They’ll See the Light

In China, a new rule applies
Which helped stocks close on session highs
The news was released
Insurers increased
The size of their equity buys

Meanwhile, Brussels has been the sight
Of quite a large policy fight
Four nations refuse
Their cash to misuse
But in the end, they’ll see the light

Once upon a time, government announcements were focused on things like international relations, broad economic policies and the occasional self-kudos to try to burnish their reputation with the electorate, or at least with the population.  But that ideal has essentially disappeared from today’s world.  Instead, as a result of the ongoing financialization of economies worldwide, there are only two types of government announcements these days; those designed to explain why the current government is the best possible choice, and those designed to prop up the nation’s stock market.  Policy comments are too hard for most people to understand, or at least to understand their potential ramifications, so they are no longer seen as useful.  But, do you know what is seen as useful?  Explaining that institutions should buy more stocks because a higher stock market is good for everyone!

Once again, China leads the way in this vein, with Friday night’s announcement that henceforth, Insurers should can allocate as much as 45% of their assets to equities, up from the previous cap of 30%.  Some quick math shows that this new regulation has just released an additional $325 billion of new buying power into the Chinese stock market, or roughly 4% of the total market capitalization in the country.  It cannot be a surprise that the Shanghai Exchange rallied 3.1% last night, which was, of course, exactly the idea behind the announcement.  In fact, lately, the Chinese have been really working to manipulate the stock market there, apparently seeking a steady move higher, probably something like 1% a day, but have been having trouble reining in the exuberance of the large speculative community there.  So, all of their little nudges higher result in 3%-5% gains, which they feel could be getting out of hand, and so they need to squash them occasionally.  But for now, they are back on the rally bandwagon, so look for some steady support this week.

Interestingly, however, this was clearly not seen as a global risk-on signal as equity activity elsewhere has been far more muted.  The rest of Asia was basically flat (Nikkei +0.1%, Hang Seng -0.1%) and Europe has seen a mixed session as well, with small gains by the DAX (+0.3%) and losses by the CAC (-0.3%).  In other words, investors realize this is simply Chinese activity.  PS, US futures are basically unchanged on the day as well.

At the same time, there is a critical story building out of Europe, the outcome of the EU Summit. This began with high hopes on Friday as most people expected the Frugal Four to quickly cave into the pressure to give more money away to the PIGS.  However, after three full days of talks, there is still no agreement.  Remember, their concern is that the EU plan to give away €500 billion in grants to countries most in need (read Italy, Spain and Greece), is simply delaying the inevitable as they will almost certainly waste these funds, just like they have each wasted funds for decades.  And the frugal four nations were not interested in throwing their money away.  But in the end, it was always clear that with support from Germany and France, a deal would get done in some form.  The latest is that “only” €390 billion will be given as grants, so a 22% reduction, but still a lot of free cash.

While no one has yet signed on the dotted line, you can be sure that by the end of the day, they will have announced a successful conclusion to the process.  The funny thing is that regardless of the outcome of the Summit, it seems to me that the entire package, listed at €750 billion, is actually pretty small.  After all, the CARES act here had a price tag of $3.2 trillion, four times as large, and the EU economy is going to suffer just as much as the US.  But that is not the way the market is looking at things.  Rather, they have collectively decided that this package is a huge euro positive and have been pushing the single currency higher steadily for pretty much the entire month of July (+2.5%), with it now sitting just pips below the spike high seen in March, and back to levels last seen, really, in January 2019.  How much further can it rise?  Personally, I am skeptical that it has that much more room to run, but I know the technicians are really getting excited about a big breakout here.

As to the rest of the FX market, activity has been fairly muted with the dollar slightly softer against most G10 and EMG counterparts.  On the G10 side, NOK and SEK lead the way higher, both up by 0.45%, as in a broad move, these higher beta currencies tend to have the best performance.  JPY is a touch softer on the day, and a number of currencies, CAD, NZD, CHF, are all within just basis points of Friday’s close.

We are seeing similar price action in the emerging markets, with one notable loser, IDR (-0.5%) as traders there continue to price in further policy ease by the central bank after last week’s 25bp rate cut. On the plus side, the CE4 are leading the way higher, with gains between 0.3% and 0.6%, simply tracking the euro with a bit more beta.  But really, there is not too much of note to discuss here.

On the data front, it is an extremely quiet week upcoming as follows:

Wednesday Existing Home Sales 4.80M
Thursday Initial Claims 1.293M
  Continuing Claims 16.9M
  Leading Indicators 2.1%
Friday PMI Manufacturing 52.0
  PMI Services 51.0
  New Home Sales 700K

Source: Bloomberg

In addition, there are no Fed speakers on the docket as it seems everybody has gone on holiday.  So, once again, Initial Claims seems to be the key data point this week, helping us to determine if things are actually getting better, or we have seen a temporary peak in activity.  With the ongoing spread of what appears to be a second wave of Covid, there is every chance that we start to see the rebound in data seen for the past two months start to fade.  If that is the case, it strikes me that we will see a bit more risk-off activity and the dollar benefit.  But that is a future situation.  Today, the dollar remains under modest pressure as traders respond to the perceived benefits of striking a deal at the EU.

Good luck and stay safe

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Second Wave

In Q2 we learned to behave
Like primitives stuck in a cave
In order to stem
The virus mayhem
And millions of lives, try to save

But Q3 has shown that we crave
More contact than lockdown, us, gave
Thus, it’s not surprising
Infections are rising
And now we’ve achieved second wave

If I were to describe market behavior of late, the word I would use is tentative. Investors and traders are caught between wanting to believe that the nonstop stimulus efforts on both fiscal, and especially, monetary fronts will be sufficient to help the economy through the current economic crisis (conveniently ignoring the extraordinary build up in debt), and concerns that there is too much permanent damage to too many businesses to allow for a swift recovery to a pre-Covid level of activity. Adding to the fear side of the equation is the resurgence in the number of infections worldwide, especially in places that had seemed to eradicate the virus. News from Hong Kong, Australia, China and India shows that the virus is making a resurgence, with several places recording more cases now than when things started five to six months ago. And of course, we have seen the same pattern in states that were first to reopen here at home.

Meanwhile, the medical community continues its extraordinary efforts to find a vaccine, with several promising candidates making their way through trials. Perhaps the best medical news is that it seems doctors on the front line have learned how to treat the disease more effectively, which has reduced the number of critical cases and helped drive down the fatality rate. Alas, an effective vaccine remains elusive. Ironically, the vaccine’s importance in many ways is symbolic. The idea that there is a way to avoid catching the bug is certainly appealing, but if the flu vaccine is any harbinger of the outcome, a minority of people will actually get vaccinated. So, the vaccine story is more about a chance for confidence to be restored than about people’s health. Perhaps this sums up the state of human affairs these days better than anything else.

And yet, while no politician anywhere will allow confirmation, it certainly appears that we are seeing a second wave of infections spread worldwide. From the market’s perspective, this has been a key concern for the past several months as a second wave of economy-wide shutdowns would end all hopes of that elusive V-shaped recovery. And the only way to justify the current levels of asset values is by assuming this crisis will pass quickly and things will return to a more normal framework. Hence the trader’s dilemma. Is the worst behind us? Or is a second wave going to expand and delay the recovery further? Perhaps the most telling feature of this market is the changed relationship between the S&P 500 and the VIX index. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, an equity rally of the type seen since late March would have seen the VIX index collapse toward 15, the level at which it traded for virtually all of 2019. But this time, 30 has become the new normal for the VIX, a strong indication that investors are paying for protection, despite the cost, as there remains an underlying fear of another sharp decline beyond the horizon. Hence, my description of things as tentative.

Looking at markets this morning, tentative is an excellent descriptor. In the equity space, Asian markets were mixed, with the Nikkei (-0.3%) on the weak side with the Hang Seng (+0.5%) was the strong side. But given the type of movement we have seen lately, neither really displayed anything new at the end of the week. European markets are also mixed with the DAX (+0.5%) the best performer while Spain’s IBEX (-0.5%) is the worst. Again, a mix of performances with no evident trend. US futures are currently pointing higher although only the NASDAQ (+1.0%) is showing any real strength.

Meanwhile, Treasury yields have slipped again, with the 10-year down to 0.60%, its lowest level since mid-April and just 4bps from its historic low. That is hardly a sign of economic confidence. In Europe, the picture is mixed but yields are essentially within 1bp of where they closed yesterday as traders are unwilling to take a view.

Finally, the dollar, too, is having a mixed session, although if I had to characterize it, I would say it is slightly softer overall. The euro is higher by 0.3% this morning as there is hope that the EU Summit, which began a few hours ago, will come to an agreement on their mooted €750 billion pandemic plan that includes joint borrowing. Of course, the frugal four still need to be bought off in some manner but given the political determination to be seen to be doing something, I would look for a watered-down version of the bill to be agreed. However, the best performer today is CHF (+0.5%) in what appears to be some profit taking on EURCHF positions after the cross’s strong rally this week.

In the emerging markets, IDR is the big underperformer today, falling 0.5% overnight as traders position for future rate cuts by the central bank. While they cut 25bps yesterday, they also came across as more dovish than expected implying they are not yet done with the rate hatchet. On the plus side, ZAR (+0.6%) is top of the charts as investors have been flocking to the front end of their yield curve after a much lower than expected inflation print. The view is that the SARB has further to cut which will drive front end yields down, hence the buying. (The dichotomy between the two currencies is fascinating as both are moving on rate cut assumptions, but in opposite directions. Hey, nobody ever said FX was rational!) But we are seeing more gainers than losers as the CE4 track the euro higher and several APAC currencies also moved modestly higher overnight. Remember, one of the emerging narratives has been the dollar’s imminent decline on the back of the twin deficits and lost prestige in the world community. So, every time we see a day where the dollar declines, you can be sure you will see stories on that topic. And while the twin deficit story is certainly valid from a theoretical basis, it has never been a good short-term indicator of movement in the currency markets.

On the data front, yesterday saw US Retail Sales print at a better than expected 7.5%, but Initial Claims fall less than expected, with still 1.3 million first time claims. As I have mentioned, that number continues to be the timeliest indicator of what is happening, and it is certainly not declining very rapidly anymore. Today brings Housing Starts (exp 1189K) and Building Permits (1293K) at 8:30 and then Michigan Sentiment (79.0) at 10:00. Neither of these seem likely to have a major market impact. Rather, as earnings season progresses, I expect the ongoing reports there to drive equity markets and overall risk appetite. For now, nobody is very hungry for risk, but a few good numbers could certainly change that view, pushing stocks higher and the dollar lower.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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Depression’s Price In

As cities continue to burn
The stock market bears never learn
Depression’s priced in
And to bears’ chagrin
Investors have shown no concern

Once again risk is on fire this morning as every piece of bad news is seen as ancient history, riots across the US are seen as irrelevant and the future is deemed fantastic based on ongoing (permanent?) government economic support and the continued belief that Covid-19 has had its day in the sun and will soon retreat to the back pages. And while the optimistic views on government largesse and the virus’s retreat may be well founded, the evidence still appears to point to an extremely long and slow recovery to the global economy. Just yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office, released a report indicating it will take nearly ten years before GDP in the US will return to its previous trend growth levels. That hardly sounds like they type of economy that warrants ever increasing multiples in the stock market. But hey, I’m just an FX guy.

A look around the world allows us to highlight what seem to be the driving forces in different regions. There are two key assumptions underpinning European asset performance these days; the fact that the EU has finally agreed to joint financing of a budget and mutualized debt issuance and the virtual certainty that the ECB is going to increase the PEPP in their step tomorrow. The flaws in these theories are manifest, although, in fairness, despite themselves the Europeans have generally found a way to get to the goal. However, the EU financing program requires unanimous approval of all 27 members, something that will require a great deal of negotiation given the expressed adamancy of the frugal four (Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark) who are not yet convinced that they should be paying for the spendthrift habits of their southern neighbors. And the problem with this is the amount of time it will take to finally agree. Given the urgent need for funding now, a delay may be nearly as bad as no support at all.

At the same time, the ECB, despite having spent only €250 billion of the original €750 billion PEPP monies are now assumed to be ready to announce a significant increase to the size of the program. Not surprisingly, members of the governing council who hail from the frugal four have expressed reluctance on this matter as well. However, after Madame Lagarde’s gaffe in March, when she declared it wasn’t the ECB’s job to protect peripheral nation bond markets (that’s their only job!) I expect that she will steamroll any objections and look for a €500 billion increase.

Clearly, traders and investors are on the same page here as the euro continues to rally, trading higher by 0.3% this morning (+4.2% since mid-May) and back above 1.12 for the first time since March. European equity markets are rocking as well, with the DAX once again leading the way, up 2.4%, despite a breakdown in talks between Chancellor Merkel’s CDU and its coalition partner SPD over the nature of the mooted €100 billion German support program. But the rest of Europe is flying as well, with the CAC up 2.0% and both Italy’s and Spain’s main indices higher by about 2.0%. European government bonds are sliding as haven assets are simply no longer required, at least so it seems.

Meanwhile, in Asia, we have seen substantial gains across most markets with China actually the laggard, essentially flat on the day. But, for example, Indonesia’s rupiah has rallied another 2.2% this morning after a record amount of bidding for a government bond auction showed that investors are clearly comfortable heading back to the EMG bloc again. The stock market there jumped 2.0% as well, and a quick look shows the rupiah has regained almost the entirety of the 22% it lost during the crisis and is now down just 1.6% on the year. What a reversal. But it is not just Indonesia that is seeing gains. KRW (+0.7%, -5.0% YTD), PHP (+0.5%, +1.1% YTD) and MYR (+0.35%, -4.0% YTD) are all gaining today as are their stock markets. And while both KRW and MYR remain lower on the year, each has recouped more than half of the losses seen at the height of the crisis.

So, the story seems great here as well, but can these nations continue to support their economies to help offset the destruction of the shutdowns? That seems to vary depending on the nation. South Korea is well prepared as they announced yet another extra budget to add stimulus, and given the country’s underlying finances, they can afford to do so. But the Philippines is a different story, with far less resources to support themselves, although they have availed themselves of IMF support. And Indonesia? Well, clearly, they have no problem selling bonds to investors, so for the short term, things are great. The risk to all this is that the timeline to recovery is extended far longer than currently perceived, and all of that support needs to be repaid before economic activity is back.

The point of all this is that while there is clearly a bullish story to be made for these markets, there are also numerous risks that the bullish case will not come to fruition, even with the best of intentions.

And what about the US? Looking at the stock market one would think that the economy is going gangbusters and things are great. But reading the news, with every headline focused on the ongoing riots across the nation and the destruction of property and businesses, it is hard to see how the latter will help the economy return to a strong pace of growth in the short run. If anything, it promises to delay the reopening of many small businesses and restaurants, which will only exacerbate the current economic malaise.

The other thing that seems out of step with the politics is the underlying belief that there will be another stimulus bill passed by Congress soon. While the House passed a bill several weeks ago, there has been no action in the Senate, nor does there seem to be appetite in the White House for such a bill at this time with both seeming to believe that enough has been done and ending the lockdowns and reopening businesses will be sufficient. But if there are riots in the streets, will ordinary folks really be willing to resume normal activities like shopping and eating out? That seems a hard case to make. While the cause of the riots was a tragedy, the riots themselves have created their own type of tragedy as well, the delay and destruction of an economic rebound. And that will not help anybody.

So, on a day where the dollar is under pressure across the board, along with all haven assets, we have a bit of data to absorb starting with the ADP Employment number (exp -9.0M) and then ISM Non-Manufacturing (44.4) and Factory Orders (-13.4%). The Services and Composite PMI data from Europe that was released earlier showed still awful levels but marginally better results than the preliminary reports. However, it is hard to look at Eurozone PMI at 31.9 and feel like the economy there is set to rebound sharply. Those levels still imply a deep, deep recession.

However, today is clearly all about adding risk to the portfolio, and that means that equities seem likely to continue their rally while the dollar is set to continue to decline. For receivables hedgers, I think we are getting to pretty interesting levels. If nothing else, leave some orders a bit above the market to take advantage.

Good luck
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