Flames of Concern

The story is still Evergrande
Whose actions last night have now fanned
The flames of concern
‘Til bondholders learn
If coupons will be paid as planned

Though pundits have spilled lots of ink
Explaining there’s really no link
Twixt Evergrande’s woes
And fears of new lows
The truth is they’re linked I would think

It must be very frustrating to be a government financial official these days as despite all their efforts to lead investors to a desired outcome, regardless of minor details like reality, investors and traders continue to respond to things like cash flows and liquidity, or lack thereof.  Hence, this morning we find ourselves in a situation where China Evergrande officially failed to pay an $83.2 million coupon yesterday and now has a 30-day grace period before they can be forced into default on the bond.  The concern arises because China Evergrande has more than $300 billion in bonds outstanding and another $300 billion in other liabilities and it is pretty clear they are not going to be able to even service that debt, let alone repay it.

At the same time, the number of articles written about how this is an isolated situation and how the PBOC will step in to prevent a disorderly outcome and protect the individuals who are on the hook continue to grow by leaps and bounds.  The true victims here are the many thousands of Chinese people who contracted with Evergrande to build their home, some of whom prepaid for the entire project while others merely put down significant (>50%) deposits, and who now stand to lose all their money.  Arguably, the question is whether or not the Chinese government is going to bail them out, even if they allow Evergrande to go to the wall.  Sanguinity in this situation seems optimistic.  Remember, the PBOC has been working very hard to delever the Chinese property market, and there is no quicker way to accomplish that than by allowing the market to reprice the outstanding debt of an insolvent entity.  As well, part of President Xi’s calculus will be what type of pain will be felt elsewhere in the world.  After all, if adversaries, like the US, suffer because of this, I doubt Xi would lose any sleep.

But in the end, markets this morning are demonstrating that they are beginning to get concerned over this situation.  While it may not be a Lehman moment, given that when Lehman was allowed to fail it was truly a surprise to the markets, the breadth of this problem is quite significant and the spillover into the entire Chinese property market, which represents ~25% of the Chinese economy, is enormous.  If you recall my discussion regarding “fingers of instability” from last week (Wednesday 9/15), this is exactly the type of thing I was describing.  There is no way, ex ante, to know what might trigger a more significant market adjustment (read decline), but the interconnectedness of Chinese property developers, Chinese banks, Chinese shadow financiers and the rest of the world’s financial system is far too complex to parse.  However, it is reasonable to estimate that there will be multiple knock-on effects from this default, and that the PBOC, no matter how well intentioned, may not be able to maintain control of an orderly market.  Risk should be off, and it is this morning.

It ought not be surprising that Chinese shares were lower last night with the Hang Seng (-1.3%) leading the way but Shanghai (-0.8%) not that far behind.  Interestingly, the only real winner overnight was the Nikkei (+2.1%) which seemed to be making up for their holiday yesterday.  European shares are having a rough go of it as well, with the DAX (-0.8%), CAC (-1.0%) and FTSE 100 (-0.3%) all under the gun.  There seem to be several concerns in these markets with the primary issue the fact that these economies, especially Germany’s, are hugely dependent on Chinese economic growth for their own success, so signs that China will be slowing down due to the Evergrande mess are weighing on these markets.  In addition, the German IFO surveys were all released this morning at weaker than expected levels and continue to slide from their peaks in June.  Slowing growth is quickly becoming a market meme.  After yesterday’s rally in the US, futures this morning are all leaning lower as well, on the order of -0.3% or so.

The bond market this morning, though, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  While Treasuries are doing what they are supposed to, rallying with yields down 2.6bps, the European sovereign market is all selling off despite the fall in equity prices.  So, yields are higher in Germany (Bunds +1.4bps) and France (OATs +2.2bps), with Italy (BTPs +5.0bps) really seeing some aggressive selling.  Gilts are essentially unchanged on the day.  But this is a bit unusual, that a clear risk off session would see alleged haven assets sell off as well.

Commodity markets are having a mixed day with oil unchanged at this hour while gold (+0.75%) is rebounding somewhat from yesterday’s sharp decline.  Copper (+0.1%) has edged higher, but aluminum (-1.4%) is soft this morning.  Agricultural prices are all lower by between 0.25% and 0.5%.  In other words, it is hard to detect much signal here.

As to the dollar, it is broadly stronger with only CHF +0.1%) able to rally this morning.  While the euro is little changed, we are seeing weakness in the Antipodean currencies (AUD, NZD -0.4%) and commodity currencies (CAC -0.2%, NOK -0.15%).  Granted, the moves have not been large, but they have been consistent.

In the EMG bloc, the dollar has put on a more impressive show with ZAR (-1.3%) and TRY (-0.9%) leading the way, although we have seen other currencies (PHP -0.6%, MXN -0.4%) also slide during the session.  The rand story seems to be a hangover from yesterday’s SARB meeting, where they left rates on hold despite rising inflation there.  TRY, too, is still responding to the surprise interest rate cut by the central bank yesterday.  In Manila, concern seems to be growing that the Philippines external balances are worsening too rapidly and will present trouble going forward.  (I’m not sure you remember what it means to run a current account deficit and have markets discipline your actions as it no longer occurs in the US, but it is still the reality for every emerging market economy.)

On the data front, we see only New Home Sales (exp 715K), a number unlikely to have an impact on markets.  However, we hear from six different Fed speakers today, including Chairman Powell, so I expect that there will be a real effort at fine-tuning their message.  Three of the speakers are amongst the most hawkish (Mester, George and Bostic), but of this group, only Bostic is a voter.  You can expect more definitive tapering talk from these three, but in the end, Powell’s words still carry the most weight.

The dollar remains in a trading range and we are going to need some exogenous catalyst to change that.  An Evergrande collapse could have that type of impact, but I believe it will take a lot more contagion for that to be the case.  So, using the euro as a proxy, 1.17-1.19 is still the right idea in my view.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

No Need to be Austere

From every Fed speaker we hear
That prices might rise some this year
But they all confirm
It will be short-term
So, there’s no need to be austere

I feel like today’s note can be very short as there really has been nothing new of note to discuss.  Risk is on the rise as market participants continue to absorb the Federal Reserve message that monetary stimulus is going to continue, at least at the current pace, for at least the next two years.  That’s a lot of new money, nearly $3 trillion more to add to the Fed balance sheet, and if things hold true to form, at least 60% of it will wind up in the equity market.

This was confirmed by four Fed speakers yesterday, including Powell and Vice Chair Clarida, who made it quite clear that this was no time to start tapering, and that rising bond yields were a vote of confidence in the economy, not a precursor to rising inflation.  What about inflation you may ask?  While they fully expect some higher readings in the short run due to base effects, they will be transitory and present no problem.  And if inflation should ever climb to a more persistent level that makes them uncomfortable, they have the tools to address that too!  I know I feel a lot better now.

Europe?  The big news was the German IFO Expectations index printing at a much better than expected 100.4, despite the fact that Covid continues to run rampant through the country.  While they have managed to avoid the massive Easter lockdown that had been proposed earlier this week, the ongoing failure to vaccinate the population remains a damper on activity, or at least the perception of activity.  Otherwise, we learned that Italy is struggling to pay its bills, as they need to find €15 billion quickly in order to continue the present level of fiscal support, but have a much tougher time borrowing, and have not yet received the money from the Eurozone fiscal support package.  In the end, however long the Fed is going to be expanding its balance sheet, you can be sure the ECB will be doing it longer.

The UK?  Retail Sales were released showing the expected gains relative to last month (+2.
1% M/M. -3.7% Y/Y) and excitement is building that given the rapid pace of vaccinations there, the economy may be able to reopen more fully fairly soon.  Certainly, the pound has been a beneficiary of this versus the euro, with the EURGBP cross having declined more than 5% this year, meaning the pound has appreciated vs. the euro by that much.  Perhaps Brexit is not as big a deal as some thought.

Japan?  The latest $1 trillion budget is being passed, which simply adds to the three supplementary budgets from last year totaling nearly $750 billion, with most observers expecting more supplementary budgets this year.  But hey, the Japanese have perfected the art of borrowing unfathomable sums, having the central bank monetize them and maintaining near zero interest rates.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that USDJPY has been rising, because on a relative basis, the Japanese situation does seem worse than that here in the US.

Other than these stories, things are just not that exciting.  The Suez Canal remains closed and we are starting to see ships reroute around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, which adds more than a week to transit times and considerable expense.  But I’m sure these price rises are transitory too, just ask the Fed.

So, let’s take a quick tour of markets.  Equities are all green right now and were so overnight.  The three main Asian indices, Nikkei, Hang Seng and Shanghai, all rose 1.6% last night after US markets turned around in the afternoon.  European bourses are looking good, with the DAX (+0.6%), CAC (+0.4%) and FTSE 100 (+0.7%) all solidly higher on the day.  As to US futures, both Dow and S&P futures are a touch higher, 0.2% or so, but NASDAQ futures are under a bit of pressure at this hour, -0.3%.

In the bond market, 10-year Treasury yields are higher by 4.1bps in the wake of yesterday’s really mediocre 7-year auction.  While it wasn’t as bad as the last one of this maturity, it continues to call into question just how able the Treasury will be to sell sufficient bonds to fund all their wish list.  Even at $80 billion per month of purchases, the Fed is falling behind the curve here and may well need to pick up the pace if yields start to climb more.  I know that is not their current story, but oversupply is certainly at least part of the reason that Treasuries have been so weak.  And today, despite ECB support, European sovereign bonds are all lower with yields higher by 4.5bps or more virtually across the board.  Either the ECB has taken today off, or there are bigger worries afoot.  One little known fact is that alongside the ECB, European commercial banks had been huge buyers of their own country’s debt for all of last year.  However, that pace has slowed, so perhaps today’s movement is showing a lack of natural buyers here as well.

Commodity prices are pretty much firmer across the board with the exception of precious metals, which continue to suffer on the back of higher US yields.  But oil (+2.3%) is back at $60/bbl and base metals and agricultural prices are all firmer this morning.

Finally, the dollar is broadly weaker at this hour, with the commodity bloc of the G10 leading that group (NZD +0.5%), NOK (+0.4%), (AUD +0.4%), although the pound (+0.3%) is also doing well after the Retail Sales numbers.  Meanwhile, the havens are under pressure (JPY -0.5%), CHF (-0.15%), as there is no need for a haven when the central bank has your back!

EMG currencies are a bit less interesting, although the APAC bloc was almost uniformly higher by small amounts.  That was simply on the back of the risk-on attitude that was manifest overnight.  The one exception here is TRY (-1.1%) which continues to suffer over the change of central bank leadership and concerns that inflation will run rampant in Turkey.  Two other noteworthy things here were in LATAM, where Banxico left rates on hold at 4.0%  yesterday afternoon and reaffirmed they were entirely focused on data, and that S&P downgrade Chile’s credit rating to A from A+ on the back of the changes in government structure and concerns about the medium term fiscal position.

On the data front we see Personal Income (exp -7.2%), Personal Spending (-0.8%), Core PCE (1.5%) and then at 10:00 Michigan Sentiment (83.6).  To me, the only number that matters is the PCE print, but this is a February number, so not expected to be impacted by the significant base effects from last year’s events.  Of course, given the constant chorus of any rising inflation will be transitory, we will need to see a lot of high prints before the market gets nervous…or will we?  After all, the bond market seems to be getting nervous already.

At any rate, while the dollar is under pressure this morning, my take is that if US yields continue to climb, we are likely to see it retrace its steps.  At this point, I would argue the dollar’s trend is higher and will be until we see much higher inflation readings later this spring and summer.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Covid Comes Calling

The German economy’s stalling
In Q1, as Covid comes calling
But still there’s belief
That fiscal relief
Will stop it from further snowballing

Consensus is hard to find this morning as we are seeing both gains and losses in the various asset classes with no consistent theme.  Perhaps the only significant piece of news was the German IFO data, which disappointed across the board, not merely missing estimates but actually declining compared with December’s data.  This is clearly a response to the renewed lockdowns in Germany and the fact that they have been extended through the middle of February.  The item of most concern, is that the manufacturing sector, which up until now had been the brightest spot, by far, is also seeing softness.  Now part of this problem has to do with the fact that shipping has been badly disrupted with insufficient containers available to ship products.  This has resulted in higher shipping costs and reduced volumes, hence reduced sales.  But part of this issue is also the fact that since virtually all of Europe is in lockdown, economic activity on the continent is simply slowing down.  It is the latter point that informs my view of the ECB’s future activities, namely non-stop monetary ease for as far as the eye can see.

When combining that view, the ECB will continue to aggressively ease policy, with the fact that the Fed is also going to continue to ease policy, it becomes much more difficult to estimate which currency is going to underperform.  Heading into 2021, the strongest conviction trade across markets was that the dollar was going to decline sharply, continuing the descent from its March 2020 highs.  And that’s exactly what we saw…for the first week of the year.  However, since then, the dollar has reversed those losses and currently sits higher on the year vs. most currencies.  My point is, and has consistently been, that in the FX market, the dollar is a relative game, and the policies of both nations are critical in establishing its value.  Thus, if every nation is aggressively easing policy, both monetary and fiscal, then the magnitude of those policy efforts are critical.  Perhaps, the fact that Congress has yet to pass an additional stimulus bill, especially given the strong belief that the Blue Wave would quickly achieve that, has been sufficient to change some views of the dollar’s future strength (weakness?).  Regardless, the one thing that is clear is that the year has just begun and there is plenty of time for more policy action as well as more surprises.  In the end, I do believe that as inflation starts to climb in the US, and real interest rates fall to further negative levels, the dollar will ultimately fall.  But that is a Q2-Q3 outcome, not really a January story.

And remarkably, that is basically the biggest piece of news from overnight.  At this point, traders and investors are turning their attention to the FOMC meeting on Wednesday, although there are no expectations for policy shifts yet.  However, the statement, and Chairman Powell’s press conference, will be parsed six ways to Sunday in order to try to glean the future.  Based on what we heard from a majority of Fed speakers before the quiet period began, there is no current concern over the backup in Treasury yields, and there is limited sentiment for the Fed to even consider tapering their policy of asset purchases, with just four of the seventeen members giving it any credence.  One other thing to remember is that the annual rotation of voting regional presidents has turned more dovish, with Cleveland’s Loretta Mester, one of the two most hawkish members, being replaced by Chicago’s Charles Evans, a consistent dove.  The other changes are basically like for like, with Daly for Kashkari (two extreme doves) and Barkin and Bostic replacing Harker and Kaplan.  These four are the minority who discussed the idea that tapering purchases could be appropriate by the end of the year, so, again, no change in voting views.

With this in mind, we can see the lack of consistent message from overnight activity.  Asian equity markets were all firmer, led by the Hang Seng (+2.4%), with the Nikkei (+0.7%) and Shanghai (+0.5%) trailing but in the green.  However, Europe has fared less well after the soft IFO data with all three major markets (DAX, CAC and FTSE 100) lower by -0.6%.  As to US futures, they are the perfect embodiment of a mixed session with NASDAQ futures higher by 0.8% while DOW futures are lower by 0.2%,

Bond markets, though, have shown some consistency, with yields falling in Treasuries (-1.0bp) and Europe (Bunds -1.7bps, OATs -1.5bps, Gilts -2.2bps).  The biggest winner, though, are Italian BTPs, which have rallied more than half a point and seen yields decline 5.3 basis points.  It seems that concerns over the government falling have abated.  Either that or the 0.70% yield available is seen as just too good to pass up.

On the commodity front, oil prices have edged up by the slightest amount, just 0.1%, as the consolidation of the past three months’ gains continues.  Gold has risen 0.4%, but there is a great deal of discussion that, technically, it has begun a downtrend and has further to fall.  Again, consistent with my view that real interest rates are likely to decline sharply in Q2, when inflation really starts to pick up, we could easily see gold slide until then, before a more emphatic recovery.

And lastly, the dollar, where both G10 and EMG blocs show a virtual even split of gainers and losers.  Starting with the G10, NZD (+0.3%) is today’s “big” winner, with SEK (+0.25%) next in line.  Market talk is about the reduction of restrictions in Australia’s New South Wales state as a reason for optimism in AUD (+0.15%) and NZD.  As for SEK, this is simply a trading move, with no obvious catalysts present.  On the flip side, the euro (-0.1%) is the worst performer, arguably suffering from that German IFO data, with other currencies showing little movement in either direction.

The EMG bloc is led by TRY (+0.4%), as it seems discussions between Turkey and Greece to resolve their competing claims over maritime boundaries is seen as a positive.  After the lira, though, no currency has gained more than 0.2%, which implies there is nothing of note to describe.  On the downside, ZAR (-0.4%) is the worst performer, which appears to be a positioning move as long rand positions are cut amid concerns over the spread of Covid and the lack of effective government response thus far.

On the data front, the week is backloaded with Wednesday’s FOMC clearly the highlight.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 8.65%
Consumer Confidence 89.0
Wednesday Durable Goods 1.0%
-ex transport 0.5%
FOMC Meeting 0.00%-0.25% (unchanged)
Thursday Initial Claims 880K
Continuing Claims 5.0M
GDP Q4 4.2%
Leading Indicators 0.3%
New Home Sales 860K
Friday Personal Income 0.1%
Personal Spending -0.4%
Core PCE 1.3%
Chicago PMI 58.0
Michigan Sentiment 79.2

Source: Bloomberg

So, plenty of stuff at the end of the week, and then Friday, two Fed speakers hit the tape.  One thing we know is that the housing market continues to burn hot, meaning data there is assumed to be strong, so all eyes will be on the PCE data on Friday.  After all, that is the Fed’s measuring stick.  The other thing that we have consistently seen during the past six months is that inflationary pressures have been stronger than anticipated by most analysts.  And it is here, where the Fed remains firmly of the belief that they are in control, where the biggest problems are likely to surface going forward.  But that is a story for another day.  Today, the dollar is wandering.  However, if the equity market in the US can pick up its pace, don’t be surprised to see the dollar come under a little pressure.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Quickly Diminished

As Covid continues to spread
The hopes for a rebound ahead
Have quickly diminished
And though, not quite finished
The data needs to, higher, head

Today, for example, we learned
That Germany’s growth trend has turned
Instead of a V
The bears, filled with glee
Are certain the bulls will be burned

The seeds of doubt that were sown last week may have started to sprout green shoots.  Not only is it increasingly unlikely that any stimulus deal will be reached before the election in eight days, but we are starting to see the data reflect the much feared second wave in the number of Covid-19 cases.  The latest example of this is Germany’s IFO data this morning, which disappointed on the two most important readings, Business Climate and Expectations.  Both of these not only missed estimates, but they fell compared to September’s downwardly revised figures.  This is in concert with last week’s Flash PMI Services data, which disappointed throughout Europe, and can be directly attributed to the resurging virus.  Germany, Spain, Italy and France are all imposing further restrictions on movement and activity as the number of new cases throughout Europe continues to rise, climbing above 200K yesterday.  With this data as this morning’s backdrop, it cannot be surprising that risk is under pressure.

For investors, the landscape seems to have shifted, from a strong belief in a V-shaped recovery amid additional fiscal stimulus throughout the G10 along with a change at the White House, that for many would bring a sigh of relief, to a far less certain outcome.  The increase in government restrictions on activity is leading directly to more uncertainty over the economic future.  Meanwhile, a tightening in the polls has started to force those same investors to reevaluate their primary thesis; a blue wave leading to significant fiscal stimulus, a weaker dollar and a much steeper yield curve.  That has seemingly been the driver of 10-year and 30-year yields in the US, which last week traded to their highest levels since the position related spike in June.  In fact, positioning in the long bond future (-235K contracts) is at record short levels.

With this as backdrop, it is entirely realistic to expect some position unwinding, especially if the underlying theses are being called into question.  This morning, that seems like what we are watching.  Risk is decidedly off this morning, with equity markets around the world broadly lower, haven government bond yields falling and the dollar on the move higher.  Oil prices are under pressure, and the risk bulls’ rose-tinted glasses seem to be fogging up, at the very least.

Starting with equity markets, Asia had a mixed session, taking its lead from Friday’s US price action, as the Hang Seng (+0.5%) managed to rally a bit while both the Nikkei (-0.1%) and Shanghai (-0.8%) finished in the red.  Europe, meanwhile, is floating in a red tide with Germany’s DAX (-2.3%) the laggard, but the CAC (-0.6%) and FTSE 100 (-0.4%) starting to build momentum lower.  The DAX is suffering, not only from the IFO data, but also from the fact that SAP, one of the major components in the index, is lower by nearly 19% after dramatically cutting its revenue forecasts due to the virus’ impact on the economy.  It seems the question should be, how many other companies are going to have the same outcome?  And finally, US futures are all pointing lower by 0.8% or so, certainly not an encouraging sign.

Bond markets have shown quite a bit of volatility this morning, with 10-year Treasury prices climbing and yields down 3 basis points from Friday.  However, the European session is quite different.  The first thing to note is Italian BTP’s have rallied sharply, with yields there falling 5.5 basis points after S&P not only failed to downgrade the country’s credit rating, but actually took it off negative watch on the basis of the idea that ECB support plus a resumption in growth would allow the country to reduce its budget deficit and hence, the trend growth in its debt/GDP ratio.  German bunds, on the other hand, have sold off a bit and are higher by 1bp, but that appears to be the result of the unwinding of Bund-BTP spread wideners, as the market was definitely convinced a downgrade was coming.  The S&P news also has helped the rest of the PIGS, which have all seen yields decline about 2 basis points this morning.  Caution, though, is required, as an ongoing risk-off performance by equity markets will almost certainly result in Bunds finding significant bids.

As to the dollar, it is broadly stronger this morning, although not universally so.  In the G10, the euro (-0.3%) is under pressure as Germany suffers, and we are also seeing weakness in CAD (-0.4%) with oil prices making a strong move lower, and WTI now sitting well below $40/bbl.  On the plus side, the pound (+0.15%) seems to be benefitting from a bit of Brexit hope as talks between the two sides have resumed, while SEK (+0.15%) is the beneficiary of the fact that Sweden will not be locking down the country as the growth in Covid cases there remains miniscule, especially compared to the rest of Europe.

EMG currencies, though, are having a tougher time this morning with TRY (-1.25%) leading the way, but MXN (-0.8%) and ZAR (-0.6%) also significantly underperforming.  The latter two here are directly related to weakness in commodity prices across the board, while Turkey remains in its own private nightmare of an impotent central bank trying to overcome the threat of further economic sanctions driven by President Erdogan’s aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Meanwhile, the CE4 are all softer (CZK -0.6%, PLN -0.4%) as they feel the pain of further government restrictions on social activities amid a growing caseload of new covid infections.  In fact, there was really only one gainer of note in this bloc, KRW (+0.45%) which responded to growing expectations that South Korea’s economy would rebound more quickly than the G7 amid growing exports and the so-far absent second wave.

As it is the last week of the month, we have a bunch of data to which to look forward, including the first reading of Q3 GDP, and we also hear from the ECB on Thursday.

Today New Home Sales 1025K
Tuesday Durable Goods 0.5%
-ex Transport 0.4%
Case Shiller Home Prices 4.20%
Consumer Confidence 101.9
Thursday ECB Deposit Rate -0.50%
Initial Claims 780K
Continuing Claims 7.8M
Q3 GDP 31.8%
Friday Personal Income 0.3%
Personal Spending 1.0%
Core PCE Deflator 0.2% (1.7% Y/Y)
Chicago PMI 58.0
Michigan Sentiment 81.2

Source: Bloomberg

Now, the GDP number, which will almost certainly be the largest ever, is forecast to mirror the percentage gain of Q2’s percentage loss, but remember, the way the math works is that a 30% decline requires a 42% gain to make up the difference, so the economy is still well below the activity levels seen pre-covid.  As to the ECB, there are no expectations for policy changes, but most analysts are looking for strong indications of what will come in December.  To me, the risk is they act sooner rather than later, so perhaps a little more opportunity for the euro to decline on that.

As for today, unless we see positive stimulus bill headlines from the US, my sense is that the dollar will drift a bit lower from here as further position adjustments are the order of the day.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

‘Twas Nothing At All

Does anyone here still recall
When Covid had cast a great pall
On markets and life
While causing much strife?
Me neither, ‘twas nothing at all!

One can only marvel at the way the financial markets have been able to rally on the same story time and again during the past two years. First it was the trade talks. After an initial bout of concern that growing trade tensions between the US and China would derail the global economy led to a decline in global equity market indices, about every other day we heard from President Trump that talks were going very well, that a Phase One deal was imminent and that everything would be great. And despite virtually no movement on the subject for months, those comments were sufficient to drive stock prices higher every time they were made. Of course, we all know that a phase one deal was, in fact, reached and signed, but it occurred a scant week before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

What has been truly remarkable is that the market’s reaction to the virus has followed almost the exact same pattern. Once it became clear that Covid-19 was going to be a big deal, causing significant disruption throughout the world, stock prices tumbled in a series of extraordinary sessions in March and early April. But since then, we have seen a powerful rally back to within a few percent of the all-time highs set in February. And these days, every rally is based on the exact same story; to wit, some company [insert name here] is on the cusp of creating a successful Covid vaccine and things will be back to normal soon.

So, as almost all of us continue to work from home, shelter in place and maintain our social distance, investors (gamblers?) have discerned that everything is just fine, and that economic recovery is on the way. And maybe they are right. Maybe history is going to look back on this time and show it was an extremely large disruption, but an extremely short-term one that had almost no long-term impact. But, boy, that seems like a hard picture to paint if you simply look at the data and understand how economies work.

Every day we see data that describes how extraordinary the impact of government lockdown policies has been, with rampant unemployment, virtual halts in manufacturing, complete halts in group entertainment and bankruptcies of erstwhile venerable companies. And every day the global equity markets rally on the prospect of a new vaccine being discovered. I get that markets are forward looking, but they certainly seem blind to the extent of damage already inflicted and what that means for the future. Even if activities went back to exactly the way they were before the outbreak, the fact remains that many businesses are no longer in existence. They could not withstand the complete absence of revenues for an extended period of time, and so have been permanently shuttered. And while new businesses will rise to take their place, that is not an overnight process. It seems thin gruel to rally on the fact that Germany’s IFO Expectations Index rallied from its historically worst print (69.4) to its second worst print (80.1), but slightly higher than expected. Or that the GfK Consumer Confidence managed the same feat (-23.4 to -18.9). Both of these data points are correlated with extremely deep recessions.

And yet, that is the situation in which we find ourselves. The dichotomy between extremely weak economic activity and a strong belief that not only is the worst behind us, but that the damage inflicted has been modest, at best. Today is a perfect example of that situation with risk firmly in the ascendancy after the long holiday weekend.

Equity markets are on fire, rallying sharply in Asia (Nikkei +2.5%, Hang Seng +1.9%, Shanghai +1.0%) despite the fact that there is evidence that a second wave of infections is growing in China and may once again force the government there to shut down large swathes of the economy. Europe, too, is rocking with the FTSE 100 (+1.2%) leading the way although gains seen across the board (DAX +0.6%, CAC +1.1%). And US futures would not dare to be left out of this rally, with all three indices up around 2.0%. Meanwhile, Treasury yields are higher by 3.5 basis points with German bund yields higher by 6bps. Of course, Italy, Portugal and Greece have all seen their yields slide as those bond markets behave far more like risk assets than havens.

I would be remiss to ignore the commodity markets which have seen oil rally a further 2.25% this morning, back to $34/bbl and the highest point since the gap down at the beginning of this process back in early March. Gold, on the other hand, is a bit softer, down 0.3%, but remains firmly above $1700/oz as many investors continue to look at central bank activity and register concern over the future value of any fiat currency.

And then there is the dollar, which has fallen almost across the board overnight, and is substantially lower than where we left it Friday afternoon. In the G10 space, AUD (+1.3%) and NZD (+1.5%) are the leaders on the back of broadly positive risk sentiment helped by a better than expected Trade Surplus in New Zealand along with a larger than expected rebound in the ANZ Consumer Confidence Index, to its second lowest reading in history. But the pound is higher by 1.1% on prospects of an end to the nationwide lockdown in the UK. And in fact, other than the yen, which is unchanged, the rest of the bloc is firmer by 0.5% or more, largely on the positive risk sentiment.

In the emerging markets, the runaway winner is the Mexican peso, up 2.7% since Friday’s close as a combination of higher oil prices, a more hawkish Banxico than expected and growing belief that the US, its major export partner, is reopening has led to a huge short-squeeze in the FX markets. In the past week, the peso has recouped nearly 7% of its losses this year and is now down a mere 14.5% year-to-date. Helping the story is the just released GDP number for Q1, which showed a decline of only -1.2%, better than the initially reported -1.6%. But we are also seeing strength throughout the EMG bloc, with PLN (+1.8%), BRL (+1.6%) and ZAR (+1.2%) all putting in strong performances. Risk sentiment is clearly strong today.

Into this voracious risk appetite, we will see a great deal of data this holiday-shortened week as follows:

Today Case Shiller Home Prices 3.40%
  New Home Sales 480K
  Consumer Confidence 87.0
Wednesday Fed’s Beige Book  
Thursday Initial Claims 2.1M
  Continuing Claims 25.75M
  Q1 GDP -4.8%
  Q1 Personal Consumption -7.5%
  Durable Goods -19.8%
  -ex transport -15.0%
Friday Personal Income -6.5%
  Personal Spending -12.8%
  Core PCE Deflator -0.3% (1.1% Y/Y)
  Chicago PMI 40.0
  Michigan Sentiment 74.0

Source: Bloomberg

In addition to the plethora of data, we hear from six different Fed speakers, including Chairman Powell on Friday morning. On this front, however, the entire FOMC has been consistent, explaining that they will continue to do what they deem necessary, that they have plenty of ammunition left, and that the immediate future of the economy will be awful, but things will improve over time.

In the end, risk is being snapped up like it is going out of style this morning, as both investors and traders continue to look across the abyss. I hope they are right…I fear they are not. But as long as they continue to behave in this manner, the dollar will remain under pressure. It rallied a lot this year, so there is ample room for it to decline further.

Good luck and stay safe
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Truly a Curse

In China, it’s gotten much worse
This virus that’s truly a curse
How fast will it spread?
And how many dead?
Ere treatment helps it to disperse.

Despite the fact that we have two important central bank meetings this week, the Fed and the BOE, the market is focused on one thing only, 2019-nCoV, aka the coronavirus. The weekend saw the number of confirmed infections rise to more than 2800, with 81 deaths as of this moment. In the US, there are 5 confirmed cases, but the key concern is the news that prior to the city of Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) #fom locked down, more than 5 million people left town at the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday. While I am not an epidemiologist, I feel confident in saying that this will seem worse before things finally settle down.

And it’s important to remember that the reason the markets are responding has nothing to do with the human tragedy, per se, but rather that the economic impact has the potential to be quite significant. At this point, risk is decidedly off with every haven asset well bid (JPY +0.35%, 10-year Treasury yields -7bps, gold +0.8%) while risk assets have been quickly repriced lower (Nikkei -2.0%, DAX -2.0%, CAC -2.1%, FTSE 100 -2.1%, DJIA futures -1.4%, SPX futures -1.4%, WTI -3.0%).

Economists and analysts are feverishly trying to model the size of the impact to economic activity. However, that is a Sisyphean task at this point given the combination of the recency of the onset of the disease as well as the timing, at the very beginning of the Lunar New year, one of the most active commercial times in China. The Chinese government has extended the holiday to February 2nd (it had been slated to end on January 30th), and they are advising businesses in China not to reopen until February 9th. And remember, China was struggling to overcome a serious slowdown before all this happened.

It should be no surprise that one of the worst performing currencies this morning is the off-shore renminbi, which has fallen 0.8% as of 7:00am. In fact, I think this will be a key indicator of what is happening in China as it is the closest thing to a real time barometer of sentiment there given the fact that the rest of the Chinese financial system is closed. CNH is typically a very low volatility currency, so a movement of this magnitude is quite significant. In fact, if it continues to fall sharply, I would not be surprised if the PBOC decided to intervene in order to prevent what it is likely to believe is a short-term problem. There has been no sign yet, but we will watch carefully.

And in truth, this is today’s story, the potential ramifications to the global economy of the spreading infection. With that in mind, though, we should not forget some other featured news. The weekend brought a modestly surprising outcome from Italian regional elections, where Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the League, could not overcome the history of center-left strength in Emilia-Romagna and so the current coalition government got a reprieve from potential collapse. Salvini leads in the national polls there, and the belief was if his party could win the weekend, it would force the governing coalition to collapse and new elections to be held ushering in Salvini as the new PM. However, that was not to be. The market response has been for Italian BTP’s (their government bonds) to rally sharply, with 10-year yields tumbling 18bps. This has not been enough to offset the risk-off mentality in equity markets there, but still a ray of hope.

We also saw German IFO data significantly underperform expectations (Business Climate 95.9, Expectations 92.9) with both readings lower than the December data. This is merely a reminder that things in Germany, while perhaps not accelerating lower, are certainly not accelerating higher. The euro, however, is unchanged on the day, as market participants are having a difficult time determining which currency they want to hold as a haven, the dollar or the euro. Elsewhere in the G10, it should be no surprise that AUD and NZD are the laggards (-0.85% and -0.65% respectively) as both are reliant on the Chinese economy for economic activity. Remember, China is the largest export destination for both nations, as well as the source of a significant amount of inbound tourism. But the dollar remains strong throughout the space.

Emerging markets are showing similar activity with weakness throughout the space led by the South African rand (-1.0%) on the back of concerns over the disposition of state-owned Eskom Holdings, the troubled utility, as well as the general macroeconomic concerns over the coronavirus outbreak and its ultimate impact on the South African economy. Meanwhile, the sharp decline in the price of oil has weighed on the Russian ruble, -0.9%.

As I mentioned above, we do have two key central bank meetings this week, as well as a significant amount of data as follows:

Today New Home Sales 730K
  Dallas Fed Manufacturing -1.8
Tuesday Durable Goods 0.5%
  -ex Transport 0.3%
  Case Shiller Home Prices 2.40%
  Consumer Confidence 128.0
Wednesday Advance Goods Trade Balance -$65.0B
  FOMC Rate Decision 1.75% (unchanged)
Thursday BOE Rate Decision 0.75% (unchanged)
  Initial Claims 215K
  GDP (Q4) 2.1%
Friday Personal Income 0.3%
  Personal Spending 0.3%
  Core PCE Deflator 1.6%
  Chicago PMI 49.0
  Michigan Sentiment 99.1

Source: Bloomberg
Regarding the BOE meeting, the futures market is back to pricing in a 60% probability of a rate cut, up from 47% on Friday, which seems to be based on the idea that the coronavirus is going to have a significant enough impact to require further monetary easing by central banks. As to the Fed, there is far more discussion about what they may be able to do in the future as they continue to review their policies, rather than what they will do on Wednesday. Looking at the spread of data this week, we should get a pretty good idea as to whether the pace of economic activity in the US has changed, although forecasts continue to be for 2.0%-2.5% GDP growth this year.

And that’s really it for the day. Until further notice, the growing epidemic in China remains the number one story for all players, and risk assets are likely to remain under pressure until there is some clarity as to when it may stop spreading.

Good luck
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