Set For a Rout

In case you still had any doubt
That growth has encountered a drought
The readings this morning
Gave adequate warning
That markets are set for a rout

You may all remember the Chinese PMI data from last month (although granted, that seems like a year ago) when the official statistic printed at 35.7, the lowest in the history of the series. Well, it was the rest of the world’s turn this month to see those shockingly low numbers as IHS Markit released the results of their surveys for March. Remember, they ask a simple question; ‘are things better, the same or worse than last month?’ Given the increasing spread of Covid-19 and the rolling shut-downs across most of Europe and the US in March, it can be no surprise that this morning’s data was awful, albeit not as awful as China’s was in February. In fact, the range of outcomes in the Eurozone was from Italy’s record low of 40.3 to the Netherlands actually printing at 50.5, still technically in expansion phase. The Eurozone overall index was at 44.5, just a touch above the lows reached during the European bond crisis in 2012. You remember that, when Signor Draghi promised to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. The difference this time is that was a self-inflicted wound, this problem is beyond the ECB’s control.

The current situation highlights one of the fundamental problems with the construction of the Eurozone, a lack of common fiscal policy. While this has been mentioned many times before, it is truly coming home to roost now. In essence, with no common fiscal policy, each of the 19 countries share a currency, but make up their own budgets. Now there are rules about the allowed levels of budget deficits as well as debt/GDP ratios, but the reality is that no country has really changed their ways since the Union’s inception. And that means that Germany, Austria and the Netherlands remain far more frugal than Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. And the people of Germany are just not interested in paying for the excesses of Italian or Spanish activities, as long as they have a choice.

This is where the ECB can make a big difference, and perhaps why Madame Lagarde, as a politician not banker, turns out to have been an inspired choice for the President’s role. Prior to the current crisis, the ECB made every effort to emulate the Bundesbank, and was adamant about preventing the monetization of national debt. But in the current situation, with Covid-19 not seeming to respect the German’s inherent frugality, every nation is rolling out massive spending packages. And the ECB has pledged to buy up as much of the issued debt as they deem necessary, regardless of previous rules about capital keys and funding. Thus, ironically, this may be what ultimately completes the integration of Europe. Either that or initiates the disintegration of the euro. Right now, it’s not clear, although the euro’s inability to rally, despite a clear reduction in USD funding pressures, perhaps indicates a modestly greater likelihood of the latter rather than the former. In the end, national responses to Covid-19 continue to truly hinder economic activity and there seems to be no immediate end in sight.

With that as our preamble, a look at markets as the new quarter dawns shows that things have not gotten any better than Q1, at least not in the equity markets. After a quarter where the S&P 500 fell 20.0%, and European indices all fell between 25% and 30%, this morning sees equity markets under continued pressure. Asia mostly suffered (Nikkei -4.5%, Hang Seng -2.2%) although Australian stocks had a powerful rally (+3.6%) on the strength of an RBA announcement of A$3 billion of QE (it’s first foray there). Europe, meanwhile, has seen no benefits with every market down at least 1.75% (Italy) with the CAC (-4.0%) and DAX (-3.6%) the worst performers on the Continent. Not to be left out, the FTSE 100 has fallen 3.8% despite UK PMI data printing at a better than expected 47.8. But this is a risk-off session, so a modestly better than expected data print is not enough to turn the tide.

Bond markets are true to form this morning with Treasury yields down nearly 7bps, Bund yields down 3bps and Gilt yields lower by 6bps, while both Italian (+5bps) and Greek (+9bps) yields are rising. Bond investors have clearly taken to pricing the latter two akin to equities rather than the more traditional haven idea behind government bonds. And a quick spin through the two most followed commodities shows gold rising 0.8% while oil is split between a 3.5% decline in Brent despite a 0.5% rally in WTI.

And finally, in the FX world, the dollar continues to be the biggest winner, although we have an outlier in Norway, where the krone is up by 0.8% this morning, despite the weakness in Brent crude and the very weak PMI data. Quite frankly, looking at the chart, it appears that the Norgesbank has been in once again supporting the currency, which despite today’s gains, has fallen by nearly 9% in the past month. Otherwise, in the G10 space, CAD is the worst performer, down 1.4%, followed closely by AUD (-1.0%) as commodity prices generally remain under pressure. In fact, despite its 0.25% decline vs. the dollar, the pound is actually having a pretty good session.

In EMG markets, it is HUF (-2.5%) and MXN (-2.1%) which are the leading decliners with the former suffering on projected additional stimulus reducing the rate structure there, while the peso continues to suffer from weak oil prices and the US slowdown. But really, the entire space is lower as well, with APAC and EMEA currencies all down on the day and LATAM set to slide on the opening.

On the data front this morning, we see ADP Employment (exp -150K), which will be a very interesting harbinger of Friday’s payroll data, as well as ISM Manufacturing (48.0) and Prices Paid (44.5). We already saw the big hit in Initial Claims last week, and tomorrow’s is set to grow more, so today is where we start to see just how big the impact on the US economy Covid-19 is going to have. I fear, things will get much worse before they turn, and an annualized decline of as much as 10% in Q1 GDP is possible in my view. But despite that, there is no indication that the dollar is going to be sold in any substantial fashion in the near term. Too many people and institutions need dollars, and even with all the Fed’s largesse, the demand has not been sated.

Volatility will remain with us for a while yet, so keep that in mind as you look for hedging opportunities. Remember, volatility can work in your favor as well, especially if you leave orders.

Good luck and stay safe
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Outrageous

The ECB’s fin’lly decided
That limits were badly misguided
So, starting today
All bonds are in play
To purchase, Lagarde has confided

As well, in the Senate, at last
The stimulus bill has been passed
Amidst all its pages
The Fed got outrageous
New powers, and hawks were aghast

Recent price action in risk assets demonstrated the classic, ‘buy the rumor, sell the news’ concept as equity market activity in the past two sessions had been strongly positive on the back of the anticipated passage of a huge stimulus bill in the US. And last night, the Senate finally got over their procedural bickering and hurdles and did just that. As such, it should be no great surprise that risk assets are under pressure today, with only much less positive news on the horizon. Instead, we can now look forward to death tolls and bickering about government responses to the quickly evolving crisis. If that’s not a reason to sell stocks, I don’t know what is!

But taking a break from descriptions of market activity, I think it is worthwhile to discuss two other features of the total government response to this crisis. And remember, once government powers are enacted, it is extremely difficult to remove them.

The first is from the US stimulus bill, where there is a $500 billion portion of the bill that is earmarked for support of the business community. $75 billion is to go to shore up airlines and the aerospace infrastructure, but the other $425 billion is added to the Treasury’s reserve fund which they can use to backstop, at a 10:1 leverage ratio, Fed lending. In other words, all of the programs about which we have been hearing, including the CP backstop, the primary dealer backstop, and discussion of purchases of municipal and corporate bonds as well as even equities, will now have the funding in place to the tune of $4.25 trillion. This means that we can expect the Fed balance sheet to balloon toward at least $9 trillion before long, perhaps as quickly as the end of the year. Interestingly, just last year we consistently heard from mainstream economists as well as Chairman Powell and Secretary Mnuchin, how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was a crock and a mistake to consider. And yet, here we are at a point where it is now the best option available and about to effectively be enshrined in law. It seems this crisis will indeed be quite transformational with the death of the Austrian School of economics complete, and the new math of MMT at the forefront of the dismal science.

Meanwhile, Madame Lagarde could not tolerate for Europe to be left behind in this monetary expansion and so the ECB scrapped their own eligibility rules regarding purchases of assets to help support the Eurozone member economies. This means that the capital key, the guideline the ECB used to make sure they didn’t favor one nation over another, but rather executed their previous QE on a proportional basis relative to the size of each economy, is dead. This morning the ECB announced that they can buy whatever they please and they will do so in size, at least €750 billion, for the rest of this year and beyond if they deem it necessary. This goes hand in hand with the recent German repudiation of their fiscal prudence, as no measure is deemed unreasonable in an effort to fight Covid-19. In addition to this, the OMT program (Outright Monetary Transactions) which was created by Signor Draghi in the wake of the Eurozone bond crisis in 2012 but never utilized, may have a new lease on life. The problem had been that in order for a country (Italy) to avail themselves of the ECB hoovering up their debt, the country needed to sign up for specific programs aimed at addressing underlying structural problems in said country. But it seems that wrinkle is about to be ironed out as well, and that OMT will finally be utilized, most likely for Italian bonds.

While neither the Fed nor ECB will be purchasing bonds in the primary market, you can be sure that is not even remotely a hindrance. In fact, buying through the secondary market ensures that the bank intermediaries make a profit as well, another little considered, but important benefit of these programs.

The upshot is that when this crisis passes, and it will do so at some point, governments and central banks will have even more impact and control on all decisions made, whether business or personal. Remember what we learned from Milton Friedman, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Now back to market behavior today. It is certainly fair to describe the session as a risk-off day, with equity markets have been under pressure since the beginning of trading. Asia was lower (Nikkei -4.5%, Hang Seng -0.75%), Europe has been declining (DAX -2.3%, CAC -1.8%, FTSE 100 -2.1%) and US futures are lower (SPU’s -1.4%, Dow -1.0%). Meanwhile, Treasury yields have fallen 6bps, and European government bonds are all rallying on the back of the ECB announcement. After all, the only price insensitive buyer has just said they are coming back in SIZE. Commodity prices are soft, with WTI falling 2%, and agriculturals softer across the board although the price of gold continues to be a star, as it is little changed this morning but that means it is holding onto its recent 11% gain.

And finally, in the FX markets, while G10 currencies are all looking robust vs. the dollar, led by the yen’s 1.2% gain and Norway’s continued benefit from recent intervention helping it to rally a further 0.75%, EMG currencies are more mixed. ZAR is the worst of the day, down 0.9% as an impending lockdown in the country to fight Covid-19, is combining with its looming credit rating cut to junk by Moody’s to discourage buying of the currency. We’ve also seen weakness in an eclectic mix of EMG currencies with HUF (-0.35%), KRW (-0.25%) and MXN (-0.2%) all softer this morning. In fairness, the peso had a gangbusters rally yesterday, jumping nearly 3.5%, so a little weakness is hardly concerning. On the plus side, APAC currencies are the leaders with MYR, IDR and INR all firmer by 1.2% on the strength of their own stimulus (India’s $22.6 billiion package) or optimism over the impact of the US stimulus.

Perhaps the biggest thing on the docket this morning is Initial Claims (exp 1.64M) which would be a record number. But so you understand how uncertain this forecast is, the range of forecasts is from 360K to 4.40M, so nobody really has any idea how bad it will be. My fear is we will be worse than the median, but perhaps not as high as the 4.4M guess. And really, that’s the only data that matters. The rest of it is backward looking and will not inform any views of the near future.

We have seen two consecutive days of a risk rally, the first two consecutive equity rallies in more than a month, but I expect that there are many more down days in our future. The dollar’s weakness in the past two sessions is temporary in my view, so if you have short term receivables to hedge, now is a good time. One other thing to remember is that bid-ask spreads continue to be much wider than we are used to, so do not be shocked when you begin your month-end balance sheet activity today.

Good luck and stay safe
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Has Panic Subsided?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, good weekend and please all stay safe and socially distant
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All the PIGS in Her Fief

Said Madame Lagarde, ‘Well I guess
Things really are in quite a mess’
And so up we’ll step
To introduce PEPP
As we try to deal with the stress

The market’s response was relief
That Europe’s new central bank chief
Has realized at last
The time is long past
To help all the PIGS in her fief

Another day, another bunch of new programs! First, though, a quick observation about the overall situation right now. There is no panic in the streets (after all the streets are mostly empty due to shelter-in-home and self-quarantining) but there is panic in… Washington DC, London, Bonn, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid, etc. And that panic emanates from the fact that all those elected politicians are facing the biggest crisis of all…they might not get reelected because of Covid-19. I believe it is the belated realization that their jobs are on the line that has seen a significant acceleration in the number of new programs being proposed and introduced around the world.

Central banks, which had borne the brunt of the heavy lifting, are starting to get help from fiscal policy actions, but those central banks are still on the front lines. To wit, in an unprecedented intermeeting action, last night the ECB unveiled a new QE program called the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program (PEPP) which will authorize the purchase of €750 billion of public and private assets for the rest of the year, or longer if deemed necessary. This time they are including Greek government bonds, which the ongoing QE program would not touch due to the credit rating, they are ignoring the capital key, which means they can purchase far more Italian debt than Italy’s share of the Eurozone economy would dictate, and they are expanding the corporate purchases to non-financial CP. And the market liked what they heard with European government bonds rallying sharply pushing 10-year benchmark yields down by 47bps in Portugal, 71bps in Italy, 167bps in Greece and 45bps in Spain. Equity markets in Europe have stopped collapsing, but we still see pressure in Germany and the UK, while the PIGS are all higher. One other thing about Germany was the release of the IFO Expectations Index which fell to 82.0, its lowest point since the financial crisis in 2008. Certainly short-term prospects seem dire there.

And what about the euro you may ask? Well, it continues to slide, down 1.0% this morning, but is actually about middle of the pack in the G10. If you want to see real carnage, look no further than Norway, where the krone has fallen another 2.75% as I type, but that is only after it had been lower by nearly 7.5% at 6:00 this morning, which forced a response from the Norgesbank that they would be intervening if things got worse. Looking over price action during the past month, when oil prices collapsed from $53.78 to as low as $20.06 (currently $22.88), which has been a 57% decline, the worst performing currencies have been; MXN (-23.8%), RUB (-21.2%), NOK (-19.7%) and COP (-17.3%). Two caveats on this list are Norway was down much further earlier this morning, and Colombia hasn’t opened yet today, so has room for a further decline. The only positive I can take from this is that the correlation between the currencies of oil producers and the price of oil remains intact. At least we know what to expect!

But there was plenty of other activity as well. For instance, the RBA cut rates again, by 25bps, taking their base rate to a historic low of 0.25%. In addition they have implemented their first QE plan where they are targeting the yield on 3-year AGB’s at 0.25%. The problem is that the 10-year bond got hammered on the news with yields there jumping 23bps overnight, taking the move since Monday to 57bps. Look for the RBA to do more, and probably soon. And the Aussie dog dollar? Down a further 1% this morning, which takes the decline in the past month to 14.3% and it is now trading at levels not seen since 2003.

And let’s not forget South Korea, which is stepping into the market to buy KRW 1.5 trillion (~$1.1 billion) of government bonds, as it prepares both bond and stock stabilization funds to help support markets there. In other words, the government is going to be buying equities to stop the slide. The KRW response? -3.2%!

Japan would not be left out of this parade, buying a new record ¥201.6 billion of ETF’s last night while injecting ¥5.3 trillion yen in new liquidity to the money markets. Unfortunately, the Nikkei continued its decline, although fell only 1.0%, arguably an improvement over recent performance. The yen has no haven characteristics this morning, falling 1.50%, which is actually now the worst performing currency as NOK continues to rebound as I type on the back of Norgesbank activity.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Fed has unveiled yet another program, this time to backstop money market funds, a key part of the US financial plumbing system, and one that when it broke in 2008 after Lehman’s bankruptcy, resulted in financial markets seizing up entirely. The fund is there to make liquidity available to funds to meet increased redemptions without having to sell their holdings. Instead, they will pledge them as collateral and receive cash from the Fed.

This note is too short to go through every action taken, but we continue to see other central bank rate cuts and we continue to see fiscal packages starting to get enacted. In fact, President Trump signed into law the latest yesterday, to support paid sick leave and increased unemployment benefits, and now Congress turns to the MOAS (mother of all stimuli) packages which may include helicopter money as well as bailouts of airlines and hospitality businesses that have been decimated by the virus response. Mooted price tag…$1.3 trillion, but my bet is it winds up larger than that.

Meanwhile, the dollar remains the single place to be. It has rallied against everything yet again as holding cash is seen as the only response to the current situation. And the cash everyone wants to hold is green. Foreign borrowers are scrambling and struggling as their local currencies collapse and swap spreads blow out. And domestic borrowers are wondering how they are going to repay or roll over their debt given the absolute collapse in economic activity.

For now, this is likely to continue to be the situation, as there is no obvious end in site. However, the growing sense of urgency in those national capitals leads me to believe that we are going to start to see much bigger fiscal packages and a newfound belief that printing money and giving it out is a better solution than allowing economic activity to seize up completely. As I said last week, the MMT proponents have won the day. It has just not yet been made explicit.

Good luck and stay safe
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Leavers Cheer

The Governor, in his last meeting
Said data, of late, stopped retreating
There’s no reason why
We need to apply
A rate cut as my term’s completing

Yet all the news hasn’t been great
As Eurozone stats demonstrate
Plus Brexit is here
And though Leavers cheer
The impact, growth, will constipate

Yesterday saw a surprising outcome from the BOE, as the 7-2 vote to leave rates on hold was seen as quite a bit more hawkish than expected. The pound benefitted immensely, jumping a penny (0.65%) in the moments right (before) and after the announcement and has maintained those gains ever since. In fact, this morning’s UK data, showing growth in Consumer Credit and Mortgage Approvals, has helped it further its gains, and the pound is now higher by 0.2% this morning. (As to the ‘before’ remark; apparently, the pound jumped 15 seconds prior to the release of the data implying that there may have been a leak of the news ahead of time. Investigations are ongoing.) In the end, despite the early January comments by Carney and two of his comrades regarding the need for more stimulus, it appears the recent data was sufficient to convince them that further stimulus was just not necessary.

Of course, that pales in comparison, at least historically, with today’s activity, when at 11:00pm GMT, the UK will leave the EU. With Brexit finally completed all the attention will turn to the UK’s efforts to redefine its trading relationship with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the question at hand is whether UK growth will benefit in the short-term, or if we have already seen the release of any pent-up demand that was awaiting this event.

What we do know is that Q4 was not kind to the Continent. Both France (-0.1%) and Italy (-0.3%) saw their economies shrink unexpectedly, and though Spain (+0.5%) continues to perform reasonably well, the outcome across the entire Eurozone was the desultory result of 0.1% GDP growth in Q4, and just 1.0% for all of 2019. Compare that with the US outcome of 2.1% and it is easy to see why the euro has had so much difficulty gaining any ground. It is also easy to see why any thoughts of tighter ECB policy in the wake of their ongoing review make no sense at all. Whatever damage negative rates are doing to the Eurozone economies, especially to banks, insurance companies and pensions, the current macroeconomic playbook offers no other alternatives. Interestingly, despite the soft data, the euro has held its own, and is actually rallying slightly as I type, up 0.1% on the day.

It may not seem to make sense that we see weak Eurozone data and the euro rallies, but I think the explanation lies on the US side of the equation. The ongoing aftermath of the FOMC meeting is that analysts are becoming increasingly dovish regarding their views of future Fed activity. It seems that, upon reflection, Chairman Powell has effectively promised to ease policy further and maintain a more dovish overall policy as the Fed goes into overdrive in their attempts to achieve the elusive 2.0% inflation target. I have literally seen at least six different analyses explaining that the very modest change in the statement, combined with Powell’s press conference make it a lock that ‘lower for longer’ is going to become ‘lower forever’. Certainly the Treasury market is on board as 10-year yields have fallen to 1.55%, a more than 40bp decline this month. And this is happening while equity markets have stabilized after a few days of serious concern regarding the ongoing coronavirus issue.

Currently, the futures market is pricing for a rate cut to happen by September, but with the Fed’s policy review due to be completed in June, I would look for a cut to accompany the report as they try to goose things further.

Tacking back to the coronavirus, the data continues to get worse with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. The WHO finally figured out it is a global health emergency, and announced as much yesterday afternoon. But I fear that the numbers will get much worse over the next several weeks. Ultimately, the huge unknown is just how big an economic impact this will have on China, and the rest of the world. With the Chinese government continuing to delay the resumption of business, all those global supply chains are going to come under increasing pressure. Products built in China may not be showing up on your local store’s shelves for a while. The market response has been to drive the prices of most commodities lower, as China is the world’s largest commodity consumer. But Chinese stock markets have been closed since January 23, and are due to open Monday. Given the price action we have seen throughout the rest of Asia when markets reopened, I expect that we could see a significant downdraft there, at least in the morning before the government decides too big a decline is bad optics. And on the growth front, initial estimates are for Q1 GDP in China to fall to between 3.0% and 4.0%, although the longer this situation exists, the lower those estimates will fall.

Turning to this morning’s activity, we see important US data as follows:

Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 0.3%
Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
Chicago PMI 48.9
Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg

Arguably, the PCE number is the most important as that is what is plugged into Fed models. Yesterday’s GDP data also produces a PCE-type deflator and it actually fell to 1.3%. If we see anything like that you can be certain that bonds will rally further, stocks will rally, and rate cut probabilities will rise. And the dollar? In that scenario, look for the dollar to fall across the board. But absent that type of data, the dollar is likely to continue to take its cues from the equity markets, which at the moment are looking at a lower opening following in Europe’s footsteps. Ultimately, if risk continues to be jettisoned, the dollar should find its footing.

Good luck and good weekend
Adf

Don’t Be Fooled

Said Christine Lagarde, don’t be fooled
That we’re on hold can be overruled
If data gets worse
Or else the reverse
Then our policies can be retooled

Madame Lagarde was in fine fettle yesterday between her press conference in Frankfurt following the ECB’s universally expected decision to leave policy unchanged, and her appearance on a panel at the WEF in Davos. The essence of her message is that the ECB’s policy review is critical to help lead the bank forward for the next decades, but that there is no goal in sight as they start the review, other than to try to determine how best to fulfill their mandate. She was quite clear, as well, that the market should not get complacent regarding policy activity this year. Currently, the market is pricing for no policy movement in 2020. However, Lagarde emphasized that at each meeting the committee would evaluate the current situation, based on the most recent data, and respond accordingly.

With that as a backdrop, it is interesting to look at this morning’s flash PMI data, which showed that while manufacturing across the Eurozone may be starting to improve slightly, overall growth remains desultory at best. Interestingly it was France that was the bigger laggard this month, with its Services and Composite data both falling well below expectations, and printing well below December’s numbers. Germany was more in line with expectations, but the situation overall is not one of unadulterated economic health. The euro, not surprisingly has suffered further after the weak data, falling another 0.2% this morning which takes the year-to-date performance to a 1.6% decline. While that is certainly not the worst performer in the G10 (Australia holds the lead for now) it is indicative that despite everything happening in the US politically, the economy continues to lead the G10 pack.

Perhaps a bit more surprising this morning is the British pound’s weakness. It has fallen 0.3% despite clearly more robust PMI data than had been expected. Manufacturing PMI rose to 49.8, well above expectations and the highest level since last April. Meanwhile, the Composite PMI jumped to 52.4, its highest point since September 2018, and indicative of a pretty substantial post-election rebound in the economy. Even better was that some of the sub-indices pointed to even faster growth ahead, and the econometricians have declared that this points to UK GDP growth of 0.2% in Q1, again, better than previously expected. Remember, the BOE meets next Thursday, and a week ago, the market had been pricing in a 70% probability of a 25bp rate cut. This morning that probability is down to 47% and the debate amongst analysts has warmed up on both sides. My view is the recent data removes the urgency on the BOE’s part, and given how little ammunition they have left, with the base rate sitting at 0.75%, they will refrain from moving. That means there is room for the pound to recoup some of its recent losses, perhaps trading back toward the 1.3250 level where we started the year.

Away from those stories, the coronavirus remains a major story with the Chinese government now restricting travel in cities with a total population of more than 40 million. While the WHO has not seen fit to declare a global health emergency, the latest count shows more than 800 cases reported with 27 deaths. The other noteworthy thing is the growing level of anger being displayed on social media in China, with the government getting blamed for everything that is happening. (I guess this is the downside of taking credit for everything good that happens). At any rate, if the spread is contained at its current levels, it is unlikely to have a major impact on the Chinese economy overall. However, if the virus spreads more aggressively, and there are more shutdowns of cities and travel restrictions, it is very likely to start impacting the data. With Chinese markets closed until next Friday, our only indicator in real-time will be CNH, which this morning is unchanged. Watch it closely as weakness there next week could well be an indicator that the situation on the ground in China is getting worse.

But overall, today’s market activity is focused on adding risk. Japanese equities, the only ones open in Asia overnight, stabilized after yesterday’s sharp declines. And European equities are roaring this morning, with pretty much every market on the Continent higher by more than 1.0%. US futures are pointing higher as well, albeit just 0.25%. In the bond market, Treasuries and bunds are essentially unchanged, although perhaps leaning ever so slightly toward higher rates. And gold is under pressure today, along with both the yen and Swiss franc. As I said, risk is back in favor.

There is neither data nor Fedspeak today, so the FX market will need to take its cues from other sources. If equities continue to rally, look for increased risk appetite leading to higher EMG currencies and arguably a generally softer dollar. What about the impeachment? Well, to date it has had exactly no impact on markets and I see no reason for that to change.

Good luck and good weekend
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Insane Consequences

The last time the Year of the Rat
Was with us, the markets fell flat
In two thousand eight
The crisis was great
Let’s hope this year’s better than that

Alas as the New Year commences
The Chinese can’t offer pretenses
That virus is spreading
And fears are it’s heading
Worldwide, with insane consequences

Markets this morning are on alert as fears increase regarding a more rapid spread of the coronavirus first identified last week in China. Late yesterday afternoon, Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus’ outbreak was shut down by Chinese authorities. This means that all air and long distance train travel out of the city has been halted. The thing is Wuhan has 11 million residents, larger than NYC, and keeping tabs on all of them is impossible. Then just hours ago, two other cities with a combined population of 8.5 million, Huanggang and Ezhou, announced they, too, were restricting all long distance travel out as well as closing public spaces like movie theaters and internet cafes. The death toll attributed to this virus is up to 17 now, and more than 500 confirmed cases have been recorded.

The timing of all this is extraordinarily poor. China is about to embark on a week-long holiday celebration of the New Year, this year being the Year of the Rat. Typically, this is a time of active travel within and out of China, as well as a time of significant consumer activity. But clearly, locking down major cities with a population approaching 20 million is not instilling confidence anywhere. Chinese equity markets, which historically have always rallied in the last session prior to the New Year holiday, fell sharply last night, with Shanghai falling 2.75% and the Hang Seng down 1.5%. While this fear has not filtered into European equity markets, they remain essentially flat, we have seen increasing demand for Treasuries with the yield on the 10-year falling to 1.75% and German bund yields falling to -0.275%. The last piece of this puzzle is the yuan, which fell 0.4% in its last on-shore session ahead of the holiday. However, CNH continues to trade so do not be surprised to see further weakness there if we continue to hear more negative stories regarding the health situation in China.

But, back to the Year of the Rat. What does it mean in economic and financial terms? The Chinese have a twelve year cycle within their calendar, so the last Year of the Rat was in 2008. I’m sure you all remember how 2008 finished, with the financial crisis unfolding in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy that September. Clearly, nobody wants to see that happen again! But there are certainly anecdotal indicators that might give one pause. The latest anecdote comes from Bob Prince, CIO of Bridgewater Associates, the giant hedge fund, who explained that “…we’ve probably seen the end of the boom-bust cycle.” This is disturbingly similar to a different Prince, Chuck, the former CEO of Citibank, when he defended loosening lending standards in 2008 by remarking, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” Perhaps an even more famous comment of this nature was made by Irving Fisher, the renowned economist whose work on debt-deflation and in monetary economics earned him wide acclaim, but who just nine days before the stock market crash of 1929 declared that stocks had “reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Now granted, 1929 was not the Year of the Rat, but pronouncements of this nature do have a habit of coming back to bite the speaker in the butt. Given the remarkably long tenure of the current economic and stock market gains, caution that things might change is in order. I’m not predicting an imminent collapse of anything, just highlighting that many market prices seem somewhat excessive and reliant upon a continued perfect outcome of moderate growth and easy money.

Looking at this morning’s activity, the major news will be made in Frankfurt, where the ECB has left policy unchanged (Deposit rate -0.5%, QE €20 billion/month) and now all eyes and ears will turn to Madame Lagarde’s press conference at 8:30 NY time. She is expected to announce the results of the ECB’s internal review of their inflation target, with the ongoing “close to but below 2.0%” likely to be changed to a more precise 2.0%, with an emphasis on the symmetry of that target, implying that slightly higher inflation will be acceptable as well. Alas for the ECB, higher inflation is just not in the cards, at least as long as they maintain interest rates at -0.5%. They can push on that string as much as they like and still will not achieve their goals. As to the single currency, this morning it is unchanged, continuing to hover just below 1.11, right in the middle of its effective 1.10/1.12 range that has been in place since October. We will need something really significant to change this mindset, and my sense is it will not come from within the Eurozone, but rather be driven by the US.

Other than that story, the UK Parliament approved the Brexit bill, which now needs to be ratified by the rest of the EU and is due to be addressed next Wednesday. Then Brexit will well and truly be done, a scant forty-two months after the initial vote. Of course, the next step is the trade negotiations, but even Boris would not risk blowing things up, now that he is in power, so look for an approved delay and an eventual deal next year. Meanwhile, the pound, which has been the best performing G10 currency this week, has stopped its run higher for now, and is actually lower by a modest 0.15% this morning. The other G10 currency movement of note was the Aussie dollar, rallying 0.4% after Unemployment surprisingly fell to 5.1%, thus offering some good news for a change.

In the emerging markets, while CNY is the biggest loser, the rest of the space has been pretty uneventful. On the positive side, CLP is higher by 0.5% after the central bank there indicated they would start to intervene if the peso started to decline too rapidly on the back of weakening commodity prices.

Aside from the ECB press conference, there are two pieces of data today; Initial Claims (exp 214K) and Leading Indicators (-0.2%). But at this point, unless Lagarde says something very surprising, it is shaping up as a very quiet session.

Good luck
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