The Chinese are starting to learn
The things for which all people yearn
A chance to succeed
Their families to feed
As well, stocks to never, down, turn
But sometimes things get out of hand
Despite how they’re carefully planned
So last night we heard
The rally is now to be banned!
It seems like it was only yesterday that the Chinese state-run media were exhorting the population to buy stocks in order to create economic growth. New equity accounts were being opened in record numbers and the retail investors felt invincible. Well… it was just this past Monday, so I guess that’s why it feels that way. Of course, that’s what makes it so surprising that last night, the Chinese government directed its key pension funds to sell stocks in order to cool off the rally! For anyone who still thought that equity market movement was the result of millions of individual buying and selling decisions helping to determine the value of a company’s business, I hope this disabuses you of that notion once and for all. That is a quaint philosophy that certainly did exist back in antediluvian times, you know, before 1987. But ever since then, government’s around the world have realized that a rising stock market is an important measuring stick of their success as a government. This is true even in countries where elections are foregone conclusions, like Russia, or don’t exist, like China. Human greed is universal, regardless of the political system ruling a country.
And so, we have observed increasing interference in equity markets by governments ever since Black Monday, October 19, 1987. While one can understand how the Western world would be drawn to this process, as government’s regularly must “sing for their supper”, it is far more surprising that ostensibly communist nations behave in exactly the same manner. Clearly, part of every government’s legitimacy (well, Venezuela excluded) is the economic welfare of the population. Essentially, the stock market today has become analogous to the Roman’s concept of bread and circuses. Distract the people with something they like, growing account balances, while enacting legislation to enhance the government’s power, and by extension, politicians own wealth.
But one thing the Chinese have as a culture is a long memory. And while most traders in the Western world can no longer remember what markets were like in January, the Chinese government is keenly aware of what happened five years ago, when their last equity bubble popped, they were forced to devalue the renminbi, and a tidal wave capital flowed out of the country. And they do not want to repeat that scenario. So contrary to the protestations of Western central bankers, that identifying a bubble is impossible and so they cannot be held responsible if one inflates and then pops, the Chinese recognized what was happening (after all, they were driving it) and decided that things were moving too far too fast. Hence, not merely did Chinese pension funds sell stocks, they announced exactly what they were going to do ahead of time, to make certain that the army of individual speculators got the message.
And so, it should be no surprise that equity markets around the world have been under pressure all evening as risk is set aside heading into the weekend. The results in Asia showed the Nikkei fall 1.1%, the Hang Seng fall 1.8% and Shanghai fall 2.0%. European markets have not suffered in quite the same way but are essentially flat to higher by just 0.1% and US futures are pointing lower by roughly 0.5% at this early hour (6:30am).
Interestingly, perhaps a better indicator of the risk mood is the bond market, which has rallied steadily all week, with 10-year Treasuries now yielding just 0.58%, 10bps lower than Monday’s yields and within 4bps of the historic lows seen in March. Clearly, my impression that central banks have removed the signaling power of bond markets needs to be revisited. It seems that the incipient second wave of Covid infections in the US is starting to weigh on some investor’s sentiment regarding the V-shaped recovery. So perhaps, the signal strength is reduced, but not gone completely. European bond markets are showing similar behavior with the haven bonds all seeing lower yields while PIGS bonds are being sold off and yields are moving higher.
And finally, turning to the FX markets, the dollar is broadly, albeit mildly, firmer this morning although the biggest gainer is the yen, which has seen significant flows and is up by 0.4% today taking the movement this week up to a 1.0% gain. Despite certain equity markets continuing to perform well (I’m talking to you NASDAQ), fear is percolating beneath the surface for a lot of people. Confirmation of this is the ongoing rally in gold, which is higher by another 0.25% this morning and is now firmly above $1800/oz.
Looking more closely at specific currency activity shows that the commodity currencies, both G10 and EMG, are under pressure as oil prices retreat by more than 2% and fall back below $40/bbl. MXN (-0.6%), RUB (-0.3%) and NOK (-0.2%) are all moving in the direction you would expect. But we are also seeing weakness in ZAR (-0.5%) and AUD (-0.1%), completing a broad sweep of those currencies linked to commodity markets. It appears that the fear over a second wave, and the negative economic impact this will have, has been a key driver for all risk assets, and these currencies are direct casualties. But it’s not just those currencies under pressure, other second order impacts are being felt. For example, KRW (-0.75%) was the worst performer of all overnight, as traders grow concerned over reports of increased infections in South Korea, as well as Japan and China, which is forcing secondary closures of parts of those economies. In fact, the EMG space writ large is behaving in exactly the same manner, just some currencies are feeling the brunt a bit more than others.
Ultimately, markets continue to be guided by broad-based risk sentiment, and as concerns rise about a second wave of Covid infections spreading, investors are quick to retreat to the safety of havens like Treasuries, bunds, the dollar and the yen.
Turning to the data story, yesterday saw both Initial (1.314M) and Continuing (18.062M) Claims print at lower than expected numbers. While that was good news, there still has to be significant concern that the pace of decline remains so slow. After all, a V-shaped recovery would argue for a much quicker return to more ‘normal’ numbers in this series. Today brings only PPI (exp -0.2% Y/Y, +0.4% Y/Y ex food & energy), but the inflation story remains secondary in central bank views these days, so I don’t anticipate any market reaction, regardless of the outcome.
There are no Fed speakers, but then, they have been saying the same thing for the past three months, so it is not clear to me what additional value they bring at this point. I see no reason for this modest risk-off approach to end, especially as heading into the weekend, most traders will be happy to square up positions.
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe