Shareholders’ Dreams

The contrast is hard to ignore
Twixt growth, which is still on the floor
And market extremes
Where shareholders’ dreams
Of gains help them come back for more

“There’s no way I can lose.  Right now, I’m feeling invincible.”

This quote from a Bloomberg article about the massive rally in the Chinese stock markets could just as easily come from a US investor as well.  It is a perfect encapsulation of the view that the current situation is one where government support of both the economy and the markets is going to be with us for quite a while yet, and so, stock prices can only go higher.  So far, of course, that view has been spot on, at least since March 23rd, when the US markets bottomed.

The question this idea raises, though, is how long can this situation endure?  There is no denying the argument that ongoing monetary support for economies is flowing into asset markets.  One need only look at the correlation between the gain in the value of global equity markets since things bottomed, and the amount of monetary stimulus that has been implemented.  It is no coincidence that both numbers are on the order of $15 trillion.  But as we watch bankruptcy after bankruptcy get announced, Brooks Brothers was yesterday’s big-name event, it becomes harder and harder to see how market valuations can maintain their current levels without central bank support.  Thus, if equity market values are important to central banks, and I would argue they are, actually, their leading indicator, it leads to the idea that central banks will continue to add liquidity to the economy forever.  In other words, MMT has arrived.

Magical Money Tree Modern Monetary Theory is the controversial idea that, as long as governments print their own money, like the US does with dollars, as opposed to how euros are created by an “independent” authority, there is nothing to stop governments from spending whatever they want, budgets be damned.  After all, they can either issue debt, and print the money needed to repay it, or skip the issuance step and simply print what they need when they need it.  The proponents explain that the only hitch is inflation, which they claim would be the moderator on overprinting.  Thus, if inflation starts to rise, they can slow down the presses.

Originally, this was deemed a left leaning strategy as their idea was to print more money to pay for social programs.  But like every good (?) idea, it has been co-opted by the political opposition in a slightly different form.  Thus, printing money to buy financial assets (which is exactly what the Fed has been doing since 2009’s first bout of QE, is the right leaning application of this view.  To date, the Fed has only purchased bonds, but you can see the evolution toward stocks is underway. At first it was only Treasuries and then mortgage-backed bonds, which was designed to aid the collapsing housing market.  But now we are on to Munis (at least they are government entities) and investment grade corporate ETF’s, then extending to junk bond ETF’s and then individual corporate bonds.  It is not hard to see that the next step will be SPYders and DIAmonds and finally individual stocks.

It is also not hard to discern the impact on equity prices as we go forward in this scenario, much higher.  But ask yourself this; is this a good long-term outcome?  Consider the classic definition of Socialism:

      noun:   a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the state.

Would it not be the case that if the central bank owns equities, they are taking ownership of the means of production?  Would the Fed not be voting their shareholder rights?  And wouldn’t they be deciding winners and losers based on political issues, not economic ones?  Is this really where we want to go?

The EU is already on the way, with a new plan to take equity stakes in SME’s, the economic sector that has been least aided by PEPP and the ECB versions of QE.  And already the discussion there is of which companies to help; only those that meet current ‘proper’ criteria, such as climate neutrality and social cohesion.  The point is that the future is shaping up to turn out quite differently than the recent past, at least when it comes to the financial/economic models that drive political decisions.  Stay alert to these changes as they are almost certainly on their way.

Once again, I drifted into a non-market discussion because the market discussion is so incredibly boring.  Equity markets continue their climb, based on ongoing financial largesse by central banks.  Bond markets remain mired in tight ranges and the dollar continues to consolidate after a massive rally in March led to a more gradual unwinding of haven asset positions.  But lately, the story is just not that interesting.

Arguably, the dollar’s recent trend lower is still intact, it has just flattened out a great deal.  So we continue to see very gradual weakness in the greenback, just not necessarily every day.  For example, in the past three weeks, the euro has climbed 1.25%, but had an equal number of up and down days during this span.  In other words, if you look hard enough, you can discern a trend, it is just not a steep one.  In fact, as I type, it has turned modest overnight gains into modest losses, but is certainly not showing signs of a breakout in either direction.  And this is a pretty fair description of the entire G10 bloc, modest movement in both directions over the course of a few weeks, but net slightly firmer vs. the dollar.

Today, the pound is the big winner, although it has only gained 0.25%, coming on the back of the government’s announcement of an additional £30 billion of fiscal support for the UK economy focused on wages, job retention and small businesses.  As to the rest of the G10, SEK is firmer by 0.2%, although there are no stories that would seem to support the movement, while the other eight currencies are less than 0.1% changed from yesterday.

In the emerging markets, the story is somewhat similar with just two outliers, RUB (+0.6% as oil is higher) and ZAR (+0.5% as gold is higher).  In fact, the currency that has truly performed best of all this year is gold, which is higher by nearly 20% YTD, and shows no signs of slowing down.  Arguably, the rand should continue to find support from this situation.

Once again, data is scarce, with today’s Initial and Continuing Claims data the highlights (exp 1.375M and 18.75M respectively).  At this stage, these are probably the most important coincident indicators we have, as any signs of increased layoffs will result in a lot more anxiety, both in markets and the White House.  Of course, if those numbers decline, look for the V-shaped recovery story to gain further traction and stronger equity markets alongside a (slightly) weaker dollar.

Good luck and stay safe

Adf

 

Overthrow

Health data are starting to show
A second wave might overthrow
The rebound we’ve seen
From Covid-19
Which clearly will cause growth to slow

Risk is under pressure this morning as market participants continue to read the headlines regarding the rising rate of Covid infections in some of the largest US states, as well as throughout a number of emerging market nations. While this is concerning, in and of itself, it has been made more so by the fact that virtually every government official has warned that a second wave will undermine the progress that has been made with respect to the economic rebound worldwide. However, what seems to be clear is that more than three months into a series of government ordered shut downs that have resulted in $trillions of economic damage around the world, people in many places have decided that the risk from the virus is not as great as the risk to their personal economic well-being.

And that is the crux of the matter everywhere. Just how long can governments continue to impose restrictions on people without a wholesale rebellion? After all, there have been many missteps by governments everywhere, from initially downplaying the impact of the virus to moving to virtual marital law, with early prognostications vastly overstating the fatality rate of the virus and seemingly designed simply to sow panic and exert government control. It cannot be surprising that at some point, people around the world decided to take matters into their own hands, which means they are no longer willing to adhere to government rules.

The problem for markets, especially the equity markets, is that their recovery seems to be based on the idea that not only is a recovery right around the corner, but that economies are going to recoup all of their pandemic related losses and go right back to trend activity. Thus, a second wave interferes with that narrative. As evidence starts to grow that the caseload is no longer shrinking, but instead is growing rapidly, and that governments are back to shutting down economic activity again, those rosy forecasts for a sharp rebound are harder and harder to justify. And this is why we have seen the equity market rebound stumble for the past three weeks. In that time, we have seen twice as many down sessions as up sessions and the net result has been a 5.5% decline in the S&P500, with similar declines elsewhere.

So, what comes next? It is very hard to read the news about the growing list of bankruptcies as well as the significant write-downs of asset values and order cancelations without seeing the bear case. The ongoing dichotomy between the stock market rally and the economic distress remains very hard to justify in the long run. Of course, opposing the real economic news is the cabal of global central banks, who are doing everything they can think of collectively, to keep markets in functioning order and hoping that, if markets don’t panic, the economy can find its footing. This is what has brought us ZIRP, NIRP and QE with all its variations on which assets central banks can purchase. Alas, if central bankers really believe that markets are functioning ‘normally’ after $trillions of interference, that is a sad commentary on those central bankers’ understanding of how markets function, or at least have functioned historically. But the one thing on which we can count is that there is virtually no chance that any central bank will pull back from its current policy stance. And so, that dichotomy is going to have to resolve itself despite central bank actions. That, my friends, will be even more painful, I can assure you.

So, on a day with ordinary news flow, like today, we find ourselves in a risk-off frame of mind. Yesterday’s US equity rally was followed with modest strength in Asia. This was helped by Chinese PMI data which showed that the rebound there was continuing (Mfg PMI 50.9, Non-mfg PMI 54.4), although weakness in both Japanese ( higher Jobless Rate and weaker housing data) and South Korean (IP -9.6% Y/Y) data detracted from the recovery story. Of course, as we continue to see everywhere, weak data means ongoing central bank largesse, which at this point still leads to equity market support.

Europe, on the other hand, has not seen the same boost as equity markets there are mostly lower, although the DAX (+0.4%) and CAC (+0.2%) are the two exceptions to the rule. UK data has been the most prevalent with final Q1 GDP readings getting revised a bit lower (-2.2% Q/Q from -2.0%) while every other sub-metric was slightly worse as well. Meanwhile, PM Johnson is scrambling to present a coherent plan to support the nation fiscally until the Covid threat passes, although on that score, he is not doing all that well. And we cannot forget Brexit, where today’s passage without an extension deal means that December 31, 2020 is the ultimate line in the sand. It cannot be a surprise that the pound has been the worst performing G10 currency over the past week and month, having ceded 2.0% since last Tuesday. With the BOE seriously considering NIRP, the pound literally has nothing going for it in the short run. Awful economic activity, questionable government response to Covid and now NIRP on the horizon. If you are expecting to receive pounds in the near future, sell them now!

Away from the pound, which is down 0.3% today, NOK (-0.6%) is the worst performer in the G10, and that is really a result of, not only oil’s modest price decline (-1.3%), but more importantly the news that Royal Dutch Shell is writing down $22 billion of assets, a move similar to what we have seen from the other majors (BP and Exxon) and an indication that the future value (not just its price) of oil is likely to be greatly diminished. While we are still a long way from the end of the internal combustion engine, the value proposition is changing. And this speaks to just how hard it is to have an economic recovery if one of the largest industries that was adding significant value to the global economy is being downgraded. What is going to take its place?

The oil story is confirmed in the EMG space as RUB is the clear underperformer today, down 1.4% as Russia is far more reliant on oil than even Norway. However, elsewhere in the EMG bloc, virtually the entire space is under pressure to a much more limited extent. The thing is, if we start to see risk discarded and equity markets come under further pressure, these currencies are going to extend their declines.

This morning’s US data is second tier, with Case Shiller Home Prices (exp +3.8%), Chicago PMI (45.0) and Consumer Confidence (91.4). The latter two remain far below their pre-covid levels and likely have quite some time before they can return to those levels. Meantime, Fed speakers are out in force today, led by Chair Powell speaking before a Congressional panel alongside Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. His pre-released opening remarks harp on the risk of a second wave as well as the uncertainty over the future trajectory of growth because of that. As well, he continues to promise the Fed will do whatever is necessary to support the economy. And in truth, we have continued to hear that message from every single Fed speaker for the past two months’ at least. What we know for sure is that the Fed is not going to change its tune anytime soon.

For today, unless Powell describes yet another new program, if he remains in his mode of warning of disaster unless the government does more, it is hard to see how investors get excited. Risk is currently on the back foot and I see nothing to change that view today.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Tremors of Dread

This weekend we learned nothing new
‘Bout what central bankers will do
As they look ahead
With tremors of dread
That QE’s a major miscue

There is a bit of a conundrum developing as headlines shout about a surge in new cases of the coronavirus at the same time that countries around the world continue to reopen from their previous lockdowns. It has become increasingly apparent that governments everywhere have determined that the economic damage of the shutdown in response to Covid now outweighs the human cost of further fatalities from the disease. Of course, three months on from when the epidemic really began to rage in the West, there is also a much better understanding of who is most vulnerable and how to maintain higher levels of safe behavior, notably social distancing and wearing masks. And so, while there are still extremely vocal views on both sides of the argument about the wisdom of reopening, it is very clear economies are going to reopen.

Meanwhile, central banks continue to bask in the glow of broadly positive press that their actions have been instrumental in propping up the stock market preventing an even greater contraction of economic activity than what has actually played out. The constant refrain from every central bank speaker has been that cutting rates and expanding their balance sheets has been very effective. Oh, they are also prepared to do even more of both if they deem such action necessary because it turns out it wasn’t effective.

However, despite these encomiums about central bank perspicacity, investors find themselves at a crossroads these days. Risk assets continue to perform extremely well overall, with stocks having recouped most of their losses from March, but haven assets continue to demonstrate significant concern over the future as long-term government bond yields continue to point to near-recessionary economic activity over the medium and long term. At the end of the day, however, I think the only universal truth is that the global economy, and certainly financial markets, have become addicted to QE, and the central banks are not about to stop providing that liquidity no matter what else happens.

On this subject, this morning we had two very different visions espoused, with BOE Governor Bailey explaining that when things get better, QT will be the first response, not a raising of rates. Of course, we all remember the “paint drying” effect of QT in the US in 2018, and how it turns out removing that liquidity is really hard without causing a financial earthquake. At the same time, the ECB’s Madame Lagarde and her minions have been enthusiastically describing just how proportionate their QE purchases have been in response to the German Constitutional Court ruling from last month. Frankly, it would be easy for the ECB to point out the proportionality of buying more Italian debt given there is much more Italian debt than any other type in the EU. But I don’t think that was the German court’s viewpoint. At any rate, there is no reason to expect anything but ongoing QE for the foreseeable future. In fact, the only thing that can stop it is a significant uptick in measured inflation, but that has not yet occurred, nor does it seem likely in the next couple of quarters. So, the presses will continue to roll.

With this as background, a turn to the markets shows a fairly benign session overall. Equity market in Asia were very modestly lower (Nikkei -0.2%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai flat) while European markets are also a touch softer (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 flat) although US futures are pointing higher, with all three indices up about 0.75% as I type. Meanwhile, bond markets are also showing muted price action, although the tendency is toward slightly lower yields as Treasuries have decline 1bp and Bunds 2bps. While the direction here is consistent with a risk off session, the very slight magnitude of the moves makes it less convincing.

As to the dollar, it is definitely on its back foot this morning, falling against most G10 and many EMG currencies. Kiwi is atop the leaderboard this morning, rallying 0.6% with Aussie just behind at 0.5%, as both currencies recoup a bit of the past two week’s losses. In fact, that seems to be the story behind most of the G10 today, we are seeing a rebound from the dollar’s last two weeks of strength. The only exception is the yen, which is essentially unchanged, after its own solid recent performance, and NOK, which has edged lower by 0.15% on the back of a little oil price weakness.

In the EMG bloc, the picture is a bit more mixed with APAC currencies having suffered last night, led by KRW (-0.5%) as tensions with the North increase, and IDR (-0.35%) as the market demonstrated some concern over the future trajectory of growth and interest rates there. On the positive side, it is the CE4 that is showing the best gains today with PLN (+0.8%) far and away the best performer after posting a much better than expected Retail Sales number of +14.5%, which prompted the government to highlight the opportunity for a v-shaped recovery.

Looking ahead to data this week, nothing jumps out as likely to have a big impact.

Today Existing Home Sales 4.09M
Tuesday PMI Manufacturing 50.8
  PMI Services 48.0
  New Home Sales 635K
Thursday Initial Claims 1.35M
  Continuing Claims 19.85M
  Durable Goods 10.9%
  -ex transport 2.3%
  GDP Q1 -5.0%
Friday Personal Income -6.0%
  Personal Spending 8.8%
  Core PCE 0.0% (0.9% Y/Y)
  Michigan Sentiment 79.0

Source: Bloomberg

The thing about the PMI data is that interpretation of the data is more difficult these days as a rebound from depression levels may not be indicative of real strength, rather just less weakness. In fact, the bigger concern for policymakers these days is that the Initial Claims data is not declining very rapidly. After that huge spike in March, we have seen a substantial decline, but the pace of that decline has slowed alarmingly. It seems that we may be witnessing a second wave of layoffs as companies re-evaluate just how many employees they need to operate effectively, especially in a much slower growth environment. And remember, if employment doesn’t rebound more sharply, the US economy, which is 70% consumption based, is going to be in for a much longer period of slow or negative growth. I assure you that is not the scenario currently priced into the equity markets, so beware.

As to the dollar today, recent price activity has not been consistent with the historic risk appetite, and it is not clear to me which is leading which, stocks leading the dollar or vice versa. For now, it appears that the day is pointing to maintaining the overnight weakness, but I see no reason for this to extend in any major way.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Revert to the Mean

For more than two weeks we have seen
Risk assets all polish their sheen
But now has the bar
Been raised much too far?
And will we revert to the mean?

I read today that recent price action (+42% since March 23) has been the largest 50-day rally in the S&P 500’s long history. Think about that for a moment, the economy has cratered (the Atlanta Fed GDPNow forecast is currently at -52.8% for Q2), unemployment has hit levels not seen since the Great Depression with more than 40 million Americans losing their job in the past three months and the stock market is flying. Well, at least the S&P 500 index is flying as the value of its five largest constituents continues to rise, seemingly inexorably, thus dragging the index along with them. The disconnect between the performance of risk assets and the data representing the economy is truly stunning. And while I understand that equity markets are discounting ‘instruments’ looking ahead to the future, it still beggars belief that most of the companies in the index are going to see earnings recover in anywhere near the time anticipated by the market. Remember, the CBO just published an analysis describing the most likely outcome being a 10-year timeframe before the US economy gets back to the levels seen in 2019.

Part and parcel of this movement in risk assets has been the dollar’s decline, with the Dollar Index (DXY) down more than 5% during the same period. While that is not historic in nature, it is still a very large move for such a short period of time.

And so I must ask, is this movement in risk assets sustainable? Clearly the driving force here has been central bank, (mainly the Fed) largesse as they have pumped trillions of dollars of liquidity into the economy, much of which seems to have found its way into stocks. But remember, the Fed started its unlimited QE by buying $75 billion A DAY of securities. That number is now down to less than $5 billion each day and declining on a weekly basis. In fairness, the Fed got ahead of the curve, recognizing just how devastating the situation was going to be. But the Treasury has caught up and has been issuing debt as quickly as they can. Now the Fed’s liquidity is being funneled directly to the Treasury, rather than finding a home elsewhere, and unless Powell reverses course and starts to increase daily purchases again, there is every chance for equity markets to begin to suffer instead.

One other thing that is missing from this market, and which has been a key driver of the long bull market, is share repurchases by companies. Stock buybacks represented nearly all of the net stock buying seen during the rally. And I assure you, that ship has sailed and is not likely to return to port for many years to come. In fact, it would not be surprising if new laws are enacted that limit or prohibit repurchases going forward. The point I am trying to make is that there are numerous reasons to believe that this remarkable rebound in the stock market, and risk assets in general, is overdone and due for its own correction.

Is today that correction? Well, for a start, it is not an extension of the rally as equity markets in Asia were little changed (Nikkei +0.35%, Hang Seng +0.2%, Shanghai -0.15%) and those in Europe are all in the red (DAX -0.7%, CAC -0.6%, FTSE 100 -0.3%). The DAX performance is quite interesting given the announcement by the German government that they have agreed on a €130 billion stimulus package, 30% larger than anticipated. Meanwhile, US futures are all pointing lower as well, down between 0.2% and 0.5%.

Bond markets continue to lack any informational value as they have become entirely controlled by the central bank community. While yield curve control is only explicit in Japan (for the 10-year) and Australia (for the 2-year) the reality is that every central bank is actively preventing government interest rates from rising out of necessity. After all, given how much borrowing is ongoing, governments cannot afford for interest rates to rise, they would not be able to pay the bills. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is the very long end, 30 years and beyond, where yields continue to rise as curves continue to steepen. (Remember when an inverted yield curve was seen as the death knell of the economy? The reality is the problem comes when it steepens like this! Steepening curves are not so much about future economic growth as much as about higher future inflation.)

And then there is the dollar, which is broadly higher this morning, albeit not in any dramatic fashion. As the market awaits word from Madame Lagarde and her 24 colleagues, we have seen the dollar rise modestly vs. both G10 and EMG counterparts. The biggest retreats have been seen by PLN (-1.25%), where the government just announced an expected 8.5% budget deficit, and MXN (-0.9%), which is suffering as oil sells off a bit. However, both those currencies have seen significant rallies in the past two weeks, so a little reversal is not surprising. As to the rest of the bloc, EEMEA currencies are underperforming APAC currencies, but generally they are all lower.

In the G10, the movement have been much more muted, with GBP, AUD and SEK all lower by 0.4% or so and the rest of the bloc, save the Swiss franc’s 0.1% rally, lower by smaller amounts. Again, it is difficult to point to any one thing as the cause for this movement, arguably it is simply position reductions after a long run.

At this point, all eyes are on the ECB, where expectations have built for an increase in the PEPP of as much as €500 billion. While they have not come close to using the original amount, it seems clear they will need more before the end of the year, and so the market has latched onto the idea it will be announced today. One potential problem with this action is it could reduce pressure on the EU to actually go ahead with their mooted €750 billion fiscal support program that includes joint borrowing, a key feature for the euro’s future. It is clear that as much as the frugal four don’t want to see the ECB distort markets further, they are even more disinclined to give their money to the Italians and Spanish directly. However, in the end, I believe Madame Lagarde will give the market what it wants and raise the PEPP limit.

Today’s data picture brings Initial Claims (exp 1.843M), Continuing Claims (20.0M), the April Trade Balance (-$49.2B), Nonfarm Productivity (-2.7%) and Unit Labor Costs (5.0%). With the monthly NFP report tomorrow, it seems unlikely the market will respond to today’s data in any meaningful way. Earlier we saw Eurozone Retail Sales decline 11.7%, not as bad as feared but still the worst outcome in the history of the series dating back to January 1998. And yet, as we have seen lately, the data is not the driver right now, it is the central banks and sentiment. While we have paused today, sentiment still seems to be for a further rally, but my take is that sentiment is getting old and tired. Beware the reversion to the mean!

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

Somewhat More Bold

The Old Lady left rates on hold
But Norway was somewhat more bold
They cut rates to nil
And won’t move them til
The virus is fin’lly controlled

Once again, central banks are sharing the headlines with Covid-19 as they attempt to address the havoc the virus is causing throughout the world. The latest moves come from the Bank of England, which while leaving policy unchanged, hinted at further stimulus to come next month, and the Norgesbank.

The base rate in the UK is currently at a record low level of 0.10%, and they have been adamant that there is no place for negative rates in the island nation. This means that QE is the only other serious tool available, and while they did not increase the amount of purchases at this meeting, it seems the current guidance, to reach a total of £465 billion, will be exhausted in July. Hence, two MPC members voted to increase QE today with the rest indicating that is a more appropriate step next month. In sum, expectations are now for a £100 billion increase at the June meeting. The other noteworthy thing from the meeting was the BOE’s economic forecast, which forecast a 14% decline in GDP in 2020 before a sharp rebound in 2021. This is by far the most dire forecast we have seen for the UK. Through it all, though, the pound has held its own, and is actually modestly higher this morning, although it remains lower by nearly 2% this month.

Meanwhile, the Norgesbank surprised almost every analyst by cutting its Deposit rate to 0.0%, a new record low for the country. With oil prices having rebounded so sharply over the past two weeks, one might have thought that prospects in Norway were improving. However, the commentary accompanying the cut indicated that the council members are trying to ensure that there will be no liquidity constraints when the economy starts to reopen post-virus, and so sought to stay ahead of the curve. They also indicated that there was virtually no chance that interest rates would move into negative territory, although we have heard that song before. The market is now expecting the Deposit Rate to remain at 0.0% for another two years. As to the krone, it is actually the strongest currency in the G10 (and the world) this morning, having risen by 1.6% vs. the dollar as I type, although it was even stronger prior to the Norgesbank action.

Today’s news simply reinforces that central banks remain the first line of defense for nearly every nation with regard to economic support during this period. As much as fiscal stimulus is critical for helping support any rebound going forward, central banks are still best positioned to adjust policies as necessary on a timely basis. Just remember how long and hard the process was for the US congress to write, debate, vote on and implement the CARES act. The same is true throughout the developed world, where legislative bodies don’t move at the speed of either the virus or markets. And so, for the foreseeable future, central banks will remain the primary tool for virtually every nation in seeking to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.

The biggest problem with this circumstance is that most central banks, and certainly the major ones, have nearly exhausted their ammunition in this fight. In the G10, the highest overnight rate currently is 0.25%, with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all at that level. While QE was clearly a powerful tool when first widely introduced in 2010, it has lost some of its strength. At least with respect to aiding Main Street as opposed to Wall Street. That is why QE has evolved from government bond purchases to central bank purchases of pretty much any asset available. And yet, despite their collective efforts, monetary policy remains an extremely inefficient instrument with which to fight a viral outbreak. However, you can be sure that there will be many distortions to the economy for years to come as a result of all this activity. And that has much longer-term implications, likely slowing the pace of any recovery and future growth significantly.

Meanwhile, markets this morning are in fairly fine fettle, with equity indices in Europe all higher by something under 1%. And this is despite some pretty awful data releases showing French IP fell 16.2% in March and 17.3% Y/Y. Germany’s data, while better than that, was still awful (IP -9.2% in March and -11.6% Y/Y) and Italy regaled us with collapsing Retail Sales data (-21.3% in March). But no matter, investors are now looking into 2021 and the prospects of a strong recovery for their investment thesis. The only problem with this theory is that the potential for a non-V-shaped recovery is quite high. If this is the case, I would look for markets to reprice valuations at some point. Earlier, APAC equity markets were mixed, with the Nikkei edging higher by 0.3%, but Hang Seng (-0.6%) and Shanghai (-0.2%) both a bit softer. Finally, US futures are looking pretty good at this hour, higher by nearly 1.5% across the board.

Bond prices have edged a bit lower this morning, but movement has been modest to say the least. Yesterday saw Treasury yields rise from 10-years on out as the Treasury announced a surprisingly large 20-year auction of $20 billion. It seems that we are about to see more significant Treasury issuance going forward, and if the Fed does not continue to expand its balance sheet, we are likely to see the back end continue to sell off with correspondingly higher interest rates and a steeper yield curve. But that is a story for another day.

Elsewhere in the FX markets, Aussie (+0.9%) and Kiwi (+0.7%) have been the next best performers after NOK, as both are benefitting from the current narrative of reopening economies leading to the bottom of the economic peril. On the flip side, the yen (-0.4%) has given back some of its recent gains as risk appetite grows.

In the EMG space, the major loser is TRY, which has fallen 1.0% this morning, to a new historic low, after the central bank enacted rules to try to prevent further speculation against the currency. Alas, as long as it is freely traded, those rules will have a tough time stopping the rout. On the plus side, the three main movers have been RUB (+0.9%), ZAR (+0.8%) and MXN (+0.65%), all of which are benefitting from this morning’s positive risk attitude. One other thing to note is BRL, which while not yet open, fell another 2.5% yesterday and is back pushing its historic low levels vs. the dollar. The story there continues to be political in nature, with increasing pressure on President Bolsonaro as his most popular cabinet members exit and markets lose confidence in his presidency. My take is 6.00 is coming soon to a screen near you.

On the data front, yesterday’s ADP print of -20.236M was pretty much on the money and didn’t seem to have much impact. This morning we see Initial Claims (exp 3.0M), Continuing Claims (19.8M), Nonfarm Productivity (-5.5%) and Unit Labor Costs (4.5%). At this stage, we will have to see much worse than expected data to have a market impact, something which seems a bit unlikely, and beyond that, given tomorrow is the NFP report, I expect far more attention will be focused there than on this morning’s releases.

Overall, risk is in the ascendancy and so I would look for the dollar to generally remain under pressure for today, but I would not be surprised to see it recoup some of its early losses before the session ends.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

Yields Are Appalling

Though prices for oil keep falling
And Treasury yields are appalling
The stock market’s view
Is skies will be blue
If Covid’s spread’s finally stalling

The ongoing dichotomy between equity market performance, traditionally a harbinger of future economic activity, and commodity market performance, also a harbinger of future economic activity, remains glaring. The commodity markets are clearly signaling significant demand destruction amid the economic devastation that has followed the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, equity markets around the world continue to recover from the lows seen in March, telling a completely different tale; that the future is bright.

When two key leading indicators offer such different portents, we need to look elsewhere to build our case of likely future outcomes. Clearly, government bond markets are the next best indicator, but their signal has been clouded by the more than $15 trillion that central banks around the world have spent buying those bonds since the financial crisis in 2008-09. Absent those purchases, would 10-year Treasury yields really be 0.65% like they are this morning? Would 10-year German bund yields really be at -0.44%, their 356th consecutive day yielding less than zero? Consider how much new debt has been issued and how that debt would have been absorbed absent central bank intervention. My point is that perhaps, using bond yields now as a proxy for future economic activity may no longer be quite as useful.

Which leaves us with the FX markets as our last signal for future activity. What does the dollar’s value tell us about expectations for the future? The problem with the dollar as an indicator is, its track record is extremely unclear. Throughout history, the US economy has been strong with both a strong dollar and a weak dollar. If anything, the dollar is a far better coincident indicator than anything else. After all, what is the risk-off/risk-on characteristic other than a signal of investors’ current views of the market. Thus, when fear is rampant, which was evident last month, the dollar performed extremely well. A quick look at currency returns during the month of March showed the dollar rising against 9 of its G10 Brethren, from 0.2% vs. the Swiss franc, to 10.7% vs. the oil-linked Norwegian krone. Only the yen, which managed a 0.75% rise, was able to outperform the dollar.

Not surprisingly, the EMG space saw some much more significant declines led by the Mexican peso (-18.1%) and Russian ruble (-15.3%). The broad theme in this bloc was that the best performers, those that fell the least, were APAC currencies with closer links to China, while LATAM and EEMEA were generally devastated. But, again, this was a real-time response to coincident activities, not a harbinger of the future.

The lesson to learn from this brief look at recent history is that there is no consensus view as to how things are going to evolve from here. Both sides make their respective cases strongly, and both sides can point to a substantial amount of data that supports their argument. However, the only universal truth is that economic disruptions that have been caused by the response to Covid-19 are unprecedented in both size and speed, and econometric models built for a different environment are unlikely to be very effective. Modeling of complex systems, whether the economy, the climate or the spread of a pathogen is an extremely fraught undertaking. More often than not, models will produce useless results. Their benefits generally come from the need to define conditions and factors, thus helping to better think and understand a particular situation, not from spurious calculations that produce a result. And this is why hedging is an important part of risk management, because regardless of what certain harbingers indicate, the reality is nobody knows what the future will bring.

But back to today’s activity. As we have seen for the past several sessions, the prospect of the reopening of economies is being seen by the equity markets as a clear positive. Despite abysmal earnings results across most industries, once again equity markets are firmer this morning, with most of Europe higher by 1.5%-2.0% and US futures pointing to gains of more than 1.0% on the open. Countries throughout Europe are starting to announce their plans to reopen with May 11 seeming to be the date where things will really start. And of course, the same process is ongoing in the US, with Georgia dipping its toe into the water yesterday, and other states lining up to do the same. Of course, the end of the lockdown does not mean that that things will return to the pre-virus situation. Incalculable damage has been done to every nation’s economy as regardless of government attempts, thousands upon thousands of small businesses will never return. Arguably, the one thing we know about the future is that it is going to be different than what was envisioned on January 1st.

Bond markets are behaving consistently with a modest risk-on view as Treasury and bund yields edge higher, while yields for the PIGS continue to slide. And finally, the dollar remains under pressure this morning, sliding against most of its counterparts as short-term fears abate. The best performers today in the G10 bloc are SEK and NOK, with the former rallying on what was perceived as a more hawkish than expected message from the Riksbank, when they didn’t cut rates back below zero at today’s meeting, and merely promised to continue to buy more bonds. NOK is a bit more difficult to explain given that oil prices (WTI -7.7%) continue to suffer from either significant excess supply or a complete lack of demand, depending on your point of view. However, given that NOK has been the worst performing G10 currency this year, it is probably due for some recovery given the positive sentiment seen today.

EMG currencies are also generally firmer, with MXN (+1.5%) atop the charts, as it, too, is ignoring the declining price of oil and instead finding demand after a precipitous fall this year. but we are also seeing strength in ZAR (+1.2%) and most EEMEA currencies, as some of last month’s excesses seem to be unwinding as we approach the end of April.

On the data front this morning are two minor releases, Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 3.19%) and Consumer Confidence (87.0). Rather, with the FOMC’s two-day meeting beginning this morning at 9:00, discussions will continue to focus on expectations for the Fed tomorrow, as well as the first look at Q1 GDP. But for today, I expect that we will continue to see this mildly positive risk attitude and the dollar to remain under modest pressure. My view remains that there are still significant issues ahead and the market is not pricing in the length of how bad things are going to be, but clearly for now, I am in the minority.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Rule By Decree

The virus continues to be
Our number one priority
The global response
Has been to ensconce
The idea of rule by decree

Thus governments, both left and right
Expand as they all try to fight
Their total demise
And what that implies
‘Bout politics as a birthright

Covid-19 has created a new lens through which we view everything these days, from financial market activity to whether or not to answer the doorbell. And in every task, we have become more circumspect as to the potential effects of our choices. As Dorothy said, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” But despite the major upheavals we have seen, we must still seek the best possible outcomes at our appointed tasks, be they as important caring for our loved ones, or as mundane as hedging FX risk. Of course, this note talks about the latter not the former, so while I truly wish you all to stay healthy and safe, that will not be the topic du jour.

Instead, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss just how much firepower central banks and governments have thrown at Covid-19, or more accurately at the disruptions the spread of the virus has wrought. I have gathered from central bank websites the remarkable amount of actions that they have taken so far in just March of this year. This is not meant to be exhaustive but merely illustrative of the breadth of activity we have seen:

Central Bank Rate cuts Current rate QE  Bio USD equivalent
Fed -1.50% 0.25% 5000
BOC -1.50% 0.25% 90
Norgesbank -1.25% 0.25%
RBNZ -0.75% 0.25%
Chile -0.75% 1.00%
RBI -0.75% 4.40% 12
Bank of England -0.65% 0.10% 240
RBA -0.50% 0.25% 80
BOKorea -0.50% 0.75%
Philippines -0.50% 3.75%
BCBrazil -0.50% 3.75%
Colombia -0.50% 3.75%
Banxico -0.50% 6.50%
Thailand -0.25% 0.75%
Indonesia -0.25% 4.50%
PBOC -0.20% 2.20%
SNB 0.00% -0.75%
ECB 0.00% -0.50% 1100
BOJ 0.00% -0.10% 205
Riksbank 0.00% 0.00% 30
MASingapore 0.00% 1.26%
Russia 0.00% 6.00%
Danmark Nationalbank 0.15% -0.60%

The collective amount of rate cutting has been 10.70%! And QE that was easily confirmed now totals more than $6.75 trillion equivalent. Central banks are pulling out all the stops. Meanwhile, governments, to the extent they are separate than central banks, have been adding fiscal stimulus by the truckload as they create inventive new ways to support both businesses and individuals in this most remarkable of situations. Will it be enough to stem the tide? Only time will tell, but nobody can accuse these officials of not trying, that’s for sure.

Of course, as I have discussed previously, the biggest concern ought to be just how much of the economy is controlled by governments, especially in ostensibly free market nations, when all this finally passes. And even more importantly, how quickly they reduce that control. Alas, if history is any guide, it will require a revolution for governments to cede their grip on the economy, and by extension the power it brings. There is a book, “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe, which discusses the cycles of history. It is a fascinating read, and one which seems quite prescient as to the current global political situation. I highly recommend taking a look.

In the end, what seems quite certain is that what we assumed was normal just two months ago may never return. This is true of businesses as well as market behaviors. Safe havens have lost much of their luster as investors find themselves in a very difficult situation. How can getting paid just 0.6% nominally for 10 years (current 10-year treasury yield) be considered a safe place to hold your funds with inflation running at 2.3%, and after a likely short-term deflationary bout due to demand destruction, set to move to heights not seen since prior to the GFC? Of course, the answer is, it can’t. But then Treasuries have a higher return than Gilts, Bunds or JGB’s, the other nations to which one would naturally gravitate for a safe haven. Equities certainly don’t create warm and fuzzy feelings given the extraordinary situation with businesses shutting down everywhere and revenues and earnings collapsing. Commodities? Even gold has had a tough time, although it is marginally higher since all this really got going in earnest, but as a safe haven? Cryptocurrencies? (LOL). In fact, despite the ongoing depreciation of the dollar through creeping inflation, Benjamins are clearly the one thing that remain accepted as a place to maintain value. They are fungible and recognized worldwide as a store of value and medium of exchange. It is with this in mind that we should recognize the near-term outlook for the dollar should remain positive.

So what has happened overnight? The dollar is king once again, rising against all its G10 counterparts with CAD the laggard, -1.1%, after oil prices once again sold off sharply (WTI briefly traded below $20/bbl and isdown about 5.2%) this morning. But the weakness is widespread with SEK -1.0% and EUR -0.8% following closely behind the Loonie. European data released this morning showed, not surprisingly, that Economic Confidence (94.5 from 103.5) had fallen at its fastest pace ever, although it has not yet plumbed the depths of the Eurozone crisis in 2012. Give it time!

Emerging markets are also under significant pressure, with MXN today’s biggest loser, down 1.8%, as the combination of tumbling oil prices, the rapid decline of US demand and AMLO’s remarkably insouciant response to Covid-19 has investors fleeing despite the highest yields available in LATAM. But RUB (-1.3%) on the back of declining oil prices and ZAR (-1.1%) on the back of declining commodity prices as well as internal credit problems, are also suffering. In fact, just two currencies, MYR and PHP were able to rally today, each by about 0.2% as each nation announced additional fiscal and monetary support.

Looking ahead this week, aside from the ongoing virus news, we do get more data as follows:

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.29%
  Chicago PMI 40.0
  Consumer Confidence 110.0
Wednesday ADP Employment -150K
  Construction Spending 0.5%
  ISM Manufacturing 45.0
  ISM Prices Paid 41.8
Thursday Trade Balance -$40.0B
  Initial Claims 3150K
  Factory Orders 0.2%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls -100K
  Private Payrolls -110K
  Manufacturing Payrolls -10K
  Unemployment Rate 3.8%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.2
  Participation Rate 63.3%
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 44.0

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, much of this is still backward looking and the real question on the NFP report is just how much of the disruption took place during the survey week, which was 3 weeks ago. I think the Initial Claims number will have more power this month, as well as the ISM data. But boy, next month’s NFP report is going to be UGLY!

At any rate, there is not going to be anything positive from the economic data set this week, or probably throughout April. Rather the next piece of positive news we will hear is when the infection curve has started to flatten and there is an end to this disruption in sight. As of now, one man’s view is we will be like this for another month at least. I sincerely hope for everyone, that it is shorter than that.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

No Easy Fix

As fears ‘bout the virus increased
Supply and demand growth have ceased
There’s no easy fix
Or policy mix
But funding soon will be released

Words fail to describe the price action across all markets recently as volatile seems too tame a description. Turbulent? Tumultuous? I’m not sure which implies larger moves. But that is certainly what we have seen for the past two weeks and is likely to be what we see for a while longer. The confluence of events that is ongoing is so far outside what most market participants had become accustomed to over the past decade, that it seems many are simply giving up.

Consider; signing of phase one of the trade deal between the US and China was hailed as a milestone that would allow trading to return to its prior environment which consisted of ongoing monetary support by central banks helping to underpin economic growth with low inflation. As such, we saw equity markets worldwide benefit, we saw haven assets come under some pressure as havens were seen as unnecessary, and we saw the dollar rally as the US equity market led the way and investors everywhere wanted to get in on the party.

But that is basically ancient history now, as the combination of the discovery, evolution and spread of the coronavirus along with a pickup in US electoral excitement essentially destroyed that story. The past two weeks has been the markets’ collective effort to write a new narrative, and so far, they have not agreed on a theme.

The interesting point about Covid-19 economically is that it has created both a supply and a demand shock. The supply shock was the first thing really observed as China shut down throughout February and companies worldwide that relied on China as part of their supply chain realized that their own production would be impaired. So, we had a period where the focus was almost entirely on which multinational companies would be reducing Q1 earnings estimates due to the supply problems. This also encouraged the economics set to assume a “V” shaped recovery which had most investors looking through Q1 earnings warnings and remaining fully invested.

Unfortunately, as Covid-19 spread though, and I think it is now on every continent and spreading more rapidly, governments worldwide have imposed travel restrictions to the hardest hit countries (China, South Korea, Italy). But an even bigger problem is that many companies around the world are imposing their own travel and hiring restrictions, with Ford, famously, halting all business travel alongside a number of major banks (JPM, HSBC, Credit Suisse). In fact, yesterday, I was visiting a client who explained that our meeting would be their last as they are not allowing other companies to visit their headquarters starting today. The point is this is a demand shock. Travel and leisure companies will continue to suffer until an all clear is sounded. Talk of postponing or canceling the Olympics in Tokyo this summer is making the rounds. Talk of sporting events being played in empty arenas has increased. (March Madness with no crowds!) And there are the requisite stories about store shelves being emptied of things like toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer.

The problem for policy makers is that the response to a supply shock and the response to a demand shock are very different. A demand shock is what policymakers have been assuming since the Great Depression, as easing monetary and fiscal policy is designed to increase demand through several different channels. But a supply shock requires a different emphasis. Neither monetary nor fiscal policy can address Covid-19 directly, curing the ill or protecting those still uninfected. The closure of manufacturing capacity as a response to trying to avoid the spread of a disease is going to have a massive negative impact on corporate finances. After all, interest is still due even if a company doesn’t make any sales. To address this, central banks will need to show forbearance on banks’ non-performing loan ratios, as well as incent banks to continue to lend to companies so impacted. It needs to be more finely targeted, something at which central banks have not shown themselves particularly adept.

And of course, after a decade of central bankers teaching markets that if there is a decline of any magnitude, the central bank will step in, policy space is already quite limited. In sum, the next market narrative remains unwritten because we have never seen this confluence of circumstances before and there are millions of different ideas as to what is the right way to behave. Volatility will be with us for a while.

So with that long preamble, turning to the markets sees that after yesterday’s remarkable risk-on rally in the US, arguably catalyzed by the fact that Senator Sanders fared more poorly than expected in Super Tuesday voting, (thus reducing the chance of his eventual election), Asia picked up the baton and rallied. But Europe has not been able to follow along with virtually every European equity market down at least 1.5%. US futures are also suffering, currently lower by 1.75% or so across all three indices. Meanwhile, 10-year yields, which yesterday managed to trade back above 1.0%, are down nearly 10bps this morning as risk is being jettisoned left and right. The yen is rocking, up by 0.6%, with the dollar trading below 107.00 for the first time since October. In fact, the dollar is generally on its back foot this morning, as the market continues to price in further significant rate activity by the Fed, something which essentially none of its counterparty central banks can implement. At this point, the market is pricing in almost 50bps more at the March meeting in two weeks, and a total of 75bps by July. The ECB doesn’t have 75 to cut, neither does the BOJ or the BOE or the RBA. So, for now, the dollar is likely to remain soft. But as the market has priced these cuts in, I would have anticipated the dollar to fall even further. This hints that the dollar’s decline is likely near its end.

On the data front, remarkably, yesterday’s ISM Non-Manufacturing print was stellar at 57.3, but nobody is certain how to interpret that and what impact Covid-19 may have had on the data. Today we see a bit more data here with Initial Claims (exp 215K), Nonfarm Productivity (1.3%), Unit Labor Costs (1.4%) and Factory Orders (-0.1%). My sense is that Initial Claims is the one to watch. Any uptick there could well be interpreted as the beginning of layoffs due to Covid-19, but also as a prelude to weaker overall growth and perhaps a recession. It is still early days, but arguably, Initial Claims data, which is weekly, will be our first look into the evolution of the economy during the virus.

For now, the dollar remains soft, and I doubt any data will change that, but the dollar will not fall forever. Layering in receivables hedges seems like a pretty good plan at this point.

Good luck
Adf

A Fig Leaf?

This morning, the market’s motif
Is central banks’ promised relief
The all-clear has sounded
And stocks have rebounded
But is this more than a fig leaf?

In case you were curious what central bank relief looked or sounded like, I have included the statements from each of the four major central banks addressing Covid-19, starting with the Fed’s statement Friday afternoon that was able to turn the equity market around (all are my emphases). Since then, we have heard from the other three major banks, as per below, and we have also been informed that G7 FinMins would be having a conference call this week to discuss a coordinated response.

The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.

Global financial and capital markets have been unstable recently with growing uncertainties about the outlook for economic activity due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Bank of Japan will closely monitor future developments and will strive to provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets through appropriate market operations and asset purchases.”

The Bank of England is working with the UK Treasury as well as international partners to ensure all necessary steps are taken to protect financial and monetary stability amid the global outbreak of the coronavirus. The bank continues to monitor developments and is assessing its potential impacts on the global and UK economies and financial systems.

The European Central Bank is vigilant and mobilized when it comes to the fallout from the outbreak of the coronavirus. Any response needs to be calm and proportionate. ECB policy is already very accommodative.

And this has essentially been this morning’s market story, a major relief rally. Friday night, late, China released its PMI data and it was dreadful, with Manufacturing PMI at 35.7 while the Non-manufacturing figure was even worse, at 29.6! This should dispel was any doubts that growth in China has nearly ground to a halt. However, despite the promised support by central banks around the world, and you can be sure pretty much all of them, not just the big four, will be jumping in, if quarantines remain in place as the infection continues to spread, supply lines will remain broken and growth will be feeble. The OECD just released a report regarding the coronavirus with updated GDP forecasts and it is not pretty. Naturally, China is the hardest hit, with Q1 GDP now forecast to turn negative, and 2020 GDP growth to fall to 4.9% before rebounding next year. Meanwhile, global GDP growth is now forecast to fall to 2.4%, its slowest pace since the financial crisis in 2009. And the working assumption is that the virus is contained before the end of Q1. If we continue to see the virus spread, these numbers will be revised still lower.

So, with this as our backdrop, let’s turn our attention to actual market activity. Despite all the promises of support, equity investors remain uncertain as to how to proceed at this time. Support may be helpful, but if companies earnings plummet because of the disruption, then current market valuations are likely still a bit rich. Looking at Asian markets, China was the best performer, with Shanghai rising more than 3.1% as promises of support by the PBOC encouraged investors there. But we also saw the Nikkei (+0.95%) and the Hang Seng (+0.6%) rise although Australia’s ASX 200 (-0.8%) didn’t share in the enthusiasm. Europe has been far less positive with the DAX (-0.45%) and CAC (-0.25%) in the red along with Italy’s FTSE MIB (-2.25%) which is really feeling the brunt of the problems on the continent. The lone equity bright spot is the UK, where the FTSE 100 is higher by 0.5%, largely due to the fact that the pound is today’s worst performing currency, having fallen 0.5% vs. the dollar, and more than 1% vs. the euro.

The British pound story is entirely Brexit related as trade negotiations started today with concerns raised that the red lines both sides have defined may end the chance of any agreement as early as next month. Given the international nature of the FTSE 100 members, a weaker pound is usually a benefit for the stock market. But clearly, if the trade talks collapse, the impact on UK companies would be significant.

But other than the pound, the FX market is the only one that has responded in the manner the central banks were hoping, as the dollar has fallen sharply vs. pretty much every other currency. In the G10 space, SEK (+0.7%) and EUR (+0.65%) are leading the way although even AUD and NZD have managed to gain 0.3% this morning.

In the EMG space, KRW was the BIG winner, rallying 1.7% overnight, but almost every APAC currency jumped on the concerted central bank message. The two exceptions here this morning are INR and MXN, both currently lower by 0.7%, with both suffering from the same disease, new Covid-19 infections where there hadn’t been any before.

Meanwhile, bond markets continue to price in much slower growth as 10-year Treasury yields have tumbled to 1.05%, another new historic low, while German bunds fall to -0.66%, near its historic lows. There is discernment in the market though, as Italian yields have risen 7.5bps as concerns over the safety of those bonds, given Italy’s dubious distinction of being the European country worst hit by the virus, has called into question its financing capabilities.

Adding to all this enjoyment is a very busy data week culminating in the payroll report on Friday.

Today ISM Manufacturing 50.5
  ISM Prices Paid 50.5
  Construction Spending 0.6%
Wednesday ADP Employment 170K
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 55.0
  Fed’s Beige Book  
Thursday Initial Claims 216K
  Nonfarm Productivity 1.4%
  Unit Labor Costs 1.4%
  Factory Orders -0.2%
Friday Trade Balance -$47.0B
  Nonfarm Payrolls 175K
  Private Payrolls 160K
  Manufacturing Payrolls -4K
  Unemployment Rate 3.6%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.3
  Participation Rate 63.4%
  Consumer Credit $17.0B

Source: Bloomberg

At this point, Covid-19 stories are going to be the primary driver of market activity as investors across all markets try to figure out how to react. Havens remain in demand, although the dollar has clearly suffered. Arguably the dollar’s weakness is predicated on the fact that, of all the nations around, the US is the one with the ability to cut rates the furthest. In fact, futures markets are now pricing in 100bps of rate cuts this year, with between 25bps and 50bps for the March meeting in two weeks’ time. Nobody else has that much room, and so the dollar is definitely feeling the pressure. Of course, I continue to believe that if things get much worse, the dollar will rally regardless of the Fed funds rate, as Treasury bonds remain the single safest and most liquid asset available anywhere in the world. For today however, unless there is additional new information, the dollar is likely to remain under pressure, and in truth, that seems likely all week.

Good luck
Adf

Strength in Their Ranks

Around the world, all central banks
Are to whom we need to give thanks
By dint of their easing
All shorts they are squeezing
Who knew they’d such strength in their ranks?

Every day that passes it becomes clearer and clearer that central banks truly are omnipotent. Not only do they possess the ability to support economies (or at least stock markets), but apparently, easing monetary policy cures the coronavirus infection. Who knew they had such wide-ranging powers? At least that is certainly the way things seem if you look through a market focused lens.

Let’s recap:

Date # cases / # deceased S&P 500 Close 10-Year Treasury EURUSD USDJPY
31 Dec 1 / 0 3230 1.917% 1.1213 108.61
6 Jan 60 / 0 3246 1.809% 1.1197 108.37
10 Jan 41 / 1 3265 1.82% 1.1121 109.95
20 Jan 219 / 3 3320 1.774% 1.1095 110.18
22 Jan 500 / 17 3321 1.769% 1.1093 109.84
24 Jan 1320 / 41 3295 1.684% 1.1025 108.90
28 Jan 4515 / 107 3276 1.656% 1.1022 109.15
30 Jan 7783 / 170 3283 1.586% 1.1032 108.96
3 Feb 17,386 / 362 3248 1.527% 1.1060 108.69
4 Feb 24,257 / 492 3297 1.599% 1.1044 109.59

Sources: https://www.pharmaceutical-technology.com/news/coronavirus-a-timeline-of-how-the-deadly-outbreak-evolved/and Bloomberg

Now obviously, they are not actually creating a medical cure for this latest human affliction (I think), but once it became clear that the coronavirus was going to have a significant impact on the Chinese, and by extension, global economies, they jumped into action. While it was no surprise that the PBOC immediately eased policy to head off an even larger stock market rout upon the (delayed) return from the Lunar New Year holidays, I think there was a larger impact from Chairman Powell, who at the Fed press conference last week, made it clear that the Fed stood ready to react (read cut rates) if the coronavirus impact expanded. And then, just like that, the coronavirus was relegated to the agate type of newspapers.

What is really amazing is how the narrative has been altered from, ‘oh my gosh, we are on the cusp of a global pandemic so sell all risky assets’ to ‘the flu is actually a much bigger problem globally and this coronavirus is small potatoes and will be quickly forgotten, so buy those risky assets back’.

The point here is that market players lead very sheltered lives and really see the world as a binary function, is risk on or is risk off? And as long as the central banks continue to assure traders and investors that they will do whatever it takes to prevent stock markets from declining, at least for any length of time, those central banks will continue to control the narrative.

So, with that as preamble, what is new overnight? In a modest surprise, at least on the timing, the Bank of Thailand cut rates by 25bps to a record low 1.00%. The stated reason was as a prophylactic to prevent economic weakness as the coronavirus spreads. Too, the MAS explained that they have plenty of room to ease policy further (which for them means weakening the SGD) if they deem the potential coronavirus impacts to call for such action. It should be no surprise that SGD is today’s weakest link, having fallen 0.75% but we also saw immediate weakness in THB overnight, with the baht falling nearly 1.0% before a late day recovery on the back of flows into the Thai stock exchange. As to the rest of the EMG space, PHP is also modestly weaker after the central bank there indicated that they would cut rates as needed, but we have seen more strength across the space in general. RUB is leading the pack, up 0.8% on the back of a strong rebound in oil prices (WTI +2.3%), but we are also seeing strength throughout LATAM as CLP (+0.7%), BRL (+0.55%) and MXN (+0.4%) all rebound on renewed risk appetite. ZAR has also had a banner day, rising 0.7% on the positive commodity tone to markets.

In the G10 space, things are a bit less interesting. It should be no surprise that AUD is the top performer, rising 0.4%, as it has the strongest beta relationship to China and risk. NOK is also gaining, +0.25%, with oil’s recovery. On the other side of the blotter, CHF (-0.3%) and JPY -0.15%, but -1.0% since yesterday morning) are taking their lumps as haven assets no longer hold appeal to the investment community. This idea has been reinforced by the 10-year Treasury, which has seen its yield rise from 1.507% on Friday to 1.63% this morning.

And don’t worry, your 401K’s are all green again today with equity markets around the world back on the elevator to the penthouse.

Turning to today’s US session, we start to get some more serious data with ADP Employment (exp 157K), the Trade Balance (-$48.2B) and ISM Non-Manufacturing (55.1). Earlier this morning we saw Services PMI data from both Europe and the UK. Eurozone PMI data was mixed (France weak and Italy strong), while the UK saw a strong rebound. We also saw Eurozone Retail Sales, which were quite disappointing, falling 1.6% in December, and seemingly being the catalyst for the euro’s tepid performance today, -0.2%. Remember, Monday’s US ISM data was much better than expected, and there is no question that the market is willing to believe that today’s data will follow suit.

In sum, continued strong performance by the US economy, at least relative to its peers, as well as the working assumption that should the data start to falter, the Fed will be slashing rates immediately, will continue to support risk assets. At this point, that seems to be taking the form of buying high yield currencies (MXN, ZAR, INR) while buying the dollar to increase positions in the S&P500 (or maybe just in Tesla ). As such, I look for the dollar to hold its own vs. the bulk of the G10, but soften vs. much of the EMG bloc.

Good luck
Adf