Twiddling Their Thumbs

Investors are twiddling their thumbs
Awaiting the next news that comes
The Old Lady’s meeting’s
Impact will be fleeting
And Jay’s finished flapping his gums

Which leads to the question at hand
Is risk on or has it been banned?
The one thing we know
Is growth’s awfully slow
Beware, markets could well crash land

Markets are taking a respite this morning with modest movement across all three major asset classes. While the Bank of England is on tap with their latest policy announcement, the market feels certain they will leave rates on hold, at 0.10%, and that they will increase their QE purchases by £100 billion, taking the total to £745 billion, in an effort to keep supplying liquidity to the economy. It is somewhat interesting that the story from earlier in the week regarding positive movement on Brexit had such a modest and short-term impact on the pound, which has actually begun to decline a bit more aggressively as I type. After peaking a week ago, the pound has ceded 2.5% from that top (-0.6% today). There is nothing in the recent UK data that would lead one to believe that the economy there is going to be improving faster than either the EU or the US, and with monetary policy at a similar level of ease on a relative basis, any rationale to buy pounds is fragile, at best. I continue to be concerned that the pound leads the way lower vs. the dollar, at least until the current sentiment changes. And while the BOE could possibly change that sentiment, I would estimate that given yesterday’s inflation reading (0.5%) and their inflation target (2.0%), they see a weaker pound as a distinct benefit. Meanwhile, remember the current central bank mantra, ease more than expected. If there is any surprise today, look for £150 billion of QE, which would merely add further urgency to selling pounds.

But aside from the BOE meeting, there is very little of interest to the markets. The ECB announced that their TLTRO III.4 program had a take-up of €1.31 trillion, within the expected range, as 742 banks in the Eurozone got paid 1.0% to borrow money from the ECB in order to on lend it to their clients. But while an interesting anecdote, it is not of sufficient interest to the market to respond. In fact, the euro sits virtually unchanged on the day this morning, waiting for its next important piece of news.

In the G10 space, the only other mover of note is NOK, which has rallied 0.5% on the back of two stories. First, oil prices have moved a bit higher, up slightly less than 1% this morning, which is clearly helping the krone. But perhaps more importantly, the Norgesbank met, left rates on hold at 0.00%, but explained that there was no reason for rates to decline further, once again taking NIRP off the table.

However, away from those two poles, there is very little of interest in the G10 currency space. As to the EMG space, it too is pretty dull today, with RUB the leading gainer, +0.55%, on the oil move and ZAR the leading decliner, -0.4%, amid rising concern over the spread of Covid there as the infection curve remains on a parabolic trajectory. Similar to the G10 space, there is not much of broad interest overall.

Equity markets have also “enjoyed” a mixed session, with Asian markets showing gainers, Shanghai +0.1%, and losers, Nikkei -0.25%, but nothing of significant size. In Europe, the news is broadly negative, but other than Spain’s IBEX (-1.0%) the losses are quite modest. And finally, US futures are mixed but all within 0.1% of yesterday’s closing prices.

Lastly, bond markets are generally firmer, with yields falling slightly as 10-year Treasuries have decline 3 basis points on the session, broadly in line with what we are seeing in European government bond markets. Arguably, we should see the PIGS bonds perform well as that TLTRO money finds its way into the highest yielding assets available.

Perhaps we can take this pause in the markets as a time to reflect on all we have learned lately and try to determine potential outcomes going forward. From a fundamental perspective, the evidence points to April as the nadir of economic activity, which given the widespread shutdowns across the US and Europe, should be no surprise. Q2 GDP data is going to be horrific everywhere, with the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow number currently targeting -45.5%. But given the fact that economies on both sides of the Atlantic are reopening, Q3 will certainly show a significant rebound, perhaps even the same percentage gain. Alas, a 45% decline followed by a 45% rebound still leaves the economy more than 20% lower than it was prior to the decline. And that, my friends, is a humongous growth gap! So, while we will almost certainly see a sharp rebound, even the Fed doesn’t anticipate a recovery of economic activity to 2019 levels until 2022. Net, the economic picture remains one of concern.

On the fiscal policy front, the US story remains one where future stimulus is uncertain and likely will not be nearly as large as the $2.2 trillion CARES act, although the Senate is currently thinking of $1 trillion. In Europe, the mooted €750 billion EU program that would be funded by joint taxation and EU bond issuance, is still not completed and is still drawing much concern from the frugal four (Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark). And besides, that amount is a shadow of what is likely necessary. Yes, we have seen Germany enact their own stimulus, as has France, Spain and Italy, but net, it still pales in comparison to what the US has done. Other major nations continue to add to the pie, with both China and Japan adding fiscal stimulus, but in the end, what needs to occur is for businesses around the world to get back to some semblance of previous activity levels.

And yet, investors have snapped up risk assets aggressively over the past several months. The value in an equity is not in the ability to sell it higher than you bought it, but in the future stream of earnings and cashflows the company produces. The multiple that investors are willing to pay for that future stream is a key determinant of long-term equity market returns. It is this reason that there are many who are concerned about the strength of the stock market rebound despite the destruction of economic activity. This conundrum remains, in my view, the biggest risk in markets right now and while timing is always uncertain, provides the potential for a significant repricing of risk. In that event, I would expect that traditional haven assets would significantly outperform, including the dollar, so hedgers need to stay nimble.

A quick look at this morning’s data shows Initial Claims (exp 1.29M), Continuing Claims (19.85M), Philly Fed (-21.4) and Leading Indicators (+2.4%). The claims data remains the key short-term variable that markets are watching, although it appears that economists have gotten their models attuned to the current reality as the last several prints have been extremely close to expectations.

Overall, until something surprising arises, it feels like the bulls remain in control, so risk is likely to perform well. Beware the disconnect, though, between the dollar and the stock market, as that may well be a harbinger of that repricing on the horizon.

Good luck and stay safe
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This Terrible Blight

The data from China last night
Showed PMI looking alright
But what does this mean?
Has China now seen
The end of this terrible blight?

Many pundits were both shocked and amazed when China’s PMI data was released last night and printed back above 50 (Manufacturing 52.0 and Composite 53.0), given the ongoing global economic shutdown. But if you simply consider the question asked to create the statistic; are things worse, the same or better than last month, it seems pretty plausible that things were at least the same as the previous month when commerce on the mainland shut down. And arguably, given the word that some proportion of the Chinese economy is starting to get back to work, the idea that a small proportion of respondents indicated improvement is hardly shocking. Instead, what I think we need to do is reconsider exactly what the PMI data describes.

Historically, when the global economy was functioning on, what we used to consider, a normal basis, the difference of a few tenths of a percent were seen as important. They seemed to tell a story of marginal improvement or decline on an early basis. Perhaps this was a false precision, but it was clearly the accepted narrative. The PMI data remains a key input into many econometric models, and those tenths were enough to alter forecasts. But that was then. As we all are abundantly aware, today’s economy and working conditions are dramatically different than they were, even in January. And so, the key question is; does the data we used to focus on still tell us the same story it did? Forward looking survey data is going to be far more volatile than in the past given the extraordinary actions taken by governments around the world. Quarantine, shelter-in-place and working from home will require a different set of measurements than the pre-Covid commuting world with which most of us are familiar.

Certainly, measurements of employment and consumption will remain key, but things like ISM, Fed surveys and productivity measurements are going to be far more suspect in the information they provide. After all, when the lockdowns end, and the surveys shoot higher, while the relative gains will be large, we are still likely to be in a much slower and different economic situation than we were back in January. A major investment bank is now forecasting Q2 GDP to decline by 34% annually, while Q3 is forecast to rebound 19%. The total story is one of overall decline, but the Q3 story will certainly be played up for all it is worth as the fastest growth in US history. My point is, be a little careful with what the current data is describing because it is not likely the same things we are used to from the past. The new narrative has yet to form, as the new economy has yet to emerge. While we can be pretty sure things will be different, we just don’t yet know exactly in which sectors and by how much. In other words, data will continue to be uncertain for a while, and its impact on markets will be confusing.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at where things stand this morning. After a very strong start to the week yesterday, at least on the equity front, things are a bit more mixed today. Asian markets saw both strength (Hang Seng + 1.8%) and weakness (Nikkei -0.9%), although arguably there were a few more winners than losers. Interestingly, despite the blowout Chinese PMI data, Shanghai only rose 0.1%. It seems the equity market there had a reasonable interpretation of the data. In Europe, meanwhile, things are generally positive, but not hugely so, with the DAX and FTSE 100 both higher by 0.8%, although the CAC has edged lower by 0.1%. at this time, US futures are pointing modestly higher and well off the earlier session highs.

Bond markets suffered yesterday on the back of the equity rally, as risk assets had some short-term appeal, but this morning the picture is more mixed. Treasury yields have fallen by 4bps, but Bund yields are little changed on the day. And in the European peripheral markets, Italian BTP’s are seeing yields edge higher by 1bp while Greek yields have softened by 4bps. I think today’s price action has much more to do with the fact it is month and quarter end, and there is a lot of rebalancing of portfolios ongoing, rather than as a signal of future economic/intervention activity.

In the FX market, though, the dollar continues to reign supreme with only NOK able to rally this morning in the G10 space as oil prices have rebounded sharply. A quick peek there shows WTI +7.5% and Brent +3.9%, although the price of oil remains near its lowest levels since 2001’s recession. But away from NOK, the dollar is quite firm with AUD under the most pressure, down 1.4% after some awful Australian confidence data. Clearly, the surprisingly positive Chinese data had little impact. But the euro has fallen 1.0% as concerns grow over Italy’s ability to repay its debt and what that will mean for the rest of the continent with respect to picking up the tab. Even the yen is under pressure today, perhaps on the news that the government is preparing a ¥60 trillion support package, something that will simply expand their already remarkable 235% debt/GDP ratio.

In the emerging markets, it should be no surprise that Russia’s ruble is top dog today, +1.3% on the oil rebound. Meanwhile, ZAR and KRW have also moved higher by 0.5% each with the rand benefitting from a massive influx of yield seekers as they auctioned a series of debt with yields ranging from 7.17% for 3-year to 11.37% for the 10-year variety. Meanwhile, in Seoul, the results of the USD swap auctions showed that liquidity there is improving, meaning there is less pressure on the currency. On the downside, CE4 currencies are under the gun as they track the euro lower, with the entire group down by between 0.8% and 1.3%. Perhaps the biggest disappointment today is MXN, which despite the big rebound in oil is essentially unchanged today after a 2% decline yesterday. The peso just cannot seem to get out of its own way, and as long as AMLO continues to be seen as ineffective, it is likely to stay that way.

There is some data due this morning, with Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 3.23%) and the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index (110.0 down from 130.7), but it is not clear it will have much impact. Yesterday’s Dallas Fed Manufacturing Index was released at -70, the worst print in its 16-year history, but one that cannot be surprising given the nationwide shutdowns and problems in the oil patch. I don’t see today’s data having an impact, and instead, expect that the focus will be on the next bailout package, the implementation of this one, and month-end rebalancing. It is hard to make the case that the dollar will decline in this environment, but that remains a short-term view.

Good luck
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Cash Is Undoubtedly King!

Historically bonds were the thing
To own in a market downswing
But lately it seems
Those days were just dreams
Now cash is undoubtedly king!

While this note is focused on the FX markets, where once again the dollar is top dog, I think a quick discussion of government bonds is in order to help try to make some sense of the overall market situation.

Clearly, the lead story in financial markets has been equities, which have proven that volatility is not dead. In fact, these constant +/- 5% days are exhausting for both investors and traders. And of course, most of us have at least some portion of our investment in the equity markets and are afraid to look at our accounts these days. But the behavior that has really been at odds with what had become the overriding narrative is the incredibly abrupt sell-off in Treasuries and other government bond markets during the past week. The idea that government bonds are a safe haven has been underpinning financial markets since long before the financial crisis in 2008. Yesterday I highlighted two of the issues that I think are driving recent price action; the prospect of staggeringly high new issuance to pay for all the proposed and enacted fiscal stimulus that is coming; and the fact that when yields reach a low enough point, the idea that holding bonds will guarantee the return of principal starts to diminish.

But I don’t think those explanations are sufficient to explain the speed and size of the movement that we have experienced since last Monday. Instead, movement like that can only be caused by massive position liquidation. Consider, 10-year Treasury yields rallied 36bps on Monday while 30-year yields closed 40bps higher after touching levels a further 15bps higher than that earlier in the session. So the real question is; who is liquidating their position(s)?

To answer that question we have to consider who holds large positions in Treasuries. The largest holder is likely the Fed, but obviously, they are not sellers. China and Japan come next on the list of holders, and while Japan would never be selling, there continue to be rumors that China has wanted to do that. I have never been a believer that China would sell their holdings for two reasons; first that they couldn’t get rid of them all at once, so a large sale would devalue their remaining holdings; and second because they would still have USD in their account and need to find something to do with them. Now that rates are back to 0.0%, what would they do with the money? After all, that’s a really big mattress they would need. And given the fact that the price of gold has fallen sharply through all this, it would imply there is no big bid for gold either. This leads me to believe that the Chinese have not touched their Treasury portfolio.

After those central banks, the biggest holders are leveraged fund managers with Risk Parity strategies having been an extremely popular investment product for the past decade. The idea was that by holding a certain percentage of different asset classes (e.g. 60% stocks/40% bonds), one could target a specific risk/return ratio. But nothing is simple these days, and as bond yields continued to grind lower over time, hedge fund managers started levering up to buy more and more Treasuries to hold against a given portfolio of stocks. However, what appears to have happened in the past week is that many of those highly levered Treasury positions needed to be reduced given the dramatic decline in the equity portion of the portfolio. Thus, the only explanation that I can see to explain this type of unprecedented Treasury bond movement is a massive liquidation trade by the hedge fund community. My sense is that we will hear of a number of funds closing shop over the next month or so. As an aside, this reinforces the idea that we are still paying the price for the Fed’s actions in 2008-09 and the fact that they never returned market conditions to pre-crisis settings. In the end, once these positions are liquidated, we are likely to see bonds show a little more stability and perhaps, they will regain their haven status. But for now, they are as tough a place to be as stocks.

Now to today’s session. The equity euphoria felt after the US announcement of substantial stimulus coming, measured right now at $1.2 trillion, and very likely taking the shape of true helicopter money with checks cut to all Americans earning less than a given amount, has ended as quickly as it formed. Asian equities got killed (Nikkei -1.7%, Hang Seng -4.2%, Australia -6.4%) and European indices are also tumbling (DAX -5.5%, CAC -5.5%, FTSE100 -5.0%). US equity futures are limit down (-5.0%) at this point, so a lower opening seems likely.

In the FX world, as I mentioned, the dollar is top dog. Today’s worst performer is MXN, which has fallen a further 4% to yet another new low (dollar high) with USDMXN now trading near 24.00. Vacations there will be cheap when we can travel again! But RUB is lower by 3.6% as oil continues to slide, and ZAR is down 2.0% on the weakness in gold and all metals. APAC currencies were all weaker by between 0.2% and 0.6% except for PHP, which actually rallied 0.7% today after the government reopened the Philippine stock market. Yesterday, they had closed trading completely and the decision was not well received at all, so now they are all working remotely and that seemed to cheer the FX market as some funds flowed back into the country.

In the G10, the pound is the leading decliner, down 1.5% as I type and looking for all the world like it is going to test its historic 1985 lows of 1.06! Today was the day that Brexit negotiations were to begin with the EU, with plans for a large group of negotiators on both sides. Obviously, in the current situation, that is no longer viable and it seems inevitable that Boris is going to need to postpone the eventual exit. Of course, he will pay no political price for that given the circumstance. But the rest of the G10 is also sliding, and the slide has accelerated since NY walked in at 7:00. For instance, the euro had actually been a bit higher earlier this morning, but is now down 0.25%. But it is Aussie and Kiwi (-1.4% each) as well as SEK (-1.3%) and CAD (-0.8%) that are pacing the blocs decline. The only exception is the one we would expect, JPY which has edged 0.2% higher this morning. While dollar needs remain substantial worldwide, yen investors continue to liquidate internationally and bring home their money.

On the data front, we do see Housing Starts (exp 1500K) and Building Permits (1500K), but again, nobody really cares. The focus will remain on Fed and Administration policies and market responses to those announcements will continue to be the primary drivers going forward.

Good luck and stay safe
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Fears Melt

As Covid fears melt
Like the snowpack during spring
The yen, too, recedes

Remember when there was a universal idea that if the world’s second largest economy, and its fastest growing one at that, essentially shut down due to complications from an exogenous force (Covid-19), it would force investors to show concern over their risk allocations and seek out haven assets? Me neither! Remarkably, equity investors have become so convinced that central banks collectively have their “backs” that there is virtually no interest in limiting positions. This is certainly true across all equity markets, where after a mere twenty-four hours of modest concern over the fact that Q1 iPhone sales would be negatively impacted by Covid-19, the all clear signal was given. This time that signal took the form of the Chinese government announcing that they would be supporting the domestic airline industry, either encouraging takeovers of smaller airlines in financial trouble by their larger brethren, or via direct capital injections into companies. My sense is we will see both of those actions in order to be certain that no airlines go under.

Headlines like the following: “Chinese Companies Say They Can’t Afford to Pay Workers Now” from a Bloomberg story are seen as irrelevant and have no impact on risk assessment. Apparently the idea that the Chinese private sector, which accounts for two-thirds of GDP growth and 90% of new jobs, has basically been shuttered is not relevant in the calculations made by equity investors. Let me just say that the idea of risk has certainly evolved lately.

But this is the story. Equity investors are convinced that central banks will never allow stock markets to decline again and will do everything in their power to prevent any such decline. And while that may be true with regard to central bank efforts, there is a potential flaw in the theory. Central bank power, just like virtually everything else, is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and we are already seeing that situation in Europe and Japan. So even though central bankers may try to stop all declines, do not be surprised when a situation arises where they cannot do so.

Interestingly, bond market investors have a somewhat different view of the landscape as we continue to see interest in Treasuries and bunds with yields in both instruments continuing to grind slowly lower. However, for now, the equity markets are in the spotlight and driving the narrative.

So, with this in mind, it is easier to understand that Asian markets mostly rallied last night (Nikkei +0.9%, Hang Seng +0.5) although Shanghai edged lower by -0.15%. European markets are rocking this morning with the DAX (+0.55%), CAC (+0.7%) and FTSE100 (+0.8%) leading the way higher despite news that Adidas and Puma have seen sales collapse to virtually zero in China. US futures are also pointing higher, on the order of 0.3% as we would not want to be left out of the action here.

Treasury yields continue to sink, however, with the 10-year down to 1.56% while German bunds have fallen to -0.42%. So there is clearly some demand for haven assets, perhaps just not as much as we would expect. And finally, in the FX market, havens have lost their appeal. Most notably, the yen has tumbled 0.5% this morning, trading well back through 110 and touching its weakest point since last May. Clearly, there is no fear in FX traders’ collective minds. Funnily enough, gold prices continue to rally, having closed above $1600/oz yesterday for the first time since March 2013, and are higher by a further 0.5% this morning.

With this as a backdrop, it is very difficult to paint a coherent picture of the markets today, at least the FX markets. In the G10 space, we have already discussed the yen’s decline, marking it as the worst performing major currency today. On the flip side, NOK is the big winner, +0.5% as oil prices rebound on the news that Chinese airlines are not all going to disappear. CAD is the second best performer, also on the back of the oil news, although it has only managed a 0.25% gain. And other than those three currencies, nothing else has moved more than 10 basis points from last night’s closing levels. On the data front overseas, UK CPI was released a tick higher than expected at 1.8%, although the pound has seen exactly zero movement on the back of the data. If nothing else, new BOE Governor Andrew Bailey must be happy that the road to 2% inflation is not quite as steep as previously expected.

In the EMG space, movement has been even more muted with the biggest gainers ZAR (+0.3%) and RUB (+0.25%) on the back stronger commodity and oil prices while the biggest decliners have been HUF (-0.3%) and TRY (-0.25%) with the former seeing profit taking after a nearly 2% rally in the wake of central bank discussions of tighter policy to fight inflation there, while the lira is responding to a rate cut of 50 bps as the central bank seeks to unwind the drastic tightening it implemented in mid-2018 amid major inflationary pressures. And while I wish there were some more interesting stories, the reality is the big narrative of central banks preventing risk sell-offs remains the only theme in the market.

Looking at this morning’s data we see Housing Starts (exp 1428K), Building Permits (1450K) and PPI (1.6%, 1.3% ex food & energy). Then at 2:00 we get a look at the FOMC Minutes from January’s meeting. Fed watchers are focusing on any discussion regarding the balance sheet and repo as it remains clear there is not going to be any interest rate change anytime soon.

So that’s what we have for today. Arguably, the dollar is ever so slightly on its back foot, but the movement has been infinitesimal. While I continue to believe that ultimately the Fed will ease policy further, for now, the dollar remains the brightest bulb in the box, and so should continue to attract buyers.

Good luck
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Investors Remain Unconcerned

There once was a time in the past
When market bears quickly amassed
Positions quite short
While they would exhort
Investors, their holdings, to cast

But these days the story has turned
So bears that go short now get burned
A global pandemic?
It’s just academic
Investors remain unconcerned

One has to be impressed with the current frame of mind of global investors as they clearly feel bulletproof. Or perhaps, one has to be impressed with the job that central bankers around the world have done to allow those feelings to exist.

The coronavirus is quickly becoming back page news, where there will be a tally of cases and deaths daily, morphing into weekly, as the investment community turns its attention to much more important things, like how many new streaming customers each of the streaming services picked up in Q4. It seems the fact that China’s economy is going to feel some extreme pain in Q1 is being completely dismissed. At least from the market’s perspective. And this is where the central banks get to take a bow. It turns out that overwhelming liquidity support is all one needs to make people forget about everything else. It is truly the opioid of the market masses.

So as you sit down this morning you will see that equity markets around the world are on a tear higher, with every market that has been open today in the green, most by well more than 1%. And don’t worry; US futures are all more than 1% higher as well. Everything is clearly fantastic!

Last night, the PBOC fixed the renminbi more than 0.5% stronger than the market would have indicated, thus demonstrating they would not let things get out of hand. Then after a weak opening, where equity indices there fell more than 2%, the government stepped in along with official buyers and turned the tide higher. Once this occurred, equity markets elsewhere in Asia took their cues and everything rallied. Risk was no longer anathema and we have seen that across all assets as havens come under pressure and other risk assets, notably oil has rebounded. The lifecycle of a negative event has grown increasingly shorter as central banks continue to demonstrate their willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to prevent a sell-off of any magnitude in any equity market.

This is not just a US phenomenon, but a global one. To me the question is: Is this peak financialization of the global economy? By that I mean are we now in a period where the real economy, the one where cars and other stuff are manufactured and food is grown, has become completely secondary to the idea that companies that do those things need to be entirely focused on their capital structure to be sure that they are appropriately overleveraged? While I recognize that I am old-fashioned in my thoughts, I cannot help but believe that we are going to see a pretty significant repricing of assets at some point in the not too distant future. In truth, despite the market’s insouciance with regard to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it is entirely possible that it continues to expand for several more months and that China, the second largest economy in the world and one representing 16% of total global economic activity, does not grow at all in Q1 while supply chains are closed and manufacturing around the world grinds to a much slower pace. Many recessions have been born of less than that. Just remember, trees don’t grow all the way to the sky, and neither do economies!

So let’s turn back to the other things ongoing in this morning’s session. Broadly speaking, the dollar is under modest pressure along with Treasury bonds and the Japanese yen. After all, safe havens do not boost your returns when Tesla is rallying 20% a day! There has been limited data today (Italian CPI +0.5% Y/Y) so FX markets are watching equities. Yesterday saw a big surprise in the US ISM data, which printed above 50 for the first time since July and has a number of analysts reconsidering their forecasts for slowing growth. The dollar definitely responded to this yesterday, rallying across the board as Fed funds futures backed off taking the probability of a rate cut by the Fed in July down to 85%. Remember, Friday that was at 100%.

Yesterday also saw the pound suffer significantly as the initial saber rattling by both the UK and the EU continued, which helped push the pound back to its key support level of 1.2950-1.3000. But as I said yesterday, this is simply both sides trying to get an advantage in the negotiation. While anything is possible, I continue to believe that a deal will be reached, or at the very least that a delay agreed on a timely basis. Boris is not going to jeopardize his power on this principle, remember he’s a politician first, and principles for them are fluid.

In the EMG bloc, pretty much every currency has rallied today as investors have quickly returned to those currencies with either higher yields (ZAR +0.6%, MXN +0.5%) or the best prospects assuming the coronavirus situation quickly dissipates (KRW +0.6%, CLP +0.6%, THB +0.5%). And in truth, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

In the US this morning we see December Factory Orders (exp 1.2%), generally not a major data point. There are no Fed speakers scheduled today which means that FX is going to be a secondary story. All eyes will be on equity markets and I expect that as risk assets are acquired, the dollar (and yen and Swiss franc) will continue to soften slowly.

Good luck
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Pundits Maligned

Phase one of the trade deal’s been signed
And though many pundits maligned
The outcome, it’s clear
That in the, term, near
Its impact on trading’s been kind

Amid a great deal of hoopla yesterday morning, President Trump signed the long-awaited phase one trade deal with China. The upshot is that the US has promised to roll back the tariffs imposed last September by 50%, as well as delay the mooted December tariffs indefinitely while the Chinese have promised to purchase upwards of $95 billion in US agricultural products over the next two years as well as agreeing to crack down on IP theft. In addition, the Chinese have committed to preventing excess weakness in the renminbi, and in fact CNY has been strengthening steadily for the past month as the negotiations came to an end. For example, this morning CNY is firmer by 0.15% and since mid-December it has rallied nearly 2.0%. Clearly there are larger trade issues outstanding between the two nations, notably forced technology transfer as well as numerous non-tariff barriers, but something is better than nothing.

Taking a step back, though, the bilateral nature of the deal is what has many pundits and economists unhappy. Certainly the economic theories I was taught, and that have been prevalent since David Ricardo first developed the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, indicate that multilateral trade is a better outcome for all concerned. Alas, the current political backdrop, where populism has exploded in response to the unequal outcomes from the globalization phenomenon of the past sixty years, has tarred multilateralism with a very bad reputation. And while it is far outside the purview of this commentary to dissect the issues, it is important to understand they exist and how they may impact markets. Given that the relative value of a nation’s currency is an important driver of trade outcomes, we cannot ignore it completely. Ultimately, as things currently stand, the market has seen this deal as a positive outcome, and risk appetite remains strong. As such, haven assets like the yen, dollar and Swiss franc are likely to remain on the back foot for the time being.

Beside the trade story, there has been scant new information on which to base trading decisions. Important data remains limited with the only notable print being German CPI at 1.5%, exactly as expected, although EU Car registrations bucked the trend and rose sharply, 21.7%, perhaps indicating we have seen a bottom on the Continent. But in reality, the market is now looking for the next big thing, and quite frankly, nobody really knows what that is. After all, the Fed has promised it is on hold, as are the ECB and BOJ, at least for the time being. Perhaps it is the BOE’s meeting in two weeks’ time, where the market continues to price in a growing probability of a rate cut. Of course, if the market is pricing it in, it is not likely to be that big a surprise, is it?

So in an uninspiring market, let’s look at what is coming up in today’s session. On the data front we see Initial Claims (exp 218K) and then Retail Sales (0.3%, 0.5% ex autos) as well as Philly Fed (3.8). Arguably, of just as much importance for the global economic outlook is tonight’s Chinese data where we will see; GDP (6.0%), Fixed Asset Investment (5.2%), Retail Sales (7.9%) and IP (5.9%). Remember, 6.0% growth has been President Xi’s target, and given the recent trajectory lower, any weaker than expected data is likely to be a risk-off sign, although it is likely to see a PBOC response in short order as well. Meanwhile, the US consumer continues to play its supporting role in the global economy, so any downside in this morning’s data is also likely to be a stock market negative.

On the speaker front, there are no Fed speakers today, although Philly’s Patrick Harker will regale us tomorrow. Later this afternoon ECB President Lagarde will be on the tape, and given she is still learning how much impact her words have on markets, there is always a chance of some unintentional excitement. Finally, yesterday, for the first time, we heard a Fed speaker explain that even though not-QE is not QE, the market may still consider it to be QE and the resulting rise in the price of risk assets may well be excessive. Dallas Fed President Kaplan is the first Fed member to publically admit that they may need to address this issue going forward. Certainly, the fact that the short-term repo program continues to be extended, and is now expected to run through April, rather than the original February completion, is an indication that the Fed still does not have control over the money markets. It is this last point which holds the potential to drive more significant market moves in the event of a communication or policy error. Just not today.

The dollar is mildly softer overall this morning, while we are seeing a very modest bias higher in equity markets around the world. Treasury yields are unchanged, just below 1.78%, and the previous narratives regarding recession probabilities and curve inversions as well as ongoing QE activities have just faded into the background. It all adds up to what is likely to be another quiet day in the FX markets, with no compelling story to drive movement.

Good luck
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A New Paradigm

In Germany for the first time
In months, there’s a new paradigm
The pundits are cheering
A rebound that’s nearing
As data, released, was sublime

Perhaps sublime overstates the case a bit, but there is no doubt that this morning’s German ZEW data was substantially better than forecast, with the Expectations index rising to 10.7, its highest level since March 2018. This follows what seems to be some stabilization in the German manufacturing economy, which while still under significant pressure, may well have stopped declining. It is these little things that add up to create a narrative change from; Germany is in recession (which arguably was correct, albeit not technically so) to Germany has stabilized and is recovering on the back of solid domestic demand growth. On the one hand, this is good news for the global growth story, as Germany remains the fourth largest economy in the world, and if it is shrinking that bodes ill for the rest of the world. However, for all those who are desperate for German fiscal stimulus, this is actually a terrible number. If the German economy is recovering naturally, it beggars belief that they will spend any more money than currently planned.

It is important to remember that the Eurozone fiscal stimulus argument is predicated on two things: the fact that monetary policy is now impotent to help stimulate growth throughout the Eurozone; and the belief that if the German government spends more money domestically, it will magically flow through to those nations that really need help, like Italy, Portugal and Greece. Alas for poor Madame Lagarde, this morning’s data has likely lowered the probability of German fiscal stimulus even more than it was before. The euro, however, seems to like the data, edging higher by 0.15% this morning and working its way back to the levels seen just before the US payroll report turned the short-term crowd dollar bullish. There was other Eurozone data released, but none of it (French and Italian IP) was really that interesting, printing within a tick of forecasts. On the euro front, at this point all eyes are on the ECB to see what Lagarde tells us on Thursday. Remember, the last thing she wants is to come across as hawkish, in any manner, because the ECB really doesn’t need the added pressure of a strong euro weighing on already subpar inflation data.

With two days remaining before the UK election, the polls are still pointing to a strong Tory victory and a PM Boris Johnson commanding a majority of Parliament. At this point, the latest polls show the Tories with 44%, Labour with 32% and the LibDems with just 12%. The pound is higher by 0.2% on the back of this activity, despite a mildly disappointing GDP reading of 0.0% (exp 0.1%). A quick look back at recent GBP movement shows that since the election was called on October 30, the pound has rallied 1.8%. While that is a solid move, it isn’t even the largest mover during that period (NZD is higher by 2.45% since then). In fact, the pound really gained ground several weeks earlier after Boris and Irish PM Leo Varadkar had a lunch where they seemed to work out the final issues for Brexit. Prior to that, the pound had been hovering in the 1.22-1.24 area, but gained sharply in the run up to the previous Brexit deadline.

I guess the question is; just how much higher the pound can go if the polls are correct and Boris wins with a Tory majority. There are two opposing views, with some analysts calling for another solid leg higher, up toward 1.40, as the rest of the market shorts get squeezed out and euphoria for UK GDP growth starts to rebound. The other side of that argument is that the shorts have already been squeezed, hence the move from 1.22 to 1.32 in the past two months, and that though finalization of Brexit will be a positive, there are still numerous issues to address domestically that will prevent a sharp rebound in the UK economy. As I’m sure you are all aware, I fall into the second camp, but there is certainly at least a 25% probability that a larger move is in the cards. The one thing that seems clear, though, is that market implied volatility will fall sharply past the election if the Tories win as uncertainty over Brexit will recede quickly.

Turning south of the border, it seems that the USMCA is finally making its way through Congress and will be enacted shortly. The peso has been the quiet beneficiary of this news over the past week as it has rallied 2% in the past week in a very steady fashion, although so far, this morning, it is little changed. One other thing of note regarding the Mexican peso has been the move in the forward curve over the past three weeks. For example, since November 19, 1-month MXN forwards have fallen from 1030 to this morning’s 683. In the 1-year, the decline has been from 10875 to this morning’s 10075. The largest culprit here appears to be the very large long futures position, (>150K contracts) that need to be rolled over by the end of the week, but there is also a significant maturity of Mexican government bonds that will require MXN purchases. At any rate, added to the USMCA news, we have a confluence of events driving both spot and forward peso rates higher. It is not clear how much longer this will continue, so for balance sheet hedgers with short dated exposures, this is probably a great opportunity to reduce hedging costs.

Beyond these stories, there is far less of interest in the market. This morning’s US data consists of Nonfarm productivity (exp -0.1%) and Unit Labor Costs (3.4%) neither of which is likely to move the needle. This is especially so ahead of tomorrow’s FOMC meeting and Thursday’s ECB meeting and UK election. Equity markets are pointing lower this morning, but that feels more like profit taking than a change of heart, as bonds are little changed alongside oil and gold. In other words, look for more choppy markets with no direction ahead of tomorrow’s CPI data and FOMC meeting.

Good luck
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Started To Fade

On Monday, the data released
Showed growth in the US decreased
As well, hope ‘bout trade
Has started to fade
And snow overwhelmed the Northeast

In a word, yesterday sucked. At least that’s the case if you were bullish on essentially any US asset when the session started. Early equity market gains were quickly reversed when the ISM data printed at substantially worse than expected levels. Not only did the headline release (48.1) miss expectations, which was biased toward a modest improvement over the October readings, but all of the sub-indices along with the headline number actually fell further from October. Arguably the biggest concern came from the New Orders Index which printed its lowest level (47.2) since the financial crisis. Granted, this was the manufacturing sector and manufacturing represents only about 12% of the US economy, but still, it was a rout. The juxtaposition with the green shoots from Europe was not lost on the FX market either as the dollar fell sharply across the board. In fact, the euro had its best day since early September, rallying 0.6%.

This morning, the situation hasn’t improved either, as one of the other key bullish stories for equity sentiment, completion of the phase one trade deal with China, was dealt a blow when President Trump explained that he was in no hurry to complete the deal and would only do so when he was ready. In fact, he mused that it might be better to wait until after the 2020 elections before agreeing a deal with China, something that is clearly not priced into the market. When those comments hit the tape, US equity futures turned around from small gains to losses on the order of 0.3%. Bullishness is no fun yet.

Perhaps it’s worth a few moments to consider the essence of the bullish US case and determine if it still holds water. Basically, the broad consensus has been that despite its sluggish pace, growth in the US has been more robust than anywhere else in the developed world and that with the FOMC having added additional stimulus via 75 bps of interest rate cuts and, to date, $340 billion in non-QE QE, prospects for continued solid growth seemed strong. In addition, the tantalizing proximity of that phase one trade deal, which many had assumed would be done by now or certainly by year end, and would include a reduction in some tariffs, was seen as a turbocharger to add to the growth story.

Now, there is no doubt that we have seen some very positive data from the US, with Q3 GDP being revised higher, the housing market showing some life and Retail Sales still solid. In fact, last week’s data releases were uniformly positive. At the same time, the story from Europe, the UK, China and most of the rest of the world was of slowing or non-existent growth with central banks having run out of ammunition to help support those economies and a protracted period of subpar growth on the horizon. With this as a backdrop, it is no surprise that US assets performed well, and that the dollar was a key beneficiary.

However, if that narrative is going to change, then there is a lot of price adjustment likely to be seen in the markets, which arguably are priced for perfection on the equity side. The real question in the FX markets is, at what point will a risk-off scenario driven by US weakness convert from selling US assets, and dollars by extension, to buying US dollars in order to buy US Treasuries in a flight to safety? (There is a great irony in the fact that even when the US is the source of risk and uncertainty, investors seek the safety of US Treasury assets.) At this point, there is no way to know the answer to that question, however, what remains clear this morning is that we are still in the sell USD phase of the process.

With that in mind, let’s look at the various currency markets. Starting with the G10, Aussie is one of the winners after the RBA left rates on hold, as widely expected, but sounded less dovish (“global risks have lessened”) than anticipated in their accompanying statement. Aussie responded by rallying as much as 0.65% initially, and is still higher by 0.35% on the day. And that is adding to yesterday’s 0.85% gain taking the currency higher by 1.2% since the beginning of the week. While the longer term trend remains lower, it would not be a surprise to see a push toward 0.70 in the next week or so.

The other major winner this morning is the British pound, currently trading about 0.4% higher after the latest election poll, by Kantar, showed the Tories with a 12 point lead with just nine days left. Adding to the positive vibe was a modestly better than expected Construction PMI (45.3 vs. 44.5 expected) perhaps implying that the worst is over.

Elsewhere in the G10, things have been far less interesting with the euro maintaining, but not adding to yesterday’s gains, and most other currencies +/- a few bps on the day. In the EMG bloc, the noteworthy currency is the South African rand, which has fallen 0.55% after a much worse than expected Q3 GDP release (-0.6% Q/Q; 0.1% Y/Y). The other two losing currencies this morning are KRW and CNY, both of which have suffered on the back of the Trump trade comments. On the plus side, BRL has rallied 0.4% after its Q3 GDP release was better than expected at +0.6% Q/Q. At least these moves all make sense with economic fundamentals seeming to be today’s driver.

And that’s really it for the day. There is no US data this morning, although we get plenty the rest of the week culminating in Friday’s payroll report. Given the lack of economic catalysts, it feels like the dollar will remain under general pressure for the time being. The short term narrative is that things in the US are not as good as previously had been thought which is likely to weigh on the buck. But for receivables hedgers, this is an opportunity to add to your hedges at better levels in quiet markets. Take advantage!

Good luck
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Quite a Breakthrough

Is stealing IP now taboo?
If so that is quite a breakthrough
Now maybe Phase One
Can finally be done
Or is this just more déjà vu?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before; a phase one trade deal is really close! For the umpteenth time in the past six months, this is the story driving markets this morning, although, in fairness, today’s version may have a bit more substance to it. That substance comes from an announcement by China that they are going to institute penalties on IP theft and potentially lower the threshold for considering criminal punishments for those convicted of the crime. This, of course, has been one of the key US demands in the negotiations thus far and the fact that the Chinese have conceded the argument is actually quite a big deal. Recall, if you will, that when this entire process started, the Chinese wouldn’t even admit that the practice was ongoing. Now they are considering enshrining the criminality of these actions into law. That is a huge change. Perhaps the current US stance in the negotiations is beginning to bear fruit.

Given this positive turn in the discussions, it should be no surprise that risk assets are in demand today and we are seeing equity markets rally around the world. Overnight in Asia, we saw strength across the board (Nikkei +0.8%, Hang Seng +1.5%, Shanghai +0.7%) and we are seeing solid gains in Europe as well (DAX +0.4%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.8%). The two outliers, Hong Kong and London have additional positive stories to boot. In Hong Kong the weekend’s local council elections resulted in the highest turnout in years and not surprisingly, given the ongoing protests for democracy, the pro-democracy candidates won 85% of the seats. HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam was quick to respond by explaining the government will listen carefully to the public on this issue. One other aspect of the elections was that they were completely peaceful, with no violence anywhere in the city this weekend, a significant difference to recent activity there, and that was also seen as a risk positive outcome.

Meanwhile, in the UK, PM Boris Johnson released his election manifesto and it was far more sensible than his predecessor’s attempt three years ago. While it included spending promises on infrastructure and increased hiring of nurses for the National Health Service, there were few other spending categories. Of course, he did remind everyone that a Tory majority will allow him to deliver Brexit by January 31 and he assured that the trade deal would be complete by the end of 2020. The latest polls show that the Tories lead 42% to 30% for Labour with the rest still split amongst minor players. Also, a Datapraxis study shows that on current form, the Tories will win 349 of the 650 seats in Parliament, a solid majority that will allow Boris to implement his policies handily. Given this news less than three weeks from the election, investors and traders are becoming increasingly bullish on the outcome and the pound has benefitted accordingly this morning, rising 0.3%. Now, it is still well below the levels seen last month, when it briefly peeked over 1.30 in the euphoria that Boris was going to get Brexit done by October 31. But, it is today’s clear winner in the G10 space.

Away from the pound, the rest of the G10 space has been quite dull, with the euro slipping a scant 0.1% after German IFO data showed that while the economy may not be getting worse, it is not yet getting much better. In keeping with the equity driven risk-on theme, the yen is softer this morning as well, -0.2%, but that is entirely risk related.

Turning to the EMG space, there has been a touch more activity but still nothing remarkable. On the positive side we see CLP rising 0.7% which has all the earmarks of a position consolidation after a very troubled couple of weeks. There has been no specific news although a background story has been focused on shifts in the local pension scheme. It seems there are five funds, labeled A through E with A the most aggressive, invested 60% in international equities, while E is the most conservative, investing 92% in local fixed income assets. It seems that in the wake of the protests, there was a substantial shift into the A fund, which has outperformed given the peso’s weakness. However, it now appears that local investment advisors are highlighting the benefits of the E fund which will result in CLP purchases and corresponding CLP strength. This is certainly consistent with the idea that risk is back in vogue so perhaps we have seen the worst in CLP. But otherwise, nothing much of interest here either.

During this holiday shortened week, we actually get a decent amount of data with most of it released Wednesday morning.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.30%
  New Home Sales 707K
  Consumer Confidence 127.0
Wednesday Initial Claims 221K
  Q3 GDP 1.9%
  Durable Goods -0.8%
  -ex Transport 0.1%
  Chicago PMI 46.9
  Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Core PCE 0.1% (1.7% Y/Y)
  Fed’s Beige Book  

Source: Bloomberg

In addition to this, where my sense is the market will be most focused on the Personal Income and Spending data, we hear from Chairman Powell later this evening. While it is always an event when a Fed chair speaks, it seems pretty unlikely that we are going to learn anything new here. At this stage, it has been made quite clear that the Fed is on hold for the foreseeable future. If that is not the message, then you can look for market fireworks.

So the session today is shaping up to be risk focused which means that away from the yen and maybe Swiss franc, I expect the dollar to be softer rather than firmer.

Good luck
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Not Been Tested

From Germany data suggested
The slowdown in growth’s been arrested
If true, that’s good news
But still there are views
The hypothesis, null’s, not been tested

There seems to be an inordinate amount of positivity surrounding a single data point this morning, German Factory Orders, which printed at +1.3% in September versus expectations of a 0.1% rise. And while this is certainly good news, two things to keep in mind are that the Y/Y rate of growth is -5.4%, (that’s right a significant decline) and that the other German data out this morning showed that October PMI’s printed at 48.9 on a composite level. In other words, all signs still point to a German recession on the basis of negative GDP growth in both Q3 and Q4. This will be confirmed next week when the official data is released. And remember, a negative print will be the third subzero outcome there in the past five quarters. My point is that Germany continues to drag on the Eurozone as a whole, and until the global trade situation improves, it is likely to continue to do so.

Yet, despite a spate of positive sounding articles about the nadir in Eurozone growth having been reached, the markets have taken a much less enthusiastic approach to things this morning. Yes, the euro is higher as I type, alas, by just 0.1%, and that is after a 0.6% decline yesterday. In other words, it is difficult to describe the FX market as jumping on board this narrative. What about equities you may ask? Well, the DAX is up by 0.15%, but again, this doesn’t seem to warrant much hype. In fact, looking at the Eurozone as a whole, we see a mixture of small gains (Germany, France, and Italy) and losses (Spain, Portugal and Austria) and a net of not much movement. In other words, it appears the press is far more excited than the investment community.

Perhaps a more interesting story has been the indication that Germany may be ready to allow more Eurozone banking integration by finally embracing allowing joint European deposit insurance. Recall that northern European nations, those that run surpluses, are loathe to bail out Italian and Spanish (and Greek and Cypriot, etc.) banks when they eventually go bust. However, it seems that Chancellor Merkel, whose power has been slipping away by the day, has decided that in order to maintain her grip she needed to do something to encourage her Social Democrat partners, and this is the latest wheeze. That said, if Germany and the rest of the north do sign off on this, it will be an unmitigated positive for the continent and, likely, for the euro. As is often the case with issues like this, there is a long way to go before an agreement is reached, but this is the first positive movement on the subject since the euro’s creation twenty years ago. In fact, success here is likely to permanently improve the euro’s value going forward.

Elsewhere in markets things have been pretty quiet. The rest of the G10 has seen modest movement with only Sweden’s krona rallying smartly, +0.45%, after the Minutes of the latest Riksbank meeting confirmed that they are working feverishly to figure out a way to exit the negative interest rate trap. At this point the market is pricing in a better than 60% probability of a rate hike at the December meeting, taking the base rate back to 0.00%. But away from that, the G10 is completely uninteresting.

In the EMG space, India’s rupee was the worst performer, falling 0.45% after weaker than expected PMI data (Services 49.2, Composite 49.6) indicated that the growth impulse in India remains absent and that further policy ease is likely from the RBI. Elsewhere, the Bank of Thailand, which has been trying to slow the baht’s steady appreciation, +8.5% in the past twelve months, cut its base rate by 25bps and relaxed some currency controls in an effort to release some pressure on the currency. However, given the economy’s ongoing relative strength, this seems unlikely to have a long term impact. In the end, the baht has declined 0.4% overnight, but hardly seems like it is getting ready to tumble.

And in truth, that’s really all that has been going on overnight. Yesterday we heard from a few more Fed speakers, Barkin, Kaplan and Kashkari, and the message remains consistent; i.e. the US economy is strong and monetary policy is appropriate, although the balance of risks still seem tilted toward the downside. In the end, Chairman Powell and his minions have done an excellent job of getting the markets to accept that there will be no further rate movement for the foreseeable future barring some catastrophic data.

Speaking of data, yesterday showed the Trade Balance shrunk to -$52.5B as imports fell sharply, and that the services sector in the US remains robust with ISM Non-manufacturing rising to 54.7. This morning we await Nonfarm Productivity (exp 0.9%) and Unit Labor Costs (2.2%), neither of which is likely to move the needle, and we hear from three more Fed speakers; Evans, Williams and Harker, none of whom are likely to deviate from the current mantra.

Overall, it has been a mixed session so far with no real direction and at this point, there is nothing obvious that is likely to change that mood. Look for a quiet one as the market seeks out its next big thing, maybe confirmation that the trade deal is going to be signed, but until then, hedgers should take advantage of the quiet market to execute.

Good luck
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