Our Fears

Said Powell, it may take two years
Ere Covid’s impact finally clears
All central banks pleaded
More spending is needed
But really, it’s down to our fears

Fed Chairman Powell continues to be the face of the global response to the Covid-19 economic disruption. Last night, in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast nationwide, he said, “Assuming there’s not a second wave of the coronavirus, I think you’ll see the economy recover steadily through the second half of this year. For the economy to fully recover, people will have to be fully confident, and that may have to await the arrival of a vaccine.” He also explained that the Fed still has plenty of ammunition to continue supporting the economy, although he was clear that fiscal policy had a hugely important role to play and would welcome further efforts by the government on that score. Tomorrow, he will be testifying before the Senate Banking Committee where the Republican leadership has indicated they would prefer to wait and watch to see how the CARES act has fared before opting to double down.

In the meantime, it does appear that the spread of the virus has slowed more substantially. In addition, we continue to see more state governors reopening parts of their local economies on an ad hoc basis. And globally, restrictions are being lifted throughout Europe and parts of Asia as the infection curve truly seems to be in decline. It is this latter aspect that seems to be the current theory as to why there will be a V-shaped recovery which is supporting equity markets globally.

But when considering the prospects of a V, it is critical to remember this important feature of the math behind investing. A 10% decline requires an 11.1% recovery just to return to the previous level. And as the decline grows in size, the size of the recovery needs to be that much larger. For instance, the Atlanta Fed’s latest GDPNow forecast is calling for a, very precise, 42.81% contraction in Q2. If that were to come to pass, it means that a recovery to the previous level will require a 74.8% rebound! While the down leg of this economic contraction is clearly shaped like the left-hand side of a V, it seems highly unlikely that the speed of the recovery will approach the same pace. The final math lesson is that if Q3 were to rebound 42.81%, it would still leave the economy at just under 82% of its previous level. In other words, still in depression.

However, math is clearly not the strong suit of the investment community these days, as once again this morning, we continue to see a strong equity market performance. In fact, we have seen a strong performance in equities, bonds, gold, oil, and virtually everything else that can be bought. One explanation for this behavior would be that investors are concerned that the current QE Infinity programs across nations are going to debase currencies everywhere and so the best solution is to own assets with a chance for appreciation. While historically, the flaw in that theory would be the bond market, which should be selling off dramatically on this sentiment, it seems that the knowledge that central banks are going to continue to mop up all the excess issuance is seen as reason enough to continue to hold fixed income. With that in mind, I would have to characterize today’s session is a risk grab-a-thon.

The Brits and the EU have met
With no progress really made yet
The British are striving
To just keep trade thriving
The EU’s a different mindset

Meanwhile, remember Brexit? With all the focus on Covid, it is not surprising that this issue had moved to the back of the market’s collective consciousness. It has not, however, disappeared. If you recall, the terms of the UK exit were that a deal needs to be reached by the end of this year and that if there is to be another extension, that must be agreed by the end of June. Well, it seems that Boris is sticking to his guns that he will not countenance an extension and has instructed his negotiators to focus on a trade deal only. The EU, however, apparently still doesn’t accept that Brexit occurred and is seeking a deal that essentially requires the UK to remain beholden to the European Court of Justice as well as to adhere to all EU conditions on issues like the environment and diversity. The result is that the negotiations have become a game of chicken with a very real, and growing, probability that we will still have the feared hard Brexit come December. In a funny way, Covid could be a blessing for PM Johnson’s Brexit strategy, because given the negative impact already in play, at the margin, Brexit is not likely to make a significant difference. Arguably, it is the growing realization that a hard Brexit is back on the table that has undermined the pound’s performance lately. Despite a marginal 0.1% gain this morning, the pound is the worst performing G10 currency this month, down about 4.0%. At this time, I see no reason for the pound to reverse these losses barring a change in the tone of the negotiations.

As to this morning’s session, the overall bullish tone to most markets has left the dollar on the sidelines. It is firmer against some currencies, weaker vs. others with no clear patterns, and in truth, most movement has been limited. The biggest gainer today has been RUB, which has rallied 1.0% on the strength of oil’s 8% rally. In fact, oil is back over $30/bbl for the first time in two months. Not surprisingly we are seeing strength in MXN (+0.75%) and ZAR (+0.65%) as well on the same commodity rally story. On the flipside, APAC currencies were the main losers with MYR (-0.5%) and INR (-0.45%) the worst of the bunch as Covid infections are making a comeback in the area. In the G10 bloc, NOK (+0.75%) and AUD (+0.7%) are the leaders as they, too, benefit most from commodity strength.

On the data front, last night saw Japanese GDP print at -3.4% annualized, confirming the technical recession that has begun there. (Remember, Q4 was a disaster, -7.3%, because of the imposition of the national sales tax increase.) Otherwise, there were no hard data points from Europe at all. Looking ahead to this week, it is a muted schedule focused on housing.

Tuesday Housing Starts 923K
  Building Permits 1000K
Wednesday FOMC Minutes  
Thursday Initial Claims 2.425M
  Continuing Claims 23.5M
  Philly Fed -40.0
  Leading Indicators -5.7%
  Existing Home Sales 4.30M

Source: Bloomberg

In truth, with the market still reacting to Powell’s recent comments, and his testimony on Tuesday, as well as comments from another six Fed members, I would argue that this week is all about them. For now, the V-shaped rebound narrative continues to be the driver. If the Fed speakers start to sound a bit less optimistic, that could bode ill for the bulls, but likely bode well for the dollar. If not, I imagine the dollar will remain under a bit of pressure for now.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

A Huge Threat

In Europe officials now fret
‘bout dealing with Italy’s debt
If it gets downgraded
It could be blockaded
From PEPP, which would be a huge threat

At home, both the Senate and House
Agreed that it’s time to espouse
More spending is needed
And so, they proceeded
To spend half a trill, thereabouts

While oil prices are still getting press (and still under pressure), the return to positive prices has quickly turned that story into one about supply and demand, and the knock-on economic impacts of lower oil prices, rather than the extraordinary commentary on the meaning of negative prices for a commodity. In other words, it’s just not so exciting any more. Instead, today has seen markets turn their collective attention back toward government and central bank activities with investors trying to determine the next place to take advantage of all the ongoing financial largesse.

Starting in Europe, this evening the ECB will be having a video conference to discuss its next steps. Topic number one is what to do about Italian, and to a lesser extent, the rest of Southern Europe’s debt. Remember, the ECB is precluded from financing government spending by its charter, and the Teutonic trio watch that issue like hawks. So, news from Rome this morning that highlighted PM Conte’s promise to double the stimulus spending to €55 billion in order to better support the economy is at odds with that promise.

The problem is, that much spending will take the budget deficit above 10% of GDP and drive the debt/GDP ratio above 155%. While the latter will still simply be the third highest ratio in the world (Japan and Greece have nothing to fear yet), both the budget and debt numbers are far higher than currently allowed under the Stability and Growth Pact as defined by the EU. (For good order’s sake, the EU demands its members to maintain budget deficits below 3% of GDP and a debt/GDP ratio of 60% or lower).

A potentially larger problem is that Italy’s sovereign debt is currently rated at BBB with a negative outlook, just two notches above junk. Italian interest rates have been rising as BTP’s are no longer seen as a haven, but rather a pure risk trade. Combining all this together puts the ECB in a very tough position. If Italian debt is downgraded to junk, the ECB charter would preclude it from purchasing Italian debt. But if that were the case, you could pretty much bank on a collapse in the Italian bond market, followed by a collapse in the Italian economy, and a very real risk that Italy exits the euro, likely collapsing that as well. Clearly, the ECB wants to prevent that sequence of events. Thus, to successfully sail between the Scylla of financing government spending and the Charybdis of a euro collapse, the ECB is very likely to revise their collateral rules such that sub-investment grade debt is acceptable to purchase. And they will be buying the long-dated bonds which they will hold to maturity, thus effectively funding Italy but being able to technically tell the Germans they are not. It is an unenviable position for Madame Lagarde, but the alternatives are worse. Once again, if you wonder about the euro’s long-term viability, these are the questions that need to be answered.

However, despite the latest drama on the rates side, the market seems to be focusing on the positive stories today, namely the decisions by a number of European governments to gradually reduce the ongoing covid-inspired restrictions on their citizens. Throughout Europe, small shops are gradually being allowed to reopen and there have been discussions of schools reopening as well. The infection data appears to have stabilized overall, with many countries reporting a downtick in the number of new infections. Governments worldwide have the unenviable task of balancing the risk of further damage to their economies vs. the risk of another increase in the spread of the disease. At this time, it seems clear that there is a broad-based move toward getting on with life. And that’s a good thing!

In the meantime, this morning, the House is set to approve the Senate bill to extend further stimulus in the US, this time with a $480 billion price tag. The bulk of this will go to extending the Paycheck Protection Program, but there are various other goodies to support farms and hospitals. As well, the discussion about reopening the US economy continues apace, with the latest updates seeming to show that about half the states, mostly in the Midwest and mountain states, are going to be returning to a more normal footing, as they have been the least impacted. Even parts of western New York are now being considered for a removal of restrictions, given the demographic there is far closer to Wyoming than Manhattan.

Put it all together, and the bulls get to define the narrative today, with a better future ahead and more government spending to support things. It should be no surprise that equity markets are modestly higher this morning, with European bourses up by 1% or so, and US futures higher by a similar amount. Treasuries have seen some supply, with the yield on the 10-year rising 2bps, and the dollar is softer vs. almost all other currencies.

In the G10 bloc, only NOK is weaker today, and by just 0.1% as oil prices continue to slide, but even CAD, also closely linked to oil, is higher today, up 0.5%. Aussie is the biggest winner today, higher by 1.0% after a short-covering spree emerged in the wake of better than expected Retail Sales data. But the dollar’s weakness is broad-based today.

EMG currencies are also faring well today with ZAR (+1.15%) leading the way on the back of a $26 billion stimulus package, and RUB (+0.75%) following up as traders begin to believe the currency markets have oversold the ruble. MXN (+0.55%) is gaining on the same thesis, and, in fact, most of the space is higher due to this more positive feeling in the markets. The one outlier here is KRW (-0.2%) which is coming under pressure as a second wave of Covid infections makes its way through the country.

On the data front this morning, there is nothing of note to be released in the US. Yesterday saw Existing Home Sales fall slightly less than expected, to 5.27M, but just slightly. All eyes are on tomorrow’s claims data, as well as the PMI’s. The only data from Europe showed that UK inflation remains quiescent (and is likely to fall further) while Italian industry continues to shrink with Industrial Orders -2.6% in February, ahead of the worst of the outbreak.

Risk has a better tone this morning, but I fear it has the ability to be a fleeting break. Markets have shown they still like new stimulus, but at some point, questioning the ability to pay for it all is going to overwhelm the short-term benefits of receiving it. Today doesn’t seem like that day, but I assure you it is getting closer.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

New Aspirations

In Europe, the largest of nations
Has made clear its new aspirations
As Covid now peaks
In less than three weeks
Some schools can return from vacations

Despite less than stellar results from other countries that have started to reopen their economies (Japan, Singapore, South Korea) after the worst of the virus seemed to have passed, Germany has announced that by May 4, they expect to begin reopening secondary schools as well as small retail shops, those less than 800 square meters in size. This is a perfect example of the competing pressures on national leaders between potential health outcomes and worsening economic conditions.

The economic damage to the global economy has clearly been extraordinary, and we are just beginning to see the data that is proving this out. For instance, yesterday’s US Retail Sales data fell 8.7%, a record decline, while the Empire Manufacturing result was a staggering -78.2. To better understand just what this means, the construction of the number is as follows: % of surveyed companies reporting improving conditions (6.8%) less % of surveyed companies reporting worsening conditions (85%). That result was far and away the worst in the history of the series and more than double the previous nadir during the GFC. We also saw IP and Capacity Utilization in the US decline sharply, although they did not achieve record lows…yet.

Interestingly, we have not yet seen most of the March data from other countries as they take a bit longer to compile the information, but if the US is any indication, and arguably it will be, look for record declines in activity around the world. In fact, the IMF is now forecasting an actual shrinkage of global GDP in 2020, not merely a reduction in the pace of growth. In and of itself, that is a remarkable outcome.

And yet, the question with which each national leader must grapple is, what will be the increased loss of life if we get back to business too soon? Once again, I will remind everyone that there is no ‘right’ answer here, and that these life and death tradeoffs are strictly the purview of government leadership. I don’t envy them their predicament. In the meantime, markets continue to try to determine the most likely path of action and the ultimate outcome. Unfortunately for the market set, the unprecedented nature of this government activity renders virtually all forecasting based on historical information and data irrelevant.

This should remind all corporate risk managers that the purpose of a hedging program is to mitigate the changes in results, not to eliminate them. It is also a cogent lesson in the need to have a robust hedging program in place. After all, hedge ineffectiveness is not likely to be a major part of earnings compared to the extraordinary disruption currently underway. Yet a robust hedging program has always been a hallmark of strong financial risk management.

In the meantime, as we survey markets this morning, here is what is happening. After yesterday’s weak US equity performance, Asia was under pressure, albeit not aggressively so with the Nikkei (-1.3%) and Hang Seng (-0.6%) falling while Shanghai (+0.3%) actually managed a small gain. European bourses are mostly positive this morning, but the moves are modest compared to recent activity with the DAX (+1.0%), CAC (+0.6%) and FTSE 100 (+0.4%) all green. And US futures are pointing higher, although all three indices are looking at gains well less than 1.0%.

Bond markets have been similarly uninteresting, with 10-year Treasury yields virtually unchanged this morning, although this was after a near 12bp decline yesterday. German bunds, too are little changed, with yields higher by 1bp, but the standout mover today has been Italy, where 10-year BTP’s have seen yields decline 14bps as hope permeates the market after the lowest number of new Covid infections in more than a month were reported yesterday, a still high 2.667.

Turning to the FX market, despite what appears to be a generally more positive framework in markets, the dollar continues to be the place to be. In the G10 space, only SEK is stronger this morning, having rallied 0.25% on literally no news, but the rest of the bloc is softer by between 0.15% and 0.3%. So, granted, the movement is not large, but the direction remains the same. Ultimately, the global dollar liquidity shortage, while somewhat mitigated by Federal Reserve actions, remains a key feature of every market.

Meanwhile, in the EMG bloc, we have seen two noteworthy gainers, RUB (+1.0%) and ZAR (+0.5%). The former is responding to oil’s modest bounce this morning, with prices there up about 2.0%, while the latter is the beneficiary of international investor inflows in the hunt for yield. After all, South African 10-year bonds yield 10.5% these days, a whole lot more than most other places! But, for the rest of the bloc, it is business as usual, which these days means declines vs. the dollar. Remarkably, despite oil’s rebound, the Mexican peso remains under pressure, down 0.6% this morning. But it is KRW (-0.95%) and MYR (-0.85%) that have been the worst performers today. The won appears to have suffered on the back of yesterday’s weak US equity market/risk-off sentiment, with the market there closing before things started to turn, while Malaysia was responding to yesterday’s weakness in oil prices. Arguably, we can look for both of these currencies to recoup some of last night’s losses tonight.

On the data front, this morning brings the latest Initial Claims number (exp 5.5M) as well as Housing Starts (1300K), Building Permits (1300K) and Philly Fed (-32.0). I don’t think housing data is of much interest these days, but the claims data will be closely scrutinized to see if the dramatic changes are ebbing or are still going full force. I fear the latter. Meanwhile, after yesterday’s Empire number, I expect the Philly number to be equally awful.

As much as we all want this to be over, we are not yet out of the woods, not even close. And over the next month, we are going to see increasingly worse data reports, as well as corporate earnings numbers that are likely to be abysmal as well. The point is, the market is aware of these things, so inflection in the trajectory of data is going to be critical, not so much the raw number. For now, the trend remains weaker data and a stronger dollar. Hopefully, sooner, rather than later, we will see that change.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Prices So Low

Since distancing, social, has spread
Demand for petroleum’s bled
Its price has declined
As less is refined
Is OPEC now near its deathbed?

Well, last night the Chinese explained
They’d not let reserves there be drained
With prices so low
Their stockpile they’ll grow
Thus, Pesos and Rubles have gained

One cannot be surprised by the fact that the sharp decline in the price of oil has prompted some nations to take the opportunity to top up their strategic reserves of the stuff. Last night, the story came out that China was going to do just that. In addition to the mooted plans to purchase upwards of 100 million barrels, there is also discussion that they are going to increase the size of their storage facilities. This serves a twofold purpose; first to allow them more storage, but second it is a clear short-term economic stimulus for the country as well, something they are desperately seeking given the quickly slowing growth trajectories of their major export markets.

The market response to the story has been exactly as would be expected, with oil prices surging (both WTI and Brent are higher by a bit more than 10% as I type) and petrocurrencies NOK, RUB and MXN, all rallying nicely as well. At least, that’s how they started the session. Approaching 7:00am in NY, NOK is by far the leading gainer in the G10 space, jumping 1.6% without the benefit of central bank intervention, as any rebound in oil, no matter how short-lived, is a positive for the country and by extension its currency.

The emerging market petros, though, are having a bit of a tougher time of it. Earlier, both the ruble and Mexican peso were firmer by well more than 1% compared with yesterday’s closing levels, but in the past hour, we have seen both give up the bulk of those gains. It just goes to show how difficult it is going to be for some currencies to rebound in the short run. This is because, a 10% rally in oil still leaves it at $22/bbl or so, far below the cost of production and not nearly enough to stem either nation’s fiscal woes. By the way, this is still far below the cost of shale oil production as well. In fact, the only country that really has a production cost below the current market price is Saudi Arabia. But in FX terms that doesn’t really matter as the riyal is fixed to the dollar.

Away from that story, though, financial and economic stories are thin on the ground, with most simply a rehash or update of ongoing themes. For instance, we already know that virtually every developed country is adding fiscal support to their economies, but there have been no new reports of additional stimulus. We already know that virtually every developed country’s central bank has added monetary support to their economies, but, if anything, the overnight stories were complaints that it wasn’t coming fast enough. To wit, the RBNZ is being chastised for not expanding its QE purchases quickly enough as market participants anticipate a significant increase in debt issuance by the government. That said, however, kiwi is a top performer today, rising 0.65% on the back of the Chinese oil story and the knock-on effects of renewed Chinese growth.

Otherwise, the news is almost entirely about the virus and its impacts on healthcare systems around the world, as well as the evolving story about the Chinese having underreported their caseload and by extension, distorting the medical community’s understanding of key features of the pathogen, namely its level of contagion and lethality. But that is all in the political realm, not the market realm.

Yesterday’s equity market decline has stopped for now with European indices modestly higher at this point, generally less than 1%, although US futures are looking a bit perkier, with all of them up by more than that 1% marker. Bond markets are under a bit of pressure, as investors are tentatively reaching out to acquire some risk, with yields in most government bond markets edging higher by a few bps this morning. Treasuries, which had seen a 4bp rise earlier in the session, though, have now rallied back to unchanged on the day.

And if one wants to look at the dollar more broadly, away from the NOK and NZD, the pound is firmer (+0.5% and it has really been holding up remarkably well lately), and CAD and AUD are both firmer by about 0.3% on the back of the oil/China positive story. On the downside, the euro cannot find a bid, falling 0.4% this morning, as the focus turns back to the rampant spread of Covid-19 in both Italy and Spain, as well as how much the German economy will suffer throughout the crisis.

In the EMG space, TRY (+0.5%) has been the top performer after confirmed FX intervention in the markets, but otherwise, despite what seems to be a modestly better tone to markets this morning, no other currency in the space is more than 0.1% firmer. On the downside, ZAR is the loser du jour, falling more than 1% and reaching a new historic low as interest rates in the country decline thus reducing its attractiveness as an investment destination.

This morning’s data brings Initial Claims (exp 3.7M) which has everybody atwitter given just how uncertain this outcome is. The range of estimates is from 800K to 6.5M which is another way of saying nobody has a clue. The one thing of which we can be certain is that it will be a large number. Interestingly, yesterday’s ADP number showed many fewer job losses than expected, which implies that tomorrow’s payroll data will also not give an accurate picture of the current situation. The survey week came before the real shutdowns began, so we will need to wait until the April data, not released until May 8, to get a better picture. And what’s interesting about that is, if the current timeline of a resumption of more normal activity by the end of April comes to pass, that data, while showing the depths of the problem, will no longer be that informative either. The lesson from this is that it may still be quite some time before data serves as a market driver like in the past, especially the NFP report.

Summing up, despite a modestly better attitude toward risk this morning, the dollar continues to be the place to be. Ultimately, until global dollar liquidity demand ebbs, I expect that we are going to see the greenback maintain its strength.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

No Respite

This weekend, alas, brought no respite
As markets are still in the cesspit
A worrying trend
While govs try to end
The panic, is that they turn despot

Well, things have not gotten better over the weekend, in fact, arguably they continue to deteriorate rapidly. And I’m not talking markets here, although they are deteriorating as well. More and more countries have determined that the best way to fight this scourge is to lockdown their denizens and prevent gatherings of more than a few people while imposing minimum distance restrictions to be maintained between individuals. And of course, given the crisis at hand, a virulently contagious disease, it makes perfect sense as a way to prevent its further spread. But boy, doesn’t it have connotations of a dictatorship?

The attempt to prevent large groups from gathering is a hallmark of dictators who want to prevent a revolution from upending their rule. The instructions to maintain a certain distance are simply a reminder that the government is more powerful than you and can force you to act in a certain manner. Remember, too, that governments, once they achieve certain powers, are incredibly loathe to give them up willingly. Those in charge want to remain so and will do almost anything to do so. Milton Friedman was spot on when he reminded us that, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” The point is, while the virus could not be foreseen, the magnitude of the economic impact is directly proportional to the economic policies that preceded it. In other words, a decade of too-easy money led to a massive amount of leverage, which under ‘normal’ market conditions was easily serviceable, but which has suddenly become a millstone around the economy’s neck. And adding more leverage won’t solve the problem. Both the economic and financial crisis have a ways to go yet, although they will certainly take more twists and turns before ending.

None of this, though, has dissuaded governments worldwide from trying every trick suggested to prevent an economic depression. At the same time, pundits and analysts are in an arms race, to make sure they will be heard, in forecasting economic catastrophe. Q2 US GDP growth is now being forecast to decline by anywhere from 5% to 50%! And the high number ostensibly came from St Louis Fed President James Bullard. Now I will be the first to tell you that I have no idea how Q2 will play out, but I also know that given the current circumstances, and the fact that the virus is a truly exogenous event, it strikes me that any macroeconomic model built based on historical precedents is going to be flat out wrong. And remember, too, we are still in Q1. If the draconian measures implemented are effective, recovery could well be underway by May 15 and that would result in a significant rebound in the second half of Q2. Certainly, that’s an optimistic viewpoint, but not impossible. The point is, we simply don’t know how the next several quarters are going to play out.

In the meantime, however, there is one trend that is becoming clearer in the markets; when a country goes into lockdown its equity market gets crushed. India is the latest example, with the Sensex falling 13.1% last night after the government imposed major restrictions on all but essential businesses and reduced transportation services. Not surprisingly, the rupee also suffered, falling 1.2% to a new record low. RBI activity to stem the tide has been marginally effective, at best, and remarkably, it appears that India is lagging even the US in terms of the timeline of Covid-19’s impact. The rupee has further to fall.

Singapore, too, has seen a dramatic weakening in its dollar, falling 0.9% today and trading to its lowest level since 2009. The stock exchange there also tumbled, -7.3%, as the government banned large gatherings and limited the return of working ex-pats.

These are just highlights (lowlights?) of what has been another difficult day in financial markets around the world. The one thing we have seen is that the Fed’s USD swap lines to other central banks have been actively utilized around the world as dollar liquidity remains at a premium. Right now, basis swaps have declined from their worst levels as these central bank activities have reduced some of the worst pressure for now. A big concern is that next Tuesday is quarter end (year end for Japan) and that dollar funding requirements over the accounting period could be extremely large, exacerbating an already difficult situation.

A tour around the FX markets shows that the dollar remains king against most everything although the yen has resumed its haven status, at least for today, by rallying 0.3%. Interestingly, NOK has turned around and is actually the strongest currency as I type, up 0.8% vs. the dollar after having been down as much as 1.3% earlier. This reversal appears to be on the back of currency intervention by the Norgesbank, which is the only thing that can explain the speed and magnitude of the movement ongoing as I type. What that tells me is that when they stop, NOK will resume its trip lower. But the rest of the G10 is on its heels, with kiwi the laggard, -1.25%, after the RBNZ jumped into the QE game and said they would be buying NZD 30 billion throughout the year. AUD and GBP are both lower by nearly 1.0%, as both nations struggle with their Covid responses on the healthcare front, not so much the financial front, as each contemplates more widespread restrictions.

In the emerging markets, IDR is actually the worst performer of all, down 3.7%, as despite central bank provision of USD liquidity, dollars remain in significant demand. This implies there may be a lack of adequate collateral to use to borrow dollars and could presage a much harsher decline in the future. But MXN and KRW are both lower by 1.5%, and remember, South Korea has been held up as a shining example of how to combat the disease. Their problem stems from the fact that as an export driven economy, the fact that the rest of the world is slowing rapidly is going to be devastating in the short-term.

Turning to the data, this week things will start to be interesting again as we see the first numbers that include the wave of shut-downs and limits on activity.

Today Chicago Fed Activity -0.29
Tuesday PMI Manufacturing 44.0
  PMI Services 42.0
  New Home Sales 750K
Wednesday Durable Goods -1.0%
  -ex transport -0.4%
Thursday Initial Claims 1500K
  Q4 GDP 2.1%
Friday Personal Income 0.4%
  Personal Spending 0.2%
  PCE Deflator core 0.2% (1.7% Y/Y)
  Michigan Sentiment 90.0

Source: Bloomberg

Tomorrow’s PMI data and Thursday’s Initial Claims are the first data that will have the impact of the extraordinary measures taken against the virus, so the real question is, just how bad will they be? I fear they could be much worse than expected, and that is not going to help our equity markets. It will, however, perversely help the dollar, as fear grows further.

Forecasting is a mugs game at all times, but especially now. The only thing that is clear is that the dollar continues to be in extreme demand and is likely to be so until we start to hear that the spread of Covid-19 has truly slowed down. That said, the dollar will not rally forever, so payables hedgers should be thinking of places where they can add to their books.

Good luck and stay well
Adf

Still Aren’t Buying

The market continues to fear
The virus, as it’s become clear
Whatever they try
Recession is nigh
And coming worldwide late this year

But Jay and his friends keep on trying
To help us all so they’re supplying
A hundred beep cut
Which might aid somewhat
Investors, though, still aren’t buying

It is getting hard to keep up with all the policy actions being undertaken by the world’s central banks and governments as every nation tries to address the Covid-19 outbreak. By now, I am sure you are all aware that the Fed, in an unprecedented Sunday night move, cut the Fed funds rate by 100bps, back to the zero bound. But here is what else they did:

• They committed to QE4, which involves purchasing $500 billion in Treasury coupon bonds as well as $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities.
• They cut the interest rate at the discount window to 0.25% and will allow borrowings there for up to 90 days (it had been an overnight facility prior to this).
• And perhaps the most interesting thing, they cut bank reserve requirements to 0.0%, essentially allowing infinite leverage for banks to encourage them to lend.
• Finally, they reinstituted USD swap lines with other major central banks around the world to help everyone else get access to USD liquidity.

The Bank of Japan, meanwhile, pulled their monthly meeting forward to last night so they could act in concert with the rest of the world. With interest rates already negative, they did not touch those, but doubled their target for ETF and corporate bond purchases to ¥12 trillion and they introduced a new zero-rate lending program to help businesses hit by the pandemic. Kuroda-san also made clear there was more they can do if necessary.

The PBOC in a somewhat lukewarm response offered 100 billion yuan of liquidity via the medium-term lending facility at an unchanged rate of 3.15%. Given they are one of the few central banks with room to cut rates, that was somewhat of a surprise. It was also surprising given just how incredibly awful the economic data releases were last night:

Retail Sales -20.5%
Industrial Production -13.5%
Fixed Asset Investment -24.5%
Unemployment Rate 6.2%

The RBNZ cut its base rate by 0.75%, taking it down to 0.25%, and promised to maintain that rate for at least 12 months. They also indicated they would be starting QE if they needed to do anything else. (And to think, New Zealand historically had been considered a ‘high-yielder’!)

The Bank of Korea cut its base rate by 0.50%, taking it to 0.75% in an unscheduled emergency meeting. Analysts are looking for another 50bps at their regular meeting on April 9.

The RBA offered further liquidity injections via repurchase agreements (repos) extending their tenor and indicated it “stands ready” to purchase government bonds (i.e. start QE) with further announcements due Wednesday.

In addition, we saw the Philippines, Hong Kong, Turkey and Sri Lanka act last night. This is clearly a global effort, but one that has not yet gained traction amid the investment community.

Speaking of the investment community, equity markets worldwide are getting crushed, with Asia falling sharply and Europe in even worse shape, as all markets are down at least 6%. Meanwhile, US equity futures are limit down at -5.0% after Friday’s remarkable late day short-covering rally. Again, the only constant here is that volatility is extremely elevated!

Treasury yields have fallen sharply again, down 20bps as I type, but were lower earlier. Interestingly, other than Treasuries, Bunds and Gilts, the rest of the government bond markets have lost their appeal to investors. Instead, we are seeing them sold off alongside equity markets with French yields higher by 4bps, Italian yields +16bps and Greek yields +26bps. In fact, pretty much every other country is seeing yields rise today. I think part of this is the fact that as equity markets decline and margin calls come in, investors must sell the only thing that has any liquidity, and that is government bonds. This behavior could go on for a while.

And lastly, turning to the dollar, it is a mixed picture this morning. The haven currencies, JPY (+1.6%) and CHF (+0.7%) are doing what they are supposed to. The euro, too, has rallied a bit, up 0.5% in what arguably is a response to the dramatically lower US interest rate picture. But NZD and NOK are both lower by 1.5%, the former on the back of its surprise central bank actions while the krone is suffering because oil has collapsed 5.6% this morning amid the ongoing oil war. CAD and AUD, the other G10 commodity currencies are also under pressure, down 0.8% and 0.5% respectively.

Turning to the EMG space, the bright spot is Central Europe, which has seen gains in PLN, RON and BGN. But otherwise, these currencies are under pressure again, some more extreme than others. RUB is the leading decliner, -2.9%, along with oil’s decline, and MXN is also getting hammered, -2.6%. ZAR (-2.4%) and CZK (-1.8%) are the next in line, but basically all APAC currencies have suffered by at least 0.5%, and one can only imagine what will happen to LATAM when it opens. It is not likely to be pretty.

We do see some data this week, but it is not clear how important it will be. Arguably, these will be the last data points prior to the onset of the epidemic.

Today Empire Manufacturing 4.9
Tuesday Retail Sales 0.2%
  -ex autos 0.1%
  IP 0.4%
  Capacity Utilization 77.1%
  JOLT’s Job Openings 6.401M
Wednesday Housing Starts 1502K
  Building Permits 1500K
Thursday Initial Claims 219K
  Philly Fed 10.0
  Leading Indicators 0.1%
Friday Existing Home Sales 5.50M

Source: Bloomberg

At this point, the Fed has canceled their meeting this week, having acted yesterday, which means that we will be able to hear from Fed speakers as they try to massage their message. But the essence of the problem is this is not a financially driven crisis, it is a global health crisis, and all the central banks can do is adjust monetary policy. Fiscal policy adjustments as well as government actions directed at ameliorating the impacts of Covid-19 are much harder, especially in large democratic nations, and so I fear that it will be a number of weeks before things even begin to return to a semblance of normal. Only then will we learn how effective all this monetary policy action will be. In the meantime, I see further declines in equity markets and continued volatility. In fact, the only positive catalyst I could see coming up is the announcement of successful testing of a vaccine for Covid-19, and its immediate production. Alas, nobody knows when that will come.

In the meantime, while bid-ask spreads will be wider, and based on what we have seen in the CDS markets, credit spreads are wider as well, the FX market is still operating, and hedgers should be able to get most everything they need done.

Good luck
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All Screens Are Red

Last week it was how Covid spread
That filled most investors with dread
This weekend we learned
The Russians had spurned
The Saudis, now all screens are red

Wow!! It has been more than a decade since we have seen market activity like this across the entire spectrum of asset classes, dating back to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008 and the ensuing six months of activity. And just like then, the only thing that is going to change the current investor dynamic is a series of policy responses that are broadly seen as being effective. Unfortunately for most policymakers in the G10, they don’t have nearly enough tools available to be instantly effective. In other words, my sense is that while we will certainly get a series of announcements in the next several days, even coordinated announcements, investors and traders are going to need to actually see that deeds follow the words, and that the deeds have a chance to be effective. After all, as we have already discussed, cutting the Fed funds rate will not slow the spread of the coronavirus, nor will it patch things up between OPEC and Russia. Oftentimes, passage of time is a critical feature of any solution, but that just means that we will live with the current volatility that much longer.

A brief recap shows that markets, which were already fragile due to the unknown ultimate impact of the spread of the coronavirus, received one negative catalyst too many this weekend when the, always suspect, alliance of OPEC and Russia broke down regarding production cuts to shore up the price of oil. The Russians walked out of the negotiations and the Saudis responded by cutting their prices dramatically and opening the taps fully on production thus driving WTI lower by more than 34% at one point earlier this morning, although as I type at 6:35am it is “only” down by 29% to $32.50/bbl.

The financial market response was exactly as one would expect with fear rising exponentially and risk assets sold at any price. Meanwhile, haven assets are bid through the roof. So, stock markets around the world are all lower by at least 3.0% with the worst performers (Australia -7.3%, Thailand -7.9%, Italy -9.4%) down far more. US futures hit their 5.0% circuit breakers immediately upon opening and have been quiet all evening pinned at limit down. Cash market circuit breakers in the US are 7.0% for 15 minutes, 13.0% for 15 minutes and then if we should decline by 20%, trading is halted for the rest of the day. It certainly appears that we will trigger at least the first one around the opening, but after that I hesitate to speculate.

The other thing that is almost certainly going to happen is we are going to get a policy statement, at least from the Fed, if not a joint statement from G7 central bankers, or the Fed and the Treasury or all of the above, as they make every effort to try to assuage investor confidence. But in this environment, it is hard to come up with a statement that will do that. As I said, passage of time will be required to calm things down.

Regarding the bond market, by now you are all aware of the historic nature of the movement with the entire US yield curve now below 1.0%. The futures market is pricing in a 75bp cut next week by the Fed and another 25bps by June. Thursday, we hear from the ECB with the market anticipating a 10bp cut and analysts looking for additional stimulus measures, perhaps widening further the assets they are willing to purchase. And next week, the BOJ meets as well as the Fed, with the market looking for a 10bp cut there as well.

All this leads us to the FX markets, where the dollar is having a mixed day. Mixed but violent! It should be no surprise that the yen is dramatically higher this morning, currently by 3.0% although at its peak it was nearly 4.0% stronger. As we flirt with the idea of par on the yen, we need to go back to 2013 to see a time when the currency was stronger, which was driven by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The Swiss franc and euro are also firmer this morning, both by about 1.25% as the former sees haven flows while the latter, in my estimation, is seeing the last of the benefits of the Fed’s ability to ease policy more aggressively than the ECB.

On the flip side, NOK has been devastated, down 2.8%, with CAD falling 1.5%, both on the back of oil’s sharp decline. Aussie, Kiwi and the pound are all trading within 0.4% of Friday’s close, although Aussie did see a 5.0% decline early in the session as lack of liquidity combined with algorithmic stop-loss orders to lead to a significant bout of unruliness.

In the EMG space, the champion is MXN, which has fallen 8.5%! This is a new historic low in the currency which is getting decimated by the coming economic slowdown and now the collapse in oil prices. Let’s just say that all those investors who took comfort in the higher interest rate as a cushion are feeling a lot less sanguine this morning. But we have also seen a sharp decline in ZAR (-2.4%) and a number of Asian currencies fell around 1.0% (MYR, IDR and KRW). And we are awaiting the opening in Sao Paolo as my sense is BRL, which has been falling sharply for the past week, down nearly 5.0%, seems likely to weaken much further.

My advice for those with cash flow programs is to pick a level and leave an order as bid-ask spreads will be much wider today and liquidity will be greatly impaired.

Looking ahead to the week, the ECB meeting on Thursday is clearly the highlight. At home, we only get a bit of data, and given what’s going on it doesn’t seem likely to be very impactful. But here it is:

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 102.9
Wednesday CPI 0.0% (2.2% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.3% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 219K
  PPI -0.1% (1.8% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (1.7% Y/Y)
Friday Michigan Sentiment 95.0

Source: Bloomberg

The thing about this week’s data is that it mostly predates both the onset of the spread of Covid as well as this weekend’s OPEC fiasco. In other words, it is unlikely to be very informative of the current world. We already know that going into these problems, the US economy was in pretty decent shape. The $6.4 trillion question is: How will it look in eight months’ time when the nation heads to the polls?

Remember, orders are likely to be the best execution methodology on a day like today.

Good luck
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