Out of Hand

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
Officialdom’s word
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

Adf

 

Buying With Zeal

When markets are healthy, they’ve got
Investors who’ve sold and who’ve bought
All based on their views
Of critical news
As profits are actively sought

But these days most governments feel
It’s better that they should conceal
The idea of prices
Reflecting a crisis
And so they are buying with zeal

It remains difficult to understand the enthusiasm with which investors, if it truly is investors, are chasing after stock prices these days. Last night’s version of this story took place in Asia, where the Nikkei was the laggard of the major markets, only rising 1.8%. At the same time, in Hong Kong, home to the biggest recent crackdown on personal freedoms in the world, the stock market jumped 3.8%. Of course, that is nothing compared to China’s Shanghai Index, which rose 5.7% overnight, and is now higher by more than 9% YTD. Interestingly, it appears that the key driver of the equity rally in China was the plethora of headlines essentially telling the population to buy stocks! At this point, it is no longer clear to me that equity market prices contain any information whatsoever regarding the state of the companies listed. Certainly, the idea that they reflect millions of independent views of the future has been discarded. Rather, it appears that governments around the world have come to believe that higher stock prices equate to improved confidence, regardless of how those prices came about.

It is not hard to understand why this idea has gained government adherents, as every government wants its citizens to be confident and happy. The problem is that they have the causality backwards. Historically, the process worked as follows: stock performance reflected the views of millions of individual and institutional investors views on how companies would perform in the future. Expectations about earnings were crucial and those were tied to broad economic performance. Clearly, the level of interest rates played a role in these decisions, but so did issues like the business environment, the competitive environment and government policies on taxes and regulation. At that time, if the underlying features were aligned so that stock prices were rising, it was likely a result of an underlying confidence in the economy and its overall performance. But that is essentially ancient history at this point, having largely ended in 1987.

Ever since Black Monday, October 19,1987, and more importantly, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s promise to add as much liquidity as necessary to prevent a further collapse, the fundamental ideas of what the stock market describes and explains have been inverted. Governments worldwide have learned that if they support equity markets, it can lead to better economic outcomes, at least until the bubbles burst. But this is why we first got the Tech bubble of 1999-2000, which when it burst saw governments double down to inflate the housing bubble of 2007-09, which when it burst saw governments double down again to inflate the “everything” bubble, that in many ways still exists. A decade of ZIRP and NIRP has distorted any and all signals that equity markets may have offered in the past.

And so, it should be no surprise that governments around the world, who have piled one bad decision on top of another, should look for something they can still do which they believe will have a positive impact on their constituents. Hence, government support for stock markets is likely a permanent feature of the financial markets for the future. It is, of course, ironic that the Chinese Communist Party believes that the way to control their population is through markets, but, hey, whatever works is the mantra.

This, too, will end in tears, but for now, it is the reality with which we all must deal.

With this as preamble, a look around today’s session shows that the Asian (equity) flu has infected every market around the world. In Europe, the DAX and CAC (both +1.7%) are performing nicely, but not quite as well as the FTSE 100 (+1.9%) or nearly as well as Spain’s IBEX (+2.5%). US futures, meanwhile, are just getting warmed up, with current gains of between 1.2%-1.5%. Bond markets, though, are a little less risk drunk, although the 10-year Treasury yield has risen 1.5bps to 0.68%. But in Europe, pretty much every government bond market is seeing demand as yields there fall across the board. Once again, there seems to be a risk disconnect between markets.

While WTI prices are little changed, Brent has pushed higher by 0.5%, again a risk positive. And gold, despite all the equitiphoria, continues to rise, up another $4/oz and pushing ever closer to $1800. And what of the dollar you ask? Clearly on its back foot today, down vs. almost all its G10 brethren, with only CAD and JPY a touch weaker, and both by less than 0.1%. On the positive side, NOK is the big winner, up 0.7%, as it benefits from a combination of modestly higher Brent prices, general risk appetite and the fact that it is the worst performing G10 currency this year, so has the most ground to make up. But we are seeing solid gains in the euro and Swiss franc (0.4% each) as well as Aussie and Stockie. The pound, on the other hand, which is higher, is barely so.

In the EMG bloc, CNY is today’s king, having rallied 0.6% despite the fact that the PBOC fixed the currency weaker overnight. However, given the equity rally there, it cannot be that surprising. But almost the whole bloc is rallying today with MXN (+0.6%) and the CE4 (+0.4% on average) also benefitting from increased risk appetite. In fact, there is only one outlier on the downside, RUB (-0.65%) which despite Brent’s gains, is suffering as the virus continues to run amok in the country.

On the data front this week, there is not very much to excite:

Today ISM Non-Manufacturing 50.0
Tuesday JOLTS Job Openings 4.8M
Wednesday Consumer Credit -$15.0B
Thursday Initial Claims No forecasts yet
  Continuing Claims No forecasts yet
Friday PPI 0.4% (-0.2% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (0.5% Y/Y)

Source: Bloomberg

Clearly, the most surprising thing is that as of Monday morning, no economist is willing to opine on their Initial Claims views. While it could be due to the holiday, I have a feeling it is more related to the fact that most economists have lost faith in their models’ ability to accurately describe the economy. Certainly, the flattening of this curve calls into question the validity of the V-shaped recovery story, so it will be interesting to see when these estimates start to show up.

We do hear from two Fed members this week, Thomas Barkin and Mary Daly, but that story remains unchanged and will do so until at least the meeting at the end of this month, and probably until the September meeting.

So, to recap, risk is on as governments around the world encourage it as whole-heartedly as they can. And with it, the dollar remains under pressure for now.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Overrun

Our planet, third rock from the sun
Has clearly now been overrun
By Covid-19
Whose spread is unseen
And cannot be fought with a gun

It is certainly difficult, these days, to keep up with the latest narrative about how quickly the virus will continue to spread and when we will either flatten the infection curve or will get past its peak. Every day brings a combination of optimistic views, that within a few weeks’ things will settle down, as well as pessimistic views, that millions will die from the virus and it will be many months before life can return to any semblance of normal. And the thing is, both sets of opinions can come from reasonably well-respected sources. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is still a huge political divide in the US, and that many comments are politically tinged in order to gain advantage. After all, while it has not been the recent focus, there is still a presidential election scheduled for November, a scant seven plus months from now.

With this as the baseline, it cannot be that surprising that we have seen the extraordinary volatility present throughout markets in recent weeks. And while volatility may have peaked, it is not about to fall back to the levels present two months ago. In fact, the one thing of which I am certain is it will take a long time for markets to settle back into the rhythms that had seemed so pleasing and normal for so many years.

Something else to note is that while central banks seem to have been able to positively impact market behavior in recent days, the cost of doing so has gone up dramatically. For example, during the financial crisis, the widely hated TARP bill had a price tag of $700 billion, clearly a large number. And yet that is one-third of what the present stimulus bill will cost. And the Fed? Well it took them three months in 2008 to expand their balance sheet by $1 trillion. This time it took less than three weeks. And they are not even close to done!

It is the latter point that brings the greatest risk to markets, the fact that the cost of addressing market failures has grown far faster than the global economy. This is a result of the serial bubble blowing that we have seen since October 1987, when the Maestro himself, then Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, promised the Fed would support markets and not allow things to collapse. That inaugurated a pattern of central bank behavior that prevented markets of any kind from clearing excesses because the political fallout would have been too great. But as we have seen, each bubble blown since has had a larger and larger price tag to overcome. The question now is, have we reached the limits of what policymakers can do to prevent markets from clearing? Certainly, they will never admit that is the case, but much smarter people than me have made the case that their capabilities have been stretched to the limit.

It is with this as background that I think it makes sense to discuss what we have seen this week alone! Using the S&P 500 as our proxy, we saw a sharp decline on Monday, over 4%, and then a three-day rebound of nearly 18%! In fact, from its lows on Monday, the rebound has been more than 20%. Many in the financial press have been saying this is now a bull market. My view is that is bull***t. A bull market needs to be defined as a market where prices are rising on the back of strong underlying fundamentals and where long-term prospects are strong. The recent fixation on 20% movements as defining a bull or bear market are completely outdated. Instead, I think the case is far easier to make that we are ensconced in the beginning of a bear market, where the long-term, or at least medium-term, fundamentals are quite weak and prospects are uncertain, at best, and realistically quite negative for the coming quarters. Declaring a bull market on the same day that Initial Unemployment Claims printed at nearly 3.3 million, far and away the highest in history, is ridiculous! I fear that the movement this week in stocks and the dollar, is not the beginning of a new trend, but a reactive bounce to previous price action.

Turning to the dollar, after a remarkable rally in the buck throughout the month of March, it too has fallen sharply during the past several sessions. The proximate cause was the Fed, which when it announced its laundry list of new programs on Monday evening was able to calm immediate fears over a lack of USD liquidity. It appears that the dollar’s two week run of strength was driven by global fears over a shortage of dollar liquidity available coming into quarter end next week. We saw this in the movement of basis swap spreads, which blew out in favor of dollars, and we saw this in the FX forward market, where every price that encompassed the turn was no longer linearly interpolated. But the Fed has thrown $5 trillion at the problem and for now, that seems like it is enough, at least for this quarter. Markets have settled, and the fear over coming up short of dollars has abated for the time being.

But this is not over, not by a longshot. Navigating the next few months will be quite difficult as we are sure to see more negative news regarding the virus, followed by policy attempts to address that news. Until a solid case is made that globally, the peak of the infection curve is behind us, we are going to remain in a tenuous market state with significant volatility.

Finishing with a brief look at the dollar this morning, it is actually having a mixed session. In the G10, NOK continues to be the most volatile currency by far, down 1.3% this morning after an intervention led 14% rally in the past week. Of course, that was after it fell nearly 29% in the previous two weeks! And you thought only EMG currencies were volatile! But the rest of the G10 space shows JPY strength, +0.9%, as repatriation flows help the currency, and then much lesser movements in both directions from the rest of the bloc.

In the emerging markets, the story is similar, with KRW the biggest gainer, +1.8% overnight, as the BOK confirmed its recent activity qualifies as QE, and more importantly, that they will continue to do everything necessary to support the economy. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum is the Mexican peso, which has fallen 1.5% this morning after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating by a notch to BBB and left them on negative watch. The peso, too has had a wild ride this month, declining nearly 6 full pesos at its worst level, or 30%, before rallying back sharply this week by 10% at its peak, now more like 8.2%. Again, the point is that we can expect ongoing sharp movements in both directions for now.

With spot today being month-end, I realize many companies will be active in their balance sheet rolling programs. Forward bid-ask spreads continue to be wider than normal but have definitely moderated from what we saw in the past two weeks. This is the new normal though, so for the next several months, be prepared for wider pricing than we all learned to love.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf