The Specter of Growth

The specter of growth’s in the air
So, pundits now try to compare
Which central bank will
Be next to instill
The discipline they did forswear

In Canada, they moved last week
On Thursday, Sir Bailey will speak
Now some pundits wonder
In June, from Down Under
The RBA will, easing, tweak

But what of Lagarde and Chair Jay
Will either of them ever say
Our goals are achieved
And so, we’re relieved
We’ve no need to buy bonds each day

On lips around the world is the question du jour, has growth rebounded enough for central banks to consider tapering QE and reining in monetary policy?  Certainly, the data continues to be impressive, even when considering that Y/Y comparisons are distorted by the government-imposed shutdowns last Spring.  PMI data points to robust growth ahead, as well as robust price rises.  Hard data, like Retail Sales and Personal Consumption show that as more and more lockdowns end, people are spending at least some portion of the savings accumulated during the past year. Meanwhile, bottlenecks in supply chains and lack of investment in capacity expansion has resulted in steadily rising prices adding the specter of inflation to that of growth.

While no developed market central bank head has yet displayed any concern over rising prices, at some point, that discussion will be forced by the investor community.  The only question is at what level yields will be sitting when central banks can no longer sidestep the question.  But after the Bank of Canada’s surprise move to reduce the amount of weekly purchases at their last meeting, analysts are now focusing on the Bank of England’s meeting this Thursday as the next potential shoe to drop.  Between the impressive rate of vaccination and the substantial amount of government stimulus, the UK data has been amongst the best in the world.  Add to that the imminent prospect of the ending of the lockdowns on individual movement and you have the makings of an overheating economy.  The current consensus is that the BOE may slow the pace of purchases but will not reduce the promised amount.  Baby steps.

Last night, the RBA left policy on hold, as universally expected, but the analyst community there is now looking for some changes as well.  Again, the economy continues to rebound sharply, with job growth outstripping estimates, PMI data pointing to a robust future and inflation starting to edge higher.  While the inoculation rate in Australia has been surprisingly low, the case rate Down Under has been miniscule, with less than 30,000 confirmed cases amid a population of nearly 26 million. The point is, the economy is clearly rebounding and, as elsewhere, the question of whether the RBA needs to continue to add such massive support has been raised.  Remember, the RBA is also engaged in YCC, holding 3-year yields to 0.10%, exactly the same as the O/N rate.  The current guidance is this will remain the case until 2024, but with growth rebounding so quickly, the market is unlikely to continue to accept that as reality.

These peripheral economies are interesting, especially for those who have exposures in them, but the big question remains here in the US, how long can the Fed ignore rising prices and surging growth.  Just last week Chairman Powell was clear that a key part of his belief that any inflation would be transitory was because inflation expectations were well anchored.  Well, Jay, about that…5-year Inflation breakevens just printed at 2.6%, their highest level since 2008.  A look at the chart shows a near vertical line indicating that they have further to run.  I fear the Fed’s inflation anchor has become unmoored.  While 10-year Treasury yields (+2.3bps today) have been rangebound for the past two months, the combination of rising prices and massively increased debt issuance implies one of two things, either yields have further to climb (2.0% anyone?) or the Fed is going to step in to prevent that from occurring.  If the former, look for the dollar to resume its Q1 climb.  If the latter, Katy bar the door as the dollar will fall sharply as any long positions will look to exit as quickly as possible.  Pressure on the Fed seems set to increase over the next several months, so increased volatility may well result.  Be aware.

As to today’s session, market movement is mostly risk-on but the dollar seems to be iconoclastic this morning.  For instance, equity markets are generally in good shape (Hang Seng +0.7%, CAC+0.5%, FTSE 100 +0.6%) although the DAX (-0.35%) is lagging.  China and Japan remain on holiday.  US futures, however, are a bit under the weather with NASDAQ (-0.4%) unable to shake yesterday’s weak performance while the other two main indices hover around unchanged.

Sovereign bond markets have latched onto the risk-on theme by selling off a bit.  While Treasuries lead the way, we are seeing small yield gains in Europe (Bunds +0.5bps, OATs +0.6bps, Gilts +0.5bps) after similar gains in Australia overnight.

Commodity markets continue to power higher with oil (+1.9%), Aluminum (+0.4%) and Tin (+1.0%) all strong although Copper (-0.1%) is taking a breather.  Agricultural products are also firmer but precious metals are suffering this morning, after a massive rally yesterday, with gold (-0.5%) the worst of the bunch.

Of course, the gold story can be no surprise when looking at the FX markets, where the dollar is significantly stronger across the board.  For instance, despite ongoing commodity strength, and the rally in oil, NZD (-0.9%), AUD (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.5%) are leading the way down, with GBP (-0.25%) the best performer of the day.  The pound’s outperformance seems linked to the story of a modest tapering of monetary policy, but overall, the dollar is just quite strong today.

The same is true versus the EMG bloc, where TRY (-1.0%) is the worst performer, but the CE4 are all weaker by at least 0.4% and SGD (-0.5%) has fallen after announcing plans for a super strict 3-week lockdown period in an effort to halt the recent spread of Covid in its tracks.  The only gainer of note is RUB (+0.4%) which is simply following oil higher.

Data this morning brings the Trade Balance (exp -$74.3B) as well as Factory Orders (1.3%, 1.8% ex transport), both of which continue to show economic strength and neither of which is likely to cause any market ructions.

Two more Fed speakers today, Daly and Kaplan, round out the messaging, with the possibility of Mr Kaplan shaking things up, in my view.  He has been one of the more hawkish views on the FOMC and is on record as describing the rise in yields as justified and perhaps a harbinger of less Fed activity.  However, he is not a current voter, and Powell has just told us clearly that there are no changes in the offing.  Ultimately, this is the $64 trillion question, will the Fed blink in the face of rising Treasury yields?  Answer that correctly and you have a good idea what to expect going forward.  At this point, I continue to take Powell at his word, meaning no change to policy, but if things continue in this direction, that could certainly change.  In the meantime, nothing has changed my view that the dollar will follow Treasury yields for the foreseeable future.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Desperate Straits

In Europe, the growth impulse faded
As governments there were persuaded
To lock people down
In city and town
While new strains of Covid invaded

Contrast that with here in the States
Where GDP growth resonates
Tis no real surprise
That stocks made new highs
And bond bulls are in desperate straits

There is no better depiction of the comparative situation in the US and Europe than the GDP data released yesterday and today.  In the US, Q1 saw GDP rise 6.4% annualized (about 1.6% Q/Q) after a gain of 4.3% in Q4 2020.  This morning, the Eurozone reported that GDP shrank -0.6% in Q1 after declining -0.7% in Q4 2020.  In other words, while the US put together a string of substantial economic growth over the past 3 quarters (Q3 was the remarkable 33.4% on this measure), Europe slipped into a double dip recession, with two consecutive quarters of negative growth following a single quarter of rebound.  If you consider how markets behaved in Q1, it begins to make a great deal more sense that the dollar rallied sharply along with Treasury yields, as the economic picture in the US was clearly much brighter than that in Europe.

But that is all backward-looking stuff.  Our concerns are what lies ahead.  In the US, there is no indication that things are slowing down yet, especially with the prospects of more fiscal stimulus on the way to help goose things along.  As well, Chairman Powell has been adamant that the Fed will not be reducing monetary accommodation until the economy actually achieves the Fed’s target of maximum employment.  Essentially, this has been defined as the reemployment of the 10 million people whose jobs were eliminated during the depths of the Covid induced government lockdowns.  (Its stable price target, defined as 2.0% average inflation over time, has been kicked to the curb for the time being, and is unimportant in FOMC discussions…for now.)

At the same time, the fiscal stimulus taps in Europe are only beginning to drip open.  While it may be a bit foggy as it was almost a full year ago, in July 2020 the EU agreed to jointly finance fiscal stimulus for its neediest members by borrowing on a collective level rather than at the individual country level.  This was a huge step forward from a policy perspective even if the actual amount agreed, €750 billion, was really not that much relative to the size of the economy.  Remember, the US has already passed 3 separate bills with price tags of $2.2 trillion, $900 billion and just recently, $1.9 trillion.  But even then, despite its relatively small size, those funds are just now starting to be deployed, more than 9 months after the original approval.  This is the very definition of a day late and a dollar euro short.

Now, forecasts for Q2 and beyond in Europe are much better as the third wave lockdowns are slated to end in early to mid-May thus freeing up more economic activity.  But the US remains miles ahead on these measures, with even NYC declaring it will be 100% open as of July 1st.  Again, on a purely economic basis, it remains difficult to look at the ongoing evolution of the Eurozone and US economies and decide that Europe is the place to be.  But we also know that the monetary story is critical to financial markets, so cannot ignore that.  On that score, the US continues to pump more money into the system than the ECB, offering more support for the economy, but potentially undermining the dollar.  Arguably, that has been one of the key drivers of the weak dollar narrative; at some point, the supply of dollars will overwhelm, and the value of those dollars will decrease.  This will be evident in rising inflation as well as in a weakening exchange rate versus its peers.

The thing is, this story has been being told for many years and has yet to be proven true, at least in any significant form.  In the current environment, unless the Fed actually does ease policy further, via expanded QE or explicit YCC, the rationale for significant dollar weakness remains sparse.  Treasury yields continue to define the market’s moves, thus, that is where we must keep our attention focused.

Turning that attention to market activity overnight, whether it is because it is a Friday and traders wanted to square up before going home, or because of the weak data, risk is definitely on the back foot today.  Equity markets in Asia were all red led by the Hang Seng (-2.0%) but with both the Nikkei and Shanghai falling 0.8% on the session.  Certainly, Chinese PMI data were weaker than expected (Mfg 51.1, Services 54.9) both representing declines from last month and raising questions about the strength of the recovery there.  At the same time, Japanese CPI remains far below target (Tokyo CPI -0.6%) indicating that whatever policies they continue to implement are having no effect on their goals.

European bourses are mixed after the weaker Eurozone data, with the DAX (+0.2%) the star, while the CAC (-0.2%) and FTSE 100 (0.0%) show little positive impetus.  Looking at smaller country indices shows lots of red as well.  Finally, US futures are slipping at this hour, down between -0.4% and -0.7% despite some strong earnings reports after the close.

Perhaps the US markets are taking their cue from the Treasury market, where yields continue to edge higher (+1.2bps) with the idea that we have seen the top in rates fading quickly.  European sovereign bonds, however, have seen demand this morning with yields slipping a bit as follows: Bunds (-1.8bps), OATs (-1.2bps) and Gilts (-1.3bps). Perhaps the weak economic data is playing out as expected here.

Commodities are under pressure this morning led by WTI (-1.9%) but seeing weakness in the Agricultural space (Wheat -0.7%, Soy -0.9%) as well.  The one thing that continues to see no end in demand, though, is the base metals with Cu (+0.3%), Al (+0.9%) and Sn (2.2%) continuing their recent rallies.  Stuff is in demand!

In the FX markets, the day is shaping up to be a classic risk-off session, with the dollar firmer against all G10 counterparts except the yen (+0.1%) with SEK (-0.55%) and NOK (-0.5%) the leading decliners.  We can attribute Nokkie’s decline to oil prices while Stockie seems to be demonstrating its relatively high beta to the euro (-0.3%). EMG currencies have far more losers than gainers led by ZAR (-0.7%), TRY (-0.65%) and RUB (-0.6%).  The ruble is readily explained by oil’s decline while TRY is a bit more interesting as the latest central bank governor just promised to keep monetary policy tight in order to combat inflation. Apparently, the market doesn’t believe him, or assumes that if he tries, he will simply be replaced by President Erdogan again.  The rand’s weakness appears to be technical in nature as there is a belief that May is a particularly bad month to own rand, it having declined in 8 of the past 10 years during the month of May, and this is especially true given the rand has had a particularly strong performance in April.

On the data front, today brings a bunch more information including Personal Income (exp 20.2%), Personal Spending (+4.1%), Core PCE Deflator (1.8%), Chicago PMI (65.3) and Michigan Sentiment (87.5).  Given the Fed’s focus on PCE as their inflation measure, it will be important as a marker, but there is no reason to expect any reaction regardless of the number.  That said, every inflation reading we have seen in the past month has been higher than forecast so I would not be surprised to see that here as well.

In the end, though, it is still the Treasury market that continues to drive all others.  If yields resume their rise, look for a stronger dollar and pressure on equities and commodities.  If they were to head back down, so would the dollar while equities would find support.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Lower Forever’s Outdated

A little bit later today
The FOMC will convey
Its thoughts about both
Inflation and growth
And when QE might fade away

The punditry’s view has migrated
Such that ‘Low Forever’s’ outdated
Instead, many think
That QE will shrink
By Christmas, when growth’s stimulated

Attention today is entirely on the Federal Reserve as they conclude their two-day meeting and release the latest statement at 2:00pm.  Thirty minutes later, Chairman Powell will begin his press conference and market activity will slow down dramatically as all eyes and ears will be focused on his latest musings.

What makes this situation so interesting is there is absolutely no expectation for a change to monetary policy today.  Fed funds will remain between 0.00% and 0.25% and asset purchases will continue at a pace of ‘at least’ $80 billion / month of Treasuries and $40 billion / month of mortgage backed securities.  So, what’s all the hubbub?

Recent economic data has been quite strong (Retail Sales +9.8%, Philly Fed at record high 50.2, Housing Starts +19.4%) and is forecast to continue to show strength going forward.  In addition, the first glimmers of rising prices are starting to be seen (Import Price Index +6.9%, Export Price Index +9.1%) which begs the question, how long can the Fed allow things to heat up before they start to remove monetary stimulus.  As the Fed has been in its quiet period for the past two weeks, we have not heard a peep regarding their thoughts in the wake of the most recent, very strong data.  Thus, with no new Fed guidance, the fertile minds of Wall Street economists have created a narrative that explains the continued robust US growth will lead the Fed to begin to remove policy accommodation by tapering asset purchases before the end of the year.  And they well could do so.

However, while Fed policy may or may not be appropriate, the one thing that has remained consistent throughout the Fed’s history is that when they say something, they generally stick to it.  And the last words we heard from Powell were that there was no reason to consider tapering until “substantial further progress” had been made toward their goals of maximum employment and average inflation of 2.0%.  No matter how great the data has been in the past two weeks, two weeks of data will not qualify as substantial.  In fact, I doubt two months will qualify.  If forced to anticipate a timeline for the Fed, it will not be before September, earliest, and more likely December that they will begin to lay the groundwork to potentially reduce asset purchases.  I think the market is way ahead of itself on this issue.

Consider, as well, this puzzle.  The market has pushed yields higher all year in anticipation of much faster growth and inflation generated by the combination of the end of lockdowns and federal stimulus money.  As federal spending continues to massively outstrip federal revenues, the Treasury continues to issue more and more new debt, also leading to higher yields.  Naturally, the higher the level of yields, the more expensive it is for the US government to service its debt which reduces its capacity to spend money on the things it is targeting with the new debt.  One of the key expectations of many of the same pundits calling for tapered purchases is yield curve control (YCC), which is exactly the opposite of tapering, it is unlimited purchasing of bonds.  So, how can we reconcile the idea of YCC with the idea of the Fed tapering purchases?  Personally, I cannot do so, it is one or the other.

Which brings us to what can we expect today?  Based on everything we have heard from Fed speakers in the past month, I believe talk of tapering is extremely premature and the Fed will not mention anything of the sort in the statement.  As well, I expect that Chairman Powell will be quite clear in the press conference when asked (and he will be asked) that the economy is not out of the woods and that they have much further to go before even considering altering monetary policy.

Arguably, this line of conversation should be risk positive, helping equities push higher and the dollar lower, but as we have seen for at least the past several months, the 10-year Treasury yield remains the absolute key driver in markets.  If supply concerns (too much supply) continue to grow and yields resume their march higher, I expect the dollar will rally and equities will come under pressure.  However, if the bond market is assuaged by Powell’s words, then I would expect a dollar decline and all other assets priced in dollars (stocks, bonds and commodities) to continue to climb in price.  We shall see starting at 2:00 today.

As to the markets leading up to the FOMC drama this afternoon, equities are generally firmer while bond yields are rising as well along with the dollar and base metals.  Overnight, the Nikkei (+0.2%), Hang Seng (+0.45%) and Shanghai (+0.4%) all had solid sessions.  Europe has seen gains through most markets (DAX +0.35%, CAC +0.5%, FTSE 100 +0.35%) although Sweden’s OMX (-1.3%) is significantly underperforming in what apparently is a hangover from yesterday’s mildly bearish economic views by the Riksbank.

Bond markets are uniformly lower this morning, with Treasury yields higher by 1.8 basis points after a 5 basis point rally yesterday.  In Europe, Gilts (+4.7bps) are the worst performers but we are seeing weakness of at least 3bps across the board (Bunds +3.2bps, OATS +3.3bps).  There has been precious little data released to explain these price declines, and if anything, the fact that German GfK Confidence (-8.8) was released at a much worse than expected level would have argued for lower rates.  By the way, that low print seems to be a consequence of the spread of Covid in Germany and reinstituted lockdowns.

On the commodity front, oil (+0.4%) is modestly firmer and remains well above the $60/bbl level.  While gold (-0.5%) and silver (-1.3%) are underperforming, we continue to see demand for industrial metals (Al +0.65%, Sn +1.8%) although copper (-0.15%) has given back a tiny amount of its recent gargantuan run higher.

The dollar is generally firmer vs. the G10 with GBP (-0.35%) today’s laggard followed by AUD (-0.25%) and JPY (-0.2%).  The market seems to have taken sides with the doves in the BOE as virtually every member spoke today and a majority implied that policy would remain accommodative despite expectations for faster growth.  Away from these 3 currencies, movements were extremely modest although leaned toward currency weakness.

EMG currencies are a bit more mixed, with a spread of gainers and losers this morning.  On the negative side, PLN (-0.5%) is in the worst shape as investors express concern over a judicial ruling due tomorrow on the status of Swiss franc mortgages that were taken out by Polish citizens a decade ago and have caused massive pain as the franc appreciated dramatically vs the zloty.  A negative ruling could have a major impact on Poland’s banking sector and by extension the economy.  Away from that, losses in CZK (-0.3%) and KRW (-0.2%) are next on the list, but it is hard to pin the movement to news.  On the positive side, TRY (+0.5%) continues to benefit from the perceived reduction in tension with the US while traders have seemingly embraced INR (+0.4%) on the idea that despite a horrific Covid situation, relief, in the form of massive vaccine imports, is on the way to help address the situation.

Ahead of the FOMC the only data point is the Advanced Goods Trade Balance (exp -$88.0B), but that is unlikely to have an impact.  Equity futures are biding their time as are most market participants as we all await Mr Powell.  Treasury yields continue to be the main driver in my view, so if they continue to rally, they are already 10bps clear of the recent lows, I expect the dollar will continue to regain some of its recent lost ground.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

A Simple Statistic

There once was a simple statistic
That people used as a heuristic
Of whether or not
The things that they bought
Cost more as a characteristic

But central banks worldwide decided
That view about costs was misguided
Instead they created
A world that inflated
The price of most all things provided

The market’s (and this author’s) virtual obsession with inflation continues and will receive the latest important data point at 8:30 this morning.  At that time, CPI will be released with the following median forecasts according to Bloomberg:

CPI MoM 0.5%
-ex food & energy MoM 0.2%
CPI YoY 2.5%
-ex food & energy YoY 1.5%

The last time CPI printed as high as 2.5% was January 2020, and prior to that it was October 2018.  As I wrote yesterday, the fact that the comparison on a YoY basis is so incredibly low due to the initial government lockdowns last year at this time, mathematically, this number is destined to be high.  After all, last month CPI YoY printed at 1.7%, so this is a big jump.  We also know that the Fed has made it clear that not only do they understand base effects, so will not get excited by today’s print regardless of its outcome, but that they remain essentially unconcerned about rising inflation anyway as they have interpreted their dual mandate to mean maximum employment at all costs.  Oh yeah, they don’t even consider CPI a worthy statistic for their own models, instead preferring Core PCE, which has a somewhat different philosophical background as well as a substantially different makeup as to the weights it assigns to the various items in its basket of goods and services.

Markets, however, do care about CPI as it appears to do a better job of reflecting the state of prices than PCE, and perhaps more importantly, CPI is the actual number used in most inflation adjusted products, notably TIPS and Social Security’s COLA.  My good friend Mike Ashton (@inflation_guy) is actually the best source of information on the topic and you should all follow him on Twitter as he produces thoughtful commentary on CPI the day of its release, breaking down the data.  What I have gleaned from his recent commentary is that there are many more things pointing to sustainably higher prices than simply the base effects of the calculation.  And I can’t help but notice how the price of things that I buy seem to continue to rise as well.  While the plural of anecdote is not data, at some point, enough anecdotes about higher prices has to have meaning.  Whether it is the cost of plywood, or a meal at your favorite restaurant or that bottle of ketchup at the supermarket, I am hard pressed to find anything that has fallen in price.  Certainly not gasoline, and even tech items cost more.  If you need a new laptop, while the hedonic adjustments made by the BLS may make theoretical sense, the reality is it still costs more dollars (or euros or yen) to actually walk out of the store with the new computer.

Alas, Chairman Powell and his band of Merry Men (and Women) have made it abundantly clear that rising prices are not of interest now or in the near future.  In fact, given the Fed’s current stance, why would they even discuss the idea of tapering QE at all.  If rising prices don’t matter, then lower interest rates will be a permanent support for the economy and offer the best insurance that not only will maximum employment be achieved but maintained.

Of course, there is the little matter of the Treasury bond market to contend with, as investors may have qualms over the interest rate at which they will lend to the US government in the face of rising prices.  We are all aware of how much Treasury yields have risen this year, especially in the 10-year and 30-year maturities.  Those higher yields are a result of both rising inflation concerns as well as significantly greater issuance.  Yesterday, for instance, the Treasury issued a total of $96 billion in new debt, $58 billion of 3-year and $38 billion of 10-year.  The 10-year auction results were about average, except for the fact that the yield they are paying, 1.68%, is more than 50 basis points higher than the average of the previous 5 auctions.  Remember, a key tenet of the Yellen Treasury is that they can afford to borrow much more since the debt service costs are so low.  However, if yields continue to rise, those debt service costs are going to rise with them, so this is not a permanent situation.

Tying it all together, despite the Fed’s current obsession with employment and its corresponding indifference to inflation, the inflation debate will not go away anytime soon.  This morning will simply be the latest volley in the ongoing ‘war’ between central banks and reality.  In the end, I’m confident reality will win, but the central banks have made it clear they will not go down without a fight.

As to markets this morning, after a very dull session yesterday, things remain quiet as this data point continues to be the global market focus.  So equity markets have been mixed in Asia (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng +0.1%, Shanghai -0.5%) and Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) with US futures actually starting to slide as all three major indices are now lower by 0.4%-0.5% as I type.

Bond markets are modestly softer with Treasury yields higher by 0.5bps, and similar rises in the major European sovereign markets.  The PIGS are having a tougher day here, with Italy (+2.9bps) and Greece (+4.3bps) selling off a bit harder.  We also saw yields rise in Australia overnight.

Yesterday morning I mentioned oil’s struggle at $60/bbl and it continues as while prices are higher compared to yesterday’s close (WTI +0.75%), the price is right on that big round number, which tells us it fell back in yesterday’s session from early morning gains.  Metals markets are similarly mixed (Au -0.2%, Ag +0.6%, Cu +0.2%, Sn -0.3%) and it can be no surprise that grain markets have traded the same way.  In other words, pretty much every market is waiting for CPI to take their cues.

FX markets are starting to bias toward dollar strength as NY walks in, with NOK (-0.75%) the laggard in the G10, although on precious little news or data.  This is especially odd given oil’s gains in the session.  But pretty much the entire G10 is softer, albeit with less emphasis than the krone, as CAD (-0.45%) is the next worst performer and then the rest are simply drifting lower ahead of the number.  EMG markets are also biased toward USD strength here, with PLN (-0.8%) and HUF (-0.65%) the two outliers, both on the back of commentary that ongoing easy monetary policy remains appropriate and the central banks are comfortable with the weaker currencies.

The CPI data is the only release, but we will hear from 6 more Fed speakers today as pretty much all members of the FOMC are on the calendar this week.  Yesterday’s most notable comments came from St Louis Fed President Bullard as he floated a tapering trial balloon, hinting that when 75% of the population has been vaccinated, that might be an appropriate time to consider that option.  While it is clear that is Bullard’s proxy for a return to economic growth, it seems an odd data point on which to base monetary policy decisions, as the relationship between vaccinations and economic activity is not that direct.

At any rate, nothing has changed with respect to markets with 10-year Treasury yields remaining the key driver.  If today’s CPI is strong, and yields rise, look for the dollar to continue to rise as well, with a weak print, and lower yields likely softening the buck.  These days, it is truly binary.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Central Banks Scoff

In Italy more cash is needed
Or so Super Mario pleaded
The virus is raging
And Mario’s waging
A war so its spread is impeded

Meanwhile Chairman Jay and his mates
Remain steadfast that in the States
Though forecasts are nice
They will not suffice
It’s hard growth they need to raise rates

And lastly, from China we learned
Inflation just might have returned
Though central banks scoff
Bond markets sold off
As clearly some folks are concerned

In the financial world these days, there is only one true constant, the Fed remains as dovish as possible.  Yesterday, Chairman Powell, speaking at an IMF sponsored event, explained that the Fed would continue to aggressively support the economy until it is once again “great”.  (And here I thought that description of America was verboten.)  He harped on the 9 million to 10 million jobs that are still missing from before the Covid-induced crisis and said any inflationary pressures this year would be temporary.  His colleague, SF Fed President Daly doubled down on those comments, once again explaining that the Fed will not react to mere forecasts of growth, they will wait until they see hard data describing that growth is real, before considering tightening policy.

Regarding inflation, Powell, when asked specifically on the subject, explained, “We would be monitoring inflation expectations very carefully.  If we see them moving persistently and materially above levels we’re comfortable with, then we’d react to that.”  Remember, the Fed constantly reminds us they have the tools to deal with rising inflation.  But talk is cheap.  It remains an open question as to whether they have the fortitude to address rising inflation in an economy that has not come close to reaching full employment, let alone maximum employment.  Recall Q4 2018, when a modest increase in interest rates and gradual reduction in the size of the balance sheet led to a sharp stock market sell-off and a reversal of Fed policies via the “Powell Pivot.”  And the economy then was clearly in better shape than now.

There is another inflation issue I find puzzling as well, and that is the Fed’s inexorable faith that the Core PCE number is the right way to measure inflation.  This is especially true since a number of Fed members, including Powell, have been vocal in their view that the U-3 Unemployment Rate, the one published the first Friday of each month, is a very imperfect indicator of the overall jobless situation despite its long history as a key indicator.  So, happily, they are willing to question the totality of the information available from a single data point.  And yet, while they pay some lip service to inflation expectations, they are absolutely beholden to a single inflation data point, and one that has very little in common with most people’s reality.  One would think that given their broad-mindedness regarding unemployment, that same attitude might extend to inflation.  Alas, my understanding is that their econometric models don’t work well with any other data point, and so rather than building models based on reality, they create their reality from the data that works.

While on the subject of inflation, Chinese data overnight showed that, while CPI rose only 0.4% Y/Y, PPI rose a much greater than expected 4.4%.  This matters because China remains the world’s major manufacturing center and if prices at the factory are rising there, the implication is that those higher prices are coming to a product near you soon. Another sign of pending inflation comes from an IHS Markit report explaining that the PMI price data is running at its highest level since 2008 and is showing no signs of slowing down.  Add to this the increases in shipping costs, and rising prices for every day items seem in store.  Thank goodness the Fed has tools!

A quick look at Europe shows a tale of two countries, with Italy heading into its fourth wave of lockdowns and PM Draghi putting together a €40 billion support package following on from a €30 billion package a few months ago.  The vaccine rollout remains slow and insufficient and the government has closed bars and restaurants (and that’s really a crime, given just how good the food is there!)  Germany, on the other hand, is leading the hawkish contingent of the ECB along with the Dutch, in pushing for tapering the PEPP activity as those economies have been far more resilient to the virus and are starting to see some price pressures.  Granted, this morning’s German IP data (-6.4% Y/Y) was much worse than expected, but forecasts remain quite positive there.  Unlike the Fed, the ECB seems to be turning a bit more hawkish, indicating the Frugal Four are gaining in power.  ECB PEPP purchases declined to just €10.2 billion last week, far below their average in Q1 and even more surprising given Madame Lagarde’s comments in the wake of the ECB meeting that they would be far more active in Q2.

Adding all the new information together brings us to a market situation this morning where Treasury bonds have sold off, yields are higher by 5 basis points in the US and about 4 basis points in the major European markets except Italy, where they are 8 basis points higher.  Equity markets are mixed in Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.25%, FTSE -0.1%) after broad weakness in Asia (Hang Seng -1.1%, Shanghai -0.9%) and US futures are little changed to slightly higher at this time.

Rather, it is the dollar that is today’s big winner, rallying against all its G10 counterparts with NOK (-0.6%) the laggard on still soft oil prices, but weakness seen in JPY (-0.3%) and AUD (-0.25%) with smaller declines elsewhere.  The yen’s weakness appears corrective in nature, as it had strengthened 1.7% in the past week. While Aussie is simply chopping about in its recent 0.7550/0.7675 trading range and slipping today.

In the EMG bloc, CZK (-0.65%) is the worst performer, followed by RUB (-0.5%) and KRW (-0.3%), although the bulk of the bloc is somewhat softer this morning.  Here, too, we appear to be seeing some trading reactions to the past week’s dollar weakness, although the bigger trend remains for dollar strength.

On the data front, PPI (exp 0.5%, 3.8% Y/Y) is the only release with the core expectations (0.2%, 2.7% Y/Y) also well above the Fed target.  Of course, the relationship between PPI and Core PCE is limited at best, however, it is certainly indicative of the fact that there are rising price pressures throughout many sectors of the economy.  It is not unreasonable to expect them to show up in PCE soon, as they will certainly begin to show up in CPI next week.

Only one Fed speaker is on the docket today, Dallas Fed President Kaplan, but it would be beyond shocking if he said anything that was different than what we have both read and heard this week; nothing will change until the hard data achieves their targets.

Despite new information this morning, or perhaps because of it, the market theme remains the same, Treasury yields are the key driver of markets, with the dollar following in step while equities will have an inverse relationship.  And, while Treasury yields are off their recent highs, they appear to have finished this short-term correction.  I have a feeling the dollar will be firmer today and continue with that into next week, at least.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Central Bank Dreams

The story that’s now being told
Is growth worldwide’s now taking hold
So real rates are rising
And it’s not surprising
That havens are now being sold

Thus, this explains why sovereign debt
Is being sold, and is a threat
To central bank dreams
Or really, their schemes
Inflation to truly beget

Treasury yields, or perhaps more accurately, sovereign yields, remain the top story in markets as their movement continues to underpin most other action.  The very sharp rise in yields seen year-to-date had been driven by rising inflation expectations.  This is clear when looking at breakevens where the 5yr-5yr has climbed from 1.93% at the beginning of the year to 2.60% as of yesterday.  This rise makes up the bulk of the rise in the 10-year Treasury yield, which has gone from 0.91% to 1.70% during the same time frame.  And it has been the rise in inflation expectations that has been a key feature in many of the forecasts for rising inflation beyond the next several months, where base effects from the initial pandemic shutdowns will be seen.

Given the run of very strong data that has been recently released, with yesterday’s ISM Services print of 63.7 being the highest in the series’ 25-year history as the latest example, the narrative is starting to adjust slightly. Recently there have been a number of analyst reports discussing the idea that rising yields represent rising growth expectations and not rising inflation expectations.  If this is true, it certainly alters the calculus of future market activity.  It is also likely to alter the reaction functions of central banks.

Consider what we have heard from the major central banks since the GFC; the greatest threat to economic activity is deflation and each and every one of them has gone out of their way to try to stoke inflation.  Of course, the underlying reason for a central bank to stoke inflation is to help debase the value of their government’s outstanding debt.  This concept has grown dramatically in importance as the amount of government debt outstanding has skyrocketed during the past decade while trend growth has slowed.  Thus, the only way to escape this debt trap was to inflate away the real value of that debt.  This logic is part and parcel of the current central bank guidance regarding maintaining ZIRP or NIRP until inflation and employment goals are actually met, rather than acting when they are anticipated to be met.

Understand, monetary policy acts with a lag, generally considered to be in the 6mo-1yr time frame, so if a central bank does not adjust policy until a target is reached, the likelihood is that variable will continue on its recent trend for many months once the central bank acts.  For example, if the Fed waits for inflation to average 2.0% for a period of time before tightening policy, inflation is likely to continue rising beyond that target for upwards of a year or more before beginning to slow down.  It is for this reason that central banks pay such close attention to expectations data as it gives them clues to potential market responses to their actions.  And it is for this reason that a change in the underlying driver of increasing yields will alter so much.

A key feature of the equity market rally has been the fact that real yields have been negative for quite a while driving investors to seek positive real returns.  This is the TINA concept, there is no alternative.  But if real yields start to climb because growth expectations are climbing with less concern over potential inflationary effects, suddenly there is an alternative to owning equities, especially for pension-type investors who generally seek the least risk available for a return.  If there is an alternative, then a rethinking of the current multiples for equity markets is quite reasonable.  In other words, stock prices could easily fall a fair amount.  Now, declining stock prices have been a key signal to central banks that policy ease is in order, at least since October 1987 in the aftermath of Black Monday.  But this begs the question, what if this process unfolds before central banks have begun raising rates?

As you can see, if this change in the narrative is accurate, and real yields begin climbing, central banks will simply find themselves in a different predicament but with the same tools available.  In other words, policy ease may have a different nominal rationale, but that doesn’t help the fixed income investor.  And how will this impact the FX market?  That is probably the easiest short-term answer, the dollar will follow real yields higher, and if the Fed steps in to cap those yields, via YCC or expanded QE, then the dollar will reverse course lower.  So, watch the movement in real yields for clues as to the dollar’s next steps.

Enough of that and on to markets.  Risk is largely in vogue this morning, at least in Europe, although Asian equities had a more mixed session.  Last night saw the Nikkei (-1.30%) soften while Shanghai (0.0%) went nowhere.  The Hang Seng was closed, although we did see the ASX 200 rise 0.8% Down Under.  Europe, however, is all green all the time, with the DAX (+1.2%) and FTSE 100 (+1.1%) leading the way while the CAC (+0.6%) is lagging but still having a good time. Interestingly, after more record highs yesterday in the US, futures markets are all pointing slightly lower, with the three main indices showing declines of -0.1% to -0.2%.

Bond markets, as would be expected in a risk-on session, are mostly declining, with European sovereigns trading with yields higher by about 2.5 basis points in the big three markets.  Treasury yields are little changed at this time but remain right on that 1.70% yield level.  There is much discussion as to whether the next leg higher in yields is coming soon, or if we have exhausted the drive higher.  Arguably, if growth expectations continue to increase, the case for higher Treasury yields will be inexorable.

In the commodity space, oil prices (+1.35%) are rebounding but WTI has had trouble holding the $60/bbl level ever since its sharp decline two weeks ago.  Precious metals are a bit firmer (Au +0.3%, Ag +0.4%), although Cu (-1.5%) has softened a bit on the day.

Finally, the dollar is broadly stronger this morning despite the increased risk appetite in equity markets.  While the euro is little changed, we are seeing sharp declines in NZD (-0.6%), GBP (-0.5%) and NOK (-0.4%) with Kiwi simply retracing gains made in yesterday’s illiquid markets with similar price action seen in both Sterling and Nokkie.  There is little fundamental driving these moves right now.

Emerging market currencies had a more mixed performance with KRW (+0.7%) as the big winner benefitting from an increase in foreign inflows to both the KOSPI and Korean bond markets.  CNY (+0.25%) has responded to word from the PBOC that they are asking the major commercial banks to reduce their lending to prevent bubbles and other possible financial dislocations.  This helped push Chinese interest rates a touch higher supporting the currency.  On the downside, TRY (-0.4%) continues to be the worst performer in the space as inflation worries continue to grow in the country, but elsewhere, movement has been fairly tame.

On the Data front, we only see JOLTs Job Opening (exp 6.9M) which has not gained many market adherents as an important data point despite the Fed’s focus on employment, likely because the data is quite old, with this morning’s release describing February activity.  As to Fed speakers, only Richmond’s Thomas Barkin is on the tape today, but there still seems little chance of a change in Fed expectations.

Many are claiming the dollar has put in a short-term top, although as discussed above, if real US yields continue to rise, I expect the dollar will rise right alongside them.  And in truth, that remains the single key driver in the FX markets for now.  Higher Treasury yields still portend a higher dollar and vice versa.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Disinflation’s Deceased

The plan that the Prez just released
Has taxes and spending increased
As well as what’s planned
There’s pent up demand
As such, disinflation’s deceased

Risk remains in vogue this morning as the details of the $2.3 trillion spending plan released last evening by President Biden were more than enough to keep the risk train rolling.  While there was no mention of ‘shovel ready’ projects, and expectations are that it won’t be until sometime in the summer that any bill will make it to the president’s desk, it is full speed ahead for the investor community.  Certainly, there are no concerns over either financing the new bill nor with the prospect that adding more stimulus demand is likely to drive up prices even more rapidly than currently seen.  In other words, everything is great!

But is it really that great?  It is hard to live in the real world and not have noticed that the cost of living is rising, and seemingly faster than the data indicates.  By now, we have all heard about the shortage of microprocessors causing a reduction in auto production and even iPhones.  I’m pretty sure that less supply in these products will not lead to lower prices.  And if you still drive at all, you are aware of how much the price of gasoline has risen during the past year.  But lately we have heard from a number of companies on more mundane products and how prices are being raised there as well.  Kimberly-Clark, General Mills, J.M. Smucker and Hormel Foods have all announced price hikes in the past week or two, and they all make things we buy in the supermarket each week.  So, while the rising price of a once every 3-6 year purchase of an automobile is not likely to impact any individual regularly, when your toilet paper goes up in price, you notice.  The Fed must be thrilled.

In that vein, I often wonder how the Fed considers its relationship with inflation.  Perhaps Powell rehearses discussions with an anthropomorphized version of inflation.  Maybe it would sound like this:

Inflation: Jay, I have to tell you, I’m feeling pretty strong lately.  I’ve been resting for the past 12 years and have a lot of energy available to jump pretty high.

Chairman Powell: That’s awfully nice, but let me warn you, ‘we have tools.’

Inflation: Tools?  What does that even mean?  Are you going to build a house?  (Nah, too expensive with prices rising 10% annually).  Repair the infrastructure?  (That will certainly drive up raw material prices even further.)

Chairman Powell:  Just what I said, we have tools.  My dear friend Paul Volcker, may he rest in peace, taught us how to deal with you 40 years ago.  We can stop you anytime we want.

Inflation:  Well, 40 years ago, was a different time and place.  The amount of outstanding debt was a fraction of where it is today.  Since you haven’t used those ‘tools’ in 40 years, I suspect they are rusty and ineffective now.  And even if you have them, I’m willing to bet you are either afraid to use them, or don’t know how.  I’m looking forward to our next conversation when I will be bigger, stronger and higher!

Chairman Powell:  Don’t mess with me, I told you, ‘we have tools!’

As Powell awakes shaking from this nightmare, he repeats to himself, we have tools, just like Christine has tools.  It will all be fine.

But seriously, it is very difficult to see the ongoing data releases, especially in the US, where GDP is clearly going to see a very big jump in Q2 and analysts are fighting to forecast the biggest GDP growth number in decades, and not wonder how prices are not going to rise even more rapidly.  In fact, we seem to be approaching a perfect storm, increased demand meets supply shortages.  The Fed is going to get their inflation, as will most central banks, and it is ultimately going to have a big impact on financial markets.  But not today.  Today, investors continue to see only the positives.

After yesterday’s Tech led rally in the US stock markets, Asia performed well (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng +2.0%, Shanghai +0.7%) and Europe is largely green as well (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.4%).  As it is the first day of a new month and quarter, we saw PMI and Tankan data overnight, all of which continues to show positive vibes for the near future (although the Japanese data has been lagging that of the US and even Europe on these measures.)  US futures, meanwhile, are also looking good with the NASDAQ (+0.9%) once again leading things higher with lesser gains in the other two main indices.

Bond markets, interestingly, are also in fine fettle this morning, with yields declining in Treasuries (-2.1bps), bunds (-1.2bps), OATs (-1.2bps) and Gilts (-2.1bps).  But 10-year Treasury yields remain firmly above 1.7% and their spread to bunds and JGBs remain right at recent highs.  It appears to me as though bond traders are taking a rest ahead of tomorrow’s payroll report, which will be released on Good Friday, a day of limited liquidity.  If the economic bulls are right, and there is a print above 1 million jobs in NFP, I would expect that we will test 1.8% in the 10-year before the weekend arrives.  However, until then, it looks like the growing short position in bonds is getting adjusted.

Oil prices are firmer this morning with WTI up by 1.1%, alongside gains in gold (+0.25%) and the agricultural space.  Meanwhile, base metals are mixed with Cu (-0.65%) and Zn (-0.2%) softer while Al (+0.65%) and Ni (+0.8%) are firmer.

Lastly, the dollar is mixed today as well, with most of the G10 softer led by AUD (-0.4%) and CHF (-0.3%), although the euro has stopped its freefall, at least temporarily, and is currently 0.1% firmer on the session.  Aussie seems to be slipping on the view that the RBA’s first QE plan, A$100 billion, is complete but that there will be a second one announced next Tuesday.  The Swiss franc, on the other hand, seems to be developing some momentum on a technical view and is responding to market internals rather than fundamentals.

EMG currencies have had a much more mixed picture with both gainers and losers evident.  On the plus side, TRY (+0.8%) and ZAR (+0.5%) lead the way higher, while we are seeing RUB (-0.6%) and CNY (-0.3%) as the key laggards.  The rand seems to be benefitting from seasonal factors as technicians look at recent history when the ZAR has rallied consistently in April.  TRY is simply so volatile these days given the ongoing mess at the central bank, that it is difficult to ascribe any move less than 2% to a specific issue.  As to the negatives, RUB, despite oil’s gains, is suffering from news of a surprising new bond offering of RUB 1 trillion, while CNY seems to have been guided lower by the PBOC as the Chinese government has decided that a weaker currency is clearly going to be necessary to support their economy for now and the current US administration isn’t going to make a big deal about it.

Data this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 675K), Continuing Claims (3.75M) and ISM Manufacturing (61.5) and Prices Paid (85.0).  FYI, that Prices Paid index is back at levels seen during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, all times when CPI inflation was far higher than 1.3%!

Frankly, with the payroll data tomorrow, I anticipate a generally quiet session, especially as much of Europe will be taking a long Easter holiday weekend starting quite soon.  The dollar’s trend remains firmly higher, but I don’t expect much movement today.

Good luck
Adf

The Bottom’s Not In

Attention this morning’s returned
To Treasuries, where we have learned
The bottom’s not in
As yields underpin
The dollar that once had been spurned

Plus ça change, plus ça même chose.

During the past several weeks, there have been a number of stories that seemed designed to shift our attention away from what has been the major market driver in 2021…the Treasury market.  But despite the Ever Given running aground, despite the forced liquidation of Archegos Capital Management and despite Covid’s resurgence throughout Europe and additional mooted lockdowns there, the clear driver of market activity remains US Treasury yields, specifically in the back end of the curve.  As I type this morning, the 10-year has risen 5.7bps on the session with the yield now 1.765%, its highest level since January 22, 2020.  This movement has dragged up yields across the US yield curve, with 5-year yields fast approaching 1.0% while even 2-year yields, which remain anchored by the Fed’s promises to keep the Fed Funds rate at its current level through at least 2023, has edged up by 1.4 basis points.

And this movement is not isolated to the United States, as sovereign yields across the board are higher today with European markets looking at gains of between 5.5bps and 7.5 bps, while overnight saw Australian yields climb 9.2 basis points.  But it is clearly the Treasury market in the lead.  The current story seems to revolve around the ongoing outperformance of the US economy vis-à-vis those of Europe and much of Asia, the success of the US vaccine program and the promise of yet another fiscal stimulus bill coming from the Biden administration.  That trifecta dwarfs all other nations’ activities and so has seen ongoing flows into US equity markets as well as into the dollar.  And the thing is, for now, it is hard to see what can derail this story in the short-term.  In fact, with the latest payroll data due to be released Friday and expected to show a substantial gain in the number of jobs, while more and more states reduce Covid inspired economic restrictions, things seem like they will only get better.

And perhaps things will only get better.  Perhaps we have passed the worst of the pandemic.  Perhaps all Covid inspired restrictions will be relaxed and people will head back out on vacations and to movies and theme parks. Perhaps shopping malls will regain their allure as people look for anyplace to go that is not inside their own home.  In this case, as the service sector reopens along with the jobs attendant to that process, the Fed would likely be able to justify a very gradual reduction in some of their stimulus.  And this could all happen.  But, so could we wake up tomorrow to learn that pigs really can fly.

Instead, while there is no doubt that the US remains the driving force in the economy right now, as it leads other nations out of the pandemic, the imbalances that have developed due to the policies implemented during the pandemic will take a very long time to unwind.  In addition, they pose a very real threat to the stability of markets and economies.  For instance, how will nations around the world address the issue of the massive rise in their debt/GDP ratios.  While servicing costs right now are tenable given the historically low level of interest rates, investors may well start demanding higher yields to compensate for the growing riskiness of those portfolios.  After all, we have seen many nations default on their debt in the past, with Greece and Argentina just the two latest on the list.

But rising yields will force governments to choose between honoring their debt promises, or paying for their activities, a choice no elected politician ever wants to make.  It is not unreasonable to assume that this choice will be forced on countries by the markets (and in fact, is starting to be forced as we watch yield curves steepen) with two potential outcomes; either the central bank caps yields to insure that debt service remains viable, or the debt is restructured by the central bank who will monetize it.  Either situation will almost certainly result in rising inflation, not of the asset kind, but will also result in a situation where those tools that central banks claim they have to fight inflation will not be available.  After all, if they are capping yields, they cannot very well raise rates to fight inflation.

It is this endgame that has some very thoughtful people concerned, as when this situation has arisen in the past, and after all, there is nothing new under the sun, the result has been a combination of much more significant inflation and debt defaults.  Now, in the US, the idea of a debt default seems quite impossible.  However, the idea of higher inflation, especially given the Fed’s stated desire to see inflation rise, is much easier to accept.  And after all, given the newly stated desire to achieve an average inflation rate, with a desire to see higher than 2.0% inflation readings for some indeterminate amount of time, how will the Fed know when they’ve seen enough?  The point is, the Fed, and every central bank, still has a very difficult task ahead of them to maintain stability while supporting the economy.  And there is no guarantee that their actions will work.

With that joyous thought in mind, a quick look at other markets beyond bonds shows that equities remain supported with widespread gains overnight (Nikkei +0.15%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +0.6%), while European bourses are all green as well (DAX +0.6%, CAC +0.55%, FTSE 100 +0.25%).  US futures, however, are starting to fade, led by the NASDAQ (-0.8%) although SPX futures (-0.2%) have turned lower as well.  Remember, the NASDAQ, with its predominantly growth-oriented companies, is similar to a long-term bond, as higher yields reduce the current discounted value of its future growth.

Commodity markets are under pressure this morning as well with oil (-1.5%) falling back a bit further, and both base and precious metals all under the gun.  This commodity story is synchronous with the combination of rising yields and…a rising dollar.  And the dollar continues to rise, against all early year supposition.

Versus the G10, it is higher against all comers, with JPY (-0.5%) leading the way lower and breaking above 110 for the first time in a year.  However, this move looks far more sustainable than the price action seen in the immediate wake of the initial Covid panic.  Quite frankly, in the short-term, there is no reason to think USDJPY cannot rise to 115.00.  But the weakness is universal with SEK (-0.4%) and NOK (-0.3%) also continuing lower.  While the latter is undermined by the oil decline, the Swedish krona remains the highest beta G10 currency, and is simply leading the euro (-0.25%) on its downward path.

EMG currencies are not in any better shape with TRY (-2.2%) by far the worst performer as more bets get piled on that the new central bank governor will be cutting interest rates soon at the behest of President Erdogan.  INR (-1.2%) is the next worst performer, suffering as state-run banks were seen actively buying dollars in the market ahead of their fiscal year-end, cleaning up their balance sheets.  But pretty much the entire bloc is lower by between 0.2% and 0.4% on the simple fact that the dollar is growing in demand as US yields lead the way higher.

On the data front, two minor releases today, Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 11.2%) and Consumer Confidence (96.9) are unlikely to have much impact as the market looks forward to the employment situation starting with tomorrow’s ADP Employment report and then Friday’s NFP data.

Adding it all up comes to the idea that the current trends, higher yields and a higher dollar, remain firmly entrenched and I see no reason for them to change in the near future.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The Grand Mal

A very large family fund
Was clearly surprised and quite stunned
When bankers said, Pay
The money today
You owe, or you soon will be shunned

Turns out, though, no money was there
So bankers then went on a tear
They sold massive blocks
Of certain large stocks
And warned levered funds to beware

Meanwhile in the Suez Canal
The ship that had caused the grand mal
In trade supply chains
Is floating again
Though not near its final locale

There is a blend of good and bad news in markets today, at least with respect to broad ideas regarding risk.  On the plus side, the Ever Given is no longer completely wedged into the sand in the Suez Canal, with the stern of the ship back in the water.  While that is clearly a positive, the bow of the ship remains lodged in the bank and is the target of the salvage teams working to extract it.  Once that is accomplished, which may still take several more days, it will then need to undergo a series of tests to insure that no significant damage was done to the hull and that it won’t run into problems further along its journey.  In the meantime, more than 450 ships are waiting to pass through the canal in both directions, so it will take a few weeks, at least, for supply chains to get back to their prior working timelines.  But at least this is a step forward.

On the less positive side, stories about a remarkable liquidation of equity positions are filtering out of the market regarding a family office called Archegos, which was run by a former Tiger Investment fund manager and managed a huge long/short portfolio of equities on a highly levered basis.  (n.b. a long/short fund is a strategy where the manager typically selects specific companies in a sector, or sometimes sectors against each other, to bet on the relative performance of one vs. the other). It turns out that a number of these positions moved against the fund and margin calls were made for billions of dollars that could not be met.  The result was a massive liquidation of some individual stock positions, apparently in excess of $30 billion, with remarkable impacts on those names.

While only the funds brokers will mourn its passing, as it was a massive fee payer, it does highlight the potential disruption that can occur when leverage goes awry.  And of course, leverage going awry simply means that stock prices decline.  One of the things that central bank largesse has fomented that does not get a great deal of press, is the extraordinary growth in the amount of margin purchases that are outstanding.  According to FINRA data, since the nadir in the 2009 GFC, margin debt has grown 375% while the S&P 500 has risen just under 200% (both of these are in real terms).  While Archegos is only the first to break, do not be surprised if/when other funds run into similar problems because their particular set of investments didn’t pan out.  The takeaway here is that there is a great deal of risk embedded into the system, and much of it is hidden from view.  Risk management (aka hedging) remains a critical part of portfolio management, and that is true for corporate treasuries as well as for fund managers.

Now, on to the day’s price action.  Equity markets are mixed, though starting to look a bit better as early losses in Europe have turned around.  Asia saw modest gains (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng 0.0%, Shanghai +0.5%) and now Europe is picking up, with the three main indices (DAX, CAC, FTSE 100) all higher by 0.5%.  However, in the US, there still appears to be some fallout from the Archegos mess, with futures all pointing lower by about 0.4%.

In the bond market, Treasury yields have slipped 2.5 basis points this morning as there is clearly some haven appeal, although European sovereigns, with those equity markets performing well, have seen yields edge higher, but by less than 1 basis point.  Clearly, the bond market is not a point of interest today given the activity in stocks.

Oil prices (+1.1%), which had briefly fallen on the initial reports of the refloating of the Ever Given, have since rebounded as it has become clear that ships will not be moving through the canal anytime soon.  Metals prices are mixed, with precious metals still under pressure, while base metals have shown more resilience as gains in Al and Sn offset losses in Cu and Zn.  (I’ll bet you didn’t think you would need to remember your periodic table to read about finance!)

As to the dollar, it is generally higher this morning, with gains across most currencies in both the G10 and EMG blocs.  In the developed world, SEK (-0.5%) is the laggard as concerns over the next wave of the Covid virus spread, which is becoming a theme on the Continent as well.  The euro (-0.2%) continues to slide slowly as the 3rd wave (4th wave?) of Covid makes its way through Germany and other nations, and further discussions of more restrictive lockdowns continue.  On the plus side, GBP (+0.35%) is the leading gainer as the UK takes yet another step toward reopening the economy, by relaxing a few more restrictions.

In the Emerging markets, MXN (-0.8%) and TRY (-0.75%) are the laggards with the former under pressure due to some legislative proposals that will tighten the government’s grip on PEMEX, while the lira is suffering as the market starts to build expectations for a rate cut under the new central bank governor.  But the CE4 are all weaker, showing their high beta relationship to the euro, and a number of APAC currencies, including CNY (-0.3%) are weaker as well.

On the data front, there is a great deal of info this week, culminating in the payroll report on Friday.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 11.35%
Consumer Confidence 96.8
Wednesday ADP Employment 550K
Chicago PMI 60.0
Thursday Initial Claims 680K
Continuing Claims 3775K
ISM Manufacturing 61.4
ISM Prices Paid 82.0
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 643K
Private Payrolls 635K
Manufacturing Payrolls 37K
Unemployment Rate 6.0%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.1% (4.5% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.7
Participation Rate 61.5%

Source: Bloomberg

So, plenty to learn and clearly, the latest stage of reopening of the economy has economists looking for a substantial amount of jobs growth.  Of course, even if this forecast is accurate, Chairman Powell is still going to be looking for the other 9 million jobs that have disappeared before he considers tightening policy.  It remains to be seen if the market will continue to tighten for him.  After a deluge of Fed speakers last week, each and every one explaining they would not be changing policy for a long time and that there was no concern over potential rising inflation, this week sees only a handful of Fed speakers, with NY’s John Williams arguably the most influential.  But I don’t expect any change of message, which has clearly been drilled into the entire committee.

While broad equity indices have not suffered greatly, I cannot help but believe that the Archegos situation will give some people pause in their ongoing accumulation of risk.  While not looking for a crash, I expect that we will see choppy markets amid reduced liquidity and would not be surprised to see a bit more risk reduction.  In that environment, the dollar should remain broadly bid.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

No line in the Sand

The story from Janet and Jay
Continues to point to a day
In two years, nay three
That both can foresee
A rate hike could be on the way

Until then, while growth should expand
No policy changes are planned
If prices should rise
Though, we’ll recognize
There’s simply no line in the sand

With a dearth of new news overnight, the market appears to be consolidating at current levels awaiting the next big thing.  With that in mind, market participants continue to parse the words of the numerous central bank and financial officials who have been speaking lately.  Atop this list sits the second day of testimony by Fed Chair Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen, who yesterday were in front of the Senate Banking Committee.  While several senators tried to get a clearer picture of potential future activities from both Powell and Yellen, they have become quite practiced at not saying anything of note in these settings.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to be learned was, when Yellen was being questioned about her change of heart on the growth of the Federal debt load (in 2017 she publicly worried over a debt/GDP ratio of 75% vs. today’s level of 127%), she repeated her new belief that the Federal government has room to borrow trillions of more dollars to fund their wish list.  “My views on the amount of fiscal space that the United States [has], I would say, have changed somewhat since 2017.  Interest payments on that debt relative to GDP have not gone up at all, and so I think that’s a more meaningful metric of the burden of the debt on society and on the federal finances.” She explained.  It is remarkable what a change of venue will do to one’s opinions.  Now that she is Treasury Secretary, and wants to spend more money, it appears much easier for her to justify the new borrowing required.

At the same time, Chair Powell explained that the rise in bond yields was of no concern and that it represented a vote of confidence in the growth of the economy.  We heard this, too, from Atlanta Fed President Bostic yesterday, and this is clearly the new mantra.  So, while 10-year yields have backed off their recent highs by a few basis points, be prepared for further movement higher as positive data gets released.  The bond market has a history of testing the Fed in times like this, and remember, history also shows that when the 2yr-10-yr spread starts to steepen, it doesn’t stop until it reaches 250-275 basis points, which is more than one full percent higher than its current level.  I expect to see that test sometime this summer, as inflation rises.  Beware the impact on risk assets in that scenario.

But other than that, and of course the fact that the Ever Given remains wedged side-to-side in the Suez Canal, there is very little happening in markets today. (Apparently, the economic cost to the global economy of this incident is $400 million per HOUR!  And consider what it is doing to the concept of just-in-time delivery for supply chains.  We have not yet felt the full impact of this event.)

A quick tour of markets shows that Asian equity markets were mixed, with the Nikkei (+1.1%), by far the best performer, while the Hang Seng (0.0%) and Shanghai (-0.1%) essentially tread water.  European markets are mostly red, but the movement has been minimal.  The DAX (-0.2%), CAC (-0.2%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) are perfectly representative of pretty much the entire European equity space.  Meanwhile, US futures are edging higher (NASDAQ +0.4%, SPX +0.25%, DOW +0.2%) after yesterday’s late day sell-off.  Anecdotally, one of the things I have noticed lately is that the US equity markets tend to close nearer their trading lows than highs, which is a far cry from their behavior up through January, where late day price action almost always pushed prices higher.  The other thing that is changing is that the huge retail push into single stock options has been fading lately.  Perhaps it’s not as easy to make money in the stock market as it was claimed several weeks ago.

As to the bond market, we continue to see modest strength in the European sovereign market, where the ECB’s impact is clear to all.  This morning, in contrast to Treasury yields edging slightly higher (+0.5bps), we are looking at yield declines of between 1.3bps (OATs) and 2.5bps (Gilts) with Bunds in between.  There is no question that the ECB’s purchase numbers this week will be close to last week’s rather than near their longer-term average.  As an aside, we heard from BOE chief economist Haldane this morning and he explained that the UK economy could be set for a “rip roaring” move higher in Q2 given the amount of savings available to spend as long as the vaccine roll-out continues apace.

On the commodity front, despite the ongoing disruption in the Suez, oil prices have slipped back by 1.3%, although continue to hold above the psychologically important $60/bbl level.  As to metals prices, they have drifted down as well, along with most agricultural products.  Again, the movements here are not substantial and are indicative of modest position adjustments rather than a new trend of any sort.

Lastly, turning to the dollar, it too has had a mixed session, with both gains and losses across the spectrum.  In the G10, AUD (+0.4%) is the leader, followed by the GBP (+0.3%) and then lesser gains amongst most of the rest.  Meanwhile, JPY (-0.35%) has been the laggard in the group.  Aussie was the beneficiary of short covering as well as exporter interest taking advantage of its recent declines, while the pound seems to have been responding to the Haldane comments of potential strong growth.  As to the yen, while there are some concerns the BOJ may cut back on its JGB purchases, it appears the yen was a victim of some importer selling ahead of the Fiscal year end next week.

EMG currencies are also mixed, with gainers led by RUB (+1.0%), ZAR (+0.7%) and MXN (+0.45%) while the laggards have a distinctly Asian flavor (THB -0.35%, MYR -0.35%, TWD -0.3%).  The ruble appears to be benefitting from a trading bounce after a 3-day losing streak, while the rand is gaining ahead of a central bank meeting today, although expectations are for no policy change given the still low inflation readings in the country.  On the downside, the Bank of Thailand left policy on hold, as expected, but forecast a narrowing of the current account surplus, thus weakening the baht.  Meanwhile, both the ringgit and the Taiwan dollar are suffering from concerns over continued USD strength in combination with some technical moves.  Overall, the bloc remains beholden to the dollar, so should the buck start to gain vs. the G10, look for these currencies to suffer more acutely.

As it is Thursday, we start the day with Initial Claims (exp 730K) and Continuing Claims (4.0M), but also see a Q4 GDP revision (4.1%, unchanged) along with some of the ancillary GDP readings that tend to be ignored.  In addition, we hear from five more Fed speakers, but it is hard to believe that any of them is going to have something truly new to tell us.  We already know they are not going to raise rates until 2023 at the earliest and that they are comfortable with higher inflation and higher bond yields.  What else is there?

With all this in mind, I keep coming back to the Treasury market as the single key driver of markets overall.  If yields resume their rising trend, look for the dollar to rally and equities to fade.  If yields edge back lower, there is room for modest dollar weakness.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf