A Line in the Sand

The news out of Europe is grand
A virus response is now planned
Except for the fact
It’s not widely backed
It might draw a line in the sand

As well, what the data has shown
Is hope for the future has grown
Most surveys explain
The worst of the pain
Is past, though there’s much to bemoan

Equity markets continue to power ahead in most nations as the ongoing belief remains the worst of the damage from the global shutdowns is past, and that activity will quickly return to pre-virus levels given the extraordinary support promulgated by governments and central banks around the world. For example, Italian Consumer Confidence fell only to 94.3, a far better result than the 90.0 expected. Similarly, Eurozone Economic Confidence edged higher, to 67.5 from April’s revised 64.9 reading, also offering the chance that the worst is behind us. In fact, we have seen this pattern repeatedly over the past several weeks, where May readings (Empire Mfg, Philly Fed, Michigan Sentiment) rebounded from the extraordinary levels seen in March and April, although they remain at levels associated with extremely deep recessions. And maybe, hopefully, that is exactly what this data means. The bottom is in and it is straight up from here. Of course, the slope of this recovery line remains highly uncertain.

This morning we have also learned a bit more detail about the last major economy to announce a support package, as the EU’s mooted €750 billion package will be combined with €1.1 trillion of additional spending by the EU from its own budget…over the next seven years. That’s right, the EU has determined that the best way to support its member nations in the midst of a crisis is to promise to spend some additional money for nearly the next decade. And when you do the math, this stimulus adds up to less than 1% of the EU’s annual GDP, by far the smallest effort made by any major government. Adding injury to this insulting package is the fact that it remains highly uncertain as to whether even this can get enacted.

Remember, the underlying problem in Europe remains that the frugal north has been unwilling to support the profligate south. In fact, the telling comment was from a Dutch diplomat where he said, “Negotiations will take time. It’s difficult to imagine this proposal will be the end-state of those negotiations.” So, the headline spin is Europe is finally getting around to putting up some economic aid directly to those nations in greatest need. But the reality remains far from that outcome. Markets, of course, are happy to believe the words until they are proven wrong, but history suggests that the promised €1.85 trillion in total aid will actually be far less than that in the end.

Will it matter if the money never comes? Perhaps not. Perhaps, the natural course of events will see growth start to pick up again and demands for government support will fade into the background. Of course, it seems equally likely that EU support will be delivered by flying pigs. But hey, you never know!

Turning to markets now, risk remains the place to be for investors as equity rallies continue unabated. After another standout performance in the US yesterday, Asia did well (Nikkei +2.3%, Australia +1.3%), except for Hong Kong, where the Hang Seng fell 0.7% after the Chinese National People’s Congress approved (by 2,878-1) the measure allowing China to crack down directly on Hong Kong’s citizens regarding subversion, secession and terrorism, if deemed to be necessary by Beijing. This has opened yet another front of disagreement between the US and China and simply served to elevate tensions further. As yet, the situation remains a war of words and financial actions (like tariffs), but the situation appears to be edging closer to a point where a more kinetic outcome is possible. If that were the case, you can be sure that Covid headlines would become page 6 news and markets would need to reevaluate their current bullish stance.

Meanwhile, European markets have responded positively to the promise of EU support with all markets there higher by between 0.5% (DAX) and 1.7% (Italy’s FTSE MIB). This makes perfect sense as Italy will certainly be the largest beneficiary of the EU program while Germany will simply be picking up the tab. And finally, as I type, US futures are mixed with the Dow higher by 0.5% while NASDAQ futures are lower by -.4%.

Interestingly, bond markets around the world have rallied alongside stocks with yields edging lower in the US, 10-year Treasury is down 1 basis point, but seeing much greater price gains (yield declines) throughout Europe where France (-5bps), Spain (-4bps) and Greece (-3.5bps) are leading the way. Even bunds have seen yields decline, down 2.5bps, on the back of ongoing weakness in German regional CPI readings.

And what of the dollar, you may ask. In truth, today is the very definition of a mixed session. In the G10, four currencies have edged lower by about 0.1% (CHF, NOK, CAD, AUD) while two have edged higher, SEK +0.2%, NZD +0.1%, and the rest are essentially unchanged. With movement this small, there is no specific story driving things.

The EMG bloc has seen a similar split with gainers and losers, but here there has been a bit more substance to the moves. The worst performer is Turkey, with the lira down 0.6% after data showed Central bank borrowing continued to increase as the country tries to stockpile hard-currency reserves. But we also saw KRW decline 0.45% after the BOK cut rates to 0.50%, a new record low, and promised to do even more if necessary, implying that QE is on the table next. On the plus side, CZK has been the biggest gainer, up 0.4% after their government financing auction drew a bid-to-cover ratio of 10.72, demonstrating real demand for the currency.

On the data front, we see a great deal here at home as follows: Initial Claims (exp 2.1M), Continuing Claims (25.7M), Durable Goods (-19.0%, -15.0% ex transport) and Q1 GDP (-4.8%) all at 8:30. With the market clearly looking forward, not back, despite what will certainly be horrific data, it seems unlikely that there will be much reaction unless there is a real outlier from these expectations. Remember, the working assumption is already that Q2 GDP is going to be record-breaking in its depths, so will any of these really change opinions? My guess is no.

Overall, the dollar has been under pressure for the past two weeks and as long as risk appetite remains robust, I think that situation will apply.

Good luck and stay safe
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Playing Hardball

Last night China shocked one and all
With two policy shifts not too small
They’ve now become loath
To target their growth
And in Hong Kong they’re playing hardball

It seems President Xi Jinping was pining for the spotlight, at least based on last night’s news from the Middle Kingdom. On the economic front, China abandoned their GDP target for 2020, the first time this has been the case since they began targeting growth in 1994. It ought not be that surprising since trying to accurately assess the country’s growth prospects during the Covid-19 crisis is nigh on impossible. Uncertainty over the damage already done, as well as the future infection situation (remember, they have seen a renewed rise in cases lately) has rendered economists completely unable to model the situation. And recall, the Chinese track record has been remarkable when it comes to hitting their forecast, at least the published numbers have a nearly perfect record of meeting or beating their targets. The reality on the ground has been called into question many times in the past on this particular subject.

The global economic community, of course, will continue to forecast Chinese GDP and current estimates for 2020 GDP growth now hover in the 2.0% range, a far cry from the 6.1% last year and the more than 10% figures seen early in the century. Instead, the Chinese government has turned its focus to unemployment with the latest estimates showing more than 130 million people out of a job. In their own inimitable way, they manage not to count the rural unemployed, meaning the official count is just 26.1M, but that doesn’t mean those folks have jobs. At this time, President Xi is finding himself under much greater pressure than he imagined. 130 million unemployed is exactly the type of thing that leads to revolutions and Xi is well aware of the risks.

In fact, it is this issue that arguably led to the other piece of news from China last night, the newly mooted mainland legislation that will require Hong Kong to enact laws curbing acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion. In other words, a new law that will bring Hong Kong under more direct sway from Beijing and remove many of the freedoms that have set the island territory apart from the rest of the country. While Covid-19 has prevented the mass protests seen last year from continuing in Hong Kong, the sentiments behind those protests did not disappear. But Xi needs to distract his population from the onslaught of bad news regarding both the virus and the economy, and nothing succeeds in doing that better than igniting a nationalistic view on some subject.

While in the short term, this may work well for President Xi, if he destroys Hong Kong’s raison d’etre as a financial hub, the downside is likely to be much greater over time. Hong Kong remains the financial gateway to China’s economy largely because the legal system their remains far more British than Chinese. It is not clear how much investment will be looking for a home in a Hong Kong that no longer protects private property and can seize both people and assets on a whim.

It should be no surprise that financial markets in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong, suffered last night upon learning of China’s new direction. The Hang Seng fell 5.6%, its largest decline since July 2015. Even Shanghai fell, down 1.9%, which given China’s announcement of further stimulus measures despite the lack of a GDP target, were seen as positive. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the Nikkei slipped a more modest 0.9% despite pledges by Kuroda-san that the BOJ would implement even more easing measures, this time taking a page from the Fed’s book and supporting small businesses by guaranteeing bank loans made in a new ¥75 trillion (~$700 billion) program. It is possible that markets are slowly becoming inured to even further policy stimulus measures, something that would be extremely difficult for the central banking community to handle going forward.

The story in Europe is a little less dire, although most equity markets there are lower (DAX -0.4%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -1.0%). Overall, risk is clearly not in favor in most places around the world today which brings us to the FX markets and the dollar. Here, things are behaving exactly as one would expect when investors are fleeing from risky assets. The dollar is stronger vs. every currency except one, the yen.

Looking at the G10 bloc, NOK is the leading decliner, falling 1.1% as the price of oil has reversed some of its recent gains and is down 6% this morning. But other than the yen’s 0.1% gain, the rest of the bloc is feeling it as well, with the pound and euro both lower by 0.4% while the commodity focused currencies, CAD and AUD, are softer by 0.5%. The data releases overnight spotlight the UK, where Retail Sales declined a remarkable 18.1% in April. While this was a bit worse than expectations, I would attribute the pound’s weakness more to the general story than this particular data point.

In the EMG bloc, every market that was open saw their currency decline and there should be no surprise that the leading decliner was RUB, down 1.1% on the oil story. But we have also seen weakness across the board with the CE4 under pressure (CZK -1.0%, HUF -0.75%, PLN -0.5%, RON -0.5%) as well as weakness in ZAR (-0.7%) and MXN (-0.6%). All of these currencies had been performing reasonably well over the past several sessions when the news was more benign, but it should be no surprise that they are lower today. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that HKD was lower by just basis points, despite the fact that it has significant space to decline, even within its tight trading band.

As we head into the holiday weekend here in the US, there is no data scheduled to be released this morning. Yesterday saw Initial Claims decline to 2.44M, which takes the total since late March to over 38 million! Surveys show that 80% of those currently unemployed expect it to be temporary, but that still leaves more than 7.7M permanent job losses. Historically, it takes several years’ worth of economic growth to create that many jobs, so the blow to the economy is likely to be quite long-lasting. We also saw Existing Home Sales plummet to 4.33M from March’s 5.27M, another historic decline taking us back to levels last seen in 2012 and the recovery from the GFC.

Yesterday we also heard from Fed speakers Clarida and Williams, with both saying that things are clearly awful now, but that the Fed stood ready to do whatever is necessary to support the economy. This has been the consistent message and there is no reason to expect it to change anytime soon.

Adding it all up shows that investors seem to be looking at the holiday weekend as an excuse to reduce risk and try to reevaluate the situation as the unofficial beginning to summer approaches. Trading activity is likely to slow down around lunch time so if you need to do something, early in the morning is where you will find the most liquidity.

Good luck, have a good holiday weekend and stay safe
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The Senate’s Blackball

Near China, an island quite small
Has led to the latest downfall
In equity prices
Because of their crisis
As well as the Senate’s blackball

Risk is decidedly off this morning as equity markets around the world are under pressure and bond markets rally strongly. Adding to the mix is a stronger dollar and Japanese yen as well as an uptick in gold prices. The proximate cause of this angst was the unanimous voice vote in the Senate last night to pass legislation requiring an annual review of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the US, something that was heretofore permanently granted in 1992. The new legislation requires Hong Kong to remain “sufficiently autonomous” in order to maintain that status, which is arguably quite a nebulous phrase. Nonetheless, the Chinese response was immediate, threatening unspecified retaliation if the bill becomes law and calling it illegal and an intrusion in domestic Chinese affairs. While the bill must still be reconciled with a similar House version, that seems likely to be fairly easy. The real question is how the president will manage the situation given the fragility of the ongoing trade talks. Thus far, he has not made his views known, but they would appear to be in sympathy with the legislation. And given the unanimity of voting in both chambers, even a presidential veto would likely be overturned.

Given this turn of events, it should be no surprise that risk is under pressure this morning. After all, the promise of a trade deal has been supporting equity and other risk markets for the past six weeks. This is the first thing that could clearly be seen to cause a complete breakdown in the discussions. And if the trade negotiations go into hibernation, you can be sure that risk assets have much further to fall. You can also be sure that the developing narrative that European weakness is bottoming will also disappear, as any increase in US tariffs, something that is still scheduled for the middle of next month, would deal a devastating blow to any nascent recovery in Europe, especially Germany. The point is, until yesterday, the trade story was seen as a positive catalyst for risk assets. Its potential unwinding will be seen as a clear negative with all the risk-off consequences that one would expect.

Beyond the newly fraught trade situation, other market movers include, as usual, Brexit and the Fed. In the case of the former, last night saw a debate between PM Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn where Boris focused on reelection and conclusion of the Brexit deal he renegotiated. Meanwhile, Jeremy asked for support so that he could renegotiate, yet again, the deal and then put the results to a referendum in six months’ time. The snap polls after the debate called it a draw, but the overall polls continue to favor Boris and the Tories. However, the outcome was enough to unnerve Sterling traders who pushed the pound lower all day yesterday and have continued the process today such that we are currently 0.6% below yesterday’s highs at 1.2970. It seems pretty clear that in the event of an upset victory by Corbyn, the pound would take a tumble, at least initially. Investors will definitely run from a country with a government promising a wave of nationalization of private assets. Remember what happened in Brazil when Lula was elected, Mexico with AMLO and Argentina with Fernandez a few months ago. This would be no different, although perhaps not quite as dramatic.

As to the Fed, all eyes today are on the release of the FOMC Minutes from the November meeting where they cut rates by 25bps and essentially told us that was the end of the ‘mid-cycle adjustment’. And, since then, we have heard from a plethora of Fed speakers, all explaining that they were comfortable with the current rate situation relative to the economy’s status, and that while they will respond if necessary to any weakening, they don’t believe that is a concern in the near or medium term. In fact, given how much we have heard from Fed speakers recently, it is hard to believe that the Minutes will matter at all.

So reviewing market activity, G10 currencies are all lower, save the yen, which is basically unchanged. The weakest link is NOK, which is suffering on the combination of risk aversion and weak oil prices (+0.4% today but -4.0% this week). But the weakness is solid elsewhere, between 0.2% and 0.5%. In the EMG bloc, CLP is once again leading the way lower, down 1.0% this morning after a 2.0% decline yesterday, with spot pushing back toward that psychological 800 level (currently 795). But pretty much every other currency in the bloc is lower as well, somewhere between 0.2% and 0.4%, with just a few scattered currencies essentially unchanged on the day.

And that really describes what we have seen thus far today. With only the FOMC Minutes on the docket, and no other Fed speakers, my take is the FX market will take its cues from the broader risk sentiment, and the dollar is in a position to reverse its losses of the past week. Barring a shocking change of view by Congress, look for a test of 1.10 in the euro by the end of the week.

Good luck
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Lost Their Zeal

While yesterday Brexit seemed real
As both sides looked close to a deal
This morning we hear
A deal’s not so near
As Ireland’s North lost their zeal

Meanwhile from the Far East, the news
Is that China just might refuse
To buy pork and grain
Unless we refrain
From publicly airing our views

While the same two stories remain atop the leaderboard, the score has clearly changed. This morning, much of yesterday’s Brexit optimism has dissipated as the DUP, Boris Johnson’s key Northern Irish ally in Parliament, explained they could not support the deal that Johnson has been furiously negotiating over the past few days. Remember, DUP stands for Democratic Unionist Party, and the Union of which they speak is that of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. As such, they cannot countenance the idea of a soft border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. They want to be treated exactly the same. At the same time, they don’t want a hard border between themselves and the Republic of Ireland, so it seems that they are the ones that need to make up their collective mind. As time is very clearly running out, the conversation has reached a very delicate phase. Remember, the Benn Act requires PM Johnson to request an extension by this Saturday if there is no deal agreed, and of course, Boris has said he “would rather be dead in a ditch” than request such an extension.

From what I have read, it appears that the soft border would be time limited, and so in the end, I think the pressure on the DUP will be too great to bear and they will cave in. After all, they also don’t want to be the ones responsible for the failure of reaching a deal. The pound, after having traded as high as 1.2800 yesterday, has been extremely volatile this morning, trading in a more than 1.0% range and having touched both the highs at 1.2790 and the lows near 1.2660 twice each. As I write, the pound is lower by 0.3% on the day, but at this point, it is entirely headline driven. The one thing that is clear is that many of the short positions that had been built up over the past year have been reduced or eliminated completely.

Turning to China, the story is about Beijing’s anger over two bills passed by the House of Representatives in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese are adamant that anything that happens in Hong Kong is a domestic affair and that everybody else, especially the US, should keep their noses out of the discussion. In fairness, it is a Chinese territory legally, unlike the situation in Taiwan where they claim ‘ownership’ with less of a legal claim. Nonetheless, they are quite serious and are threatening retaliation if any law addressing Hong Kong is passed by the US. Now a bill passing the House is a far cry from enacting a law, but this does seem to be something where there is bipartisan support. Remember, too, that the standoff with China is one of the few things where the Democrats and President Trump see eye to eye.

At the same time, somewhat behind the scenes, the PBOC injected CNY 200 billion into its money markets last night, surprising everyone, as a measure of further policy ease. Thursday night the Chinese will release their Q2 GDP data and while the median forecast is for a 6.1% annualized outcome, there are a number of forecasts with a 5 handle. That would be the slowest GDP growth since at least 1992 when records started to be kept there. At any rate, the cash injection helped weaken the renminbi with CNY falling 0.3% in the overnight session. One thing to remember here is that part of the ostensible trade deal is the currency pact, but if that deal falls apart because of the Hong Kong issue, it opens the door for CNY to weaken a bit more.

It ought not be surprising that the change in tone on those two stories has dampened overall market enthusiasm and this morning can clearly be described as a risk-off session. In the G10, the dollar is stronger against everything except the yen and Swiss franc (both higher by 0.1%). In fact, both NOK (-0.9%) and NZD (-0.7%) lead the way lower with the former responding to oil’s ongoing weakness as well as the potential negative impact of a hard Brexit. Meanwhile, the kiwi has suffered after the RBNZ reiterated that lower rates were likely still in store despite CPI printing a tick higher than expected last night at 1.5%.

In the EMG space, things have been less dramatic with ZAR today’s weakest component, falling 0.5% after news that the troubled utility, Eskom, will be forced to create rolling blackouts, further highlighting its tenuous financial position and putting more pressure on the government to do something (read spend money they don’t have) to fix things. Without a solution to this issue, which has been hanging over the economy for several years, look for the rand to continue its broad move lower. While at 14.97, it is well off the lows seen in August, the trend remains for the rand to continue falling. Otherwise, this space has been far less interesting with KRW dipping just 0.25% overnight after the BOK cut rates by 25bps. The thing is, comments from BOK members indicated a reluctance to cut rates much further, thus limiting the downward movement.

This morning brings us Retail Sales (exp 0.3%; -ex autos 0.2%) and Business Inventories (0.2%). Then, at 2:00 the Fed’s Beige Book is released with analysts set to look for clues about economic activity to drive the Fed’s next activity. We also hear from three Fed speakers, Evans, Kaplan and Brainard, who all lean to the dovish side of the spectrum. With European equities under pressure and US futures pointing lower, it seems that risk will remain out of favor, unless there is a change of heart in the UK. But for now, think risk-off as a guide to today’s activity.

Good luck
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