Truly Surreal

Said Lagarde, now are options are few
To complete what you’ve asked us to do
Though growth is “resilient”
It’s clearly not brilliant
And we’ve no more tools in the queue

Meanwhile tales from China reveal
The pain they’re beginning to feel
As tariffs they cut
And more ports are shut
Life there now is truly surreal

Poor Christine Lagarde. Amidst great pomp and circumstance she is named President of the ECB, clearly a step up from Managing Director of the IMF, but finds when she finally sits down that there is precious little to do in the job. Signor Draghi created and used all the tools the institution had in his effort to carry out its mission of achieving an inflation rate of “close to, but below 2.0%”. And he failed dismally in reaching that goal. In fairness, he did save the euro from collapse in 2012 with his famous “whatever it takes” remark, and arguably that saved the ECB from complete irrelevance. (After all, if the euro broke up, what would have been the purpose of maintaining a Eurozone central bank?) But in the end, the Eurozone continues to muddle through with desultory growth and almost no inflation impulse whatsoever. And Madame Lagarde is reduced to giving speeches exhorting governments to spend more money, while an army of economics PhD’s tries to come up with some other way to make the ECB relevant.

This morning this problem was on full display as she explained, yet again, to the European Parliament that the ECB has limited scope to act given the current policy stance. Yet it seems that despite the easiest monetary policy in its history, the positive impact is still missing. This was made clear when Germany reported that Factory Orders for December fell 2.1%, taking the annual decline to -8.7%, its lowest level since the financial crisis in 2009. Fortunately for European equity investors, things like economic growth no longer matter to equity markets, but for the poor folks of Germany, the future continues to look pretty grim. The euro, which had initially edged up by 0.15% ahead of the data release on this broader optimism, has since turned tail and given up those modest gains to sit right on the 1.10 level, unchanged on the day.

The thing is, in the short run, the economic fundamentals seem to point to the dollar continuing its recent strength, although longer term, as long as the Fed continues with QE, I expect the dollar to decline. But the market technicians are looking hard at this 1.0950-1.1000 level as critical support for the single currency, with a break of 1.0950 likely to open the door to a move to, and through, October’s lows of 1.0865.

But while things in Europe may not be looking that great, fortunately the rest of the world has decided that the coronavirus is no longer a relevant issue for investors and equity markets, and thus risk appetite, worldwide continue to make new highs. Yes, the number of confirmed deaths has risen to 562 and the number of infections has grown past 28,000, but the narrative is now incorporating a possible breakthrough in a treatment and vaccine to stop this infection in its tracks. And that would be extraordinary given the usual amount of time it takes to find, and test a cure for some disease.

Meanwhile, as more and more countries restrict travel to and from China, President Xi Jinping gets angrier and angrier that they are fomenting panic. Arguably, they are trying to prevent said panic, but I’m sure that is cold comfort for the Chinese. Of more importance economically is the fact that CNOOC, one of China’s major oil companies, declared force majeure to break a contract to take in a LNG cargo. It seems that the virus has led to a situation where there aren’t enough people available to work the LNG terminals, so there is nothing they can do with the gas. Again, my view is the market is taking this outbreak less seriously than it should, but of course, my view incorporates the idea that central banks cannot prop things up forever.

But for the time being, my view remains in the minority. Equity markets around the world continue to rally sharply, especially after China announced they would be cutting tariffs in half on $75 billion worth of imports as they attempt to live up to the phase one deal. Asian markets led the way overnight (Nikkei +2.4%, Hang Seng +2.6%, Shanghai +1.7%) and European markets didn’t want to miss out with both the CAC and DAX higher by 0.7% this morning while the UK’s FTSE 100 is up 0.4%. And US futures are pointing in the same direction, each up between 0.3% and 0.4%. In fairness, we did see much better than expected data yesterday here in NY, with ADP Employment blowing out at 291K while ISM Non-Manufacturing printed a better than expected 55.5.

All this has led to a growing risk appetite in the FX markets as well as equities. Last night’s best performer was KRW, rallying 1.0% as traders and investors have taken to heart the worst of the coronavirus fears are behind us and Chinese growth should rebound and help South Korea accordingly. Away from the won, however, there has been less movement in the EMG space, with an interesting mix of gainers and losers. It appears THB is suffering from yesterday’s rate cut today, having fallen 0.4%, but despite oil’s continued rebound, the RUB is weaker today by 0.3%. On the plus side, it seems commodity exporters BRL and IDR are the other big winners, rallying 0.5% and 0.4% respectively.

In the G10, the pound is the only currency that has moved more than 0.1% today, falling 0.25%, as talk about the difficulties of the UK-EU trade negotiations continue to garner attention. Otherwise, nada.

This morning’s data brings Initial Claims (exp 215K), Nonfarm Productivity (1.6%) and Unit Labor Costs (1.3%) none of which are likely to excite, especially with tomorrow’s payroll data on the horizon. Instead, FX remains beholden to the broad risk sentiment, which implies higher yield currencies should continue to do well, while those with low rates are likely to suffer.

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

Investors Remain Unconcerned

There once was a time in the past
When market bears quickly amassed
Positions quite short
While they would exhort
Investors, their holdings, to cast

But these days the story has turned
So bears that go short now get burned
A global pandemic?
It’s just academic
Investors remain unconcerned

One has to be impressed with the current frame of mind of global investors as they clearly feel bulletproof. Or perhaps, one has to be impressed with the job that central bankers around the world have done to allow those feelings to exist.

The coronavirus is quickly becoming back page news, where there will be a tally of cases and deaths daily, morphing into weekly, as the investment community turns its attention to much more important things, like how many new streaming customers each of the streaming services picked up in Q4. It seems the fact that China’s economy is going to feel some extreme pain in Q1 is being completely dismissed. At least from the market’s perspective. And this is where the central banks get to take a bow. It turns out that overwhelming liquidity support is all one needs to make people forget about everything else. It is truly the opioid of the market masses.

So as you sit down this morning you will see that equity markets around the world are on a tear higher, with every market that has been open today in the green, most by well more than 1%. And don’t worry; US futures are all more than 1% higher as well. Everything is clearly fantastic!

Last night, the PBOC fixed the renminbi more than 0.5% stronger than the market would have indicated, thus demonstrating they would not let things get out of hand. Then after a weak opening, where equity indices there fell more than 2%, the government stepped in along with official buyers and turned the tide higher. Once this occurred, equity markets elsewhere in Asia took their cues and everything rallied. Risk was no longer anathema and we have seen that across all assets as havens come under pressure and other risk assets, notably oil has rebounded. The lifecycle of a negative event has grown increasingly shorter as central banks continue to demonstrate their willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to prevent a sell-off of any magnitude in any equity market.

This is not just a US phenomenon, but a global one. To me the question is: Is this peak financialization of the global economy? By that I mean are we now in a period where the real economy, the one where cars and other stuff are manufactured and food is grown, has become completely secondary to the idea that companies that do those things need to be entirely focused on their capital structure to be sure that they are appropriately overleveraged? While I recognize that I am old-fashioned in my thoughts, I cannot help but believe that we are going to see a pretty significant repricing of assets at some point in the not too distant future. In truth, despite the market’s insouciance with regard to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it is entirely possible that it continues to expand for several more months and that China, the second largest economy in the world and one representing 16% of total global economic activity, does not grow at all in Q1 while supply chains are closed and manufacturing around the world grinds to a much slower pace. Many recessions have been born of less than that. Just remember, trees don’t grow all the way to the sky, and neither do economies!

So let’s turn back to the other things ongoing in this morning’s session. Broadly speaking, the dollar is under modest pressure along with Treasury bonds and the Japanese yen. After all, safe havens do not boost your returns when Tesla is rallying 20% a day! There has been limited data today (Italian CPI +0.5% Y/Y) so FX markets are watching equities. Yesterday saw a big surprise in the US ISM data, which printed above 50 for the first time since July and has a number of analysts reconsidering their forecasts for slowing growth. The dollar definitely responded to this yesterday, rallying across the board as Fed funds futures backed off taking the probability of a rate cut by the Fed in July down to 85%. Remember, Friday that was at 100%.

Yesterday also saw the pound suffer significantly as the initial saber rattling by both the UK and the EU continued, which helped push the pound back to its key support level of 1.2950-1.3000. But as I said yesterday, this is simply both sides trying to get an advantage in the negotiation. While anything is possible, I continue to believe that a deal will be reached, or at the very least that a delay agreed on a timely basis. Boris is not going to jeopardize his power on this principle, remember he’s a politician first, and principles for them are fluid.

In the EMG bloc, pretty much every currency has rallied today as investors have quickly returned to those currencies with either higher yields (ZAR +0.6%, MXN +0.5%) or the best prospects assuming the coronavirus situation quickly dissipates (KRW +0.6%, CLP +0.6%, THB +0.5%). And in truth, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

In the US this morning we see December Factory Orders (exp 1.2%), generally not a major data point. There are no Fed speakers scheduled today which means that FX is going to be a secondary story. All eyes will be on equity markets and I expect that as risk assets are acquired, the dollar (and yen and Swiss franc) will continue to soften slowly.

Good luck
Adf

Despite Cash

In China the stock market sank
Despite cash from its central bank
But elsewhere it seems
The narrative deems
Investors, the Kool-Aid, have drank

So, it can be no surprise that after a one and a half week hiatus, the Chinese equity markets sold off dramatically (Shanghai -7.8%) when they reopened last night. After all, equity markets elsewhere in the world had all been under pressure for the entire time as the novel coronavirus spread seemed to accelerate. Of course, since Chinese markets closed for the Lunar New Year holiday, major global markets in the west had fallen only between 3.5% and 4.0%. But given China is the country whose economy will be most impacted, the ratio doesn’t seem wrong.

What we learned over the weekend, though, is that the acceleration has not yet begun to slow down. The latest data shows over 17,000 infected and over 300 deaths are now attributable to this illness. Most epidemiological models indicate that we have not reached the peak, and that it would not be surprising to see upwards of a quarter of a million cases within the next month or two. Remember too, this assumes that the information coming from China is accurate, which given the global reaction to the situation, may be a big ask. After all, I’m pretty sure President Xi Jinping does not want to be remembered as the leader of China when it unleashed a global pandemic. You can be sure that there will be a lot of finger-pointing in China for the rest of 2020, as some heads will need to roll in order to placate the masses, or at least to placate Xi.

But in what has been a classic case of ‘sell the rumor, buy the news’, equity markets in the rest of the world seem to have gotten over their collective fears as we see modest strength throughout Europe (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.2% FTSE +0.4%) and US futures are all pointing higher as well. So at this point in time, it appears that the market’s modest correction last week is seen as sufficient to adjust for what will certainly be weaker growth globally, at least in Q1 2020. Something tells me that there is further repricing to be seen, but for now, the default belief is that the Fed and other central banks will do “whatever it takes” as Signor Draghi once said, to prevent an equity market collapse. And that means that selling risk would be a mistake.

With that as prelude, let’s turn our attention to what is happening away from the virus. The biggest FX mover overnight has been the pound, which has fallen 1.1% after tough talk from both PM Boris Johnson and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. The market’s concern seems to be that there will be no agreement reached and thus come December, we will have a Brexit redux. I am strongly in the camp that this is just posturing and that come June, when the decision for an extension must be made, it will be done under the guise of technical aspects, and that a deal will be reached. Neither side can afford to not reach a deal. In fact, one of the key discussion points in Europe this morning is the fact that the EU now has a €6 billion hole in its budget and there is nobody able to fill the gap.

On the data front, Eurozone Manufacturing PMI data was modestly better than forecast, with the bloc-wide number at 47.9, still contractionary, but Italy, France and Germany all edging higher by a tenth or two. However, despite the modestly better data and the modest uptick in equity markets, the single currency is under some pressure this morning, down 0.25%, as the market adjusts its outlook for Fed activity. It remains pretty clear that the ECB is already doing everything it can, so the question becomes will the Fed ease more aggressively as we go forward, especially if we start to see weaker data on the back of the coronavirus situation. Friday’s market activity saw futures traders reprice their expectations for Fed rate cuts, with the first cut now priced for July and a second for December. And that rate change was what undermined the dollar during Friday’s session, as it suddenly appeared that the US would be stepping on the monetary accelerator. In fairness, if the quarantine in China continues through the end of Q1, a quick Fed rate cut seems pretty likely. We shall see how things evolve. However, this morning sees a bit less fear all over, and so less need for Fed action.

The other main mover in the G10 was NOK (-0.7%), which given how much oil prices have suffered, seems quite reasonable. There is a story that Chinese oil demand has fallen 20% since the outbreak, as the combination of factory closures and quarantines reducing vehicle traffic has taken its toll. In fact, OPEC is openly discussing a significant production cut to try to rebalance markets, although other than the Saudis, it seems unlikely other producers will join in. But away from those currencies, the G10 space is in observation mode.

In the emerging markets, it should be no surprise that CNY is much weaker, falling 1.1% on-shore (catching up to the offshore CNH) and trading below (dollar above) 7.00. Again, that seems pretty appropriate given the situation, and its future will depend on just how big a hit the economy there takes. Surprisingly, the big winner today is ZAR, which has rebounded 1.0% after Friday’s sharp decline which took the currency through the 15.0 level for the first time since October. In truth, this feels more like a simple reaction to Friday’s movement than to something new. If anything, this morning’s PMI data from South Africa was much worse than expected at 45.2, which would have seemingly undermined the currency, not bolstered it.

On the data front, this week will be quite active as we see the latest payroll data on Friday, and a significant amount of new data between now and then.

Today ISM Manufacturing 48.5
  ISM Prices Paid 51.5
  Construction Spending 0.5%
Tuesday Factory Orders 1.2%
Wednesday ADP Employment 158K
  Trade Balance -$48.2B
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 55.1
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Unit Labor Costs 1.2%
  Nonfarm Productivity 1.6%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 160K
  Private Payrolls 150K
  Manufacturing Payrolls -4K
  Unemployment Rate 3.5%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.3
  Participation Rate 63.2%
  Consumer Credit $15.0B

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, all eyes will be on the payrolls on Friday, although the ISM data will garner a great deal of attention as well. Last Friday’s core PCE data was right on the screws, so the Friday rate movement was all about coronavirus. With the FOMC meeting behind us, we get back to a number of Fed speakers, although this week only brings four. Something tells me there will be a lot of discussion regarding how they will respond to scenarios regarding China and the virus.

In the end, short term price action is going to be all about the virus and its perceived impact on the global economy. Any indication that the outbreak is slowing down will result in an immediate risk grab-a-thon. If it gets worse, look for havens to get bid up quickly.

Good luck
Adf

Leavers Cheer

The Governor, in his last meeting
Said data, of late, stopped retreating
There’s no reason why
We need to apply
A rate cut as my term’s completing

Yet all the news hasn’t been great
As Eurozone stats demonstrate
Plus Brexit is here
And though Leavers cheer
The impact, growth, will constipate

Yesterday saw a surprising outcome from the BOE, as the 7-2 vote to leave rates on hold was seen as quite a bit more hawkish than expected. The pound benefitted immensely, jumping a penny (0.65%) in the moments right (before) and after the announcement and has maintained those gains ever since. In fact, this morning’s UK data, showing growth in Consumer Credit and Mortgage Approvals, has helped it further its gains, and the pound is now higher by 0.2% this morning. (As to the ‘before’ remark; apparently, the pound jumped 15 seconds prior to the release of the data implying that there may have been a leak of the news ahead of time. Investigations are ongoing.) In the end, despite the early January comments by Carney and two of his comrades regarding the need for more stimulus, it appears the recent data was sufficient to convince them that further stimulus was just not necessary.

Of course, that pales in comparison, at least historically, with today’s activity, when at 11:00pm GMT, the UK will leave the EU. With Brexit finally completed all the attention will turn to the UK’s efforts to redefine its trading relationship with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the question at hand is whether UK growth will benefit in the short-term, or if we have already seen the release of any pent-up demand that was awaiting this event.

What we do know is that Q4 was not kind to the Continent. Both France (-0.1%) and Italy (-0.3%) saw their economies shrink unexpectedly, and though Spain (+0.5%) continues to perform reasonably well, the outcome across the entire Eurozone was the desultory result of 0.1% GDP growth in Q4, and just 1.0% for all of 2019. Compare that with the US outcome of 2.1% and it is easy to see why the euro has had so much difficulty gaining any ground. It is also easy to see why any thoughts of tighter ECB policy in the wake of their ongoing review make no sense at all. Whatever damage negative rates are doing to the Eurozone economies, especially to banks, insurance companies and pensions, the current macroeconomic playbook offers no other alternatives. Interestingly, despite the soft data, the euro has held its own, and is actually rallying slightly as I type, up 0.1% on the day.

It may not seem to make sense that we see weak Eurozone data and the euro rallies, but I think the explanation lies on the US side of the equation. The ongoing aftermath of the FOMC meeting is that analysts are becoming increasingly dovish regarding their views of future Fed activity. It seems that, upon reflection, Chairman Powell has effectively promised to ease policy further and maintain a more dovish overall policy as the Fed goes into overdrive in their attempts to achieve the elusive 2.0% inflation target. I have literally seen at least six different analyses explaining that the very modest change in the statement, combined with Powell’s press conference make it a lock that ‘lower for longer’ is going to become ‘lower forever’. Certainly the Treasury market is on board as 10-year yields have fallen to 1.55%, a more than 40bp decline this month. And this is happening while equity markets have stabilized after a few days of serious concern regarding the ongoing coronavirus issue.

Currently, the futures market is pricing for a rate cut to happen by September, but with the Fed’s policy review due to be completed in June, I would look for a cut to accompany the report as they try to goose things further.

Tacking back to the coronavirus, the data continues to get worse with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. The WHO finally figured out it is a global health emergency, and announced as much yesterday afternoon. But I fear that the numbers will get much worse over the next several weeks. Ultimately, the huge unknown is just how big an economic impact this will have on China, and the rest of the world. With the Chinese government continuing to delay the resumption of business, all those global supply chains are going to come under increasing pressure. Products built in China may not be showing up on your local store’s shelves for a while. The market response has been to drive the prices of most commodities lower, as China is the world’s largest commodity consumer. But Chinese stock markets have been closed since January 23, and are due to open Monday. Given the price action we have seen throughout the rest of Asia when markets reopened, I expect that we could see a significant downdraft there, at least in the morning before the government decides too big a decline is bad optics. And on the growth front, initial estimates are for Q1 GDP in China to fall to between 3.0% and 4.0%, although the longer this situation exists, the lower those estimates will fall.

Turning to this morning’s activity, we see important US data as follows:

Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 0.3%
Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
Chicago PMI 48.9
Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg

Arguably, the PCE number is the most important as that is what is plugged into Fed models. Yesterday’s GDP data also produces a PCE-type deflator and it actually fell to 1.3%. If we see anything like that you can be certain that bonds will rally further, stocks will rally, and rate cut probabilities will rise. And the dollar? In that scenario, look for the dollar to fall across the board. But absent that type of data, the dollar is likely to continue to take its cues from the equity markets, which at the moment are looking at a lower opening following in Europe’s footsteps. Ultimately, if risk continues to be jettisoned, the dollar should find its footing.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

Another Cut’s Quite Apropos

The Chair said, ‘inflation’s too low
And there’s something you all need to know
Lest prices soon rise
We’ll not compromise
Thus another cut’s quite apropos

There are a number of discussion topics in the market this morning so let’s get right to it.

First the Fed surprised exactly nobody yesterday afternoon by leaving policy unchanged, (except for a ‘technical’ adjustment to IOER, which they raised by the expected 5bps). However, the talk this morning is all about the tone of the statement and the ensuing press conference. In the end, it appears that the Fed is leaning slightly more dovish than they had seemed to be previously, with a still greater focus on inflation. Powell and friends appear to be increasingly concerned that inflation expectations are still declining, and are terrified of an ultimate outcome similar to the past two decades in Japan. As such, it appears they are getting set to move from an inflation target to a price level target. This means that if inflation runs below target for a period of time, as it has been doing ever since it was officially announced in 2012, they will be comfortable allowing it to run above target in order to make up ground. The conclusion is that the bar to raising rates is now impossibly high, at least assuming prices don’t follow the lead of Argentina or Venezuela. And if anything, especially with the impact of the coronavirus still just being discussed and modeled, the likelihood is for more rate cuts before the end of the year.

Speaking of the coronavirus, the WHO has suddenly figured out what the rest of the world has known for a week, this is a serious problem that is spreading quickly. The death toll is over 170 and the number of cases is quickly approaching 8000. The economic impact is growing as more and more companies halt activity in China, more flights are canceled to and from all cities in China, and fear spreads further. Last night, Taiwan’s stock market reopened for the first time in a week and fell 5.75%. Meanwhile the Taiwan dollar fell 1.0%. And the renminbi? Well onshore markets are still closed, and will be so through Monday, at least, but the CNH traded below 7.00 (dollar higher) in London early this morning and remains within basis points of that level as NY walks in. As I wrote on Monday, this will be the best indicator of sentiment as it is the only thing that can actively trade that reflects opinions on the mainland. It should be no surprise that the other Asian equity markets that were open also fell sharply (Nikkei -1.7%, Hang Seng -3.1%, KOSPI -1.7%) as investors just don’t know what to do at this stage. Fear remains the key driver, and will continue to be until there is some sense that the infection rate is slowing down. To date, that has not been the case.

And finally, the Old Lady just announced no change in the base rate, which according to the futures market had been a 50:50 chance. The pound’s response was an immediate pop and it is now higher by 0.4% on the day, making it the best performing G10 currency. Data early in the month prompted a number of dovish comments from three BOE members, including Governor Carney himself, but the data we have seen recently has shown much more positive momentum in the wake of PM Johnson’s December electoral victory. Clearly, a number of fears have receded and tomorrow is the big day, when the UK officially leaves the EU. The EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal, as the UK’s Parliament did last week. So the UK has reclaimed its total sovereignty and now must make its own way in the world. As I have said all along, while there is a risk that no trade deal is agreed by year end, I think the odds are vanishingly small that Boris will risk his current political strength by pushing things to that level. Come summer, a short delay will be agreed and eventually a deal will be signed. Meanwhile, the US will be seeking a deal as well. Overall, I like the pound throughout the year on the twin features of an increasingly weaker USD (QE related) and the positivity of the situation on the ground there.

And those are the three big stories of the morning. We did get some data, notably the German employment report which showed the Unemployment Rate remained unchanged at 5.0%, while the number of people unemployed fell by…2k. This was better than the expected 5k increase in unemployment, but can we step back for a moment and consider what this actually means. Do you know how many people are employed in Germany? I didn’t think so. But the answer is 41.73 million. So, this morning’s data, showing a net change of 7k vs. expectations represents exactly a 0.0167% improvement. In other words, IT DOESN’T MATTER. And I think we need to consider this issue on a regular basis. So much is made of a number being better or worse than expected when most of the time it is well within the margin of error of any estimate. Nonetheless, the euro has edged higher this morning, by just 0.15%, but my goodness it has been stable of late. And quite frankly, in the short term, barring a massive uptick in coronavirus cases which changes broad risk sentiment, I see no reason for it to do much. Ultimately, I still like the single currency to edge higher throughout the year on the back of my weaker dollar call.

This morning brings two more data points in the US, with Initial Claims (exp 215K) and Q4 GDP (2.0%) released at 8:30. However, unless the GDP number is significantly different from expectations, the market focus will remain on the coronavirus issue. Equity markets in Europe are under pressure (DAX -1.1%, CAC -1.4%) and US futures are pointing in the same direction, with all 3 indices leaning about 0.75% lower. Meanwhile, Treasury yields continue to fall with the 10-year now at 1.56%, its lowest level in three months. With no Fed speakers on the docket, today is a risk day, and that arrow is pointing lower. Look for EMG currencies to suffer, while the yen benefits.

Good luck
Adf

Just Look What You’ve Wrought!

On Monday it seems we all thought
That crises were sold and not bought
On Tuesday we learned
Those sellers got burned
Chair Powell; just look what you’ve wrought!

hubris: noun
hu·bris | \’hyü-brƏs \
Definition of hubris : exaggerated pride or self-confidence
Example of hubris in a sentence
//It takes remarkable hubris to survey the ongoing situation regarding the 2019-nCoV virus and decide that Monday’s 1.5% decline in the S&P 500 was a buy signal.

I saw a note on Twitter this morning that really crystalized the current market condition. All prices are based on flow, not value. It is a fool’s errand to try to determine what the underlying value of any financial asset is these days, as it has no relevance regarding the price of that asset. This is most evident in the equity markets, but is equally true in the currency markets as well. So for all of us who are trying to determine what possible future paths are for market movements, the primary focus should be on how favored they are, for whatever reason, compared to the rest of the investment universe. In fact, this is the key outcome of the financialization of the global economy. And while this is just fine, maybe even great, when flows are driving equity prices, and other assets, higher, it will be orders of magnitude worse going the other way.

But the bigger issue is the financialization of the economy. Prior to the financial crisis and recession of 2008-2009, there seemed to be a reasonable balance between finance and production within the global economy. In other words, financial questions represented a minority of the impact on how companies were managed and on how much of anything was produced. This balance, which I would have put at 80% production / 20% finance, give or take a nickel, was what underpinned the entire economics profession. Finance was simply a relatively small part of every productive endeavor with the goal of insuring production could continue.

But in the wake of that recession, the fear of allowing massively overpriced markets to actually clear resulted in central banks stepping in and essentially taking over. The initial corporate reaction was to take advantage of the remarkably low interest rates and refinance their businesses completely. The problem was that since markets never cleared, there was still a dearth of demand on an overall basis. This is what led to a decade of subpar growth. Remember, the average annual GDP growth in the decade following the GFC was about 1.5%, well below the previous decade’s 3.0%. At the same time, the ongoing shortening of attention spans, especially for investors, forced corporate management to figure out how to make more money. Unfortunately, the fact that slow GDP growth prevented an actual increase in profits forced senior management to look elsewhere. And this is when it quickly became clear that levering up corporate balance sheets, while ZIRP and NIRP were official policy, made a great deal of sense. If a company couldn’t actually make more money, it sure could make it seem that way by issuing debt and buying back stock, thus reducing the denominator in the key metric, EPS.

And that is where we are today, in an economy that continues to grow at a much slower pace than prior to the financial crisis, but at the same time allows ongoing growth in a key metric, EPS, through financial engineering.

Which brings me back to the idea of flow. It is financial flows that determine the future paths of all assets, so the more money that is made available by the central banking community (currently about $100 billion per month of new cash), the higher the price assets will fetch. Let me say that they better not stop providing that new cash anytime soon.

With that as a (rather long) preamble, today’s market discussion is all about the Fed. This afternoon at 2:00 we will get the latest communique and then Chairman Powell will meet the press at 2:30. Current expectations are for no policy changes although there seems to be a growing view that the ongoing coronavirus situation, and its likely negative impact on Chinese/global GDP growth, will force a more dovish hue to both the statement and the press conference. Remember, the Fed is currently going through a major policy review, similar to that of the ECB, as they try to determine what tools are best to manage the economy achieve their mandated goals going forward. Given that ongoing policy review, it would take a remarkable catalyst to drive a near-term policy change, and apparently a global pandemic doesn’t rise to that standard.

Oh yeah, what about that coronavirus? Well, the death toll is now above 130, and the number of cases is touching 10,000, far more than seen in the SARS outbreak of 2003. (And I ask, if so many are skeptical of Chinese economic data, why would we believe that this data is accurate, especially as it would not reflect China in a positive light?) At any rate, while the Hang Seng fell sharply last night, its first session back since last week, the rest of the global equity market seems pretty comfortable. And hey, Apple earnings beat big time (congrats), so all is right with the world!!

What will this do to flows in the FX market? Broadly speaking, the dollar continues to see small gains vs. its G10 brethren as US rates remain the highest around. Granted Canadian rates are in the same place, but with oil’s recent decline, and growing concern over the housing bubble in Canada’s main cities, it seems like the dollar is safer to earn those rates. At the same time, many emerging markets currently carry rates that are far higher than in the US, and what we saw yesterday was significant interest in owning those currencies, especially MXN, RUB, BRL and COP, all of which gained between 0.5% and 1.0% in yesterday’s session. While those currencies have edged lower this morning, the flow story remains the key driver, and if markets maintain their hubris, the carry trade will quickly return.

On the data front, yesterday’s US Consumer Confidence number was much better than expected at 131.6. This morning we saw slightly better than expected GfK Consumer Confidence in Germany (9.9 vs. 9.6 exp) and better than expected French Consumer Confidence (104 vs 102). That is certainly a positive, but it remains to be seen if the spread of the coronavirus ultimately has a negative impact here. Ahead of the Fed, there is no important US data, so we are really in thrall to the ongoing earnings parade until Chairman Powell steps up to the mic. As to the dollar, it continues to perform well, and until the Fed, that seems likely to continue.

Good luck
Adf