Electees Are Concerned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Looking Distressed

The market was looking distressed
So, Jay clearly thought it was best
To tell everyone
The Fed had begun
To buy corporates at his behest

Frankly, I’m stunned. Anyone who believes that the Fed is focusing on any variable other than the S&P 500 was completely disabused of that notion yesterday. While I know it seems like it was weeks ago, yesterday morning there was concern that Chairman Powell’s comments last week about a long, tough road to recovery were still top of mind to market participants. Concerns over a rising infection rate in some states and countries were growing thus driving investors to react negatively. After all, if the mooted second wave of Covid comes and the nascent economic revival is squashed at the outset, the case for the V-shaped recovery and stratospheric stock prices would quickly die. And so, Chairman Powell responded by explaining that the Fed would expand the SMCCF* program to start buying individual bonds today. Remember, the initial story was ETF’s were the only purchases to be made. Now, the Fed is effectively cherry-picking which investors it wants to help as certainly the companies whose bonds the Fed buys will not be getting any of that money. Or will they? Perhaps the hope is that if the Fed owns individual corporate bonds, in the coming debt jubilee, they will tear up those bonds as well as their Treasuries, thus reducing leverage in a trice.

A debt jubilee, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a government sanctioned erasure of outstanding debts. Its origins are in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, when every 50 years there was a call for the release of all debts, both monetary and personal (indenture). Of course, in the modern world it is a bit more difficult to accomplish as all creditors would be severely impacted by the concept. All creditors except one, that is, a nation’s central bank.

Now that we are in a fiat currency system where central banks create money from nothing (paraphrasing Dire Straits), any public debt that they hold on their balance sheets can simply be forgiven by decree, thus reducing the leverage outstanding. While there would seem to be some inflationary consequences to the action (after all, an awful lot of funds would be instantly freed up to chase after other goods, services and investments), the modern central bank viewpoint on inflation is that it is dangerously low and a problem at current levels, so those consequences are likely to be quickly rationalized away. Thus, if the Fed owns individual corporate bonds, especially of highly indebted companies, they will be able forgive those, reduce leverage and support those companies’ prospects to maintain a full-sized staff. You see, the rationalization is it will support employment, not help investors.

To be clear, there is no official plan for a debt jubilee, but it is something that is gaining credence amongst a subset of the economics community. Especially because of the inherent concerns over near- and medium-term growth due to Covid-19, as future consumer behavior is likely to be very different than past consumer behavior, I expect that a debt jubilee is something about which we will hear a great deal more going forward. Nonstop printing of money by the world’s central banks is not a sustainable activity in the long run. Neither is it sustainable for governments to run deficits well in excess of GDP. A debt jubilee is a potential solution to both those problems, and if it can be accomplished by simply having central banks tear up debt, other creditors will not be destroyed. Truly a (frightening) win-win.

It can be no surprise that the stock market reacted positively to the news, turning around morning losses to close higher by 0.85% in the US with the sharpest part of the move happening immediately upon the statement’s release at 2:15 yesterday. This euphoria carried over into Asia with remarkable effect as the Nikkei (+4.9%) and KOSPI (+5.3%) exploded higher while the rest of the region merely saw strong gains of between 1.4% (Shanghai) and 3.9% (Australia). And naturally, Europe is a beneficiary as well, with the DAX (+2.8%) leading the way, but virtually every market higher by more than 2.0%. US futures? Not to worry, all three indices are currently higher by more than 1.1%.

In keeping with the risk-on attitude, we also saw Treasury bonds sell off in the afternoon with yields rising a bit more than 4bps since the announcement. In Europe, bund yields are higher as are gilts, both by 2.5bps, but the PIGS are basking in the knowledge that their future may well be brighter as we are seeing Portugal (-2bps), Italy (-5.5bps), Greece (-6.5bps) and Spain (-3bps) all rallying nicely.

And finally, the dollar, which had started to show some strength yesterday, has also reversed most of those gains and is broadly, though not deeply, softer this morning. In the G10, the pound is the leader, higher by 0.45%, as the market ignored Jobless Claims in the UK falling by 529K, only the second worst level on record after last month’s numbers, and instead took heart that a Brexit deal could well be reached after positive comments from both Boris Johnson and the EU leadership following a videoconference call earlier today. While nothing is confirmed, this is the best tone we have heard in a while. However, away from the pound gains are limited to less than 0.25% with some currencies even declining slightly.

In the emerging markets, the leading gainer is KRW (+0.75%) despite the fact that North Korea blew up the Joint Office overnight. That office was the sight of ongoing discussions between the two nations and its destruction marks a significant rise in hostility by the North. In my view, the market is remarkably sanguine about the story, especially in light of its response to the news out of India, where Chinese soldiers ostensibly attacked and killed three Indian soldiers in the disputed border zone. There, the rupee fell 0.25% on the report as concerns grow over an escalation of tensions between the two nations. But aside from those two currencies, there were many more gainers in APAC currencies as funds flowed into local stock markets on the Fed inspired risk appetite.

On the data front, we see Retail Sales (exp 8.4%, 5.5% ex autos) as well as IP (3.0%) and Capacity Utilization (66.9%), with all three numbers rebounding sharply from their lows set in April. We saw a similar rebound in German ZEW Expectations (63.4 and its highest since 2006), but recall, that is based on the change of view month to month.

Chairman Powell testifies to the Senate this morning, so all ears will be listening at 10:00. Yesterday we heard from two Fed speakers, Dallas’s Kaplan and San Francisco’s Daly, both of whom expressed the view that a rebound was coming, that YCC was not appropriate at this time and that the Fed still had plenty they could do, as they made evident with yesterday afternoon’s announcement.

While equity markets continue to react very positively to the central bank activities, the dollar seems to be finding a floor. In the end, investment flows into the US still seem to be larger than elsewhere and continue to be a key driver for the dollar. Despite a positive risk appetite, it appears the dollar has limited room to fall further.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

*Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility