently configured with respect to their Congressional mandate and restrictions.  It will require Congress to amend the Federal Reserve Act and allow them to purchase equities in order to truly change the playing field and there is no evidence that anything of that nature is in the cards.  A look at the history of the effectiveness of QE and either zero or negative interest rates shows that neither one does much for the economy, although both do support asset markets.  Given those are the only tools the Fed has, and they are both already in full use (and not just at the Fed, but everywhere in the G10), it is abundantly clear why central bankers worldwide are willing to sacrifice their independence in order to cajole governments to apply further fiscal stimulus.  Central banks seem to have reached the limit of their capabilities to address the real economy.  And if (when) things turn back down, they are going to shoulder as much blame as elected officials can give with respect to who is responsible for the bad news.

With that as background, let’s take a peek at how markets have responded to the news.  Net-net, it hasn’t been pretty.  Equity markets are in the red worldwide with losses overnight (Nikkei -0.7%, Hang Seng -1.6%, Shanghai -0.4%) and in Europe (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.8%, FTSE 100 -1.0%).  US futures are pointing lower after equity markets in the US ceded all their gains after the FOMC and closed lower yesterday.  At this time, all three futures indices are lower by about 1.0%.

Meanwhile, bond markets, which if you recall have not been tracking the equity market risk sentiment very closely over the past several weeks, are edging higher, at least in those markets truly seen as havens.  So, Treasury yields are lower by 2bps, while German bunds and French OATS are both seeing yields edge lower, but by less than one basis point.  However, the rest of the European government bond market is under modest pressure, with the PIGS seeing their bonds sell off and yields rising between one and two basis points.  Of course, as long as the ECB continues to buy bonds via the PEPP, none of these are likely to fall that far in price, thus yields there are certainly capped for the time being.  I mean even Greek 10-year yields are 1.06%!  This from a country that has defaulted six times in the modern era, the most recent being less than ten years ago.

Finally, if we look to the FX markets, it can be no surprise to see the dollar has begun to reverse some of its recent losses.  Remember, the meme here has been that the Fed would be the easiest of all central banks with respect to monetary policy and so the dollar had much further to fall.  Combine that with the long-term theme of macroeconomic concerns over the US twin deficits (budget and current account) and short dollars was the most popular position in the market for the past three to four months.  Thus, yesterday’s FOMC outcome, where it has become increasingly clear that the Fed has little else to do in the way of policy ease, means that other nations now have an opportunity to ease further at the margin, changing the relationship and ultimately watching their currency weaken versus the dollar.  Remember, too, that essentially no country is comfortable with a strong currency at this point, as stoking inflation and driving export growth are the top two goals around the world.  The dollar’s rebound has only just begun.

Specifically, in the G10, we see NOK (-0.5%) as the laggard this morning, as it responds not just to the dollar’s strength today, but also to the stalling oil prices, whose recent rally has been cut short.  As to the rest of the bloc, losses are generally between 0.15%-0.25% with no specific stories to drive anything.  The exception is JPY (+0.2%) which is performing its role as a haven asset today.  While this is a slow start, do not be surprised to see the dollar start to gain momentum as technical indicators give way.

Emerging market currencies are also under pressure this morning led by MXN (-0.7%) and ZAR (-0.6%).  If you recall, these have been two of the best performing currencies over the past month, with significant long positions in each driving gains of 5.3% and 7.1% respectively.  As such, it can be no surprise that they are the first positions being unwound in this process.  But throughout this bloc, we are seeing weakness across the board with average declines on the order of 0.3%-0.4%.  Again, given the overall risk framework, there is no need for specific stories to drive things.

On the data front, yesterday’s Retail Sales data was a bit softer than expected, although was generally overlooked ahead of the FOMC.  This morning saw Eurozone CPI print at -0.2%, 0.4% core, both still miles below their target, and highlighting that we can expect further action from the ECB.  At home, we are awaiting Initial Claims (exp 850K), Continuing Claims (13.0M), Housing Starts (1483K), Building Permits (1512K) and the Philly Fed index (15.0).

Back on the policy front, the BOE announced no change in policy at all, leaving the base rate at 0.10% and not expanding their asset purchase program.  However, in their effort to ease further they did two things, explicitly said they won’t tighten until there is significant progress on the inflation goal, but more importantly, said that they will “engage with regulators on how to implement negative rates.”  This is a huge change, and, not surprisingly the market sees it as another central bank easing further than the Fed.  The pound has fallen sharply on the news, down 0.6% and likely has further to go.  Last night the BOJ left policy on hold, as they too are out of ammunition.  The fear animating that group is that risk appetite wanes and haven demand drives the yen much higher, something which they can ill afford and yet something which they are essentially powerless to prevent.  But not today.  Today, look for a modest continuation of the dollar’s gains as more positions get unwound.

Good luck and stay safe
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