Riven By Obstinacy

Said Jay, in this challenging time
Our toolkit is truly sublime
It is our desire
More bonds to acquire
And alter the Fed’s paradigm

In contrast, the poor ECB
Is riven by obstinacy
Of Germans and Dutch
Who both won’t do much
To help save Spain or Italy

Is anybody else confused by the current market activity? Every day reveals yet another data point in the economic devastation wrought by government efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, and every day sees equity prices rally further as though the future is bright. In fairness, the future is bright, just not the immediate future. Equity markets have traditionally been described as looking forward between six months and one year. Based on anything I can see; it is going to take far more than one year to get global economies back to any semblance of what they were like prior to the spread of the virus. And yet, the S&P is only down 9% this year and less than 13% from its all-time highs set in mid-February. As has been said elsewhere, the economy is more than 13% screwed up!

Chairman Powell seems to have a pretty good understanding that this is going to be a long, slow road to recovery, especially given that we have not yet taken our first steps in that direction. This was evidenced by the following comment in the FOMC Statement, “The ongoing public health crisis will weigh heavily on economic activity, employment and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.” (My emphasis.) And yet, we continue to see equity investors scrambling to buy stocks amid a great wave of FOMO. History has shown that bear markets do not end in one month’s time and I see no reason to believe that this time will be different. I don’t envy Powell or the Fed the tasks they have ahead of them.

So, let’s look at some of the early data as to just how devastating the response to Covid-19 has been around the world. By now, you are all aware that US GDP fell at a 4.8% annualized rate in Q1, its sharpest decline since Q4 2008, the beginning of the GFC. But in truth, compared to the European data released this morning, that was a fantastic performance. French Q1 GDP fell 5.8%, which if annualized like the US reports the data, was -21.0%. Spanish Q1 GDP was -5.2% (-19.0% annualized), while Italy seemed to have the best performance of the lot, falling only 4.8% (-17% annualized) in Q1. German data is not released until the middle of May, but the Eurozone, as a whole, printed at -3.8% Q1 GDP. Meanwhile, German Unemployment spiked by 373K, far more than forecast and the highest print in the history of the series back to 1990. While these were the highlights (lowlights?), the story is uniformly awful throughout the continent.

With this in mind, the ECB meets today and is trying to determine what to do. Last month they created the PEPP, a €750 billion QE program, to support the Eurozone economy by keeping member interest rates in check. But that is not nearly large enough. After all, the Fed and BOJ are at unlimited QE while the BOE has explicitly agreed to monetize £200 billion of debt. In contrast, the ECB’s actions have been wholly unsatisfactory. Perhaps the best news for Madame Lagarde is the German employment report, as Herr Weidmann and Frau Merkel may finally recognize that the situation is really much worse than they expected and that more needs to be done to support the economy. Remember, too, that Germany has been the euro’s biggest beneficiary by virtue of the currency clearly being weaker than the Deutschemark would have been on its own and giving their export industries an important boost. (I am not the first to notice that the euro’s demise could well come from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands deciding to exit in order to shed all responsibility for the fiscal problems of the PIGS. But that is a discussion for another day.)

The consensus is that the ECB will not make any changes today, despite a desperate need to do more. One of the things holding them back is an expected ruling by the German Constitutional Court regarding the legality of the ECB’s QE programs. This has been a bone of contention since Signor Draghi rammed them through in 2012, and it is not something the Germans have ever forgiven. With debt mutualization off the table as the Teutonic trio won’t even consider it, QE is all they have left. Arguably, the ECB should increase the PEPP by €1 trillion or more in order to have a truly positive impact. But thus far, Madame Lagarde has not proven up to the task of forcing convincing her colleagues of the necessity of bold action. We shall see what today brings.

Leading up to the ECB announcement and the ensuing press briefing, Asian equity markets followed yesterday’s US rally higher, although early gains from Europe have faded since the release of the sobering GDP data. US futures have also given back early gains and remain marginally higher at best. Bond markets are generally edging higher, with yields across the board (save Italy) sliding a few bps, and oil prices continue their recent rebound, although despite some impressive percentage moves lately, WTI is trading only at $17.60/bbl, still miles from where it was at the beginning of March.

The dollar, in the meantime, remains under pressure overall with most G10 counterparts somewhat firmer this morning. The leaders are NOK (+0.45%) on the strength of oil’s rally, and SEK (+0.4%) which seems to simply be continuing its recent rebound from the dog days of March. Both Aussie and Kiwi are modestly softer this morning, but both of those have put in stellar performances the past few days, so this, too, looks like position adjustments.

In the EMG bloc, IDR was the overnight star, rallying 2.8% alongside a powerful equity rally there, as investors who had been quick to dump their holdings are back to hunting for yield and appreciation opportunities. As markets worldwide continue to demonstrate a willingness to look past the virus’s impact, there are many emerging markets that could well see strength in both their currencies and stock markets. The next best performers were MYR (+1.0%) and INR (+0.75%), both of which also responded to a more robust risk appetite. As LATAM has not yet opened, a quick look at yesterday’s price action shows BRL having continued its impressive rebound, higher by 3.0%, but strength too in CLP (+2.9%), COP (+1.2%) and MXN (2.5%).

We get more US data this morning, led by Initial Claims (exp 3.5M), Continuing Claims (19.476M), Personal Income (-1.5%), Personal Spending (-5.0%) and Core PCE (1.6%) all at 8:30. Then, at 9:45 Chicago PMI (37.7) is due to print. As can be seen, there is no sign that things are doing anything but descending yet. I think Chairman Powell is correct, and there is still a long way to go before things get better. While holding risk seems comfortable today, look for this to turn around in the next few weeks.

Good luck and stay safe
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Dire Straits

In Europe, that grouping of states
Now find themselves in dire straits
The PMI data
Described a schemata
Of weakness and endless low rates

In the past, economists and analysts would build big econometric models with multiple variables and then, as new data was released, those models would spit out new estimates of economic activity. All of these models were based on calculating the historic relationships between specific variables and broader growth outcomes. Generally speaking, they were pretty lousy. Some would seem to work for a time, but the evolution of the economy was far faster than the changes made in the models, so they would fall out of synch. And that was before Covid-19 pushed the pace of economic change to an entirely new level. So now, higher frequency data does a far better job of giving indications as to the economic situation around the world. This is why the Initial Claims data (due this morning and currently expected at 4.5M) has gained in the eyes of both investors and economists compared to the previous champ, Nonfarm Payrolls. The latter is simply old news by the time it is released.

There is, however, another type of data that is seen as quite timely, the survey data. Specifically, PMI data is seen as an excellent harbinger of future activity, with a much stronger track record of successfully describing inflection points in the economy. And that’s what makes this morning’s report so disheartening. Remember, the PMI question simply asks each respondent whether activity is better, the same or worse than the previous month. They then subtract the percentage of worse from the percentage of better and, voila, PMI. With that in mind, this morning’s PMI results were spectacularly awful.

Country Manufacturing Services Composite
France 31.5 10.4 11.2
Germany 34.4 15.9 17.1
UK 32.9 12.3 12.9
Eurozone 33.6 11.7 13.5

Source: Bloomberg

In each case, the data set new historic lows, and given the service-oriented nature of developed economies, it cannot be that surprising that the Services number fell to levels far lower than manufacturing. After all, social distancing is essentially about stopping the provision of individual services. But still, if you do the math, in France 94.8% of Service businesses said that things were worse in April than in March. That’s a staggering number, and across the entire continent, even worse than the dire predictions that had been made ahead of the release.

With this in mind, two things make more sense. First, the euro is under pressure this morning, falling 0.6% as I type and heading back toward the lows seen last month. Despite all the discussion of how the Fed’s much more significant policy ease will ultimately undermine the dollar, the short-term reality continues to be, the euro has much bigger fundamental problems and so is far less attractive. The other thing is the ECB’s announcement last evening that they were following the Fed’s example and would now be accepting junk bonds as collateral, as long as those bonds were investment grade as of April 7. This is an attempt to prevent Italian debt, currently rated BBB with a negative outlook, from being removed from the acceptable collateral list when if Standard & Poor’s downgrades them to junk tomorrow. Italian yields currently trade at a 242bp premium to German yields in the 10-year bucket, and if they rise much further, it will simply call into question the best efforts of PM Conte to try to support the Italian economy. After all, unlike the US, Italy cannot print unlimited euros to fund themselves.

Keeping all that happy news in mind, market performance this morning is actually a lot better than you might expect. Equities in Asian markets were mixed with the Nikkei up nicely, +1.5%, but Shanghai slipping a bit, -0.2%. Another problem in Asia is Singapore, where early accolades about preventing the spread of Covid-19 have fallen by the wayside as the infection rate there spikes and previous efforts to reopen the economy are halted or reversed. Interestingly, the Asian PMI data was relatively much better than Europe, with Japanese Services data at 22.8. Turning to Europe, the picture remains mixed with the DAX (-0.3%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) slipping while the CAC (+0.1%) has managed to keep its head above water. The best performer on the Continent is Italy (+1.0%) as the ECB decision is seen as a win for all Italian markets. US futures markets are modestly negative at this time, but just 0.2% or so, thus it is hard to get a sense of the opening.

Bond markets are also having a mixed day, with the weakest links in Europe, the PIGS, all rallying smartly with yields lower by between 5bps (Italy) and 19bps (Greece). Treasury yields, however, have actually edged higher by a basis point, though still yield just 0.63%. And finally, the dollar, too, is having a mixed session. In the G10 bloc, the euro and Swiss franc are at the bottom of the list today, with Switzerland inextricably tied to the Eurozone and its foibles. On the plus side, NOK has jumped 1.0% as oil prices, after their early week collapse, are actually rebounding nicely this morning with WTI higher by 12.4% ($1.70/bbl), although still at just $15.50/bbl. Aussie (+0.6%) and Kiwi (+0.75%) are also in the green, as both have seen sharp recent declines moderate.

EMG currencies also present a mixed picture, with the ruble on top of the charts, +1.4%, on the strength of the oil market rebound. India’s rupee has also performed well overnight, rising 0.8%, as the market anticipates further monetary support from the Reserve bank there. While there are other gainers, none of the movement is significant. On the other side of the ledger, the CE4 are all under pressure, tracking the euro’s decline with the lot of them down between 0.3% and 0.5%. I must mention BRL as well, which while it hasn’t opened yet today, fell 2.6% yesterday as the market responded to BCB President Campos Neto indicating that further rate cuts were coming and that QE in the future is entirely realistic. The BRL carry trade has been devastated with the short-term Selic rate now sitting at 3.75%, and clearly with room to fall.

Aside from this morning’s Initial Claims data, we see Continuing Claims (exp 16.74M), which run at a one week lag, and then we get US PMI data (Mfg 35.0, Services 30.0) at 9:45. Finally at 10:00 comes New Home Sales, which are forecast to have declined by 16% in March to 644K.

The big picture remains that economic activity is still slowing down around the world with the reopening of economies still highly uncertain in terms of timing. Equity markets have been remarkable in their ability to ignore what have been historically awful economic outcomes, but at some point, I fear that the next leg lower will be coming. As to the dollar, it remains the haven of choice, and so is likely to remain well bid overall for the foreseeable future.

Good luck and stay safe
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Not a Chance

From Germany and, too, from France
We saw the economy’s stance
Their prospects are dire
And though they aspire
To growth, it seems they’ve not a chance

Surveying the markets this morning, the theme seems to be that the growth scare continues to be real. PMI data from Europe was MUCH worse than expected across the board, with Services suffering as well as the manufacturing data which has been weak for quite a while already. This is how things stacked up:

Event Expectations Release
German Manufacturing PMI 44.0 41.4
Services PMI 54.3 52.5
Composite PMI 51.5 49.1
French Manufacturing PMI 51.2 50.3
Services PMI 53.2 51.6
Composite PMI 52.6 51.3

Source: Bloomberg

Anybody that claims Germany is not in recession is just not paying attention. Friday evening, the Bundestag agreed to a new €54 billion bill to address climate change, which some are looking at as an economic stimulus as well. However, a stimulus bill would need to create short term government spending, and the nature of this bill is decidedly longer term in nature. And a bigger problem is the German unwillingness to run a budget deficit means that if they put this in place, it will restrict their ability to add any stimulus on a more timely basis. It also appears that the ECB and IMF will continue to call them out for their austere views, but thus far, the German people are completely backing the government on this issue. Perhaps when the recession is in fuller flower, der mann on der strasse will be more willing for the government to borrow money to spend.

It ought not be that surprising that European equity markets suffered after the release with the DAX down a solid 1.2% and CAC -1.0% with the bulk of the move coming in the wake of the releases. This paring of risk also resulted in a rally in Bunds (-6bps), OATS (-3bps) and Treasuries (-3bps) while the dollar rallied (EUR -0.4%, GBP -0.3%).

But I think this begs the question of whether or not a recession is going to be solely a European phenomenon or if the US is going to crash that party. What we have learned in the past two weeks is that the ECB is basically spent, and that the market’s review of their newest policy mix was two thumbs down. Ironically, Draghi’s clear attempts to weaken the euro are now being helped by the significantly weaker than expected Eurozone data that he’s trying to fix. Apparently, you can’t have it both ways. Much to his chagrin, however, I believe that there is plenty more downside for the euro as the Eurozone economy continues its slow descent into stagnation. When Madame Lagarde takes over on November 1st, she will have an empty cupboard of tools to address the economy and will be forced to rely on verbal suasion. I expect that we will hear from the Mandame quite frequently as she tries to change the narrative. I also expect that her efforts will do very little, especially if China continues to falter.

Away from the weak European data, there was not that much else of interest. Friday, if you recall, the US equity markets suffered after the low-level Chinese trade delegation canceled a trip to Montana and Nebraska as the perception was the talks broke down. It turns out, however, that the request came from the US for other reasons, and that the talks, by all accounts, went quite well. At this point, the market is now looking forward to Chinese Vice-Premier, Liu He, coming to Washington on October 10, so barring any further tweets on the subject that topic may well slip to the back burner.

Brexit was also in the news as Boris makes his way to NY for the UN session this week He has scheduled meetings with all the key players from Europe including Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Taoiseach Varadkar. At the same time, the Labour party’s conference is in disarray as leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to campaign on a second referendum but will not definitively back Remain. In other words, it’s not just the Tories who are split over Brexit, it is both parties. And don’t forget, we are awaiting the UK Supreme Court’s decision on the legality of Boris’ move to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which could come any day this week. In the end, the pound is still completely beholden to Brexit, so look for a Supreme Court ruling against the government to result in a rally in the pound as it will be perceived as lowering the probability of a no-deal Brexit. Again, my view remains that at the EU summit in the middle of next month, there will be an announcement of a breakthrough of some sort to fudge the Irish backstop and that the pound will rally sharply on the news.

Looking ahead to this week, we have a fair amount of new information as well as a host of Fed speakers:

Tuesday Case-Shiller House Prices 2.90%
  Consumer Confidence 133.3
Wednesday New Home Sales 656K
Thursday Q2 GDP (2ndrevision) 2.0%
  Initial Claims 211K
Friday Personal Income 0.4%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Durable Goods -1.1%
  -ex transportation 0.2%
  Core PCE Deflator 0.2% (1.8% Y/Y)
  Michigan Sentiment 92.0

Source: Bloomberg

We also hear from 11 different Fed speakers this week, two of them twice! At this point I expect they will be working hard to get their individual viewpoints across which should actually help us better understand the mix of views on the board. So far we have a pretty good understanding of where Bullard, George and Rosengren stand, but none of them are speaking this week. This means we will get eleven entirely new viewpoints. And my take is that the general viewpoint is going to be unless the data really turns lower; there is no more cause to ease at this point. I don’t think the equity market will like that, nor the bond market, but the dollar is going to be a big beneficiary. The euro is back below 1.10 this morning. Look for it to continue lower as the week progresses.

Good luck
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