The Largesse They Bestow

The status is clearly still quo
For central bank policy so
All rates are on hold
And markets consoled
By all the largesse they bestow

But Covid continues to spread
And Q1 growth seems to be dead
So, Christine and Jay
Will soon have to say
More QE is coming ahead

It has been an active week for central banks so far, at least with respect to the number of meetings being held.  By the end of today we will have heard from six different major central banks from around the world (Canada, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, Norway and the ECB) although not one of them has changed policy one iota.  The implication is that monetary policy has found an equilibrium for now, with settings properly attuned to the current economic realities.

A summary of current central bank policies basically shows that whatever the absolute level of interest rates being targeted, it is almost universally at historically low levels, with 14 key banks having rates 0.25% or lower.  The point is, a central bank’s main tool is interest rate policy, and while negative nominal rates are clearly viable, after all the SNB, ECB and BOJ currently maintain them, central banks are clearly running out of ammunition.  (PS; the efficacy of negative rates has been widely argued and remains unproven.)  Interestingly, prior to this crisis, reserve requirements were seen as an important central banking tool, with a broad ability to inject more liquidity into the markets or remove it if so desired.  However, in the wake of the GFC, when banks worldwide were shown to be too-highly levered, it seems central banks are a bit more reluctant to open those floodgates.  Even if they did, though, it is unclear if it would make a difference.  Perhaps the lesson we should all learn from the Covid crisis, especially the central banks themselves, is that monetary policy is very good at slowing down economies all by itself, but when it comes to helping them pick up, they need help.

So, with interest rate policy basically at its limit, central banks have been forced to implement new and different tools in their quest to support their respective economies, with QE at the forefront.  Of course, at this point, QE has also become old hat, and has yet to be shown to support the economy.  It has, however, done a bang-up job supporting equity markets around the world, as well as other risk assets like commodities.  And that is exactly what it was designed to do.  QE’s transmission mechanism was to be a trickle-down philosophy, where the ongoing search for yield by investors pushed capital into riskier ventures, helping to support increased investment and more economic growth.  Alas, the only thing QE has really served to do is inflate a number of asset bubbles.  This was never clearer than when the data showed more money was spent by corporations on stock repurchases than on R&D.  Thus, if the stated goal of QE was to support economic growth, it is fair to say it has failed at that task.

At any rate, a recap of the central bank comments shows that economic forecasts and expectations have been tweaked lower for Q1 and higher for Q2 and Q3 with a universal assumption that the widespread inoculation of the population via the new vaccines will help reopen economies all over.  And yet, if anything, we continue to hear of more and more draconian measures being put into place to slow the spread of Covid.  This certainly confirms the idea of a weak Q1 growth pattern, but the leap to a stronger Q2 is harder to make in my mind.

Add it all up and it appears that central banks, globally, are pretty much all in the same position, promulgating extremely easy monetary policy with limited hope that it will, by itself, reignite economic growth.  In effect, until it is shown that the vaccines are really changing people’s behavior, assuming governments allow people back out of the house, central banks can do all they want, and it will not have much impact on the economy.  Markets, however, are a different story, as all that monetary largesse will continue to flow to the riskiest, highest yielding assets around.  Until they don’t!  It will not be pretty when this bubble deflates.

So, is that happening today?  Not even close.  Equity markets continue to rise almost universally, with the Nikkei (+0.8%) and Shanghai (+0.8%) leading the way in Asia.  Europe, meanwhile, is not quite as robust, but still largely in the green led by the DAX (+0.5%) and FTSE 100 (+0.25%) although the CAC (-0.1%) is lagging a bit.  And not surprisingly, US markets continue to power ahead on the ongoing belief that there will be yet more stimulus coming, so futures are all higher by roughly 0.3% or so.

Bond markets are playing their part as well, with 10-year yields higher in all the major markets, with Treasuries, Bunds, OATs and Gilts all seeing yields climb about 1 basis point.  The interesting thing about Treasuries, and truthfully all these markets, is that since the Georgia run-off election, when the market assumption for more stimulus was cemented, the yield has barely moved.  Let me say that the reflation trade seems to be on hold, at least for now.

For a change, oil prices have edged a bit lower this morning, with WTI down 0.6%, as it consolidates its spectacular gains since November.  Gold is little changed, although it had a big day yesterday, rising 1.5% as inflation concerns seem to be percolating.  And finally, as perhaps a harbinger of that deflating bubble, Bitcoin is lower this morning and has been falling pretty steadily, if with still spectacular volatility, for the past 2 weeks, and is now down 24% from its recent highs.

Finally, the dollar is under clear pressure this morning, falling against all its G10 peers and all but one of its EMG peers.  In G10, NOK (+0.8%) leads the way as the Norgesbank did not cut rates which some had expected and were less negative on the economy than expected as well.  But NZD (+0.7%) and SEK (+0.6%) are also putting in fine performances amid stronger commodities and hopes for more stimulus.  In fact, CAD (+0.15%) is the laggard, although it had a strong performance yesterday (+0.7%) after the BOC left rates on hold rather than performing a microcut (10 bps) as some analysts had expected.

In the EMG space, CLP (+1.15%) and BRL (+1.1%) lead the way with the former benefitting from strong investor demand in USD and EUR denominated government bonds, leading to a positive outlook, while the latter seems to be responding to hints that tighter policy may be coming soon given rising inflation forecasts.   But really, the dollar’s weakness is pervasive across all three major blocs.

We finally see some data today as follows: Initial Claims (exp 935K), Continuing Claims (5.3M), Housing Starts (1560K), Building Permits (1608K) and Philly Fed (11.8).  The Claims data has certainly deteriorated during the past several weeks given the renewed lockdowns around the country, which doesn’t bode well for the NFP report in 2 weeks’ time.  The housing market remains on fire given the ongoing exodus to the suburbs from large cities and the historically low mortgage rates.  Meanwhile, Philly Fed should show the strength of the manufacturing sector, which continues to far outperform services.

Still no Fed speakers, so beyond the data, which is all at 8:30, we will also hear from Madame Lagarde in her press conference at the same time.  The risk, to me, is that she comes off more dovish than the market anticipates, thus halting the euro’s modest rebound.  But otherwise, there is no obvious catalyst to stop the risk-on meme and dollar’s renewed decline.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

More Money They’ll Print

While stock markets make all-time highs
The world’s central banks still advise
More money they’ll print
In case there’s a hint
That prices will simply not rise

In a chicken and egg type question, it is worth asking; is the fact that equity markets continue to rally (yet another all-time high was recorded yesterday, this time by the Dow) despite the fact that economies worldwide remain in chaos and operating at a fraction of their capacity, as governments impose another wave of lockdowns throughout Europe, the UK and many US states, logical?  Obviously, the link between those dichotomous outcomes is the support provided by the central banking community.  Perhaps the way to frame the question is, if markets have already seen past the end of the pandemic, and are willing to fund the business community right now, why do central banks feel they need to, not merely continue with their programs, but promise to increase them going forward?

This was made clear, yet again, when Fed Vice-Chair, Richard Clarida, explained that the FOMC is carefully evaluating the current situation and will not hesitate to use all available tools to help support the economy.  The punditry sees this as a code for an increase in the size of the asset purchase program, from the current $120 billion each month (split $80 billion Treasuries and $40 billion mortgages) to as much as $160 billion each month, with the new money focused on Treasuries.  At the same time, ECB Chief Economist, Philip Lane, explained that the central bank will provide enough monetary stimulus to make sure governments, companies and households have access to cheap credit throughout the coronavirus crisis.

And perhaps, that is the crux of the problem we face.  Despite investor optimism that the future is bright, and despite central banks’ proven inability to get funding to those most in need, namely individual households, those same central banks continue to do the only thing they know how to do, print more money, and by extension fund governments and large companies, who already have access to funding.  As the saying goes, the rich get richer.

The cycle goes as follows: central banks cut interest rates => investors move out the risk curve seeking returns => corporations and governments issue more debt at cheaper levels => an excess (and ultimately unsustainable) amount of debt outstanding.  Currently, that number, globally, is approaching 400% of GDP, and on current trends, has further to go.  The problem is, repayment of this debt can only be achieved in one of two ways, realistically, neither of which will be pleasant.  Either, inflation actually begins to rise sufficiently to diminish the real value of the debt or we get to a debt jubilee, where significant portions are simply written off.

If you were ever wondering why central banks are desperate for higher inflation, this is your answer.  While they are mostly economists, they still recognize that inflation is exactly the kind of debt destructive force necessary to eventually balance the books.  It will take time, even if they can manage the rate of inflation, but their firmly held belief is if they could just get inflation percolating, all that debt would become less of a problem.  At least for the debtors. Creditors may not feel the same excitement.

On the other hand, the debt jubilee idea is being bandied about in many forms these days, with the latest being the cancellation of student debt outstanding.  That’s $1.6 trillion that could be dissolved with the signing of a law.  Now, who would pay for that?  Well, I assure you it is not a free lunch.  In fact, the case could be made that it is this type of action that will lead to the central banks’ desired inflation outcome.  Consider, wiping out that debt would leave $1.6 trillion in the economy with no corresponding liabilities.  That’s a lot of spending power which would suddenly be used to chase after a still restricted supply of goods and services.  And that is just one small segment of the $100’s of trillions of dollars of debt outstanding.  The point is, there are still many hard decisions yet to be made and there are going to be winners and losers based on those decisions.  Covid-19 did not cause these issues to arise, it merely served as a catalyst to make them more widely known, and potentially, will push us toward the endgame.  Be prepared!

But that is all just background information to help us try to understand market activity a bit better.  Instead, let’s take a look at the market today, where yesterday’s risk appetite seems to have developed a bit of indigestion.  Overnight saw a mixed equity picture (Nikkei +0.4%, Hang Seng +0.1%, Shanghai -0.2%) with the magnitude of movements more muted than recent activity.  Europe, on the other hand, has been largely in the red (DAX -0.35%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE -1.15%) as apparently Mr Lane’s comments were not seen as supportive enough, or, more likely, markets are simply overbought after some enormous runs this month, and are seeing a bit of profit taking.  US futures are mixed at this point, with the DOW and S&P both down -0.5%, while the NASDAQ is up about 0.3%.  The biggest stock market story is S&P’s decision to add Tesla to the S&P500 index starting next month, which has helped goose the stock higher by another 10%.

Bond markets this morning are a tale of three regions.  Asian hours saw Australian and New Zealand bonds fall sharply with 10-year yields rising about 7 basis points, as the RBA’s YCC in the 3-year space is starting to really distort markets there.  However, in Europe, we are seeing a very modest bond rally, with yields slightly softer, about 1 basis point throughout the continent, and Treasuries have seen yields slip 1.5 basis points so far in the session. Clearly, a bit of risk-off attitude here.

FX markets, however, are not viewing the world quite the same way as the dollar, at least vs. its G10 counterparts, is somewhat softer, although has seen a more mixed session vs. EMG currencies.  Leading the way in the G10 is GBP (+0.5%) as stories make the rounds that a Brexit deal will be agreed next week.  Now, they are just stories, with no official comments, but that is the current driver.  Next in line is JPY (+0.3%) which perhaps we can attribute to a risk-off attitude, especially as CHF (+0.25%) is moving the same way.  As to the rest of the bloc, gains have been much smaller, and there has been absolutely zero data released this morning.

In the EMG bloc, EEMEA currencies have been the weak spot, with HUF (-0.5%) the worst performer, although weakness in PLN (-0.3%) and RUB (-0.25%) is also clear.  This story has to do with the Hungarian and Polish vetoes of the EU budget and virus recovery fund, as they will not accept the rule of law conditions attached by Brussels.  You may have heard about the concerns Brussels has over these two nations move toward a more nationalist viewpoint on many issues like immigration and judicial framework, something Brussels abhors.  On the positive side, BRL (+0.5%) has opened strongly, and CNY (+0.45%) led the Asian bloc higher overnight.  The China story continues to focus on the apparent strength of their economic rebound as well as the fact that interest rates there are substantially higher than elsewhere in the world and drawing in significant amounts of investor capital.  As to BRL, it seems the central bank has hinted they will be increasing the amount of dollars available to the market, thus adding to pressure on the dollar.

On the data front, yesterday saw a weaker than expected Empire Mfg number, but this morning is really the week’s big number, Retail Sales (exp 0.5%, 0.6% ex autos) as well as IP (1.0%) and Capacity Utilization (72.3%) a little later. On the Fed front, we have Chairman Powell speaking at 1:00, but not a speech, part of a panel, as well as another five Fed members on the tape at 3:00.  However, I anticipate the only thing we will learn is that the entire group will back up Vice-Chair Clarida regarding additional actions.

Despite the lack of risk appetite, the dollar is on its back foot this morning.  Ironically, I expect that we will see a rebound in risk appetite, rather than a rebound in the dollar as the session unfolds.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Each of them Dreads

The word from three central bank heads
Was something that each of them dreads
Is failing to let
Inflation beset
Their nations, thus tightening spreads

Instead, each one promised that they
Won’t tighten till some future day
When ‘flation is soaring
And folks are imploring
They stop prices running away

As we come to the end of the week, on a Friday the 13th no less, investors continue to be encouraged by the central bank community.  Yesterday, at an ECB sponsored forum, the heads of the three major central banks, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, ECB President Christine Lagarde and BOE Governor Andrew Bailey, all explained that their greatest fear was that the second wave of Covid would force extended shutdowns across their economies and more permanent scarring as unemployment rose and the skills of those who couldn’t find a job diminished.  The upshot was that all three essentially committed to displaying patience with regard to tightening policy at such time in the future as inflation starts to return.  In other words, measured inflation will need to be really jumping before any of these three, and by extension most other central bankers, will consider a change in the current policy stance.

Forgetting for a moment, the fact that this means support for asset prices will remain a permanent feature, let us consider the pros and cons of this policy stance.  On the one hand, especially given the central banking community’s woeful forecasting record, waiting for confirmation of a condition before responding means they are far less likely to inadvertently stifle a recovery.  On the other hand, this means central banks are promising to become completely reactive, waiting for the whites of inflation’s eyes, as it were, and therefore will be sacrificing their ability to manage expectations.  In essence, it almost seems like they are dismantling one of the major tools in their toolkits, forward guidance.  Or perhaps, they are not dismantling it, but rather they are changing its nature.

Currently, forward guidance consists of their comments/promises of policy maintenance for an uncertain, but extended period of time.  For instance, the Fed’s forecasts indicate interest rates will remain at current levels through 2023.  (Remember Powell’s comment, “we’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates.”)  But what if inflation were to start to rise significantly before then?  Does the current guidance preclude them from raising rates sooner?  That is unclear, and I would hope not, but broken promises by central banks are also not good policy.  However, if the new forward guidance is metric based, for instance, we won’t adjust policy until inflation is firmly above 2.0% for a period of time, then all they can do is sit back and watch the data, waiting for the economy to reach those milestones, before acting.  The problem for them here is that inflation has a way of getting out of hand and could require quite severe policy medicine to tame it.  Remember what it took for Paul Volcker as Fed Chair back in the early 1980’s.

My observation is that, as with the initiation of forward guidance, this is a policy that is much easier to start than to unwind, and either it will become a permanent feature of monetary policy (a distinct possibility) or the unfortunate soul who is Fed Chair when it needs to be altered will be roasted alive.  In the meantime, what we know is that central banks around the world are extremely unlikely to tighten policy for many years to come.  We have heard that from the BOJ, the RBA, and the RBNZ as well as the big three.  All told, one could make the case that interest rates have found their new, permanent level.

And with that in mind, let us tour market activity this Friday morning.  Equities in Asia followed from Wall Street’s disappointing performance yesterday and all sold off.  The Nikkei (-0.5%) fell for only the second time in the past two weeks.  Meanwhile, after President Trump signed an executive order preventing US investors from supporting companies owned or controlled by the PLA (China’s armed forces), equities in HK (Hang Seng -0.1%) and Shanghai (-0.9%) both fell as well.  The story in Europe is less clear, with some modest strength (DAX +0.2%), CAC (+0.3%) but also some weakness (FTSE -0.5%).  I would blame the latter on further disruption in the UK government (resignation of a high ranking minister, Dominic cummings) and a fading hope on a Brexit deal, but then the pound is higher, so that doesn’t seem right either.

Bond markets, which all rallied sharply yesterday, are continuing that price action, albeit at a more modest pace, with all European markets showing yield declines of between one and two basis points, although Treasuries are essentially unchanged right now.  Of course, Treasuries had the biggest rally yesterday.

Oil is softer (WTI – 1.0%) and gold is a touch firmer (+0.2%) although the latter seems clearly to have found significant support a bit lower than here.  As to the dollar, on the whole it is softer, but not terribly so.  For instance, GBP (+0.3%) is the leading gainer, with AUD (+0.2%) next on the list, but those are hardly impressive moves.  While the bulk of this bloc are firmer, SEK (-0.4%) has fallen on what appears to be a combination of position adjustments and bets on the future direction of the NOKSEK cross.  As to the EMG bloc, there are more gainers than losers, but MXN (+0.3%) is the biggest positive mover, which seems to be a hangover from Banxico’s surprise decision yesterday afternoon, to leave the overnight rate at 4.25% while the market was anticipating a 25-basis point reduction.  On the downside, CLP (-0.95%) is the worst performer, as investors appear concerned that there will be further financial policy adjustments that hinder the long-term opportunity in the country.

On the data front, overnight we saw Eurozone Q3 GDP released at 12.6% Q/Q (-4.4% Y/Y), a tick worse than expectations but it is hard to imply that had an impact of any sort on the markets.  In the US, yesterday saw a modestly better outcome in Initial Claims, and CPI was actually 0.1% softer than expected (helping the bond rally). This morning brings PPI (exp 0.4%, 1.2% Y/Y), about which nobody cares given we have seen CPI already, and then Michigan Sentiment (82.0) at 10:00.  We have two Fed speakers on the docket, Williams early, and then James Bullard.  But given the unanimity of the last vote, and the fact that we just heard from Chairman Powell, it would be a huge surprise to hear something new from either of them.

So, as we head into the weekend, with the dollar having been strong all week, a little further softness would not be a big surprise.  However, there is no reason to believe that there will be a significant move in either direction before we log off for the weekend.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Electees Are Concerned

In England and Scotland and Wales
The third quarter saw rising sales
But this quarter will
Repeat the standstill
Of Q2, with different details

In fact, worldwide what we have learned
(And why electees are concerned)
Is policy choices
That help certain voices
By others, are frequently spurned

Markets, writ large, continue to seek the next strong narrative to help generate enthusiasm for the next big move.  But for now, as we are past the ‘Blue wave is good’, and we are past ‘gridlock is good’, and we are past ‘the vaccine is here’, there seems precious little for investors to anticipate.  At least with any specificity.  And that is the key to a compelling narrative, it needs to have a plausible story, a rationale behind that story for the directional movement, but perhaps most importantly, it has to have a target that can be realized.  Whether that target is an announcement, a deadline or long-awaited policy speech, it needs an endgame.  And right now, there is no obvious endgame to drive the narrative.  With that in mind, it should not be very surprising that markets have lost their way.

So, let’s consider what we do know and try to anticipate potential impacts.  The UK Q3 GDP data this morning was of a piece with the US release two weeks ago, as well as what we saw for all the Eurozone nations that have reported, and what we are likely to see from Japan Sunday night; record breaking growth in the quarter, but growth insufficient to make up for the losses in Q2.  Of greater concern for governments everywhere is that Q4 is going to see a dramatic slowing, and in some nations, a return to negative output, due to the resumption of lockdowns throughout Europe as well as in some major US cities.

Economists and analysts seem to have an interesting take on this, essentially explaining that if Q4 turns out worse than previously forecast, it just means that Q1 of next year will be better.  No biggie!  But, of course, that is absurd, especially given the severity of the Covid recession’s impacts already.  After all, the loss of millions of small businesses around the world, and the concurrent loss of employment by those businesses workers is not something that can be quickly reversed.  While in the long term, entrepreneurs will almost certainly restart new businesses, there is a significant time lag between the two events.  And ironically, governments tend to make starting businesses very hard with regulations and licensing fees imposed on the would-be entrepreneur, thus restricting the very economic growth those same governments are desperate to rekindle.

It is this dynamic that has resulted in the need for massive fiscal support by governments worldwide and given the growth of the second wave of the virus, the demand request by central bankers for governments to do even more. The problem inherent in this dynamic is that government largesse is not actually free, despite ZIRP and NIRP.  The cost of further increases in government debt, which is already at record high ratio vs. GDP (>92% globally), is the reduced prospects for future growth.  The requirement to repay debt removes the capital available to invest in productive assets and businesses thus reducing the future pace of growth for everyone.

Up to this point, central banks have been able to absorb the bulk of that new issuance by printing money to do so, but that dynamic is also destined to fail over time.  Especially since it is a global phenomenon.  When only Japan, with debt/GDP >230%, was in this situation, it could rely on growth elsewhere in the world to absorb its exports and help service that debt.  But the global recession we saw in Q2 (>90% of the world was in recession) and are likely to see again in Q4 means that there will not be anybody else around to absorb those exports.  This is why every country is seeking a weaker currency, to help those exports, and remains a key reason that the dollar’s demise remains unlikely in the near future.  (This is also why there are a number of analysts who are anticipating a debt jubilee, where government debt owned by central banks will simply be torn up, leaving the cash in the system, but no bonds to repay.  While debt/GDP ratios will decline sharply, inflation will become the new bugbear.)

Of course, this is all in the future, and a lot to read out of UK GDP data, but this cycle has been pretty clear, and at this stage, even the hope for a vaccine to become widely available early next year is unlikely to change the immediate future.  Which brings us back to square one, a market searching for a narrative.

That lack of direction is clear across markets this morning, with equities mixed in Asia (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng (-0.2%, Shanghai -0.1%), lower in Europe (DAX -0.8%, CAC -0.9%, FTSE -0.35%) and US futures split (DOW -0.4%, SPX -0.1%, NASDAQ +0.5%).  I’m not getting a sense of a strong narrative here at all.

Bond markets, meanwhile, are reversing some of their losses from earlier this week, with Treasuries (-3.3bps), Bunds (-1bp) and Gilts (-2.4bps) all firmer while the rest of Europe is also seeing demand for havens amid the modest equity weakness.  Oil prices are virtually unchanged this morning, holding onto their recent gains, but with no capacity to continue to rally.  Gold, on the other hand, has edged slightly higher, up 0.3%.

Finally, the dollar is truly mixed this morning with half the G10 currencies firmer, led by EUR (+0.25%) and CHF (+0.25%), and half weaker led by the pound’s 0.5% decline and AUD (-0.3%).  We already know why the pound is weak, their GDP data, while very strong on paper, disappointed relative to expectations.  As to the rest of the bloc, the truth is given the euro’s weakness yesterday, a little reversal ought to be no surprise.  EMG currencies show a similar split of half weaker and half stronger this morning. On the plus side, other than TRY (+1.2%) which continues to be roiled by the changes at the central bank, the gains are all modest and heavily focused on the CE4 currencies, which are simply following the euro higher.  On the downside, IDR (-0.6%) and KRW (-0.45%) are the weakest of the lot, with both these currencies seeming to see a bit of profit-taking from recent gains.

On the data front, we do get important numbers this morning, all at 8:30.  Initial Claims (exp 731K), Continuing Claims (6.825M) and CPI (1.3%, 1.7% ex food & energy) are on the docket with the first two still giving us our best real time data on economic activity.  Also, we cannot forget that Chairman Powell, along with Madame Lagarde and BOE Governor Bailey, will be speaking later this morning, at 11:45, at an ECB forum, with the outcome almost certainly to be a plea for fiscal stimulus by governments one and all.

In the end, the lack of a compelling narrative implies to me a lack of direction is in store.  As such, I expect little in the way of a resolution in the near future, and thus choppy dollar price action is the best bet.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Over the Moon

Investors are over the moon
And singing a happy new tune
As Pfizer’s vaccine
Has come on the scene
And raised hope we’ll soon be immune

The market responded with glee
As pundits now seem to agree
With gridlock ahead
The vaccine, instead
Will rescue our economy

Frankly, it is hard to keep up with the narrative shifts between yesterday and today as there have been so many new opinions about how the future will unfold.  As I was completing this missive yesterday morning the Pfizer vaccine news hit the tape.  Certainly, the market was unprepared for an announcement that a vaccine with 90% efficacy was in late stage trials, implying that it could soon be approved, and distribution begun.  Hopes for a vaccine had been a key driver of markets on many days in the past several months, although market rallies were ostensibly keyed by hopes for many things like a blue wave, gridlock, and if you go back far enough, a trade deal.  However, the news of the success triggered a stupendous rally in equity markets and risk assets in general while haven assets, especially Treasuries, Bunds and Gilts, along with the yen, Swiss francs and gold, all sold off sharply.  Yesterday, I was cynical regarding the end of the pandemic being at hand, but this morning, that outcome has far more promise.

Of course, the real question is, if this vaccine truly does work, and is distributed widely enough to instill confidence in the general population, how much has the economy actually changed and to what degree are those changes permanent?

Clearly, the biggest change has been the recognition that working from home, for many jobs, is quite viable.  Technology has reached the point where meetings via Webex or Zoom or Partners seem to be quite productive (at least as productive as any meetings ever are.)  My personal experience is that I have gone from driving nearly 2000 miles per month, largely for commuting, to having driven 3000 miles in the past seven months.  Not only have I used significantly less fuel, but my car has seen dramatically less wear and tear, and thus any replacement has been postponed accordingly.  And that is just one facet of the changes.  Commercial real estate and office buildings will likely need to be repurposed going forward as the requirement for corporate staffs to all gather in a single premise has been shown to be unnecessary.

But what about travel and entertainment?  With a vaccine, does that mean people will be jumping back on airplanes to visit clients or relatives or go on vacation again?  Is the movie theater experience ever going to be as desirable again?  After all, given the remarkable array of streaming entertainment services, and the fact that TV’s have grown so remarkably large, watching at home has many advantages over going out, so what percentage of the population will be heading back out soon?  In truth, the one segment I expect to really benefit is restaurants, as while it appears people embraced preparing food at home, I expect the ability to go out, eat and not have to wash the dishes has real appeal to a majority of the population.

My point is the dynamics of economic activity going forward are likely to be very different than that which we remember from before the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns and disruptions.

Of more importance to our discussion here, what does this mean for the central banks going forward.  Remember, Chairman Powell has essentially promised not to raise interest rates until 2023, a minimum of 2+ years from now.  But what if economic activity takes off, as people find a new mix of activities and regain the confidence to gather when desired.  If growth rebounds and inflation (which is already picking up) continues to rise, will they stand pat because of that promise?  Will the ECB?  The BOJ?  The BOE?  Quite frankly, I believe the central bank community was quite happy with the current situation.  They were largely lauded as heroes for preventing even worse outcomes, they had significantly increased their power and sway within governments, and the playbook was easy, print lots of money and buy bonds (or other assets) to support market functioning.  Not only that, they could carp at governments for not implementing fiscal stimulus and the intelligentsia all agreed!

But if this vaccine really is the difference maker, and people return to some semblance of their pre-covid activities, suddenly, central bank largesse may no longer be needed.  And if they continue their current policies and inflation starts to really pick up, they will be the ones being lambasted for their actions or delayed reactions.  While it is very early day(s) in this new story, it is the first time since before the financial crisis where central bankers may find themselves the targets of wrath, rather than the saviors of the world.  (People wonder whether Chairman Powell will be reappointed; quite frankly he may not want the job!)

With all that in mind, how have markets behaved since the news hit the tape?  Yesterday’s equity market performance was quite interesting, as the early euphoria (DOW 29933) reversed and stocks wound up closing much lower, with the NASDAQ actually falling 1.5% on the day.  There was also a huge rotation from the previous winners (Mega cap tech companies) into the previous losers (value and transportation stocks).  Asia followed suit with a mixed session (Nikkei +0.25%, Hang Seng +1.1%, Shanghai -0.5%) and Europe has also lacked some direction.  For instance, the DAX is unchanged on the day while the CAC has rallied 1.1% despite horrific IP and Labor data.  Spain is much firmer (+2.2%) and Italy has fallen (-0.25%).  In other words, this is not a vaccine driven market, rather it has to do with some pretty lousy data out of Europe.  The US dichotomy continues with DOW futures higher by 0.6%, SPX futures basically unchanged and NASDAQ futures lower by -1.6%. Perhaps there was a bubble in some of those stocks after all.

Bond markets continue to sell off everywhere, except Greece, as the narrative here is quite clear; vaccine => rebounding economic growth => less central bank policy ease => higher rates.  So, this morning 10-year Treasury yields are up to 0.94%, 2 basis points higher than yesterday after a 10-basis point rise yesterday.  But we are seeing yields higher between 1 and 3 basis points throughout Europe as well.  The question to ask is, Is the ‘new vaccine makes everything better’ narrative realistic or overdone, and just how long before economic activity actually starts to rebound?

Finally, the dollar can only be described as mixed, but leaning stronger.  Ignoring TRY (-2.0%) which is what we should always be doing, the EMG markets have more losers than winners with ZAR (-0.7%) and PLN (-0.6%) leading the way.  On the flip side, THB (+0.5%) and CNY (+0.3%) are both performing reasonably well.  If anything, it is hard to cobble together a consistent story as to why any of these currencies are moving in their current direction given the inconsistencies.

As to the G10 space, there have been two gainers of note, GBP (+0.65%) and NOK (+0.5%), with only CHF (-0.3%) showing any real weakness.  The rest of the bloc is little changed overall.  NOK is benefitting from the ongoing rally in oil prices, up another 1.5% this morning, which takes the move since Thursday to a 5% gain.  As to the pound, comments from the BOE’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane yesterday seemed to change the market’s view as to the possibility of negative rates in the future.  By calling the vaccine a “game changer” he implied future central bank actions were likely to be less aggressive.

On the data front, the NFIB Small Business indicator was released right on expectations of 104.0.  Beyond that, we only see the JOLT’s Job Openings data, but that is for September, so has very limited appeal in a market that is seeing massive changes daily.  As mentioned above, Eurozone data was generally lousy, with both French (-6.0% Y/Y) and Italian (-5.1% Y/Y) Industrial Production disappointing and French Unemployment rising to 9.0%, its highest level since 2018.  As well, German ZEW Surveys were quite weak, with Expectations falling to 39.0, far lower than expected.

And so we have a market that needs to look through worsening recent data to the potential for a dramatic change regarding the vaccine and its ability to help economic activity find a new normal.  My view is we have seen significant excesses in many markets during the past several months and years, and there is every chance a significant amount gets unwound.  I do believe volatility will remain with us for a while, as there are many possible outcomes.  But in the end, while the dollar will have bouts of both strength and weakness, the one thing that will not happen is a collapse.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Growth Has Now Faltered

The working assumption had been
That governments soon would begin
To lift their restrictions
Across jurisdictions
From Lisbon to well past Berlin
 
But Covid had other designs
By spreading, despite strict guidelines
So, growth has now faltered
And views have been altered
Regarding recovery times
 
Remember how smug so many publications around the world seemed when comparing the spread of Covid in the US and throughout Europe?  The narrative was that despite a devastating first wave in Italy and Spain, nations on the Continent handled the situation significantly better than the chaos occurring in the US.  Much was blamed on the different types of healthcare systems, and of course, there was significant opprobrium set aside for the US president. But a funny thing has happened to that narrative lately, and it was reinforced this morning by the preliminary PMI data that was released.  Suddenly, the growth in Covid cases throughout Europe is expanding to what seems very much like a true second wave, with France and Spain leading the way, each reporting more than 10,000 cases yesterday, while in the US, we continue to see a true flattening of the curve.  The discussion in many European countries is whether or not to impose a second lockdown, as governments there try to decide if their economies and budgets can withstand such an outcome.  (I don’t envy them their choice as no matter the outcome, some people will suffer and scream loudly about the decision.)
 
But a funny thing seems to be happening within economies, despite this government wariness to act, people are making the decisions for themselves.  And so, service businesses are seeing real declines in activity as people naturally avoid restaurants, travel and entertainment companies.  And that’s just what the data shows.  PMI Services surveys showed significantly worse outcomes in France (47.5 vs. 51.5 expected), Germany (49.1 vs. 53.0) and the Eurozone as a whole (47.6 vs. 50.6).  In other words, it appears that people are pretty good at self-preservation, and will not put themselves knowingly at risk without a good reason.  Getting a pint at the local pub is clearly not a good enough reason.
 
For elected policymakers, however, this is the worst of all worlds.  Not only does economic activity contract, for which they will be blamed, but they are not making the decisions for the people, which appears to be their primary motivation in so many cases.  Of course, there is a class of policymakers to whom this outcome is seen as a pure benefit…central bankers.  It is this group who gets to continue to preen about all they have done to support the markets economy, and while the Fintwit community blasts them regularly, the bulk of the population sees them as saviors.  Central banking continues to be a pretty good gig.  Lots of power, no responsibility.
 
Meanwhile, the investment community, including those blasting the central bankers on Fintwit, continue to take advantage of the ongoing central bank largesse and pump asset prices ever higher.  While there was a very short correction back at the beginning of the month, now that merely seems like a bad dream.  And if the data continues to turn lower, the one thing we know is that central banks will step further on the accelerator, announcing greater asset purchase programs, and potentially dragging a few more countries (is the UK next?) into the negative rate world.
 
But that is the world in which we live, whether or not we like it, or agree with the policies.  And as our focus is on markets, we need to be able to describe them and try to understand the evolving trends.  Today, and really this week, that trend continues to see the dollar grind higher despite the fact that we have seen both up and down equity market activity.  In other words, this does not appear to be simply a risk-off related USD rally.  Rather, this appears to be a USD rally built on short-term economic fundamentals.  Remember, FX is a relative game, and even if things in the US are not great, if they are perceived as better than elsewhere, that is sufficient to help drive the value of the dollar higher.  One other thing to note regarding the current market activity is that the hysteria over the dollar’s ‘imminent collapse’, which was all the rage throughout the summer, seems to have completely disappeared. 
 
So, turning to this morning’s session, we find equity markets in the green around the world.  Yesterday’s US rally was followed by a fairly dull Asian session (Nikkei -0.1%, Hang Seng +0.1%) but Europe has really exploded higher.  It seems that the weakening economic data has convinced investors the ECB will be even more active in their policy mix, thus adding more support to equity markets there.  Hence today’s gains (DAX +1.6%, CAC +1.8%, FTSE 100 +2.3%) are a direct response to the weaker data.  It appears we are in the bad news is good phase for investors.  Not to worry, US futures are also pointing higher, albeit not quite as aggressively as we are seeing in Europe.
 
Bond markets remain somnolent as 10-year Treasury yields are at 0.675%, essentially unchanged from yesterday and right in the middle of the tiny 7 basis point range we have seen since September 1st.  (For those of you who were disappointed the Fed did not announce yield curve control, the reason is that they already have it, there is no need to announce it!)  At the same time, German bunds are unchanged on the day, and also mired within a fairly tight, 10bp range.  But the ongoing winners are Italy and Greece, who have seen their 10-year yields decline by 2 and 3 basis points, respectively today, with Italy’s down more than 25 basis points since the beginning of the month.
 
The strong dollar is having a deleterious impact in one market, gold, which has fallen 0.4% today and is now lower by nearly 10% from the highs seen in early August.  The driving forces of the rally remain in place, with real rates still under pressure and inflation still percolating, but it was a very overcrowded trade that seems to be getting unwound lately.
 
Finally, a look at the dollar vs. its G10 brethren shows that commodity currencies are the worst performers today with AUD and NZD both lower by -0.6%, while NOK (-0.5%) and CAD (-0.2%) complete the list.  However, at this hour, the entire bloc is softer vs. the dollar.  In the emerging markets, one needn’t be prescient to have guessed that MXN (-0.85%) and ZAR (-0.75%) are the leading decliners given the combination of their recent volatility and connection to commodity prices.  RUB (-0.6%) is also a leading decliner, suffering from the commodity market malaise, but frankly, APAC and CE4 currencies are also somewhat softer this morning.  This is all about USD strength though, not specific currency story weakness.
 
On the data front, yesterday’s Existing Home Sales were right on the button at 6.0M, as I mentioned, the highest reading since the middle of 2007.  Today the only thing to see is Markit’s US PMI data, expected to print at 53.5 for Manufacturing and 54.5 for Services.  Given the European readings, it will be quite interesting to see if the same pattern is evolving here.
 
Yesterday we also heard from Chairman Powell, but all he said was that the Fed has plenty of ammo and has done a great job, but things would be better if Congress passed another fiscal stimulus bill.  No surprises there.
 
This morning’s USD strength, while broad-based, is shallow.  Perhaps the biggest thing working in the dollar’s favor right now is the size of the short-USD positioning and the fact that recent price action is starting to warm up the technicians for a more sustained move higher.  I think that trend remains but believe we will need to see some real confirmational data to help it extend.
 
Good luck and stay safe
Adf
 
 

Stocks Dare Not Wane

Can someone, to me, please explain
The reason that stocks dare not wane?
If this is to be
Then how come we see
Both silver and gold, new heights gain?

It seems like the narrative is becoming more difficult to explain these days. On the one hand, risk appetite appears to be gaining as evidenced by the ongoing rally in equity markets, the continued rebound in oil prices and the dollar’s steady decline. The rationale continues to be one where hope springs eternal for the elusive Covid vaccine and that fiscal stimulus will continue to be pumped into the global economy until said vaccine arrives driving a V-shaped recovery. Meanwhile, paying for that fiscal stimulus will be global central banks, who are printing money as quickly as possible in order to mop up all the newly issued bonds. (I would wager that the ECB will purchase at least 50% of the new EU bonds when they are finally issued.)

The potential flaw in this theory is the price behavior of haven assets, notably gold, silver and Treasuries, all of which have continued to rally right alongside risk assets. Now, it is certainly possible that the continuous flood of new money into the global economy has simply resulted in all assets rising in price, including the haven assets, but it would be a mistake to ignore the signals those haven assets are flashing. For instance, 10-year Treasury yields have fallen back below 0.60% today for the first time since establishing their historic low at 0.569% in mid-April. Historically, the message of low 10-year yields has been slow growth ahead. It seems to me that doesn’t jive very well with the V-shaped recovery story that appears to be driving equity prices. Of course, the issue here could easily be that the Fed’s purchases are simply distorting the market thus removing any signaling power from 10-year yields, but they have assured us repeatedly that is not the case. Rather, their purchases are designed to insure the opposite, that the market functions normally.

Turning to precious metals, both gold and silver have been on a tear of late, with silver really turning it on in July, rising 21%, while gold has seen steady buying and is higher by 4.3% so far this month. Granted, this could simply be part of the dollar weakness effect, where a declining dollar lifts the value of all commodities. But you cannot rule out the idea that this price movement is a signal of growing concerns over the value of all fiat currencies as central banks around the world work overtime to provide liquidity to markets.

From the perspective of the narrative, it is important to accept that this time it’s different, and that these haven asset signals are merely noise in the new world order. And maybe they are. Maybe the fact that central banks around the world have added nearly $20 trillion of liquidity to global markets without corresponding economic growth is of no real concern and will not result in consequences like rising inflation or growth in inequality. Unfortunately, the one thing that we have learned during this crisis is that central banks have a single playbook regardless of the situation…print more money. Like a man with a hammer, to whom every problem looks like a nail, central bankers see a problem and respond in one way only… turn on the presses. I certainly hope the Fed et al, know what they are doing, but the evidence is that their models are no longer reflective of reality, and that is the big problem. Any model is only as good as its data, but good data doesn’t make a bad model good, in fact it is more likely to give misinformation instead.

So, let us now turn to the market’s activities this morning to see if there is anything new under the sun. While equity markets around the world are under pressure, the losses are relatively small and arguably just a reflex response to what has been a strong run for the past several sessions. Government bonds continue to rally ever so slowly in both the US and Europe, but the truly interesting things are happening in the FX world.

To start, the euro has well and truly broken out of its range, easily taking out resistance at 1.1495 during its 0.7% climb yesterday. This morning, it has added to those gains, up another 0.4% and trading at levels last seen in October 2018. Momentum is on its side and as I mentioned yesterday, I see no real resistance until at least 1.17, meaning another 1.0%-2.0% is quite within reason. At this stage, there doesn’t need to be a narrative, just the acceptance that the current trend is strong. But yesterday saw the entire G10 space rally, led by AUD (+1.6%) and NOK (+1.3%) with the former benefitting from a serious short squeeze while the latter had oil to thank for its gains. But even the yen (+0.45% yesterday) showed real strength, despite no concern about risk.

But the real story was in the EMG space, where virtually the entire bloc was firmer, although none so impressively as BRL, which rocketed 3.1% during the day. It seems that a combination of general positivity from the EU’s announced deal and the specifics of the introduction of the long-awaited new tax reform by the Bolsonaro administration were enough to get the juices flowing. Technically, it appears that barring any significant negative news, this could continue until USDBRL tests 5.00, or even the 4.85 lows seen in mid-June.

But the entire EMG bloc was on fire, with the CE4 far outperforming the euro (CZK +1.95%, HUF +1.90%, PLN +1.6%) but also strength elsewhere in LATAM (CLP +1.75%, COP +0.75%). In fact, APAC currencies were the laggards, although most of them did rise modestly. This morning’s price action has been a bit more muted, although we have seen IDR (+0.6%) halt what has been an impressive weakening trend. It seems that a local company is planning to move into Covid vaccine trials next month which has encouraged optimists to believe the second wave of infections there may be addressed soon.

Arguably, the one truly interesting thing today is the weakness in CNY (-0.2%) which seems to be a response to the story that the US has closed the Chinese consulate in Houston. The Chinese are now threatening to close the US consulate in Wuhan (who would want to work in that office anyway?) with the real concern that the ongoing cold war between the two nations shows no signs of abating. In fact, if you want a rationale for owning haven assets, this situation offers plenty of scope.

Turning to the data today, we get our first from the US in the form of Existing Home Sales (exp 4.75M) which would represent a 21% gain from last month. Of course, the level remains far below the pre-Covid situation where 5.5M was the norm for more than 5 years. The Fed remains in its quiet period as the market will eventually turn their attention to next Wednesday’s meeting, but for now, the market doesn’t need any further impetus. The story is the dollar is falling and risk is to be acquired. While the latter idea might be a little bit of a concern, the former, a weaker dollar, seems a fait accompli for now.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

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
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