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