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