Truly a Beast

The PMI data released
Showed just how fast growth has decreased
Tis services that
Have fallen so flat
This virus is truly a beast

But yesterday two bits of news
May help prevent any more blues
The Fed started things
By spreading their wings
And buying all debt that accrues

As well, in a break from the past
The Germans decided at last
To open the taps
As well as, perhaps
Support debt Italians amassed

And finally, where it began
The virus, that is, in Wuhan
Two months from their dawn
Restrictions are gone
Defining the lockdown’s lifespan

Markets have a much better tone this morning as traders and investors react to two very important responses to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The first thing that is getting a positive, albeit delayed, response is the Fed’s enactment of a series of new programs including support for CP, mortgage-backed securities, primary dealers and money market funds as well as embarking on QE Infinity, buying $75 billion of Treasuries and $50 billion of mortgage-backed securities every day this week, and then on into the future. Previous concerns about the size of the Fed’s balance sheet relative to the US economy have been completely dismissed, and you can bet that we will soon see a Fed balance sheet with $10 trillion in assets, nearly 50% as large as the economy. But the announcement, while at first not getting quite the positive impact desired, seems to be filtering through into analysis and is definitely seen in a more positive light this morning than yesterday at this time.

The second piece of news was that not only is Germany going to embark on a €750 billion spending program to help the economy, but, more importantly, they are willing to support Italy via European wide programs like the European Stability Mechanism, and even jointly issued coronaviru bonds, to prevent a further catastrophe there. In truth, that seems to be a bigger deal than the Fed, as the long-term implications are much greater and point to a real chance that the European experiment of integration could eventually work. If they move down the path to jointly issue and support debt available to all members, that is a massive change, and likely a long term positive for the single currency. We have to see if they will actually go forward, but it is the most promising structural comment in Europe in years, perhaps even since the euro was formed.

However, we cannot forget that the current reality remains harsh, and were reminded of such by this morning’s Flash PMI data, which, unsurprisingly, fell to record lows throughout Europe and the UK. Services were hit much harder than Manufacturing with readings of 29.0 in France, 34.5 in Germany, 31.4 in the Eurozone and 35.7 in the UK. Japan also released their data, which was equally dismal at 32.7 for Services PMI there. And they added to the story by releasing Department Store Sales, which fell a healthy 12.2%. Of course, everyone knows that the data is going to be awful for the time being, and since we saw China’s PMI data last month, this was expected. Granted, analysts had penciled in slightly higher numbers, but let’s face it, everybody was simply guessing. Let’s put it this way, we are going to see horrific data for at least the next month, so it will have to be extraordinarily bad to really garner a negative market reaction. This is already built into the price structure. While the US has historically looked far more closely at ISM data, to be released next week, than PMI data, we do see the US numbers later this morning, with forecasts at 42.0 for Services and 43.5 for Manufacturing.

So the data is not the driver today, which has seen a more classic risk-on framework, rather I think it is not only the absorption of the Fed and German actions, but also, perhaps, the news from Wuhan that the restrictions on travel, imposed on January 23, are being lifted, nearly two months to the day after imposition. Arguably, that defines the maximum lockdown period, although yesterday President Trump hinted that the US period will be much shorter, with 14 or 15 days mooted. If that is the case, and I would place the start date as this week, we are looking at heading back to our offices come April 6. If the Fed is successful in preventing financial institution collapse, and Congress finally passes a stimulus bill to address the massive income dislocation that is ongoing, (which they will almost certainly do in the next two days), there is every chance that while Q2 GDP will be hit hard, the panic inducing numbers of -30% GDP growth (Morgan Stanley’s forecast) or -50% GDP growth (St Louis Fed President Bullard’s forecast), will be referred to as the height of the panic. We shall see.

But taking a look at markets this morning, we see the dollar under pressure across the board, with the Norwegian krone today’s champion, rallying 5.4% as a follow on to yesterday’s reversal and ultimate 1.2% gain. But the pound has bounced 2.0% this morning along with SEK and AUD is higher by 1.7%. It is entirely possible that what we are seeing is a relief in the funding markets as the Fed’s actions have made USD available more widely around the world and reduced some of that pressure.

EMG markets are seeing similar strength in their currencies, led by MXN (+2.6%) and HUF (+2.3%), but every currency in both blocs is higher vs. the greenback today. Equity markets are all green as well, with major rallies in Asia (Nikkei +7.1%, Hang Seng +4.5%, Shanghai +2.7%) and Europe (DAX +6.25%, CAC +5.25%, FTSE 100 +4.0%) with US equity futures limit up in all three indices. Bonds, meanwhile, have sold off slightly, with yields higher in both the US and Germany by 2bps. I think given the overall backdrop, bonds are unlikely to sell off sharply anytime soon, especially given the central bank promises to buy unlimited quantities of them.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention gold, which is up 2.5% today and 6.2% since Friday’s close as investors realize that all the money printing and fiscal stimulus is likely to lead to a much different view on inflation, namely that it is going to rise in the future.

Volatility remains the watchword as 5% daily moves in the equity market, even when they are up moves, remain extremely taxing on all trading activities. Market liquidity remains suspect in most markets, with bid-ask spreads still far wider than we’ve come to expect. Forward FX spreads of 5-10 pips for dates under 1 year are not uncommon in the majors, let alone in things like MXN or BRL. Keep that in mind as you prepare for your balance sheet rolling programs later this week.

Good luck and stay safe

Has Panic Subsided?

This morning a look at the screen
Shows everything coming up green
Has panic subsided?
Or is it misguided
To think that a bottom’s been seen?

It certainly feels less frightening in markets this morning as assets of all nature, equity, commodity and fixed income, are rallying nicely and the panic buying of dollars seems to have ended for the time being. Of course, this is an interesting outcome if one reads the news, given that virus stories have not only continued apace, but the statistics and government responses are getting more draconian. Arguably, the biggest story is that the entire state of California, with its population of 40 million, has been put on lockdown, with stay-at-home restrictions imposed by the Governor. By itself, California is, famously, the fifth largest economy in the world, just ahead of the UK, so the idea that economic activity there is going to come screeching to a halt cannot be seen as a positive. At least not in the short term. In addition, virus related deaths in Italy have now surpassed those from China, and further personal restrictions are being contemplated by PM Conte in order to get a handle on the situation. Thus, the fact remains that Italy is in dire straits from an economic perspective, again at least in the short term. Yet the FTSE MIB (the main Italian stock market index) is higher by 3.8% as I type this morning.

This all begs the question, why are markets reversing course from what has been several hellacious weeks of price declines? Let’s consider a few possible reasons:

It could be that the combination of expanded central bank and government activity around the world has finally achieved a point where investors believe that apocalyptic scenarios overstate the case.

While this is possible, it seems a bit far-fetched to believe that in the course of 36 hours, investors have suddenly decided to accept all the actions, and there have been many, have done the job.

A recap of the major actions shows:
• ECB creates €750 billion PEPP as additional QE measures
• Fed extends USD swap lines to 9 additional central banks to allow USD liquidity to reach all G10 nations and several more developed EMG nations like South Korea
• Fed creates money market fund liquidity backstop to insure that CP issuance by US corporates is able to continue and companies are able to fund operations
• BOJ added ¥5.3 trillion in liquidity to markets while snapping up ¥201 billion of new ETF’s
• RBA cut rates by 0.25%, added new liquidity to markets and started a QE program to control the 3-year AGB at a rate of 0.25%

There is no question that this is an impressive list of actions put into place in very short order which demonstrates just how seriously governments are taking the Covid-19 outbreak. And this doesn’t include any of the fiscal stimulus packages which either have been enacted or are on the cusp of being so. In fact, a total of 31 central banks around the world have cut rates, added liquidity or started QE programs in the past week in order to stem the tide. (I have to add that the Danish central bank actually raised its base rate by 0.15%, to -0.60%, yesterday morning in a truly shocking move. Apparently there was growing concern that with the ongoing problems in Italy, investors were flocking to DKK from EUR and driving that cross, which the central bank uses as its monetary benchmark, strongly in favor of the krona. In this instance, strongly represents a 3.5 basis point move, which has since been reversed.) And perhaps the market is telling us, they’ve done enough. But I doubt it.

Remember, the problem is not financial at its heart, it is a medical issue and efforts to contain the virus remain only partially effective thus far. The medical news, however, continues to get worse, at least in Europe and the US, as the caseload continues to increase rapidly, as well as the death toll, and governments are imposing stricter and stricter regulations on the population. So along with California’s action, New York has mandated that no more than 25% of a company’s workforce is allowed to work at the office (at SMBC we are below 15%), while New Jersey has closed all personal service businesses, like hair salons, exercise facilities and tattoo parlors. And these are just the most recent ones that I have seen because of where I live and work. I know there are countless measures throughout the US and Europe. And all of those measures inflict significant pain on the economy.

Yesterday’s Initial Claims number jumped to 281K, significantly higher than model forecasts, but just a fraction of what we are likely to see going forward as small service businesses like restaurants and hair salons and so many others are forced to close for now and cannot afford to continue paying their staff. Hence I’ve seen estimates that we could see those numbers jump as high as 2 million! So while it is not an economic or financial condition at its heart, it is certainly having that impact.

A second thought, one which I think has more substance to it is that during the past three weeks we have seen a substantial amount of position liquidation by highly leveraged fund managers who were forced to sell assets (or cover shorts) at ANY price due to margin calls. The only way to get market movements of 5%-10% or more is to have market participants be price insensitive. In other words, sales (short covers) were mandated, not by choice. However, once those positions are closed, and the evidence is that most have been so, markets revert to price discovery in the normal fashion, with buyers and sellers putting their money to work based on views of the asset. So while there is still significant trepidation by investors, my gut tells me that we have seen the worst of the financial market activity and volatility. It will still be quite a while before things truly settle down, and there is every chance that as the economic data comes over the next weeks and months and shows just how badly things were impacted, we will see sharp market downdrafts. So I am not calling a bottom per se, but think that going forward it will be less dramatic than we have seen during the first three weeks of March.

A quick recap of this morning’s markets shows equity markets around the world higher, with many substantially so (CAC +5.1%, DAX +4.2%, Hang Seng +5.0%); government bond markets also rallying nicely with yields almost everywhere falling (Treasuries -14bps, Gilts -14bps, Bunds -9bps); commodity prices rallying virtually across the board (WTI +2.4%,Copper +1.7%, Gold +2.3%); and finally, the dollar selling off virtually universally, with some of the worst recent performers regaining the most. So KRW (+3.0%), AUD (+2.6%) and GBP (+2.3%) are all unwinding some of the excess movement we saw in the past weeks. If I am correct and the worst has passed, I expect the dollar will cede more of its recent gains. However, given my timeline of May, I expect it will be another month before we see that in any material way. So, if you are a payables hedger, these are likely to be some of the best opportunities you are going to see for quite a while. Don’t miss out!

Good luck, good weekend and please all stay safe and socially distant

Risk Assets Betray

There once was a time in the past
Ere Covid, when risk was amassed
But now every day
Risk assets betray
That fear is still growing quite fast

It is awfully hard to find the bright side of the current situation, whether discussing markets, the economy or the general state of the world. Volatility remains the watchword in markets as yesterday saw the largest US equity decline since Black Monday in October 1987. Globally, economic data that is remotely current continues to show the disastrous impact of Covid-19. The latest print is this morning’s German ZEW Survey where the Expectations reading fell to -49.5, its lowest level since the middle of the Eurozone crisis in 2011. And finally, one need only listen to the number of government pronouncements and edicts including border closures, business closures and curfews to recognize that it will be quite some time before our lives, as we knew them just a few months ago, return to some semblance of normal.

And while it is virtually certain that this situation will ebb over time, we continue to get estimates that are further and further into the future as to when that time will arrive. What had been assumed to be a six-week process is now sounding an awful lot like a six-month process.

But consider this, it is events of this nature that change the zeitgeist and will have much further reaching effects on every industry. For example, given how much of the US (and global) economy has become service oriented, outside of things like food service, I expect that we will see a much greater reliance on telecommuting going forward. Even in bank dealing rooms, a place that I always considered the last bastion of the importance of proximity of workers, we are seeing a pretty effective adjustment to working from remote locations. And you can be sure that whatever issues are currently still impeding the workflow, they will be addressed by technological fixes in short order.

But what does that do to automobile manufacturers and all their supply chains? And while fossil fuels aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, in fact given how much cheaper they have become, they will be able to supplant alternatives for now, at some point, all those industries are going to suffer as well. Ironically, the move toward urbanization that we have seen during the last decade may find itself halted as people decide that not cramming themselves into small apartments with hundreds of other people (mostly strangers) in close proximity, is really a healthier way to live. And certainly, leisure activities are likely to change their nature as well. While the future remains unknown, it certainly does appear that it will look very little like the recent past. Food for thought.

Turning to the markets more specifically, we continue to see a combination of central bank and government activity in increasingly strident efforts to ameliorate the negative economic impacts of Covid-19. So last night the BOJ bought a record amount (¥121.6 billion) of equity ETF’s to help support the stock market. To their credit, the action was able to prevent a further decline in prices there, as the Nikkei closed unchanged on the day. However, it is still lower by 32% since early February’s recent high. In addition, we have seen equity short-selling bans by France, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Belgium as of this morning in an effort to prevent further market declines. Spain is the only market that seems happy about it, rising 2.6% this morning, with the rest of Europe little changed generally. Risk assets are still on the block for sale, its simply a question of the available liquidity for positions to be unwound.

Of greater interest to me are global government bond markets, which are quickly losing their status as haven assets. Despite rate cuts from all over the globe, yields are rising virtually everywhere, even in the US this morning with 10-year Treasuries seeing a 9bp jump. But Bunds have been underperforming for more than a week, with yields on the 10-year there up nearly 50bps in that time. While it makes perfect sense that the PIGS are seeing yields rise in this environment, what I think we are seeing is a combination of two things for ‘safer’ bonds. First, when yields fall this low, a key haven characteristic, limited probability of losing principal, is put at risk, because any reversal in yields will result in very sharp price declines. And second, with the spending commitments that are being made by governments on a daily basis, I think bond investors are starting to price in the idea that there is going to be a massive increase in the supply of bonds starting pretty soon. And asset managers don’t want to get caught in that blitz either. It is the second of these reasons that will continue to drive central banks to promulgate QE measures, and you can be sure we will continue to see those programs coming. In fact, I think the MMTer’s have won the debate, as that is likely to be a very accurate description of monetary policy in the future.

Finally, this morning the dollar has regained its crown and is, by far, the strongest currency around. It has rallied vs. all the G10, and pretty sharply as well. For instance, CAD is the best performer of the bunch today, and it is lower by 0.75%, having found a new home with the dollar above 1.40. SEK and AUD are the worst performers, both down around 1.7%, as the krona is seeing increased speculative betting that they will be forced to go back to negative rates, while Down Under, the Lucky Country has run out of luck with a collapsing Chinese economy crushing commodity prices, and the RBA promising to do more to stop the economy’s slowdown.

In the EMG space, the dollar is also reigning supreme this morning with EEMEA currencies under the most pressure. Given their relative outperformance lately, it cannot be too surprising that we are seeing this type of price action. HUF is today’s laggard, down 2.1%, but PLN (-2.0%), RON (-1.6%) and BGN (-1.2%) are all feeling the pain. Asian currencies are also lower, but generally not by quite as much, although IDR and KRW are both lower by around 1.5%.

Ultimately, the dollar’s strength today is probably best attributed to the absolute blowout in the basis swaps market, where borrowing dollars vs. other currencies has become hugely expensive. Given the way economic activity is contracting so rapidly, and so revenues everywhere are shrinking, all those non-US companies that need to repay dollar debt are desperate to get hold of the buck. Once financing charges rise high enough, the next step is generally outright purchases of dollars on the FX market. And that is what we are seeing this morning. Look for more of that going forward.

It’s ironic, Retail Sales is released this morning (exp 0.2%, 0.1% ex autos) on the same day I received emails that Nordstrom is closing its stores for the next two weeks along with a myriad of other smaller retailers. We also see IP (0.4%), Capacity Utilization (77.1%) and the JOLT’s Jobs Report (6.40M). But again, this data looks backward and in the quickly evolving world today, I doubt it will have an impact. Rather, while risk stabilized somewhat overnight, my sense is this is a temporary situation, and that we are going to see another wave of risk reduction, certainly before the week is over. So, for now, the dollar will continue to find a lot of demand.

Good luck


All Stay at Home

While yesterday was, for most, scary
It seems the moves were temporary
This morning we’ve seen
Our screens filled with green
On hopes of response monetary

Meanwhile, as the virus expands
And spreads across multiple lands
The word out of Rome
Is, ‘all stay at home’
And please don’t go round shaking hands!

What a difference a day makes! After what was a total obliteration of risk on Monday, this morning we have seen equity markets around the world rebound sharply as well as haven assets lose some of their luster. While net, risk assets are still lower than before the oil war broke out, there is a palpable sense of relief in trading rooms around the world.

But is anything really different? Arguably, the big difference this morning is that we have begun to hear from governments around the world about how they are planning to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic epidemic, and more importantly, that they actually do have a response. The most dramatic response is arguably from Italy, where the government has locked down the entire nation. Schools and businesses are closed and travel within as well as in and out of the country is banned save for a dire emergency. Given how badly hit Italy has been hit by Covid, nearly 500 deaths from more than 9,000 cases, and the fact that the case load is increasing, this should be no surprise. At the same time, given the demographics in Italy, only Germany and Japan have older populations, and given the fact that the virus is particularly fatal for elderly people, things are likely to continue to get worse before they get better. I have seen two different descriptions of how dire the situation is there, with both calling the health infrastructure completely overwhelmed. Look for Germany to impose more restrictions later this week as well, given the growing spread of the virus there.

But from a market perspective, what is truly turning things around is the discussion of combined monetary and fiscal response that is making the rounds. Last night President Trump explained the administration was considering payroll tax cuts as well as direct subsidies to hourly workers via increased support for paid sick leave. In addition, the market is certain the Fed will cut at least 50bps next week, and still essentially pricing in 75bps. So, the twin barrels of monetary and fiscal policy should go a long way to helping regain confidence. Of course, neither of these things will solve the problems in the oil patch as shale drillers find themselves under extraordinary financial pressure with oil prices still around $34/bbl. While that is a 10% rebound from yesterday, most of the shale drillers need oil to be near $45-$50/bbl to make a living. But there is very little the government can do about that right now.

And we are hearing about pending support from other governments as well, with the UK, France and Japan all preparing or announcing new measures. However, as long as the virus remains as contagious as it is, all these measures are merely stop-gaps. Lockdowns have serious longer-term consequences and there will be significant lost output that is permanently gone. Recession this year seems a highly likely event in many, if not most, G10 countries, so be prepared.

And with that as a start, let’s take a look around the markets. As I mentioned, equities rebounded in Asia (Nikkei +0.85%, Hang Seng +1.4%, Shanghai +1.8%) and are much higher in Europe (DAX +3.6%, CAC +4.4%, FTSE 100 +4.2%). Of course, that was after significantly larger declines yesterday. US futures are sharply higher as I type, with all three indices more than 4% higher at this time. Meanwhile, bond markets are seeing the opposite price action with 10-year Treasury yields rebounding to 0.71% after touching a low of 0.31% yesterday. Bunds have also rebounded 12bps to -0.74%, and more importantly, both Italian and Greek bonds have rallied (yields falling) sharply. Make no mistake, the bonds of those two nations are not considered havens in any language.

In the FX market, yesterday saw, by far, the most volatile trading we have experienced since the financial crisis in 2008-09. And this morning, along with other markets, much of that is reversing. So we are looking at the yen falling 2.4% this morning, by far the worst performer in the G10, but also seeing weakness in the euro (-0.85%), pound Sterling (-0.7%) and Swiss franc (-0.85%). On the plus side, NOK is higher by 1.05% and CAD has regained a much less impressive 0.35%.

Emerging markets have also seen significant reversals with MXN, yesterday’s worst performer, rebounding 1.8%, ZAR +1.65% and KRW +0.95%. On the downside, RUB is today’s loser extraordinaire, falling 3.5% after Saudi Aramco said they would increase production to a more than expected 12.3 million bbls/day. But the CE4 currencies, which rallied with the euro yesterday, are all softer this morning by roughly 0.8%.

The one thing that seems clear is that volatility remains the base case for now, and although market implied volatilities have fallen today, they remain far higher than we had seen just a week ago. I think there will also be far more market liquidity to be involved in this market as well.

On the data front, the NFIB Small Business Optimism report has already been released at 104.5, rising from last month and far better than expected. Now this survey covers February which means that there had to be at least some virus impact. With that in mind, the result is even more impressive. The thing is that right now, data is just not a market driver, so the FX markets have largely ignored this along with every other release.

Looking ahead to today’s session, the reversal of yesterday’s moves is clearly in place and unless we suddenly get new information that the virus is more widespread, or that there is pushback on support packages and they won’t be forthcoming, I expect this morning’s moves to continue a bit further.

Longer term, we remain dependent on the spread of Covid-19 and government responses as the key driver. After all, the oil news seems pretty fully priced in for now.

Good luck


Values Debase

It used to be bonds were so boring
That talk induced yawning and snoring
But Covid-19
Is now on the scene
And bonds are the asset that’s soaring

Meanwhile in the equity space
Investors are having a race
To see who has sold
Their stocks and bought gold
As equity values debase

It’s important to understand that Covid-19 is not the cause of the current hysteria in financial markets, it is merely the catalyst that revealed the underlying problems. Arguably, the most critical of these problems, excess leverage, has been building since the financial crisis response in 2009. In fact, it was an explicit part of the response package, cut rates to zero to encourage more borrowing. The unseen, at the time, problem with this strategy, however, is that the vicious cycle virtuous circle that resulted, where investors chasing yield moved up the risk ladder thus encouraging the issuance of more and more risky securities, seems to be reaching its denouement. Welcome to today’s volatility!

Briefly, financialization of the economy has been growing aggressively since the financial crisis. This is the process whereby the corporate sector spends more time and money on managing the balance sheet than on delivering products or services. Thus, banking and financial services grow relative to total economic output. In essence, we produce less stuff but pay more for it. And yes, that is the definition of inflation, which is exactly what we have seen in financial markets. It has just not (yet) appeared in measured inflation indices, as they don’t include stock prices. Financialization has manifested itself in the massive equity repurchase programs, funded by record-breaking issuance of corporate debt, which has been instrumental in driving equity markets to record highs. But when more money is spent on equity repurchase than on R&D, it bodes ill for the longer term. Perhaps Covid-19 is the catalyst that will help us understand the long term has arrived.

As the global economy now is trying to address both a supply and demand shock to the system simultaneously, investors have collectively decided that risk is not as tasty as it was just a few weeks ago. And while many have warned that when this market turned, it would be dramatic, I don’t believe the type of movements possible were well understood. I’m guessing they are a little better understood today.

This process has further to run, regardless of what the central banks or government leaders do or say. Markets that have rallied for ten years do not correct in ten days. It will take much longer and there will be many unforeseen movements by different asset classes going forward.

In fact, the dollar is going to be quite interesting throughout this process. I maintain that its current decline is entirely a result of the market repricing the US rate outlook. Futures markets are currently pricing in another 50bp rate cut by the Fed a week from Wednesday, with a further 37bps by the end of the summer. That is significantly more cutting than is being priced for the ECB (just 10bps) and the BOJ (also 10bps). In other words, as interest rate spreads between the dollar and other G10 economies compress, it is no surprise to see the dollar decline. In fact, this was the genesis of my views at the beginning of the year and what underpinned my calls for the euro to trade to 1.17, the yen to 95 and the pound to 1.40. Of course, I didn’t anticipate anything like this, rather a much more gradual approach.

However, the dollar is also still seen as one of the safest places to be, with Treasury bonds the ultimate safe haven today and one needs dollars to buy Treasuries. The rally in the bond market has been extraordinary with the 10-year falling another 15bps today to yet another new record low. It actually traded below 0.70% briefly this morning but sits at 0.76% as I type. And that is true across the Treasury curve. While other bond markets globally have seen rates decline, nothing has matched the Treasury performance. (And for those of you who did not understand how Greek 10-year yields could trade below US yields, that is no longer the case!)

Meanwhile, havens like the yen (+0.9% today, +6.1% in the past two weeks) and CHF (+1.05% today, 4.9% in two weeks) are the stars of the FX markets. In fact, this bout of risk aversion is beginning to approach what we saw in 2008 and 2009. Today, the dollar is the total underperformer in the G10 space, but that is not the case in the EMG space. There, MXN is the disaster du jour, down 2.1% as it is impacted by the collapse in oil prices, the uptick in coronavirus cases and its reliance on the US, which appears to be heading toward much slower growth, if not a recession. But BRL is lower by 1.0%, and we are seeing most of the APAC and LATAM currencies falling this morning. CE4 currencies are benefitting from their proximity to the euro, but I expect that will change as time passes.

Into all this excitement, we bring this morning’s payroll report with the following expectations:

Nonfarm Payrolls 175K
Private Payrolls 160K
Manufacturing Payrolls -3K
Unemployment Rate 3.6%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.0% y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.3
Participation Rate 63.4%
Trade Balance -$46.1B

Source: Bloomberg

The thing is, all this took place before Covid-19, so all it can do is give us a final benchmark as to how things were prior to the virus spreading. If we get a bad number, that will be a real problem.

It is hard to overstate just how fragile this market is right now, with liquidity significantly impaired, bid-ask spreads widening and options volatilities rising sharply. Patience is a true virtue in these conditions and leaving orders at levels can be very effective. I maintain that the dollar’s weakness will not be a permanent feature, but rather a transient situation until the rate situation stabilizes. So, receivables hedgers, leave orders to layer into your strategies, it will pay off over time.

Good luck and good weekend

No Easy Fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck

Gone Astray

There once was a banker named Jay
Who, for a few weeks, had his way
Stock markets rose nicely
But that led precisely
To things that have now gone astray

Protagonists now can’t discern
What’s safe or what assets to spurn
Their hunt for more yield
Has finally revealed
That risk is attached to return

Apparently, when the Fed cuts rates, it is not a guarantee that stock prices will rally. That seems to be yesterday morning’s lesson in the wake of the Fed’s “surprise” 50bp rate cut. After a brief rally, which lasted about 15 minutes, the bottom fell out again as investors and traders decided that things were actually much worse than they feared. In addition, Chairman Jay did himself no favors by opening the kimono a bit and admitting that there was nothing the Fed could do to directly address the current issues.

This is a real problem for the global central bank community because the Fed was the player with the most ammunition left, and they just used one-third of their bullets with a disastrous outcome. Ask yourself what more the ECB can do, with rates already negative and QE ongoing. They have no more bullets left, just the whispering of sweet nothings from Madame Lagarde to Eurozone FinMins to spend more money. If the data turns further south in Europe, which seems almost guaranteed, I would look for a suspension of the Eurozone rules on financing and deficits. After all, Covid-19 was not part of the bargain, and this is clearly an emergency…just ask Jay. Japan? They are already printing yen as fast as they can to buy more assets, and will not stop, but are unable to achieve their goals.

Arguably, the only central bank left that matters, and that has room to move is the PBOC, which has already been active adding liquidity and trying to steer it to SME’s. But if the pressure continues on both the Chinese economy and its markets, they will do more regardless of the long-term debt problems they may exacerbate. We have clearly reached a point where every central bank is all-in to try to stop the current stock market declines. And you thought all they cared about was money supply!

So, what about a fiscal response by the major economies? After all, to a man, every central bank has explained that monetary policy is not the appropriate tool to address the current economic and market concerns. As Chairman Jay explained in his press conference, “A rate cut will not reduce the rate of infection. It won’t fix a broken supply chain. We get that, but we do believe that our action will provide a meaningful boost to the economy.” A cynic might conclude that central banks were trying to force the fiscal authorities’ collective hands, but in reality, I think the issue is simply that, at least in the G7, fiscal issues are political questions that by their very nature take longer to answer. Getting agreement on spending money, especially in the current fractious political environment, is extremely difficult short of a major crisis like the financial market meltdown in 2008. And for now, despite all the press, and some really bad data releases, Covid-19 has not achieved that level of concern.

Is that likely to change soon? My impression based on what we have seen and heard so far is that unless there is another significant uptick in the number of infections, and especially in the mortality rate, we are likely to see relatively small sums of money allocated to this issue. Of course, if economic activity is impeded by travel restrictions and supply chains cannot get back in business by the end of March, we are likely to have a change of heart by these governments, but for now, its central banks or bust.

So, this morning, after yesterday’s rout in US markets, things seem to have stabilized somewhat with most Asian equity markets flat to slightly higher, European markets ahead by about 1% and US futures currently sitting ~2% stronger. Part of the US showing is undoubtedly due to yesterday’s Super Tuesday primaries which showed former VP Joe Biden build on his recently recovered momentum to actually take a slight delegate lead. There is certainly some truth to the idea that part of the US markets’ recent malaise was due to a concern that Senator Sanders was poised to become the Democratic nominee, and that his policy platforms have been extremely antagonistic to private capital.

But despite the equity market activity, which on the whole looks good, there is no shortage of demand for Treasuries, which implies that there is still a great deal of haven demand. Yesterday, the 10-year yield breached 1.00% for the first time in its 150-year history, trading as low as 0.90% before rebounding ahead of the close. But here we are this morning with the yield down a further 5bps, back to 0.95%, and quite frankly there is nothing to indicate this move is over. In fact, futures markets are pricing in another Fed rate cut at their meeting 2 weeks from today, and another three cuts in total by the end of 2020! While German bunds have not seen the same demand, the rest of the European government bond market has rallied with yields everywhere falling between 1bp and 8bps. And don’t forget JGB’s, which have also seen yields decline 2bps, heading further into negative territory despite the BOJ’s efforts to steepen their yield curve. Certainly, a look at the bond market does not inspire confidence that the all clear has been sounded.

And finally, in the FX markets, the dollar remains under general pressure as the market continues to price in further Fed activity which is much greater than anywhere else. Yesterday’s cut took US rates to their narrowest spread vs. Eurozone rates since 2016, when the Fed was in the process of raising rates. It is no coincidence that the euro has recovered to levels seen back then as well. The thing about the dollar’s current weakness, though, is that it seems to be running its course. After all, if the interest rate market is pricing for US rates to fall back to the zero-bound, and there is no indication that the US will ever go negative, how much more room does the euro have to rally? While yesterday’s peak at just above 1.12 may not be the absolute top, I think we are much nearer than further from that point.

A quick look at the EMG bloc shows that today’s winners have largely centered in Asia as those currencies respond belatedly to yesterday’s Fed actions, although we have also seen commodity focused currencies like ZAR (+0.8%), MXN (+0.7%) and RUB (+0.5%) perform well on the rebound in oil and metals prices. I expect that CLP, BRL and COP will also open well on the same thesis.

While yesterday was barren in the US on the data front, this morning we see ADP Employment (exp 170K) and ISM Non-Manufacturing (54.9) as well as the Fed’s Beige Book at 2:00pm. Monday’s ISM Manufacturing data was a touch weak, but it is getting very difficult to read with the Covid-19 situation around. Was this weakness evident prior to the outbreak? I think that’s what most investors want to understand. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Chinese auto sales plunged 80% in February and the Caixin PMI data was also disastrous, printing at 27.5.

For now, uncertainty continues to reign and with that comes increased volatility. We have seen that with a substantial rebound in the equity market VIX, and we have seen that with solid rebounds in FX option volatility, which had been trading at historically low levels but are now, in G7 currencies, back to levels not seen since December 2018, when equity markets were correcting and fear was rampant. My take there is that implied vols have further to rally as there is little chance we have seen the end of the current crisis-like situation. Hedgers beware!

Good luck