No Longer Taboo

The omicron variant seems
No longer to haunt people’s dreams
Thus, stocks are advancing
And markets financing
The craziest, wildest schemes

So, risk is no longer taboo
As narrative changes ensue
Chair Powell’s regained
Control, and contained
The fallout from his last miscue

Risk appetite is remarkably resilient these days as evidenced not only by yesterday’s US equity rally, but by the follow-on price action in Asia last night as well as Europe this morning.  In fact, it seems the rare market that has not rallied at least 2% this morning.  Naturally, this raises the question as to what is driving this sudden return to bullishness?  Is it a widening view that the omicron variant is not going to result in more draconian government lockdowns?  Well, based on the news that NYC has imposed new restrictions on people, requiring vaccinations for everyone aged 5 and older to enter any public building, that may not be the case.  Perhaps the news that Austria has established fines of €600 for the first time someone is found not to be vaccinated with an increasing scale and jail time in that person’s future if they do not correct the situation, is what is easing concern.

At this point, arguably, it is too early to truly understand the nature of the omicron variant and its level of virulence, although it is clearly highly transmissible.  Early indications are that it is not as deadly but also that none of the currently approved vaccines does much with respect to preventing either infection or transmission of this variant.  However, global equity investors have clearly spoken and decided that any potential issues are either likely to be extremely short-term or extremely mild.

Perhaps this renewed risk appetite has been whetted by the idea that the Fed’s tapering will be a net positive for the market.  On the surface, of course, that doesn’t seem to accord with the idea that it has been the Fed’s (and ECB’s) largesse of adding constant liquidity to the system that has been the major support for the equity rally.  I’m sure you all have seen the graph that shows the growth in the Fed’s balance sheet overlain on the price action in the S&P 500, where the two lines are essentially the same.  So, if more central bank liquidity has been the key driver of higher stock prices, how can reduced liquidity and threats(?) or indications of higher interest rates coming sooner help support stocks.  That seems to run contra to both that thesis as well as the idea that inflation is good for stocks, with the second idea suffering from the concept that tighter monetary policy is designed to fight inflation.

But maybe, that is the key.  For the cognitive dissonant equity bull, loose policy and high inflation are good for equity markets because loose policy will keep the economy growing faster than inflation can reduce real returns.  On the other hand, tighter policy will fight inflation thus allowing lower nominal returns to remain competitive on a real basis.  Or something like that.  Frankly, it has become extremely difficult to understand the ever-changing rationales of equity bulls.  But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been right for a long time now, despite changes in underlying macroeconomic trends.

From its peak on November 22, to its bottom Friday, the S&P 500 fell about 5.25%, not even a correction, as defined in the current vernacular.  That requires a 10% pullback.  So, for all intents and purposes, this bull market has done nothing more than pause for a few days and is apparently trying to regain all its lost ground as quickly as possible.  Remember this, though, trees do not grow to the sky, nor do markets rally forever.  There continue to be numerous red flags as to the performance of equities; notably potentially tighter monetary policy, extremely high valuations, narrowing breadth of index performance and questions over future earnings growth amongst others.  And any of these, as well as the many potential issues that are not even currently considered, can be a catalyst for a more significant risk-off event.  In fact, the situation in the Treasury market, the curve is flattening quite rapidly, seems to be one clear warning that the future may not be as rosy as currently priced by the stock market.  Do not take for granted that risk appetite will remain this robust indefinitely and plan accordingly.

But today that is not a concern!  Risk is ON and in a big way.  After yesterday’s US rally, we saw all green in Asia (Nikkei +1.9%, Hang Seng +2.7%, Shanghai +0.2%) and Europe (DAX +2.1%, CAC +2.2%, FTSE 100 +1.2%) with US futures all higher between 1.0% (DOW) and 1.8% (NASDAQ).  In other words, all is right with the world!  Interestingly, one of the stories making the rounds today is about yesterday’s Chinese reduction in the RRR, but that was literally yesterday’s news, well known throughout the entire session.  I feel like there is something else driving things.

As to the bond market, while prices have fallen slightly, the movement is a lot less than would be expected given the strength of the equity rally.  Treasury yields are higher by just 0.2bps while Bunds (+1.5bps), OATs (+0.9bps) and Gilts (+2.4bps) are all responding a little more in line with what would normally be expected.  Data from Europe was slightly better than forecast with German IP (2.8%) and ZEW Expectations (29.9) both showing the economy there holding up better despite the ongoing lockdowns.  Asian bonds also saw yields climb a bit making the process nearly universal.

Commodity prices are following the risk narrative with oil (+2.8%) rallying sharply for the second consecutive day and now trading nearly 15% off the lows seen Thursday!  NatGas (+2.2%) is rebounding but still well below its highs seen in early October, while metals prices are all higher as well led by Cu (+0.7%) and Al (+1.2%) although both gold (+0.25%) and silver (+0.3%) are a bit firmer as well.

It will come as no surprise that the dollar is somewhat softer this morning given the environment as we see AUD (+0.7%), CAD (+0.5%) and NOK (+0.4%) all benefit from firmer commodity prices while the euro (-0.25%) is actually the laggard on the day, despite the rally in equities there.  Perhaps the single currency is gaining some haven characteristics.  In the emerging markets, TRY (+0.7%) is the leading gainer followed by THB (+0.6%) and BRL (+0.5%).  One can simply recognize the extreme volatility in the lira given the ongoing policy missteps, so a periodic rally should be no surprise.  As to the baht, it seems buyers are looking for China’s RRR cut to support the Chinese economy and by extension the Thai economy as well.  Brazil is a more straightforward commodity story I believe.  On the downside, CZK (-0.4%) and HUF (-0.3%) are the laggards as traders express mild concern that the central banks there may not keep up with rising inflation when they meet this week and next.

On the US data front, Nonfarm Productivity (exp -4.9%) and Unit Labor Costs (+8.3%) lead along with the Trade Balance (-$66.8B) at 8:30.  One cannot help but look at the productivity and labor cost data and wonder how equity markets can continue to rally.  Those seem to point to the worst of all worlds.  As to the Fed, they are in their quiet period ahead of next Wednesday’s meeting, so nothing to report there.

While I may not agree with its underpinnings, risk is clearly in vogue this morning and I don’t see any reason for that to change today.  In general, I would look for the dollar to continue to soften slightly, but also see limited scope for a large move.  All eyes have turned to the Fed next week and will be anxiously awaiting Chair Powell’s explanations for whatever moves they make.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Transitory is Dead

Said Jay, transitory is dead
And now when we’re looking ahead
To our consternation
It seems that inflation
Has climbed up to levels we dread

The market heard this and was stunned
Thus, equities quickly were shunned
The dollar was bought
And everyone thought
They’re better off buying the Bund

Finally!  It only took Chairman Powell 9 months to accept the reality on the ground that inflation is not likely to disappear anytime soon.  He officially ‘retired’ the word transitory as a description and confessed that inflation has been more persistent than he and the Fed had forecast.  The question that was not addressed is why the Fed thought that the supply chain bottlenecks were going to be short-lived to begin with.  After all, the primary use of ultra-cheap funding by the corporate community has been capital structure rebalancing (i.e. share repurchases) as that was the most efficient way to improve company valuations.  At least their stock market valuations.  Thus, there was never any evidence that investment was flowing toward areas that were bottle(necke)d up.

Ironically, this was partly Powell’s fault as his continued confidence that inflation was transitory, and bottlenecks would ease discouraged any company from making the investments to ease those very same bottlenecks.  Consider this, why would a company spend money to increase capacity if the benefits to be gained would be so short-lived?  And so, investments were not made, capacity remained the same and the bottlenecks persisted.

But now the Fed has acknowledged that inflation is a problem and Mr Powell has indicated that the pace of tapering QE ought to be increased.  The market read this as a doubling of the pace and so QE is now set to end in March, at least according to the punditry.  We will find out more precisely come the FOMC meeting in two weeks’ time.

Ultimately, the problem for Powell and the Fed is that a more aggressive timeline to tighten policy could potentially have a fairly negative impact on both stock and bond markets.  If that is the case, and there is no reason to believe it won’t be, Mr Powell may find himself in a similar situation as Q4 2018, when comments regarding the fact that the Fed was “nowhere near neutral” interest rates, which implied further tightening, resulted in a 20% decline in the S&P 500 Index and led to the infamous Powell Pivot on Boxing Day, when the Fed stopped tightening and began to ease policy.  Can Powell withstand a 20% decline in the S&P 500 today?  I doubt it.  10%?  Even that will be tough.  In essence, Powell now finds himself caught between President Biden’s growing concerns over inflation and the market’s likely concerns over tighter policy.  If nothing else, we should finally learn the Fed’s true master as this plays out.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how markets have responded overnight.  While yesterday saw an immediate rejection of risk assets, the first bargain hunters have returned and equity markets were largely in the green overnight and on into this morning.  The Nikkei (+0.4%), Hang Seng (+0.8%) and Shanghai (+0.35%) all managed to rally amid mixed data (Japan’s PMI rising to 54.5, China’s Caixin PMI falling to 49.9) and despite ongoing concerns the omicron variant would lead to further lockdowns.

European bourses (DAX +1.4%. CAC +1.3%, FTSE 100 +1.3%) are all much firmer after the PMI data there was generally better than expected.  This is despite the fact that the OECD released its latest forecasts, slightly downgrading global growth for 2021 although maintaining its 2022 global growth forecast of 4.5%.  Pointed comments about the risks of the omicron variant accompanied the release as all the work was done before that variant became known.  Perhaps investors are looking at omicron and assuming it will delay tightening further, thus support equity values.  Finally, US futures are all pointing sharply higher this morning, at least 1.0% with NASDAQ futures +1.5% at this hour.

It should be no surprise, given risk is back in vogue, that bonds are selling off again.  The one thing that has been evident is that volatility in markets has increased and shows no signs of abating until there is a more coherent story and clarity on ultimate central bank policy.  This morning, Treasury yields (+3.6bps) have jumped as have Bunds (+2.7bps), OATs (+3.1bps) and Gilts (+5.6bps).  Perhaps more surprising is that Italian BTPs (+6.5bps) have been the worst performer on the continent as during a risk-on session, these bonds tend to outperform.  Asian bond markets performed in a similar manner as yields rallied everywhere there.

Commodity prices are at least making sense today as we are seeing strength virtually across the board.  Oil (+4.5%) is leading the energy space higher, although NatGas (-3.4%) remains disconnected and is the sole outlier.  Metals are firmer as both precious (Au +0.7%, Ag +0.2%) and industrial (Cu +0.45%, Al +0.7%, Sn +0.3%) see buying interest and agricultural prices are firmer as well.

The dollar, though, has less direction today with the G10 seeing commodity currencies stronger (NZD +0.35%, AUD +0.3%, CAD +0.25%) while financials are under modest pressure (CHF -0.2%, JPY -0.15%, EUR -0.15%).  Now, in fairness, none of these moves are that large and most likely they represent position adjustment more than anything else.  In the emerging markets, TRY (+1.8%) remains the most volatile, rising sharply (more than 8.5% at its peak) after the central bank announced they were intervening due to “unhealthy price formations” in the market.  It seems those price formations have been the result of President Erdogan continuing his campaign to lower interest rates in the face of soaring inflation.  But there were other gainers of note including MXN (+0.9%) backed by oil’s rebound, KRW (+0.8%) on the strength of stronger than forecast output data and CLP (+0.7%) on the rise in copper prices.

Data this morning brings ADP Employment (exp 525K), ISM Manufacturing (61.2) and Prices Paid (85.5) and at 2:00 this afternoon, the Fed releases the Beige Book.  Chairman Powell and Secretary Yellen testify to the House Financial Services Committee starting at 10:00, and remember, that was when the fireworks started yesterday.  I doubt we will see the same type of movement but be alert.

The dollar story has lost its conviction as previously, the thought of a more aggressive Fed would have led to a much firmer dollar.  However, we are not witnessing that type of price action here.  While I still believe that will impact the currency’s near-term movement, right now it appears that many currencies are trading on their own idiosyncratic issues without the benefit of the big picture.  If the Fed does taper more quickly and begin to raise rates, I do expect the dollar will benefit and we can see 1.10 or lower in the euro as there is absolutely no indication the ECB is going to follow suit.  However, I suspect that equity market pain will become too much for the Fed to tolerate, and that any dollar strength will be somewhat short-lived.  Payables hedgers should take advantage over the next few weeks/months, but if you are a receivables hedger, I think patience may be a virtue here.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Prices Keep Rising

In Europe, though prices keep rising
The central bank is emphasizing
No rate hikes are near
In this or next year
So, traders, their views, are revising

Meanwhile in the States the reverse
Is true with inflation much worse
Now traders believe
The Fed’s on the eve
Of trying to tighten their purse

It cannot be surprising that inflation remains topic number one in the markets as its existence is driving virtually every narrative.  For instance, the choice for next Fed Chair is seen as having a direct impact on inflation based on the relative dovishness of Lael Brainerd vs. Jay Powell.  Too, as oil prices have risen so sharply over the past year, driving up the price of gas at the pump and inflation in general, the Biden Administration is now exhorting all nations to release oil from their strategic reserves in order to damp down those price pressures.  And what about wages, you may ask?  As per the WSJ this morning, here is the latest on the just agreed wage deal at Deere & Co, whose workers had been on strike for the past 5 weeks,

“Deere workers returning to assembly plants and warehouses will get an immediate 10% raise, and each worker will receive an $8,500 bonus. Additional 5% pay raises will be provided in 2023 and 2025, and lump-sum bonuses amounting to 3% of workers’ annual pay will be awarded in the three other years.
The deal approved Wednesday also will increase the base pay level for Deere’s continuous-improvement program by about 4%, giving workers more weekly pay from the program if their productivity meets the company’s goals. About two-thirds of UAW-represented Deere workers receive production-based compensation on top of their regular wages, according to the company.”

Apparently, the cost of the settlement is on the order of $3.5 billion, a very substantial portion of their forecast 2021 earnings estimates of $5.8 billion.  It strikes that either Deere is going to be raising prices (likely) to offset that margin compression, or its earnings numbers are going to diminish (also likely) thus putting pressure on its stock over time.  Recall, Chairman Powell has been adamant, and we have heard from numerous other Fed speakers as well, that wage inflation is not imminent and thus recent price rises are likely to be temporary.  This appears to be one more data point that makes the Fed story less plausible.

In Europe, however, there is a full-court press by ECB members to convince the investment and trading communities that they are not going to raise rates anytime soon as inflation there, too, is still transitory.  While it should be no surprise that Mario Centeno, the Portuguese central bank head and ECB member is all-in for never raising rates again, it is a huge surprise that Germany’s Isabel Schnabel is talking about the need to avoid premature tightening as deflation risks still haunt the Eurozone.  Her comments come despite CPI in Germany running at 4.5%, the highest since the reunification in the early 90’s and causing significant domestic strife.  If one was looking for a sign that the ECB doves have coopted the hawks to their side, there is no better indication than this!  As such, traders, who had been pricing for a 10bp rise in the deposit rate by the end of 2022 have pushed that view back nearly 12 months.

In sum, the battle between the central bank narratives and reality continues apace with the central banks, remarkably, holding their own in the face of growing evidence to dispute their claims.  And it is this battle that will continue to drive markets and help maintain volatility as each data point or comment has the ability to alter things at the margin.

So, as we look at markets this morning, remember the backdrop remains, Inflation, friend or foe?

Ok, how has risk appetite been affected by the latest news?  Well, US equities all moved lower yesterday and that carried over into Asia with the Nikkei (-0.3%), Hang Seng (-1.3%) and Shanghai (-0.5%) all in the red.  Part of that is because the Chinese property sector continues to weigh on sentiment there with the latest news that several large property companies, including Evergrande, are set to unload stakes in other companies to raise cash.  While these sales will be at great losses, the imperative for the cash is obvious.  Not surprisingly, selling large stakes of publicly held companies tends to weigh on their stock price and thus the market as a whole.

In Europe, the picture is more mixed (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.2%) with the UK seeming to suffer from growing concerns the Johnson government may invoke Article 16 from the Brexit deal which would suspend part of the Northern Ireland solution and could quickly evoke retaliation by the EU.  As to US futures, given it appears to be illegal for two consecutive down days in the equity markets, it should not be surprising that futures are pointing higher by between 0.2% and 0.5% at this hour.

Bond market price action is a very clear result of the central bank narrative as European sovereigns have all seen rallies (lower yields) while Treasuries remain under pressure as investors anticipate higher rates in the States.  This morning the 10-year Treasury yield is higher by 1 basis point while in Europe (Bunds -0.9bps, OATs -1.3bps, Gilts -2.7bps) the entire continent has seen demand pick up and yields decline.  Clearly, if the ECB remains full-bore on QE, it will support these prices for a long time.

Turning to the commodity markets, pretty much the entire space is softer today led by oil (-0.5%), gold (-0.2%) and copper (-0.7%).  But there is weakness across the rest of the industrial and precious metal space as well.  In fact, the only gainers on the day are NatGas (+1.8%) which looks very much like a rebound from its recent sharp sell-off, and the agricultural space, where the big 3 products are all firmer by a bit.

Turning to the FX markets, the dollar is under a bit of pressure this morning, which mostly seems like a pull-back from its recent strength.  Technically, it does seem overbought.  In the G10, NZD (+0.7%) is far and away the leading gainer after the RBNZ published their inflation expectations survey at the highest level in a decade and traders began to price in another 25 basis point rate hike at their meeting next week.  However, after that, the rest of the bloc has seen much more modest strength except for NOK (-0.1%) which is suffering from oil’s recent travails, and JPY (-0.1%) which may be reacting to news that the Kishida government is discussing yet more fiscal stimulus, this time to the tune of ¥78.9 trillion.

Emerging market currencies have a more mixed tone with the outlier continuing to be TRY (-2.1%) as the central bank remained true to form and cut its base rate to 15.0% despite runaway inflation.  Next worst is CLP (-0.7%) which has fallen as the finance ministry has stopped its regular dollar sales to maintain cash balances, but pulling support from the currency, and then we see both MXN (-0.55%) and ZAR (-0.5%) suffering on the back of commodity weakness.  On the plus side, HUF (+0.7%) is the big winner after the central bank raised rates by a more than expected 0.70% in their efforts to fight inflation.

On the data front this morning comes weekly Initial (exp 260K) and Continuing (2120K) Claims as well as the Philly Fed (24.0) and Leading Indicators (0.8%).  The Fed speaker onslaught slows a bit today with only four speakers, although despite yesterday’s plethora of speakers, it doesn’t appear we learned anything new.

For now, the broad narrative remains the Fed is going to be the first large central bank to tighten and that is driving the dollar higher.  While today we seem to be pausing for a bit, this story does not yet appear to have run its course.  Hence, I reiterate for payables hedgers, pick your levels and take advantage of the dollar’s strength for now.  orders are an excellent way to manage this risk.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Ill-Starred

The latest from Treasury’s Yellen
Is really not all that compellin’
The problem, she said
Is Covid’s widespread
So, prices just won’t stop their swellin’

This morning, then, Madame Lagarde
Repeated her latest canard
If we were to tighten
Too early, we’d heighten
The risk of an outcome, ill-starred

As we begin a new week the only thing that has changed is the date, at least with respect to the official narrative regarding inflation and the economy.  Once again, this weekend, Treasury Secretary Yellen complained explained that Covid-19 is the reason inflation is running so high, and that once the pandemic is under control, prices will slow their ascent.  That seems to ignore the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of $5 trillion since last year, as well as the $5 trillion in special fiscal assistance that has been enacted by the government, the last $1.9 trillion under her guidance.  And of course, she is cheerleading the next $1.75 trillion in the Administration’s plans.  Yet she continues to claim that when Covid recedes, all will be well again.

At the same time, ECB President Christine Lagarde continues along the same lines, pooh-poohing the idea that the ECB should consider tightening policy because the current bout of inflation is only temporary (wisely, she has stopped using the term transitory at this point) and were they to act now, by the time their policy change had any effect on the economy, inflation would already be slowing down on its own.  So, you can be sure that the ECB is not about to alter its policy either anytime soon.  In fact, when the PEPP expires in March next year, you can be certain that the APP, the original Asset Purchase Plan (QE) will be expanded and extended to keep the cocaine flowing into the Eurozone economy’s bloodstream.

Will this process change at any point soon?  The odds remain extremely low in either the US or Europe given the evolution of the membership of both policy boards.  In the US, it appears the odds of a Chairwoman Lael Brainerd grow each day, and with that, the odds of easier monetary policy for an even longer time.  A telling blurb about her views recounts the time when then Chair Yellen wanted to start to raise rates in 2015 and Brainerd argued forcefully against the idea.  History shows that the Fed missed a key opportunity at that time to more fully normalize policy, leading directly to the lack of effective tools they currently possess.  While Chairman Powell has certainly been no hawk, relative to Ms Brainerd, his talons look quite sharp.

At the same time, the news that Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann is stepping down has resulted in the most forceful counterbalance to the large dovish wing in the ECB leaving the governing council.  While the next Buba president is sure to be more hawkish than most ECB members, he will not have the gravitas nor sway that Weidmann holds, and therefore, will be less able to push against the doves.

While smaller economies around the world continue to respond to rapidly rising inflation (just Thursday, Banxico raised the base rate in Mexico another 0.25% to 5.00%) it is abundantly clear that neither the Fed nor ECB is anywhere near that path.  Yes, the Fed has started to marginally slow down balance sheet expansion, but that is not tightening policy under any definition.  It is unclear what type of shock will be necessary to force these two central banks to rethink their current plans, but if history is any guide, central banks tend to overstay their welcome when it comes to easing monetary policy.  You can have too much of a good thing and I fear that is what we are all going to experience at some point in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, however, nothing seems to stop the march higher in equity markets and today is no exception.  Last night in Asia, the Nikkei (+0.6%) and Hang Seng (+0.25%) both moved higher although Shanghai (-0.2%) continues to be weighed down by the property sector with Evergrande as well as several other developers barely able to continue as going concerns.  Europe is generally firmer as well led by the CAC (+0.4%) and DAX (+0.1%) although, here too, there is a laggard in the form of the FTSE 100 (-0.2%) after housing prices slipped and seemed to portend a slowing in the economy there.  US futures are currently about 0.2% higher on the day.

In the bond market, which has been remarkably volatile lately, this morning is showing a respite, with Treasury yields (-0.3bps) nearly unchanged and similar modest yield declines throughout Europe (bunds flat, OATs -0.5bps, Gilts -0.9bps).  At this stage, the bond bulls and bears are fighting to a draw and waiting the next key signal.  Certainly, inflation would have you believe that yields should rise, but between ongoing QE and concerns over a slowing economy, the bond bulls are still in the driver’s seat.

In the commodity markets, oil is continuing last week’s sell-off, down 1.5% this morning with WTI back below $80/bbl. NatGas (-0.9%), too is falling, at least in the US, but not in Europe, where Gazprom, which had increased flows for a few days, seems to have cut back yet again.  I fear it is going to be a long, cold winter on the continent.  In the metal’s markets, gold (-0.1%) has edged lower this morning although has been performing quiet well over the past two weeks having rallied more than 6%.  But all the base metals (Cu -0.3%, al -0.7%, Sn -0.8%) are under pressure, hardly a sign of robust growth on the horizon.

Overall, the dollar is under modest pressure this morning, although recall, it has been quite firm for the past several weeks.  In the G10, AUD (+0.45%) and NZD (+0.4%) are the leading gainers as investors are sensing an opportunity in recently rising bond yields there.  Interestingly, NOK (+0.35%) is also higher despite oil’s decline, although this appears to be more of a technical correction than a trend change.  In the EMG bloc, ZAR (+0.9%) and RUB (+0.7%) are the leading gainers, both on the strength of expectations for further policy tightening by their central banks.  On the downside, PHP (-0.65%) is the key laggard as importers were seen selling dollars to pay for things like oil and gas.

Data this week is led by Retail Sales and comes as follows:

Today Empire Manufacturing 22.0
Tuesday Retail Sales 1.3%
-ex Autos 1.0%
IP 0.8%
Capacity Utilization 75.9%
Wednesday Housing Starts 1580K
Building Permits 1630K
Thursday Initial Claims 260K
Continuing Claims 2123K
Philly Fed 24.0
Leading Indicators 0.8%

Source: Bloomberg

In addition, we have ten Fed speakers on the calendar across fifteen different speaking engagements.  Be prepared for at least a little movement from that cacophony.

For now, the medium-term trend remains for dollar strength, despite today’s price action, as ongoing high inflation readings continue to drive the idea that the Fed will actually tighten policy at some point.  While that remains to be seen, it is the current market view, and I would not stand in its way.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Feathered and Tarred

The talk of the town is that Jay
Will outline the taper today
Inflation’s been mulish
And he has been foolish
-ly saying t’would soon go away

This outcome means Madame Lagarde
Remains as the final blowhard
Who claims that inflation
Is our ‘magination
Which might get her feathered and tarred

It’s Fed day today and the market discussion continues apace as to just what Chairman Powell and his FOMC acolytes are going to do this afternoon.  The overwhelming majority view amongst the economics set is the Fed will outline its plans to taper QE purchases starting immediately.  Expectations are for a reduction in purchases by $10 billion/month of Treasuries and $5 billion/month of Mortgage Backed Securities.  Many analysts also believe the statement will leave wiggle room for the FOMC to adjust the pace as necessary depending on the unfolding economic conditions.  Powell has been taking great pains in trying to separate the timing of reducing QE with the timing of raising interest rates, and I expect that will continue to be part of the discussion.  Of course, the market is currently pricing in two 25bp rate hikes in 2022, essentially saying the Fed will finish the taper next June and hike rates immediately.  This is clearly not Powell’s desired path, but the wisdom of crowds may just have it right.  We shall see.

In addition to that part of the announcement, we are going to hear the Fed’s view on how inflation will evolve going forward, although at this point, I think even they have realized they cannot use the word transitory in their communications.  Talk about devaluing the meaning of a word!  What remains remarkable to me is the unwavering belief, at least the expressed unwavering belief, that while inflation may print high for a little while longer, it is due to settle back down to the 2% level going forward.  I continue to ask myself, why is that the central bank view?  And not just in the US, but in almost every developed nation.  For instance, just moments ago Madame Lagarde was quoted as saying, “Medium-term inflation outlook remains subdued,” and “conditions for rate hike unlikely to be met next year.”

To date, there has certainly been no indication that global supply chains are working more smoothly than they were during the summer, and every indication things will get worse before they get better.  The number of ships anchored off major ports continues to grow, the number of truck drivers continues to shrink and demand, courtesy of literally countless trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus shows no sign of abating.  Add to that the current environmental zeitgeist, which demonizes fossil fuels and seeks to prevent any investment in their production thus reducing supply into accelerating demand and it is easy to make the case that prices are likely to rise going forward, not fall.

There is a saying in economics that, ‘the cure for high prices is high prices.’  The idea is that higher prices will encourage increased supply thus driving prices back down.  And historically, this has been true, especially in commodity markets.  However, the unspoken adjunct to that saying is that policies do not exist to prevent increased supply and that the incentive of higher revenues is sufficient to encourage that new supply to be created.  Alas, the world in which we find ourselves today is rife with policies that may have political support but are not economically sound.  The current US energy policy mix preventing oil drilling in ANWR and offshore, as well as the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline served only to reduce the potential supply of oil with no replacement strategy.  If policy prevents new production, then no price is high enough to solve that problem, and therefore the ceiling on prices is much higher.

I focus on energy because it is a built-in component of everything that is produced and consumed, and while the Fed may ignore its price movement, manufacturers and service providers do not and will raise prices to cover those increased costs.  The upshot here is that instead of high prices encouraging new supply, it appears increasingly likely that prices will have to rise high enough to destroy new, and existing, demand before markets can once again return to a semblance of balance.  Given the fact that fiscal largesse has been extraordinary and household savings has exploded to unprecedented heights during the pandemic and remains well above pre-pandemic levels, it seems that demand is not going to diminish anytime soon.  I fear that rising prices is a new feature of our lives, across all segments, and something we must learn to address going forward.  While there is no reason to believe we are heading to a Weimar-style hyperinflation, do not be surprised if the “new normal” CPI is 3.5%-4.5% going forward.  At the current time, there is simply nothing to indicate this problem will be addressed by the Fed although we are likely to see smaller, open economy central banks raise interest rates far more aggressively.  As that process plays out, the dollar will almost certainly weaken, but we are still months away from that situation.

So, ahead of the FOMC statement and Powell presser this afternoon, here’s what’s been happening in markets.  Despite record high closes in the US markets yesterday, Asia (Nikkei -0.4%, Hang Seng -0.3%, Shanghai -0.2%) did not follow through at all.  Europe, too, sees no joy although only the FTSE 100 (-0.2%) has even moved on the day with other major markets essentially unchanged.  US futures are also little changed at this time with everyone waiting for Jay.

Bond markets, on the other hand are continuing their recent rally with Treasury yields lower by 1.4bps and Europe (Bunds -1.5bps, OATs -2.0bps, Gilts -0.3bps) all rallying as well.  Peripheral markets are doing even better as it seems the European view is turning toward the idea that the ECB will be outlining their new QE program in December with no capital key involved.

Commodity prices continue to give mixed signals with oil (WTI -2.4%) falling sharply, ostensibly on comments from President Biden admonishing OPEC+ to pump more oil.  Will that really get them to do so?  NatGas (-0.7%) is also a bit softer, but the metals complex is actually firmer with copper (+1.05%, aluminum +1.45%, and tin +1.8%) all showing strong gains.  This as opposed to precious metals which are essentially unchanged on the day.

As to the dollar, it is hard to describe today.  While versus the G10, it is generally weaker (CHF +0.4%, NZD +0.4%, SEK +0.3%) it has performed far better against EMG currencies (TRY -0.8%, RUB -0.7%, KRW -0.6%) although PLN (+0.4%) is having a good day.  Unpacking all this the Swiss story seems to be premised on the idea that the market is testing the SNB to see if they can force more intervention while the kiwi story is a response to stronger jobs data overnight.  Sweden seems to be benefitting from the emerging view of tighter policy from the Riksbank as they reduce QE.  On the EMG side, Turkey’s inflation rate continues to be breathtakingly high (CPI 19.89%, PPI 46.31%!) and yet there is no indication the central bank will respond by tightening policy as that is against the view of President Erdogan.  Oil’s decline is obviously driving the ruble lower, surprisingly not NOK, and KRW saw an increase in foreign equity sales and outflows thus weakening the won.

Ahead of the FOMC we see ADP Employment (exp 400K), ISM Services (62.0) and Factory Orders (0.1%), but while ADP will enter the conversation tomorrow, once we are past the Fed, I expect the morning session to be extremely quiet ahead of 2:00pm.  From there, all bets are off, although my take is the level of hawkishness on the FOMC is edging higher.  Perhaps there is some dollar strength to be seen post-Powell.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Costs are Aflame

The central banks of the G10
Are starting to realize the ‘when’
Of interest rate rises
To forestall a crisis
Is sooner than they thought back then

Inflation breakevens keep rising
While companies are proselytizing
That they’re not to blame
As costs are aflame
Thus CB’s, their plans, are revising

It is difficult to scan a news source these days without seeing a story of how some company or another is raising their prices by X% due to increased shipping/raw material costs/labor costs.  And the reporter doesn’t really have to look that hard for the typical anecdotes that accompany this type of story since the situation has become increasingly prevalent.  Just this morning I read about Unilever, WD-40 and P&G all explaining that prices have not only already risen but would be rising further in the months ahead.  Obviously, this does not bode well for the transitory narrative, which is in its death throes.  That being said, it is still not the universal opinion of all Fed members.  For instance, yesterday NY Fed president John Williams exclaimed that long-term inflation expectations have risen to levels “consistent with the 2% goal.”  Now, I’m not sure what long-term expectations he is looking at, but yesterday, the 5-year/5-year inflation rate in the US Treasury market closed at 2.915%, its highest level since the series began in 2002.  The 19-year history of this measure shows an average of 1.85%, which seems more in line with Williams’ comments.  But one must be willfully blind to look at the chart of this series and claim inflation expectations remain sedate.

The risk for the central banks that maintain inflation is not a growing issue is loss of whatever credibility they have remaining.  And the upshot is, markets are not listening to them anymore and have begun to price in more aggressive rate hikes around the world.  In the US, the first rate hike is priced for next July, right about the time the Fed previously expected to finish tapering.  And there is a second hike priced in before the end of 2022.  In the UK, the first hike is priced for this December with three more expected by next September.  Even in the Eurozone, a full hike is priced in by the end of next year, something that not a single ECB banker has expressed, and in fact, several have categorically denied.

At the same time, longer term yields are rising as well, with 10-year Treasuries up to 1.68% even after having fallen 2.1 bps in the overnight session.  German bunds, while still negative (-0.09%) are at their highest level since May 2019, which was the last time their yield was at 0.0%.  And we are seeing similar price action across Gilts, OATs and Australian GBs.  (The latter despite the fact that the RBA remains adamant that they will not be raising interest rates until 2024.  Methinks they will have some crow to eat on that subject.)

The problem for central banks, and their respective governments, is that given the extraordinary amount of debt outstanding, higher yields can quickly become a problem.  So, ask yourself how can a central bank prevent rising yields without raising front end rates or expanding their balance sheets further?  You will not like this answer but here is a taste of what could be coming our way; regulatory changes that force institutions to buy government bonds.  Consider the ease with which central banks could require commercial banks to expand the ratio of government bonds in their asset portfolio, or insurance companies or pension funds or all three.  Financial repression can take form in many ways, and this would likely be the first step.  After all, for the average person, this is a relatively esoteric process and would not likely be widely understood hence would not cause an uproar.  Of course, all those insurance company and pension fund portfolios that needed to replace stock holdings with bonds would result in some pretty big selling pressure in the equity market, which would get a little more press.  But central banks wouldn’t get the blame as they are one step removed from the process.  In their eyes, this would be a win-win.

The implication is not that this is imminent, just that it is a possible pathway in the future, and one that seems more and more likely as inflation drives yields higher.  However, for now, the market is still of the belief that central banks will be forced to raise rates and are pricing accordingly.  Given the widespread nature of this belief set, the relative impact on currencies remains muted.  However, if US rates continue to lead the way higher, I think the dollar will continue to see the most support.

Ok, a quick look at today shows that despite the gathering inflation clouds, risk is in vogue with equities generally higher and bonds generally softer.  Last night saw modest gains in the Nikkei (+0.35%) and Hang Seng (+0.4%) although Shanghai (-0.35%) continues to feel the pain of the property situation in China. (As an aside, Evergrande made a surprise partial payment on the USD bond coupon that had been overdue and was about to trigger a default. So, it lives to default another day.)  Europe, too, is having a generally positive session with the CAC (+1.1%) leading the way higher but strong gains in the DAX (+0.7%) and FTSE 100 (+0.55%).  Here, the data released was the preliminary PMI data, which was best described as mixed compared to forecasts, but broadly softer compared to last month, and continues to trend lower.  The outlier here was the UK, which had stronger PMI data, but much weaker than expected Retail Sales data, so perhaps offsetting news.  As to US futures markets, the are either side of unchanged at this hour after this week’s rally.

Bond markets throughout the continent are seeing selling pressure with yields rising (Bunds +1.7bps, OATs +1.6bps) but Gilts (-0.8bps) have a bid along with Treasuries (-2.1bps).  The trend, though remains for higher yields as investors respond to rising inflationary forecasts.  Central banks have their work cut out for them if they want to maintain control of these markets.

In the commodity markets, oil (+0.4%) and NatGas (+0.8%) are back in the green as are copper (+0.75%) and gold (+0.55%).  In fact, pretty much the entire complex including industrial metals and agricultural products are all firmer this morning.

Finally, the dollar is softer across the board in the G10, with AUD (+0.45%) the leading gainer on the back of the commodity picture, followed by SEK (+0.35%) and NOK (+0.35%) which are similarly well situated.  The pound (+0.05%) is the laggard as the Retail Sales data seems to have undermined some bullish views.  In the emerging markets, there are two outliers, one in each direction.  The only loser of the day is TRY (-1.0%) which continues to suffer from yesterday’s surprising 200bps rate cut.  Meanwhile, RUB (+1.4%) has been the leading gainer after the Bank of Russia surprised the market with a 75bp rate hike, much larger than the 25bp-50bp that had been forecast.  Adding that to the price of oil has been an unalloyed positive.  Away from those two, however, gains are modest with ZAR (+0.35%) the next best performer following commodity prices higher.

Preliminary PMI data is the only thing on the docket data wise this morning, but Chairman Powell speaks at 11:00 as the final speaker before the quiet period begins.  Given the differences we heard from Williams and Waller, it will be very interesting to see if Powell is more concerned about inflation or employment.

As such, I expect a muted morning ahead of Powell’s comments and then the opportunity for some activity if he substantially changes the narrative.  My sense is that any change would be hawkish and therefore a dollar positive.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

PS, I will be out of the office next week so no poetry again until November 1st.

More Duration

A governor, Fed, name of Waller
Who previously had been a scholar
Remarked that inflation
Might have more duration
Which could cause a weakening dollar

As well, he explained that his view
Was rate hikes just might soon ensue
Were that to transpire
Then yields would move higher
While equity losses accrue

In what can only be termed a bit surprising, Fed governor Chris Waller, the FOMC member with the shortest tenure, explained yesterday that he is “greatly concerned abut the upside risk that elevated inflation will not prove temporary.”  While refreshing, that is certainly a far cry from the narrative that the Fed has been pushing for many months.  Of course, if one simply looks at the inflation data, which has been trending sharply higher, it seems apparent that transitory is not an apt description.  As well, he is the first Fed member to be honest in the discussion about bottlenecks and supply chain issues as he commented, “bottlenecks have been worse and are lasting longer than I and most forecasters expected, and an important question that no one knows the answer to is how long these supply problems will persist.” [emphasis added].

During the entire ‘transitory inflation’ debate, the issue with which I most disagreed was the working assumption that these transportation bottlenecks and supply chain disruptions would quickly work themselves out.  It was as though the central bank community believed that because economic models explain that higher prices lead to increased production of those goods or services, the result was a magical appearance of additional supply to push prices back down.  Meanwhile, in the real world filled with regulations, restrictions and skill and resource mismatches and misallocations, these things can take a long time to correct themselves.  There is no little irony that government regulations regarding truck drivers have significantly reduced the supply of available truckers which has led to those very bottlenecks that are now bedeviling the economy (and government).  Alas, in the great Rube Goldberg tradition, rather than simplify processes to open up supply chains, it appears that government will be adding new regulations designed to offset the current ones which will almost certainly have other negative consequences down the road.

Finally, Governor Waller was refreshingly honest in his view of things like core inflation and trimmed-mean CPI or PCE calling them, “a way of manipulating data.”  Of course, that is exactly what they are.  Central banks have relied on these lower numbers as a rationale for continuing extraordinarily easy monetary policy despite the very clear rise in inflation.   And despite Mr Waller’s comments, the Powell/Yellen narrative remains inflation is not that high and anyway it’s transitory.

As it happens, though, the bond market seems to have been listening to Waller’s comments as it sold off pretty aggressively yesterday with yields backing up 4 basis points to their highest level since May.  While this morning Treasury yields are unchanged, it is becoming clear that a trend higher in yields is manifesting itself with the market clearly targeting the highs seen in March at 1.75%.

A fair question would be to ask if this price action is occurring elsewhere in the world and the answer would be a resounding yes.  For instance, UK Gilts, which today have actually fallen 3.1bps, are trending sharply higher over the past two months and are at their highest levels since early 2019.  Today’s UK CPI report showed inflation at 3.1%, which was a tick lower than forecast, but still well above their 2.0% target.  In addition, virtually the entire MPC has acknowledged that CPI is likely to rise above 4.0% by December with a very uncertain timeline to fall back.  Governor Bailey has made it clear that they will be raising interest rates at their next meeting in early November and there has been no pushback regarding the market pricing in 3 more rate hikes in 2022.

The upshot of all this is the carefully curated narrative by the Fed and its brethren is being destroyed by events on the ground and in addition to damage control, they are trying very hard to establish the new narrative.  However, it is not clear the market is going to be so willing to go along this time.  Too, all this price pressure is occurring with a backdrop of softening economic data, with yesterday’s Housing data the latest numbers to fall both from the previous month and below forecasts.  As I’ve written before, were I Chairman Powell, I wouldn’t accept renomination even if it is offered.  The Fed chair, when things hit the fan, will not have a very good time.

On the flip side of all this distress there is the equity market, which continues blithely along the trail of rallying on every piece of news, whether good or bad.  Now that we have entered earnings season, with expectations for a strong Q2 (after all, GDP grew at 6.8%), algorithms investors remain ready to buy more of whatever is hot.  Yesterday saw solid gains across all three US indices and we continue to see more strength than weakness overseas.  In Asia, for instance, the Nikkei (+0.15%) edged higher while the Hang Seng (+1.35%) had quite a good day although Shanghai (-0.2%) continues to suffer under the ongoing pressure from the Chinese real estate market.  Today another Chinese real estate developer, Sinic, defaulted on a bond and by the end of the week the 30-day grace period for Evergrande will end and we will see if there are more ramifications there.

As to the rest of the world, both Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC -0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.1%) and US futures are essentially flat this morning.  The investor question is, can strong earnings offset tighter monetary policy?  While we shall see over the course of the next few weeks, I suspect that a more hawkish Fed, if that is what shows up, will be very difficult to offset for the broad indices.

Commodities have taken a breather today with oil (-1.2%) and NatGas (-1.3%) slipping and dragging most other things down with them.  So, copper (-1.3%) and aluminum (-1.1%) are feeling that pain although gold (+0.7%) and silver (+1.25%) are both benefitting from either the inflation narrative or the fact that the dollar is arguably somewhat softer.

Speaking of the dollar, it is best described as mixed today, with a range of gainers and losers versus the greenback.  In the G10, NOK (-0.45%) is the worst performer, clearly suffering on the back of oil’s decline, with the pound (-0.3%) next in line after CPI printed a tick lower than expected and some thought that might dissuade the BOE from raising rates (it won’t).  But other than those two, everything else is +/- 0.15% which is indicative of nothing happening.

EMG currencies are also mixed with the biggest winners INR (+0.6%) and KRW (+0.4%) both benefitting from equity market inflows amid hopes for stronger growth.  After that, the gainers have been modest at best with nothing really standing out.  On the downside, RUB (-0.2%) following oil and CNY (-0.2%) have been the worst performers.  China is interesting as the PBOC set the fix for a much weaker than expected renminbi as it is clearly becoming a bit uncomfortable with the currency’s recent appreciation (+1.9% in past two months before last night).  Remember, for a mercantilist economy like China, excessive currency strength is an economic problem.  Look for the PBOC to continue to push against further strength.

On the data front, only the Fed’s Beige Book is released this afternoon, but we do hear from 5 more FOMC members.  Remember, nobody expected Waller’s comments to be market moving, so we must keep our antenna up for something else.

In fact, my sense is that the Fed is going to try very hard to reestablish the narrative they want regarding inflation and the future of interest rates.  That implies we are going to hear more and more from Fed speakers.  The risk is that the divide at the Fed between hawks and doves will widen to a point where no consistent narrative is forthcoming.  At that point, markets are likely to pay less attention to the comments and more to the data and expectations.  If forward guidance loses its strength, the Fed will be in a much worse position and market volatility is likely to increase substantially.  However, we have not yet reached that point.  In the meantime, the dollar is searching for its next catalyst.  Until then, consolidation of recent gains continues to be the most likely outcome.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Stop It

There are several central banks which
Are starting to look at a switch
From policy ease
To tight, if you please
As QE they now want to ditch

The Old Lady and RBA
Are two that seem ready to say
Inflation’s too high
And so we must try
To stop it ere it runs away

The dollar is under pressure this morning as investors and traders start to look elsewhere in the world for the next example of policy tightening.  The story of tapering in the US is, quite frankly, getting long in the tooth as it has been a topic of discussion for the past six months and every inflation reading points to the fact that, despite their protestations, FOMC members realize they need to do something.  But in essence, that is already a given in the market, so short of Chairman Powell explaining in his Friday appearance that the FOMC is likely to end QE entirely next month, this is no longer market moving activity.  The dollar has already benefitted from the relatively higher yields that are extant in the Treasury market, and expectations for a further run up are limited.

However, the same is not true elsewhere in the world as central bank plans are only recently crystalizing alongside the universally higher inflation prints.  So, the BOE, which has been more vocal than most, seems to be working hard to prepare markets for a rate hike and the market has taken the ball and run with it.  Thus, UK yields in the short end of the curve have moved rapidly higher with 3-year gilt yields higher by 53 basis points in the past 6 weeks and 15 bps in the past three sessions.  On Sunday we heard from BOE Governor Bailey that they will “have to act” soon to address rapidly rising inflation, and traders continue to push UK yields higher and take the pound along with it.  This morning, pound Sterling is higher by 0.75% and amongst the leading FX gainers on this ongoing activity.

Perhaps more interesting is the market reaction to the RBA Minutes last night, where discussion regarding rising real estate prices and the need to do something about them has encouraged the investment community to push yields much higher, challenging the RBA’s YCC in the 3-year AGB.  In fact, despite the RBA explicitly reiterating that conditions for raising rates “will not be met before 2024”, yields continue to rise sharply as fears that inflation will outpace current RBA expectations grow widespread.  Given this price action, one cannot be surprised that the Aussie dollar (+0.85%) has also risen quite sharply this morning.

The thing is, there are a number of conundrums here as well.  For instance, the euro is performing well this morning, up 0.4%, and there has been absolutely zero indication that the ECB is considering tighter monetary policy.  It is widely known that the PEPP will expire in March, but it is also very clear that the previous QE program, the APP, is going to be expanded and extended in some manner to make up for the PEPP.  The only question here is exactly what form it will take.  Similarly, there is no indication that the BOJ is even considering the end of QE or NIRP or YCC, yet the yen has managed to gain 0.3% this morning as well.

In fact, today’s price action is looking much more like broad-based dollar weakness abetted by some other idiosyncratic features rather than other stories driving the market.  This becomes clearer when viewing the commodity markets where virtually every commodity price is higher this morning led by oil (+1.25%), gold (+0.75%), copper (+1.15%) and aluminum (+1.6%).  Today is very much a classic risk-on type session with the dollar under pressure and other assets performing well in sync.

For instance, equity markets are in the green everywhere (Nikkei +0.65%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.7%, DAX +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.1%) with US futures also pointing higher by roughly 0.4% across the board.  At the same time, bond yields are creeping higher (Bunds +1.8bps, OATs +2.1bps, Gilts +1.8bps) as investors jettison their haven assets in order to jump on the risk bandwagon.  Treasury yields, though, are unchanged on the day although still trending higher from the levels seen late last week.

Adding it up; rising equity prices, rising commodity prices, falling bond prices, and a weaker dollar (with EMG currencies also firmer across the board) results in a clear risk-on framework.  This will warm the cockles of every central bankers’ heart as they will all see it as a vote of confidence in the job they are doing.  Whether that is an accurate representation is another question entirely, but you can’t fight the tape.  Risk is clearly in vogue today.

It is, however, worth asking if this positive attitude is misplaced.  After all, the recent data has hardly been the stuff of dreams.  Yesterday’s US releases were uniformly awful (IP -1.3%, Capacity Utilization 75.2%) with both significantly worse than forecast.  The upshot is that the Atlanta Fed GDPNow number fell to 1.165%, another step lower and an indication that despite (because of?) high inflation, growth is slowing more rapidly.  Meanwhile, Eurozone Construction Output fell -1.3% in August, continuing the down trend that began in March of this year.

I recognize it is earnings season and the initial releases for Q2 have been quite positive.  But I ask, is slowing growth and rising inflation really a recipe for continued earnings growth?  History tells us the answer is no, and I see no reason to believe this time is different.  Today’s price action seems anomalous to the big picture ideas, so be cognizant of that fact.  While markets can remain irrational longer than we can remain solvent, that does not mean it is sensible to go ‘all-in’ on risk because there is one very positive market day.  Tread carefully.

This morning’s US data brings Housing Starts (exp 1613K) and Building Permits (1680K) and that is all.  Though these are unlikely to get the market excited, we also hear from four Fed speakers, Daly, Barkin, Bostic and Waller, where efforts at recapturing the narrative will be primary.  It is growing increasingly clear that the Fed is annoyed that the persistent inflation narrative is gaining traction as it may force their hand in tightening policy before they would like.  Just remember, as important as the Fed is (and every central bank in their own economy), the market is much bigger.  And if the market determines that the Fed is no longer leading the way, or will soon need to change tack, it will force the issue.  On this you can depend.

While today everything is coming up roses, the lesson is that the Fed’s control over markets is beginning to wane.  Eventually that will be quite a negative for the dollar, but for now, despite today’s decline, I think the trend remains for a higher dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Something Awry

It’s not clear why there’s a concern
Inflation could cause a downturn
Cause stocks keep on rising
Though Jay’s emphasizing
The Fed, QE’s, set to adjourn

But still there is something awry
In how traders, every dip, buy
With growth clearly slowing
Though wages are growing
The value of stocks seems too high

One has to be remarkably impressed with the price action of risk assets these days and their ability to completely ignore growing signs that long-delayed problems are fast approaching.  The first of these problems is clearly inflation, something that has been ignored for decades by investors as long-term factors like globalization and demographics, as well as technological innovation, have served to suppress any significant inflationary impulse throughout the developed world.  Certainly, there were some EMG nations (Argentina, Venezuela, Zimbabwe) that managed to buck that trend and impose policies so horrendous as to negate the long-term benefits of stable prices, but generally speaking, inflation has not been a problem.

Then, Covid came along and the policy response was truly draconian dramatic, essentially shutting down much of the global economy for a number of months.  In hindsight, it cannot be surprising that the disruption to finely tuned supply chains that was imposed has been difficult to repair.  After all, it took years to achieve the true just-in-time nature of manufacturing and distribution across almost every industry.  While there are currently herculean efforts to get things back to the way they were, I suspect we will never again return to the previous situation.  A combination of policy decisions and population adaptations has altered the underlying framework thus there is no going back.

Consider the current energy situation (crisis?) as an example.  What is very clear now is that the price of energy is rising rapidly with both oil (+69% YTD, 0.85% today) and NatGas (+127% YTD, 1.0% today) continuing to climb with no end in sight.  Arguably, there have been a number of deliberate policy choices as well as some investing fashions which have dramatically reduced the investment in the production of these two key energy sources thus not merely reducing current supply but prospects for future supply as well.  Pressure from environmentalists to prevent this investment has done wonders for driving up prices, alas the mooted renewable replacements have yet to demonstrate their long-term effectiveness as uninterrupted power sources.  And this situation is manifest not only in the West, but in China as well, where they are currently suffering from major power shortages amid rapidly rising prices for LNG and coal as well as oil.  This morning’s WSJ has a lead article on how the rising price of NatGas is going to drive up winter heating bills substantially and the negative consequences for lower- and middle-income folks.

And yet…risk appetite remains robust.  You can tell because regardless of the news, equity prices consistently rise.  I grant it is not actually every day, but the trend remains quite clearly higher.  In traditional analysis, it would be difficult to rationalize this price movement as while the current situation may be working fine for companies, the fact is there are numerous issues that are coming, notably rising wages and a shrinking labor force, that are going to pressure margins, and arguably profits, going forward.  Clearly, however, that tradition is dead.  In its stead is the investor view that as long as the Fed keeps supplying liquidity to the markets economy, it will prevent any significant price dislocation.  Trickle Down theory remains alive and well on Wall Street.  This is evident today, where equity markets worldwide are higher, and has been evident in the fact that the recent Evergrande induced scare that resulted in a 5% correction was the first correction of that magnitude in more than a year.  The current investment zeitgeist remains; stocks only go up so buy more.  While I recognize I sound curmudgeonly on this topic, remember, reality is a b*tch and it will win out in the end.  Until then, though, it is unclear what type of catalyst is needed to change views, so risk assets are likely to remain in favor regardless of everything else.

And of course, today is a perfect example where equity markets are all green (Nikkei +1.8%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.4%) in Asia and Europe (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.4%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) as well.  Don’t worry, US futures are all pointing higher by 0.25%-0.35% at this hour, so all our 401K’s still look good.

Meanwhile, bonds are not required in a risk-on scenario so it should be no surprise that yields are rallying today with Treasuries (+3.3bps) leading the way but higher yields throughout Europe as well (Bunds +2.0bps, OATs +2.3bps, Gilts +3.7bps).  These price movements have been seen throughout the rest of the continent and in Asia last night with yields rising universally.

Commodity prices are broadly firmer, although with risk appetite robust, precious metals (Au -0.85, Ag -1.2%) are unwanted.  We discussed oil prices and we are seeing strength in the industrial metals (Cu +2.4%, Al +2.4%) as well as the Ags (corn +1.2%, wheat +1.4%, soybeans +0.7%).  In other words, risky assets are the place to be.

You should not be surprised that the dollar (and yen) are suffering on this movement given haven assets serve no purpose today!  In the G10 space, GBP (+0.6%) is leading the way higher followed by NOK (+0.55%) and then everything else is just modestly higher except JPY (-0.6%).  The sterling story seems to revolve around continued belief in BOE rate hikes coming early next year while NOK is simply following oil for now.

Of more interest, I believe, is the yen, which admittedly has been falling quite rapidly, down nearly 5% in the past three weeks, and quite frankly, shows no signs of stopping.  At this point, it doesn’t seem so much like Japanese investment outflows as it does like a speculative move that has discerned there is limited real demand for the currency.  Amazingly, last night, the new FinMin, Shunichi Suzuki, felt compelled to explain that, “stability in currencies is very important.” He further indicated that there was concern a weaker yen could cause prices to rise, especially energy prices.  Now, call me crazy but, BOJ policy for the past decade explicitly and the past three decades with less verve, has been to drive inflation higher.  Abenomics was all about achieving 2.0% inflation, something that had not been seen since before the Japanese bubble collapsed in 1989.  Now, suddenly, with inflation running at 0.2%, they are starting to get concerned that higher energy prices are going to be a problem?  Are they going to raise rates?  Are they going to intervene?  Absolutely not in either case.  Sometimes you have to wonder what animates policy maker comments.

As to EMG currencies, ZAR (+0.6%) and KRW (+0.4%) are the leaders this morning with the former benefitting from higher metals prices while the latter is responding to comments from the BOK governor that a rate hike could be coming at the November meeting.  On the downside here, TRY (-0.4%) continues to suffer from Erdogan’s capriciousness with respect to his central bankers, while THB (-0.3%) appears to be consolidating after a strong rally over the past week.

We have a bunch more data this morning led by Retail Sales (exp -0.2%, +0.5% ex autos) as well as Empire Manufacturing (25.0) and Michigan Sentiment (73.1).  There are two more Fed speakers, Bullard and Williams, but it seems unlikely that either will change the current narrative of a taper coming soon.

The reality is you can’t fight the tape.  As long as risk appetite remains buoyant, the dollar and yen are likely to remain on their back foot.  For the dollar, I see no long-term danger as I believe it will consolidate further before making its next move higher.  the yen, on the other hand, could be a bit more concerning.  If fear has gone missing, and with yields rising elsewhere in the world, a much weaker yen remains a real possibility.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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Somewhat Misleading

The latest inflation’ry reading
Showed price rises kept on proceeding
But bond markets jumped
While dollars were dumped
This movement seems somewhat misleading

The two market drivers yesterday were exactly as expected, the CPI report and the FOMC Minutes.  The funny thing is it appears the market’s response to the information was contrary to what would have been expected heading into the session.

Starting with CPI, by now you are all aware that it continues to run at a much hotter pace than the Fed’s average 2.0% target.  Yesterday’s results showed the M/M headline number was a tick higher than forecast at 0.4%, as was the 5.4% Y/Y number.  Ex food & energy, the results were right on expectations at 4.0%, but that is cold comfort.  Here’s a bit of bad news though, going forward for the next 5 months, the monthly comps are extremely low, so the base effects (you remember those from last year, right?) are telling us that CPI is going to go up from here.  Headline CPI is almost certain to remain above 5.0% through at least Q1 22 and I fear beyond, especially if energy prices continue to rise.  The Social Security Administration announced that benefits would be increased by 5.9% next year, the largest increase in 20 years, but so too will FICA taxes increase accordingly.

The initial market movement on the release was perfectly logical with the dollar bouncing off its lows while Treasury yields backed up.  Given the current correlation between those two, things made sense.  However, that price action was relatively short-lived and as the morning progressed into the afternoon, the dollar started to slip along with yields.  Thus, leading up to the Minutes’ release, the situation had already turned in an unusual direction.

The Minutes explained, come November,
Or possibly late as December
The time will have come
Where QE’s full sum
Ought fade like a lingering ember

The Minutes then confirmed what many in the market had expected which was that the taper is on, and that starting in either mid-November or mid-December the Fed would be reducing its monthly asset purchases by $15 billion ($10 billion less Treasuries, $5 billion less mortgages).  This timeline will end their QE program in the middle of next year and would then open the way for the Fed to begin to raise rates if they deemed it necessary.

Oddly enough, the bond rally really took on legs after the Minutes and the dollar extended its losses.  So, while the correlation remains intact, the direction is confusing, at least to this author.  Losing the only price insensitive bond buyer while the government has so much debt to issue did not seem a recipe for higher bond prices and lower yields.  Yet here we are.  The best explanation I can offer is that investors have assessed that less QE will result in slowing growth and reduced inflationary pressures, so much so that there is the beginning of talk about a recession in the US early next year.  Alas, while I definitely understand the case for slowing growth, and have been highlighting the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow trajectory lower, there is nothing about the situation that I believe will result in lower inflation, at least not for quite a while yet.  Thus, a bond market rally continues to seem at odds with the likely future outcome.

Of course, there is one other possible explanation for this behavior.  What if, and humor me here for a moment, the Fed doesn’t actually follow through with a full tapering because equity prices start to fall sharply?  After all, I am not the only one to have noticed that the Fed’s reaction function seems to be entirely based on the level of the S&P 500.  Simply look back to the last time the Fed was trying to remove policy accommodation in 2018.  You may recall the gradual reduction in the size of their balance sheet as they allowed bonds to mature without replacing them while simultaneously, they were gradually raising the Fed funds rate.  However, by Christmas 2018, when the equity market had fallen 20% from its highs, Chairman Powell pivoted from tightening to easing policy thus driving a reversal higher in stocks.  Do you honestly believe that a man with a >$100 million portfolio is going to implement and maintain a policy that will make him poorer?  I don’t!  Hence, I remain of the belief that if they actually do start to taper, still not a given in my mind, it won’t last very long.  But for now, the bond market approves.

Thus, with visions of inflation dancing in our heads, let’s look at this morning’s market activity.  Equity markets are clearly of the opinion that everything is under control, except perhaps in China, as we saw the Nikkei (+1.5%) put in a strong performance and strength throughout most of Asia.  However, the Hang Seng (-1.4%) and Shanghai (-0.1%) were a bit less frothy.  Europe, though, is all in on good news with the DAX (+0.8%), CAC (+0.9%) and FTSE 100 (+0.7%) having very positive sessions.  This has carried over into the US futures market where all three major indices are higher by at least 0.6% this morning.

Bonds, meanwhile, are having a good day as well, with Treasury yields sliding 0.7bps after a nearly 5bp decline yesterday.  In Europe, given those markets were closed during much of the US bond rally, we are seeing a catch-up of sorts with Bunds (-3.7bps), OATs (-3.1bps) and Gilts (-1.6bps) all trading well as are the rest of Europe’s sovereign markets.

On the commodity front, pretty much everything is higher as oil (+1.25%), NatGas (+2.1%) and Uranium (+21.7%!) lead the energy space higher.  Metals, too, are climbing with gold (+0.4%), copper (+0.7%) and aluminum (+3.4%) all quite firm this morning.  Not to worry, your food is going up in price as well as all the major agricultural products are seeing price rises.

As to the dollar, it is almost universally lower this morning with only two currencies down on the day, TRY (-0.9%) and JPY (-0.15%).  The former is suffering as President Erdogan fired three more central bankers who refuse to cut interest rates as inflation soars in the country and the market concern grows that Turkey will soon be Argentina.  The yen, on the other hand, seems to be feeling the pressure from ongoing sales by Japanese investors as they seek to buy Treasury bonds with much higher yields than JGBs.  However, away from those two, the dollar is under solid pressure against G10 (SEK +0.9%, NOK +0.8%, CAD +0.55%) and EMG (THB +0.7%, IDR +0.7%, KRW +0.6%).  Broadly speaking, the story is much more about the dollar than about any of these particular currencies although commodity strength is obviously driving some of the movement as is positive news in Asia on the Covid front where some nations (Thailand, Indonesia) are easing restrictions on travel.

On the data front, this morning brings the weekly Initial (exp 320K) and Continuing (2.67M) Claims numbers as well as PPI (8.7%, 7.1% ex food & energy).  PPI tends to have less impact when it is released after CPI, so it seems unlikely, unless it is a big miss, to matter that much.  However, it is worth noting that Chinese PPI (10.7%) printed at its highest level since records began in 1995 while Korean import and export prices both rose to levels not seen since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.  The point is there is upward price pressure everywhere in the world and more of it is coming to a store near you.

We hear from six more Fed speakers today, but it would be quite surprising to have any change in message at this point.  To recap the message, inflation is proving a bit stickier than they originally thought but will still fade next year, they will never allow stock prices to fall, inflation expectations remain anchored and tapering will begin shortly.

While I still see more reasons for the dollar to rally than decline, I believe it will remain linked to Treasury yields, so if those decline, look for the dollar to follow and vice versa.

Good luck and stay safe
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