Not If But When

Eight years ago, when Chairman Ben
Suggested t’was not if but when
The Fed would reduce
Its purchase, profuse,
Of bonds, traders sold bonds, bought yen

But these days when taper’s discussed
The bond market doesn’t seem fussed
The reason could be
There’s now nobody
The market invests with its trust

Yesterday’s CPI data printed a tick higher than forecast indicating that, yes, prices are rising relative to last year.  The headline print of 2.6% was the beneficiary of a substantial rise in energy prices compared to last year, but the core price index indicated that both goods and services prices are rising in price.  One data point is not enough to make any claims in either direction, but it will certainly keep the discussion going for a while.  The market response was somewhat counterintuitive as by the end of the day, 10-year Treasury yields had fallen 6 basis points and the dollar was softer amid modestly firmer equity prices.  While the link between the dollar and Treasuries remains intact, the question is why would bonds rally (yields decline) if inflation was rising?

One possible answer is that the market had gotten far ahead of itself with respect to pricing in rising inflation.  Historically, inflation takes time to manifest itself as prices on many things are sticky, meaning they remain stable for a time amid broad pressures and then shift in a relatively large step, rather than a gradual daily or weekly increase.  We are all familiar with the situation when an item regularly purchased suddenly rises in price to catch up to the broad underlying price pressures.  But when taken over the totality of all goods purchased, while any given good or service may see prices rise in discrete steps, the index moves up in a relatively smooth manner.  This fact is why yesterday’s data are interesting, because the headline jump of 0.6% M/M certainly tests the definition of smooth.  Consider that a monthly increase of 0.6% would result in annual inflation of 7.4%, a level that even the Fed would consider too hot.  FYI, yesterday’s core print, which was actually 0.34%, would represent 4.2% core CPI over a year.  So, yes, the base effects were instrumental in the much higher Y/Y data, but the monthly increases were pretty high in any accounting.

And yet, the bond market ultimately rallied all day, having touched 1.7% in early European trading and closing the session at 1.615%.  If this wasn’t a classic case of buy the rumor, sell the news, I don’t know what is.  And, as we have seen consistently all year, the dollar dutifully followed yields lower while equity markets ultimately rallied, although the euphoria over the value trade seems to be waning.

Perhaps of more interest is the fact that we have now had 3 key central bankers, two from the ECB, Knot and Villeroy, and the Fed’s Bullard all start to discuss the idea of tapering bond purchases.  This seems incongruous given the adamant claims on both sides of the pond that current monetary policy is necessary and appropriate to ensure the respective economies return to form.  And yet each of these discussed how tapering of QE could begin before the year is out.  You may recall that Bullard wanted to tie the idea of tapering to the level of vaccinations in the economy, indicating that when 75% of the population is vaccinated, it could be time to start slowing purchases with the implication being the economy would then be able to stand on its own two feet.

This morning, Banque de France Governor Villeroy de Galhau explained that there could be an evolution in monetary policy at the ECB, which while remaining accommodative would shift the burden back to the APP (the original QE plan) from PEPP, which will ostensibly run its course in March 2022.  Last week, Knot, the Dutch Central Bank president expressed his view that the current expectations of robust growth in the second half of the year could be a signal to begin tapering asset purchases.  Now, understand that there were members from both central bank committees pushing back on the idea, but the fact remains that there is some consideration of tapering.  Today, we hear from Chairman Powell again, but we will not hear from Madame Lagarde until her press conference after the ECB meeting next week.

Adding up the disparate facts is quite difficult.  On the one hand, we have the first trial balloons floated regarding tapering of asset purchases as a response to the forecasts for extremely robust growth this year.  On the other hand, the market appears to have indicated that, at least for now, the idea of much faster growth leading to much higher inflation has run its course.  It strikes me that the market is unlikely to worry too much about these trial balloons until they hear from Powell and/or Lagarde.  Until then, it appears that a short period of higher inflation readings is on the cards and unless they really start to spike, that is unlikely to have a big impact on either equities or bonds.

Speaking of equities, yesterday saw the S&P 500 close at yet another new all-time high with the NASDAQ pushing back to within 1% of its February record.  Clearly, there is no inflation scare there.  Rather, all eyes are turning to the first earnings releases due today.  Overnight saw the Nikkei slide (-0.4%) but elsewhere in Asia equities rallied (Hang Seng +1.4%, Shanghai +0.5%).  European markets are mixed with the DAX (-0.1%) lagging while both the CAC (+0.4%) and FTSE 100 (+0.3%) continue to grind higher.  Apparently, Villeroy’s comments about tapering have not been seen as a danger.  US futures are modestly higher at this point, just 0.2% or so as the market bides its time ahead of Powell’s comments at noon.

In the bond market, after a big rally yesterday, the 10-year has seen yields back up slightly, by 1.1 bps, although European bonds are all looking at modest yield declines (Bunds -1.0bps, OATs -1.2bps, Gilts -0.3bps).  It has become pretty clear that the rush higher in yields has stalled for now, with important implications for all the other markets, especially the dollar.

Oil prices are continuing their recent rebound, with WTI +1.6%, although the price action in the metals markets remains confusing.  Precious metals rallied sharply yesterday but are little changed this morning.  Base metals continue to trade both ways with Cu (+1.1%) leading the way higher, but Al (-0.3%) lagging.  It all seems very much like a consolidation period ahead of the next leg higher.

As to the dollar, after sliding all day yesterday alongside Treasury yields, it is continuing lower this morning.  The leading gainer is NZD (+0.8%) which has rallied based on the market’s interpretation that standing pat by the RBNZ last night was actually hawkish, which has helped drag AUD (+0.65%) higher as well.  Oil is supporting NOK (+0.45%) but the rest of the moves are far less significant.  EMG currencies are also performing well this morning, led by KRW (+0.85%) and TRY (+0.5%).  The won was a beneficiary of the generally falling dollar as well as foreign inflows into the KOSPI.  TRY, on the other hand, simply offers yields that are too high to resist for certain investors, despite rising inflation there.

The only data today is the Fed’s Beige Book, to be released at 2:00, but aside from Powell at noon, we hear from four other Fed speakers including vice-chairman Clarida at 3:45 this afternoon.  Come Friday, the Fed will enter their quiet period ahead of the next FOMC meeting, so it seems everyone wants to get their thoughts aired ahead of that.

In the end, the dollar remains beholden to 10-year Treasury yields, so we could be in for a period of very limited movement, if Treasuries have found a new home.  Unless we hear something new from the Chairman today, I expect we are looking at a period of quiet for the next two weeks.  The calm before the storm.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Simple Statistic

There once was a simple statistic
That people used as a heuristic
Of whether or not
The things that they bought
Cost more as a characteristic

But central banks worldwide decided
That view about costs was misguided
Instead they created
A world that inflated
The price of most all things provided

The market’s (and this author’s) virtual obsession with inflation continues and will receive the latest important data point at 8:30 this morning.  At that time, CPI will be released with the following median forecasts according to Bloomberg:

CPI MoM 0.5%
-ex food & energy MoM 0.2%
CPI YoY 2.5%
-ex food & energy YoY 1.5%

The last time CPI printed as high as 2.5% was January 2020, and prior to that it was October 2018.  As I wrote yesterday, the fact that the comparison on a YoY basis is so incredibly low due to the initial government lockdowns last year at this time, mathematically, this number is destined to be high.  After all, last month CPI YoY printed at 1.7%, so this is a big jump.  We also know that the Fed has made it clear that not only do they understand base effects, so will not get excited by today’s print regardless of its outcome, but that they remain essentially unconcerned about rising inflation anyway as they have interpreted their dual mandate to mean maximum employment at all costs.  Oh yeah, they don’t even consider CPI a worthy statistic for their own models, instead preferring Core PCE, which has a somewhat different philosophical background as well as a substantially different makeup as to the weights it assigns to the various items in its basket of goods and services.

Markets, however, do care about CPI as it appears to do a better job of reflecting the state of prices than PCE, and perhaps more importantly, CPI is the actual number used in most inflation adjusted products, notably TIPS and Social Security’s COLA.  My good friend Mike Ashton (@inflation_guy) is actually the best source of information on the topic and you should all follow him on Twitter as he produces thoughtful commentary on CPI the day of its release, breaking down the data.  What I have gleaned from his recent commentary is that there are many more things pointing to sustainably higher prices than simply the base effects of the calculation.  And I can’t help but notice how the price of things that I buy seem to continue to rise as well.  While the plural of anecdote is not data, at some point, enough anecdotes about higher prices has to have meaning.  Whether it is the cost of plywood, or a meal at your favorite restaurant or that bottle of ketchup at the supermarket, I am hard pressed to find anything that has fallen in price.  Certainly not gasoline, and even tech items cost more.  If you need a new laptop, while the hedonic adjustments made by the BLS may make theoretical sense, the reality is it still costs more dollars (or euros or yen) to actually walk out of the store with the new computer.

Alas, Chairman Powell and his band of Merry Men (and Women) have made it abundantly clear that rising prices are not of interest now or in the near future.  In fact, given the Fed’s current stance, why would they even discuss the idea of tapering QE at all.  If rising prices don’t matter, then lower interest rates will be a permanent support for the economy and offer the best insurance that not only will maximum employment be achieved but maintained.

Of course, there is the little matter of the Treasury bond market to contend with, as investors may have qualms over the interest rate at which they will lend to the US government in the face of rising prices.  We are all aware of how much Treasury yields have risen this year, especially in the 10-year and 30-year maturities.  Those higher yields are a result of both rising inflation concerns as well as significantly greater issuance.  Yesterday, for instance, the Treasury issued a total of $96 billion in new debt, $58 billion of 3-year and $38 billion of 10-year.  The 10-year auction results were about average, except for the fact that the yield they are paying, 1.68%, is more than 50 basis points higher than the average of the previous 5 auctions.  Remember, a key tenet of the Yellen Treasury is that they can afford to borrow much more since the debt service costs are so low.  However, if yields continue to rise, those debt service costs are going to rise with them, so this is not a permanent situation.

Tying it all together, despite the Fed’s current obsession with employment and its corresponding indifference to inflation, the inflation debate will not go away anytime soon.  This morning will simply be the latest volley in the ongoing ‘war’ between central banks and reality.  In the end, I’m confident reality will win, but the central banks have made it clear they will not go down without a fight.

As to markets this morning, after a very dull session yesterday, things remain quiet as this data point continues to be the global market focus.  So equity markets have been mixed in Asia (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng +0.1%, Shanghai -0.5%) and Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.1%) with US futures actually starting to slide as all three major indices are now lower by 0.4%-0.5% as I type.

Bond markets are modestly softer with Treasury yields higher by 0.5bps, and similar rises in the major European sovereign markets.  The PIGS are having a tougher day here, with Italy (+2.9bps) and Greece (+4.3bps) selling off a bit harder.  We also saw yields rise in Australia overnight.

Yesterday morning I mentioned oil’s struggle at $60/bbl and it continues as while prices are higher compared to yesterday’s close (WTI +0.75%), the price is right on that big round number, which tells us it fell back in yesterday’s session from early morning gains.  Metals markets are similarly mixed (Au -0.2%, Ag +0.6%, Cu +0.2%, Sn -0.3%) and it can be no surprise that grain markets have traded the same way.  In other words, pretty much every market is waiting for CPI to take their cues.

FX markets are starting to bias toward dollar strength as NY walks in, with NOK (-0.75%) the laggard in the G10, although on precious little news or data.  This is especially odd given oil’s gains in the session.  But pretty much the entire G10 is softer, albeit with less emphasis than the krone, as CAD (-0.45%) is the next worst performer and then the rest are simply drifting lower ahead of the number.  EMG markets are also biased toward USD strength here, with PLN (-0.8%) and HUF (-0.65%) the two outliers, both on the back of commentary that ongoing easy monetary policy remains appropriate and the central banks are comfortable with the weaker currencies.

The CPI data is the only release, but we will hear from 6 more Fed speakers today as pretty much all members of the FOMC are on the calendar this week.  Yesterday’s most notable comments came from St Louis Fed President Bullard as he floated a tapering trial balloon, hinting that when 75% of the population has been vaccinated, that might be an appropriate time to consider that option.  While it is clear that is Bullard’s proxy for a return to economic growth, it seems an odd data point on which to base monetary policy decisions, as the relationship between vaccinations and economic activity is not that direct.

At any rate, nothing has changed with respect to markets with 10-year Treasury yields remaining the key driver.  If today’s CPI is strong, and yields rise, look for the dollar to continue to rise as well, with a weak print, and lower yields likely softening the buck.  These days, it is truly binary.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Prices Are Rising

While Jay and the Fed are persuaded
Inflation won’t soon be upgraded
The press keeps advising
That prices are rising
How long can rate hikes be evaded?

Chairman Powell gave yet another interview this weekend, this time to a national audience on 60 Minutes last night.  A cynic might believe that the Chairman is concerned the Fed’s message, inflation is still quite low and will not present any problems, is not getting across to the general public.  While those of us in the financial markets are well aware of everything he utters, his fame amongst the general populace is far less significant.  (After all, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t have either an Instagram or TikTok presence!)  The problem for the Fed if they are unable to get their message across is that people might start to believe their own eyes what they read in the papers and lately, that is not synching well with the Fed’s message.  The number of stories on inflation has been inflating along with a clearly growing interest by the general population, at least as evidenced by the number of Google searches on the subject.  The fear here is that all of this talk of rising prices might result in a change in inflation expectations by the general population, and according to the Fed’s models, that is when inflation starts to rise.

The Fed is not the only central bank in this position as evidenced by comments this morning from Banca’d’Italia, and ECB Executive Board Member, Fabio Panetta’s comments, “We cannot be satisfied with inflation at 1.2% in 2022 and 1.4% in 2023.”  Here, too, the concern is over too low inflation although, in fairness, the inflationary impulse on the Continent is far less consistent than in the US.

One need not look too deep beneath the surface to find a viable explanation for this lack of concern over rising prices.  Clearly the ongoing need for central banks to continue to monetize purchase government debt issuance in order to support the government in power economy is the catalyst.  And there is no better rationale for a central bank to continue QE than a strong belief that inflation is too low along with a commitment to raise it.

That cynic might also question the timing of this 60 Minutes interview as it was aired just two days before the CPI data is to be released.  We are all aware that CPI prints for the next several months will be quite a bit higher than the Fed’s 2.0% target as the base effects from the initial impacts of the Covid-inspired lockdowns are now the comparison.  The month-on-month rate of CPI in March 2020 was -0.4% with it declining to -0.8% in April 2020.  Given the very real increases in price pressures we have observed in the past months, you can be sure that CPI tomorrow, currently expected at 0.5% M/M, 2.5% Y/Y will be quite high.  All told, Powell and the Fed will have to work overtime in order to ensure their message on inflation gets across, because if the general population starts to anticipate rising prices, even though the Fed ‘has tools’ to combat inflation, given the fragility of the economy, their ability to use those tools is highly suspect.  Inflation, once it gets rolling, has a history of being more persistent than desired, and as much as the Fed claimed to fear deflation, I’m pretty sure they are not looking forward to having to fight inflation either.  Especially as that would require actions that will slow the economy down, meaning they will be an easy political target for both sides of the aisle.

But CPI is tomorrow’s release, despite the fact that there are no less than ten stories on major media sites on the subject today.  In the meantime, markets are starting the week generally on their back foot, with risk definitely under some pressure today.  Equity markets in Asia, for instance, were all red (Nikkei -0.8%, Hang Seng -0.9%, Shanghai -1.1%) while European markets have been more mixed, but the mix is flat to down (DAX +0.1%, CAC 0.0%, FTSE 100 -0.4%).  US futures markets are also pointing slightly lower, with all three major indices off by about 0.15% as I type.

Bond market activity has been fairly quiet, with the 10-year Treasury yield unchanged on the day, although we are seeing very modest gains (yield declines) in most of Europe (Bunds -1.3bps, OATs -1.5bps).  Gilts are the lone exception here, with yields rising 1.0 basis point as the UK economy, despite a surprise spring snowstorm, welcomes the reopening of pubs for outdoor drinking/dining.  As the UK economy reopens, there is a great deal of focus on the £150 billion of savings that have accrued during the lockdown and how much of that will be quickly spent.  After all, that represents nearly 7% of GDP in the UK, and obviously, if spent would have a remarkable impact on growth there.

Commodity prices show oil rebounding from its recent lows (WTI +1.1%) as it pushes back to $60/bbl.  Metals prices, however, have been far more mixed with precious largely unchanged, and base metals showing both gains and losses (Cu -0.4%, Al +0.2%).

Finally, the dollar is edging lower this morning in general, but by no means universally.  G10 markets are led by GBP (+0.4%) on the economy reopening news and corresponding growth in confidence there, as well as JPY (+0.4%) which some will attribute to haven demand as equity markets suffered in Asia overnight, but I might attribute to Hideki Matsuyama’s fantastic win at the Masters yesterday.  On the downside, SEK (-0.25%) is the weakest of the bunch, which looks more like position trading than fundamentally driven activity.

EMG currencies are also mixed this morning, but most of the movement remains modest at best.  HUF (+0.6%) is the leading gainer followed by RUB (+0.3%) and PLN (+0.3%).  The HUF seems to be rallying on the news that the central bank will be buying the soon to be issued government green bonds as part of their QE exercise, helping to add demand there.  As to the other two, given the euro’s modest climb, it is no surprise to see EEMEA currencies rise.  On the downside, it is all APAC currencies that fell last night, led by INR (-0.4%) and KRW (-0.35%), which were victims of local equity market disposals by international investors.

Data wise, there is important information beyond tomorrow’s CPI as follows:

Today Monthly Budget Statement -$658B
Tuesday CPI 0.5% (2.5% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (1.5% Y/Y)
Wednesday Fed Beige Book
Thursday Initial Claims 700K
Continuing Claims 3700K
Retail Sales 5.5%
-ex autos 4.8%
Empire Manufacturing 18.8
Philly Fed 40.0
IP 2.5%
Capacity Utilization 75.6%
Business Inventories 0.5%
Friday Housing Starts 1600K
Building Permits 1750K
Michigan Sentiment 89.0

Source: Bloomberg

So, there is much to learn this week, especially on Thursday, although if the CPI data is large enough, it is likely to dominate conversation for a while.  The FOMC is back on tour this week with ten more speakers, including Chairman Powell on Wednesday, across at least 15 different venues.  I expect there will be a great deal of effort downplaying any thoughts that inflation is making a permanent comeback and that current policy is perfect for right now.

In the end, though, the dollar remains beholden to the Treasury bond, as do most markets, and so all eyes will continue to be on its movement going forward.  Strong data that pushes it to its recent high yield at 1.75% or beyond will result in the dollar rallying.  On the other hand, if the data goes the other way, look for the dollar to retreat a bit further.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Central Banks Scoff

In Italy more cash is needed
Or so Super Mario pleaded
The virus is raging
And Mario’s waging
A war so its spread is impeded

Meanwhile Chairman Jay and his mates
Remain steadfast that in the States
Though forecasts are nice
They will not suffice
It’s hard growth they need to raise rates

And lastly, from China we learned
Inflation just might have returned
Though central banks scoff
Bond markets sold off
As clearly some folks are concerned

In the financial world these days, there is only one true constant, the Fed remains as dovish as possible.  Yesterday, Chairman Powell, speaking at an IMF sponsored event, explained that the Fed would continue to aggressively support the economy until it is once again “great”.  (And here I thought that description of America was verboten.)  He harped on the 9 million to 10 million jobs that are still missing from before the Covid-induced crisis and said any inflationary pressures this year would be temporary.  His colleague, SF Fed President Daly doubled down on those comments, once again explaining that the Fed will not react to mere forecasts of growth, they will wait until they see hard data describing that growth is real, before considering tightening policy.

Regarding inflation, Powell, when asked specifically on the subject, explained, “We would be monitoring inflation expectations very carefully.  If we see them moving persistently and materially above levels we’re comfortable with, then we’d react to that.”  Remember, the Fed constantly reminds us they have the tools to deal with rising inflation.  But talk is cheap.  It remains an open question as to whether they have the fortitude to address rising inflation in an economy that has not come close to reaching full employment, let alone maximum employment.  Recall Q4 2018, when a modest increase in interest rates and gradual reduction in the size of the balance sheet led to a sharp stock market sell-off and a reversal of Fed policies via the “Powell Pivot.”  And the economy then was clearly in better shape than now.

There is another inflation issue I find puzzling as well, and that is the Fed’s inexorable faith that the Core PCE number is the right way to measure inflation.  This is especially true since a number of Fed members, including Powell, have been vocal in their view that the U-3 Unemployment Rate, the one published the first Friday of each month, is a very imperfect indicator of the overall jobless situation despite its long history as a key indicator.  So, happily, they are willing to question the totality of the information available from a single data point.  And yet, while they pay some lip service to inflation expectations, they are absolutely beholden to a single inflation data point, and one that has very little in common with most people’s reality.  One would think that given their broad-mindedness regarding unemployment, that same attitude might extend to inflation.  Alas, my understanding is that their econometric models don’t work well with any other data point, and so rather than building models based on reality, they create their reality from the data that works.

While on the subject of inflation, Chinese data overnight showed that, while CPI rose only 0.4% Y/Y, PPI rose a much greater than expected 4.4%.  This matters because China remains the world’s major manufacturing center and if prices at the factory are rising there, the implication is that those higher prices are coming to a product near you soon. Another sign of pending inflation comes from an IHS Markit report explaining that the PMI price data is running at its highest level since 2008 and is showing no signs of slowing down.  Add to this the increases in shipping costs, and rising prices for every day items seem in store.  Thank goodness the Fed has tools!

A quick look at Europe shows a tale of two countries, with Italy heading into its fourth wave of lockdowns and PM Draghi putting together a €40 billion support package following on from a €30 billion package a few months ago.  The vaccine rollout remains slow and insufficient and the government has closed bars and restaurants (and that’s really a crime, given just how good the food is there!)  Germany, on the other hand, is leading the hawkish contingent of the ECB along with the Dutch, in pushing for tapering the PEPP activity as those economies have been far more resilient to the virus and are starting to see some price pressures.  Granted, this morning’s German IP data (-6.4% Y/Y) was much worse than expected, but forecasts remain quite positive there.  Unlike the Fed, the ECB seems to be turning a bit more hawkish, indicating the Frugal Four are gaining in power.  ECB PEPP purchases declined to just €10.2 billion last week, far below their average in Q1 and even more surprising given Madame Lagarde’s comments in the wake of the ECB meeting that they would be far more active in Q2.

Adding all the new information together brings us to a market situation this morning where Treasury bonds have sold off, yields are higher by 5 basis points in the US and about 4 basis points in the major European markets except Italy, where they are 8 basis points higher.  Equity markets are mixed in Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC +0.25%, FTSE -0.1%) after broad weakness in Asia (Hang Seng -1.1%, Shanghai -0.9%) and US futures are little changed to slightly higher at this time.

Rather, it is the dollar that is today’s big winner, rallying against all its G10 counterparts with NOK (-0.6%) the laggard on still soft oil prices, but weakness seen in JPY (-0.3%) and AUD (-0.25%) with smaller declines elsewhere.  The yen’s weakness appears corrective in nature, as it had strengthened 1.7% in the past week. While Aussie is simply chopping about in its recent 0.7550/0.7675 trading range and slipping today.

In the EMG bloc, CZK (-0.65%) is the worst performer, followed by RUB (-0.5%) and KRW (-0.3%), although the bulk of the bloc is somewhat softer this morning.  Here, too, we appear to be seeing some trading reactions to the past week’s dollar weakness, although the bigger trend remains for dollar strength.

On the data front, PPI (exp 0.5%, 3.8% Y/Y) is the only release with the core expectations (0.2%, 2.7% Y/Y) also well above the Fed target.  Of course, the relationship between PPI and Core PCE is limited at best, however, it is certainly indicative of the fact that there are rising price pressures throughout many sectors of the economy.  It is not unreasonable to expect them to show up in PCE soon, as they will certainly begin to show up in CPI next week.

Only one Fed speaker is on the docket today, Dallas Fed President Kaplan, but it would be beyond shocking if he said anything that was different than what we have both read and heard this week; nothing will change until the hard data achieves their targets.

Despite new information this morning, or perhaps because of it, the market theme remains the same, Treasury yields are the key driver of markets, with the dollar following in step while equities will have an inverse relationship.  And, while Treasury yields are off their recent highs, they appear to have finished this short-term correction.  I have a feeling the dollar will be firmer today and continue with that into next week, at least.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Inflation Be Damned

The Minutes revealed that the Fed
Cares not about outlooks, instead
Inflation be damned
They now are programmed
To wait until growth is widespread

There is a conundrum in markets today, one that when considered thoughtfully can only force you to scratch your head and say, huh?  Economic growth in 2021 is going to be gangbusters, that much is virtually assured at this time.  We heard it from the IMF, we heard it from the Fed and basically from every central bank and government around.  And that’s great!  Equity markets have certainly gotten the message, as we achieve new all-time highs across numerous indices on a regular basis.  Bond markets are also buying the message, or perhaps selling the message is more apropos, as sovereign bond markets have sold off pretty sharply this year with the concomitant rise in yields being quite impressive.  And yet, those same central banks who are forecasting significant economic growth this year remain adamant that monetary policy support is critical, and they will not be withdrawing it for years to come.  A cynic might think that those central banks don’t actually believe their own forecasts.

Yesterday’s FOMC Minutes revealed this exact situation.  “Participants noted that it would likely be some time until substantial further progress toward the committee’s maximum-employment and price-stability goals would be realized.”  In other words, they are nowhere near even thinking about thinking about tapering asset purchases, let alone raising interest rates.  On the subject of inflation, they once again made it clear that there was virtual unanimous belief that short-term rises in PCE would be transitory and that the dynamics of the past decade that have driven inflation lower would soon reassert themselves.  After the Minutes were released, uber-dove Lael Brainerd made all that clear with the following comment, “Our monetary policy forward guidance is premised on outcomes, not the outlook.”

It is also critical to understand that this is not simply a US phenomenon, but is happening worldwide in developed nations.  For example, in Sweden, Riksbank Governor Stefan Ingves explained, “It’s like sitting on top of a volcano.  I’ve been sitting on that volcano for many, many years.  It hasn’t blown up, but it’s not heading in the right direction,” when discussing the buildup in household debt via mortgages in Sweden due to rising house prices.  Recently released data shows that household debt there has risen to 190% of disposable incomes, as housing prices in March rose 17% over the past year, to the highest levels ever.  And yet, Ingves is clear that the Riksbank will not be raising rates for at least three years.

Thus, the conundrum.  Explosive growth in economic activity with central banks adamant that interest rates will remain near, or below, zero and QE will continue.  Certainly every central banker recognizes that monetary policy adjustments work with a lag, generally seen to be between 6 months and 1 year, so if the Fed were to raise rates, it would be September at the earliest when it might show up as having an impact on the economy.  But every central bank has essentially promised they will be falling behind the curve to fight the current battle.

So, let’s follow this line of thought to some potential conclusions.  Economic activity continues to expand rapidly as governments everywhere pump in additional fiscal stimulus on top of the ongoing monetary largesse.  Central banks allow economies to ‘run hot’ in order to drive unemployment rates lower at the expense of rising inflation.  (Perhaps this is the reason that so many central bank studies have declared the Phillips Curve relationship to be dead, it is no longer convenient!)  Equity markets continue to rise, but so do sovereign yields in the back end of the curve, such that refinancing debt starts to cost more money.  Pop quiz: if you are a central banker, do you; A) start to raise rates in order to rein in rising inflation? Or B) cap yields through either expanded QE or YCC to insure that debt service costs remain affordable for your government, but allow inflation to run hotter?  This was not a difficult question, and what we continue to hear from virtually every central bank is the answer is B.  And that’s the point, if we simply listen to what they are saying, it is very clear that whether or not inflation prints higher, policy interest rates are stuck at zero (or below).  Oh yeah, as inflation rises, and it will, real rates will be heading lower as well, you can count on it.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a quick tour of the markets.  Equities in Asia showed the Hang Seng (+1.15%) rising smartly, but both the Nikkei (-0.1%) and Shanghai (+0.1%) relatively unchanged on the day.  In Europe, the picture is mixed with the DAX (-0.2%) lagging but both the CAC (+0.35%) and FTSE 100 (+0.35%) moving a bit higher.  As to the US futures market, there is a split here as well, with the NASDAQ (+0.9%) quite robust, while the SPX (+0.3%) and DOW (0.0%) lag the price action.

As to the bond market, Treasury yields continue to back off from their highs at quarter-end, and are currently lower by 3 basis points, although still within 12bps of their recent highs.  European markets are a little less exuberant this morning with yields on Bunds (-0.7bps), OATs (-0.6bps) and Gilts (-0.5bps) all lower by less than a full basis point.  A quick discussion of Japan is relevant here as well, given the budget released that indicates the debt/GDP ratio there will be rising to 257% at the end of this year!  Despite the fact that the BOJ has pegged yields out to 10 years at 0.0%, debt service in Japan still consumes 22% of the budget.  Imagine what would happen if yields there rose, even 100 basis points.  And this perfectly illustrates the trap that governments and central banks have created for themselves, and why there is a case to be made that policy rates will never be raised again.

Commodity markets are mixed as oil (-0.85%) is softer but we are seeing strength in the metals (Au +0.6%, Ag +0.9%, Cu +0.7%) and the Agricultural sector.  And lastly, the dollar is generally weaker on the day, with only NOK (-0.15%) lagging in the G10 space under pressure from oil’s decline.  But JPY (+0.5%) is the leading gainer after some positive data overnight, with a widening current account and rising consumer confidence underpinning the currency. Otherwise, we are seeing AUD (+0.3%) and NZD (+0.3%) firmer as well on the back of the non-energy commodity strength.

In emerging markets, PLN (+0.6%) is the leading gainer, which seems a bit anomalous given there was no new news today.  Yesterday the central bank left rates on hold at 0.10% despite a much higher than expected CPI print last week.  As described above, inflation s clearly not going to be a major policy driver in most economies for now.  But away from the zloty, movements show a few more gainers than laggards, but all the rest of the movement being relatively small, +/- 0.3%, with no compelling narratives attached.

On the data front, this morning brings us Initial (exp 680K) and Continuing (3638K) Claims at 8:30, and then a few more Fed speakers including Chairman Powell at noon.  But what can the Fed tell us that we don’t already know?

As to the dollar, I continue to look to the 10-year yield as the key driver so if it continues to slide, I expect the dollar to do so as well.  And it is hard to make a case for some new piece of news that will drive Treasury selling here, so further USD weakness makes sense.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Disinflation’s Deceased

The plan that the Prez just released
Has taxes and spending increased
As well as what’s planned
There’s pent up demand
As such, disinflation’s deceased

Risk remains in vogue this morning as the details of the $2.3 trillion spending plan released last evening by President Biden were more than enough to keep the risk train rolling.  While there was no mention of ‘shovel ready’ projects, and expectations are that it won’t be until sometime in the summer that any bill will make it to the president’s desk, it is full speed ahead for the investor community.  Certainly, there are no concerns over either financing the new bill nor with the prospect that adding more stimulus demand is likely to drive up prices even more rapidly than currently seen.  In other words, everything is great!

But is it really that great?  It is hard to live in the real world and not have noticed that the cost of living is rising, and seemingly faster than the data indicates.  By now, we have all heard about the shortage of microprocessors causing a reduction in auto production and even iPhones.  I’m pretty sure that less supply in these products will not lead to lower prices.  And if you still drive at all, you are aware of how much the price of gasoline has risen during the past year.  But lately we have heard from a number of companies on more mundane products and how prices are being raised there as well.  Kimberly-Clark, General Mills, J.M. Smucker and Hormel Foods have all announced price hikes in the past week or two, and they all make things we buy in the supermarket each week.  So, while the rising price of a once every 3-6 year purchase of an automobile is not likely to impact any individual regularly, when your toilet paper goes up in price, you notice.  The Fed must be thrilled.

In that vein, I often wonder how the Fed considers its relationship with inflation.  Perhaps Powell rehearses discussions with an anthropomorphized version of inflation.  Maybe it would sound like this:

Inflation: Jay, I have to tell you, I’m feeling pretty strong lately.  I’ve been resting for the past 12 years and have a lot of energy available to jump pretty high.

Chairman Powell: That’s awfully nice, but let me warn you, ‘we have tools.’

Inflation: Tools?  What does that even mean?  Are you going to build a house?  (Nah, too expensive with prices rising 10% annually).  Repair the infrastructure?  (That will certainly drive up raw material prices even further.)

Chairman Powell:  Just what I said, we have tools.  My dear friend Paul Volcker, may he rest in peace, taught us how to deal with you 40 years ago.  We can stop you anytime we want.

Inflation:  Well, 40 years ago, was a different time and place.  The amount of outstanding debt was a fraction of where it is today.  Since you haven’t used those ‘tools’ in 40 years, I suspect they are rusty and ineffective now.  And even if you have them, I’m willing to bet you are either afraid to use them, or don’t know how.  I’m looking forward to our next conversation when I will be bigger, stronger and higher!

Chairman Powell:  Don’t mess with me, I told you, ‘we have tools!’

As Powell awakes shaking from this nightmare, he repeats to himself, we have tools, just like Christine has tools.  It will all be fine.

But seriously, it is very difficult to see the ongoing data releases, especially in the US, where GDP is clearly going to see a very big jump in Q2 and analysts are fighting to forecast the biggest GDP growth number in decades, and not wonder how prices are not going to rise even more rapidly.  In fact, we seem to be approaching a perfect storm, increased demand meets supply shortages.  The Fed is going to get their inflation, as will most central banks, and it is ultimately going to have a big impact on financial markets.  But not today.  Today, investors continue to see only the positives.

After yesterday’s Tech led rally in the US stock markets, Asia performed well (Nikkei +0.7%, Hang Seng +2.0%, Shanghai +0.7%) and Europe is largely green as well (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.4%).  As it is the first day of a new month and quarter, we saw PMI and Tankan data overnight, all of which continues to show positive vibes for the near future (although the Japanese data has been lagging that of the US and even Europe on these measures.)  US futures, meanwhile, are also looking good with the NASDAQ (+0.9%) once again leading things higher with lesser gains in the other two main indices.

Bond markets, interestingly, are also in fine fettle this morning, with yields declining in Treasuries (-2.1bps), bunds (-1.2bps), OATs (-1.2bps) and Gilts (-2.1bps).  But 10-year Treasury yields remain firmly above 1.7% and their spread to bunds and JGBs remain right at recent highs.  It appears to me as though bond traders are taking a rest ahead of tomorrow’s payroll report, which will be released on Good Friday, a day of limited liquidity.  If the economic bulls are right, and there is a print above 1 million jobs in NFP, I would expect that we will test 1.8% in the 10-year before the weekend arrives.  However, until then, it looks like the growing short position in bonds is getting adjusted.

Oil prices are firmer this morning with WTI up by 1.1%, alongside gains in gold (+0.25%) and the agricultural space.  Meanwhile, base metals are mixed with Cu (-0.65%) and Zn (-0.2%) softer while Al (+0.65%) and Ni (+0.8%) are firmer.

Lastly, the dollar is mixed today as well, with most of the G10 softer led by AUD (-0.4%) and CHF (-0.3%), although the euro has stopped its freefall, at least temporarily, and is currently 0.1% firmer on the session.  Aussie seems to be slipping on the view that the RBA’s first QE plan, A$100 billion, is complete but that there will be a second one announced next Tuesday.  The Swiss franc, on the other hand, seems to be developing some momentum on a technical view and is responding to market internals rather than fundamentals.

EMG currencies have had a much more mixed picture with both gainers and losers evident.  On the plus side, TRY (+0.8%) and ZAR (+0.5%) lead the way higher, while we are seeing RUB (-0.6%) and CNY (-0.3%) as the key laggards.  The rand seems to be benefitting from seasonal factors as technicians look at recent history when the ZAR has rallied consistently in April.  TRY is simply so volatile these days given the ongoing mess at the central bank, that it is difficult to ascribe any move less than 2% to a specific issue.  As to the negatives, RUB, despite oil’s gains, is suffering from news of a surprising new bond offering of RUB 1 trillion, while CNY seems to have been guided lower by the PBOC as the Chinese government has decided that a weaker currency is clearly going to be necessary to support their economy for now and the current US administration isn’t going to make a big deal about it.

Data this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 675K), Continuing Claims (3.75M) and ISM Manufacturing (61.5) and Prices Paid (85.0).  FYI, that Prices Paid index is back at levels seen during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, all times when CPI inflation was far higher than 1.3%!

Frankly, with the payroll data tomorrow, I anticipate a generally quiet session, especially as much of Europe will be taking a long Easter holiday weekend starting quite soon.  The dollar’s trend remains firmly higher, but I don’t expect much movement today.

Good luck
Adf

The Bottom’s Not In

Attention this morning’s returned
To Treasuries, where we have learned
The bottom’s not in
As yields underpin
The dollar that once had been spurned

Plus ça change, plus ça même chose.

During the past several weeks, there have been a number of stories that seemed designed to shift our attention away from what has been the major market driver in 2021…the Treasury market.  But despite the Ever Given running aground, despite the forced liquidation of Archegos Capital Management and despite Covid’s resurgence throughout Europe and additional mooted lockdowns there, the clear driver of market activity remains US Treasury yields, specifically in the back end of the curve.  As I type this morning, the 10-year has risen 5.7bps on the session with the yield now 1.765%, its highest level since January 22, 2020.  This movement has dragged up yields across the US yield curve, with 5-year yields fast approaching 1.0% while even 2-year yields, which remain anchored by the Fed’s promises to keep the Fed Funds rate at its current level through at least 2023, has edged up by 1.4 basis points.

And this movement is not isolated to the United States, as sovereign yields across the board are higher today with European markets looking at gains of between 5.5bps and 7.5 bps, while overnight saw Australian yields climb 9.2 basis points.  But it is clearly the Treasury market in the lead.  The current story seems to revolve around the ongoing outperformance of the US economy vis-à-vis those of Europe and much of Asia, the success of the US vaccine program and the promise of yet another fiscal stimulus bill coming from the Biden administration.  That trifecta dwarfs all other nations’ activities and so has seen ongoing flows into US equity markets as well as into the dollar.  And the thing is, for now, it is hard to see what can derail this story in the short-term.  In fact, with the latest payroll data due to be released Friday and expected to show a substantial gain in the number of jobs, while more and more states reduce Covid inspired economic restrictions, things seem like they will only get better.

And perhaps things will only get better.  Perhaps we have passed the worst of the pandemic.  Perhaps all Covid inspired restrictions will be relaxed and people will head back out on vacations and to movies and theme parks. Perhaps shopping malls will regain their allure as people look for anyplace to go that is not inside their own home.  In this case, as the service sector reopens along with the jobs attendant to that process, the Fed would likely be able to justify a very gradual reduction in some of their stimulus.  And this could all happen.  But, so could we wake up tomorrow to learn that pigs really can fly.

Instead, while there is no doubt that the US remains the driving force in the economy right now, as it leads other nations out of the pandemic, the imbalances that have developed due to the policies implemented during the pandemic will take a very long time to unwind.  In addition, they pose a very real threat to the stability of markets and economies.  For instance, how will nations around the world address the issue of the massive rise in their debt/GDP ratios.  While servicing costs right now are tenable given the historically low level of interest rates, investors may well start demanding higher yields to compensate for the growing riskiness of those portfolios.  After all, we have seen many nations default on their debt in the past, with Greece and Argentina just the two latest on the list.

But rising yields will force governments to choose between honoring their debt promises, or paying for their activities, a choice no elected politician ever wants to make.  It is not unreasonable to assume that this choice will be forced on countries by the markets (and in fact, is starting to be forced as we watch yield curves steepen) with two potential outcomes; either the central bank caps yields to insure that debt service remains viable, or the debt is restructured by the central bank who will monetize it.  Either situation will almost certainly result in rising inflation, not of the asset kind, but will also result in a situation where those tools that central banks claim they have to fight inflation will not be available.  After all, if they are capping yields, they cannot very well raise rates to fight inflation.

It is this endgame that has some very thoughtful people concerned, as when this situation has arisen in the past, and after all, there is nothing new under the sun, the result has been a combination of much more significant inflation and debt defaults.  Now, in the US, the idea of a debt default seems quite impossible.  However, the idea of higher inflation, especially given the Fed’s stated desire to see inflation rise, is much easier to accept.  And after all, given the newly stated desire to achieve an average inflation rate, with a desire to see higher than 2.0% inflation readings for some indeterminate amount of time, how will the Fed know when they’ve seen enough?  The point is, the Fed, and every central bank, still has a very difficult task ahead of them to maintain stability while supporting the economy.  And there is no guarantee that their actions will work.

With that joyous thought in mind, a quick look at other markets beyond bonds shows that equities remain supported with widespread gains overnight (Nikkei +0.15%, Hang Seng +0.8%, Shanghai +0.6%), while European bourses are all green as well (DAX +0.6%, CAC +0.55%, FTSE 100 +0.25%).  US futures, however, are starting to fade, led by the NASDAQ (-0.8%) although SPX futures (-0.2%) have turned lower as well.  Remember, the NASDAQ, with its predominantly growth-oriented companies, is similar to a long-term bond, as higher yields reduce the current discounted value of its future growth.

Commodity markets are under pressure this morning as well with oil (-1.5%) falling back a bit further, and both base and precious metals all under the gun.  This commodity story is synchronous with the combination of rising yields and…a rising dollar.  And the dollar continues to rise, against all early year supposition.

Versus the G10, it is higher against all comers, with JPY (-0.5%) leading the way lower and breaking above 110 for the first time in a year.  However, this move looks far more sustainable than the price action seen in the immediate wake of the initial Covid panic.  Quite frankly, in the short-term, there is no reason to think USDJPY cannot rise to 115.00.  But the weakness is universal with SEK (-0.4%) and NOK (-0.3%) also continuing lower.  While the latter is undermined by the oil decline, the Swedish krona remains the highest beta G10 currency, and is simply leading the euro (-0.25%) on its downward path.

EMG currencies are not in any better shape with TRY (-2.2%) by far the worst performer as more bets get piled on that the new central bank governor will be cutting interest rates soon at the behest of President Erdogan.  INR (-1.2%) is the next worst performer, suffering as state-run banks were seen actively buying dollars in the market ahead of their fiscal year-end, cleaning up their balance sheets.  But pretty much the entire bloc is lower by between 0.2% and 0.4% on the simple fact that the dollar is growing in demand as US yields lead the way higher.

On the data front, two minor releases today, Case Shiller Home Prices (exp 11.2%) and Consumer Confidence (96.9) are unlikely to have much impact as the market looks forward to the employment situation starting with tomorrow’s ADP Employment report and then Friday’s NFP data.

Adding it all up comes to the idea that the current trends, higher yields and a higher dollar, remain firmly entrenched and I see no reason for them to change in the near future.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Hubris

Said Janet, the risk remains “small”
Inflation could come to the ball
But if that’s the case
The tools are in place
To stop it with one conference call

hu∙bris
/ (h)yoobrəs/
noun: excessive pride or self-confidence

Is there a risk of inflation?  I think there’s a small risk and I think it’s manageable.”  So said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Sunday morning on the talk show circuit.  “I don’t think it’s a significant risk, and if it materializes, we’ll certainly monitor for it, but we have the tools to address it.”  (Left unasked, and unanswered, do they have the gumption to use those tools if necessary?)

Let me take you back to a time when the world was a simpler place; the economy was booming, house prices were rising, and making money was as easy as buying a home with 100% borrowed money (while lying on your mortgage application to get approved), holding it for a few months and flipping it for a profit. This was before the GFC, before QE, before ZIRP and NIRP and PEPP and every acronym we have grown accustomed to hearing.  In fact, this was before Bitcoin.

In May 2007, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, responding to a reporter’s question regarding the first inklings of a problem in the sector told us,  “Given the fundamental factors in place that should support the demand for housing, we believe the effect of the troubles in the sub-prime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited.”  Ten months later, as these troubles had not yet disappeared, and in fact appeared to be growing, Bennie the Beard uttered his most infamous words, “At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the sub-prime market seems likely to be contained.

Notice anything similar about these situations?  A brewing crisis in the economy was analyzed and seen as insignificant relative to the Fed’s goals and, more importantly, inimical to the Fed’s desired outcomes.  As such, it is easily dismissed by those in charge.  Granted, Janet is no longer Fed chair, but we have heard exactly the same story from Chairman Jay and can look forward to hearing it again on Wednesday.

Of course, Bernanke could not have been more wrong in his assessment of the sub-prime situation, which was allowed to fester until such time as it broke financial markets causing a massive upheaval, tremendous capital losses and economic damage and ultimately resulted in a series of policies that have served to undermine the essence of capital markets; creative destruction.  While hindsight is always 20/20, it does not detract from the reality that, as the proverb goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But right now, the message is clear, there is no need to be concerned over transient inflation readings that are likely to appear in the next few months.  Besides, the Fed is targeting average inflation over time, so a few months of above target inflation are actually welcome.  And rising bond yields are a good thing as they demonstrate confidence in the economy.  Maybe Janet and Jay are right, and everything is just ducky, but based on the Fed’s track record, a lot of ‘smart’ money is betting they are not.  Personally, especially based on my observations of what things cost when I buy them, I’m with the smart money, not the Fed.  But for now, inflation has been dismissed as a concern and the combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus are moving full speed ahead.

Will this ultimately result in a substantial correction in risk appetite?  If Yellen’s and Powell’s view on inflation is wrong, and it does return with more staying power than currently anticipated, it will require a major decision; whether to address inflation at the expense of slowing economic growth, or letting the economy and prices run hotter for longer with the likelihood of much longer term damage.  At this stage, it seems pretty clear they will opt for the latter, which is the greatest argument for a weakening dollar, but perhaps not so much vs. other fiat currencies, instead vs. all commodities.  As to general risk appetite, I suspect it would be significantly harmed by high inflation.

However, inflation remains a future concern, not one for today, and so markets remain enamored of the current themes; namely expectations for a significant economic rebound on the back of fiscal stimulus leading to higher equity prices, higher commodity prices and higher bond yields.  That still feels like an unlikely trio of outcomes, but so be it.

This morning, we are seeing risk acquisition with only Shanghai (-1.0%) falling of all major indices overnight as Tencent continues to come under pressure after the government crackdown on its financial services business.  But the Nikkei (+0.2%) and Hang Seng (+0.3%) both managed modest gains and we have seen similar rises throughout Europe (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) despite the fact that the ruling CDU party in Germany got clobbered in weekend elections in two states.  US futures are also pointing higher by similar amounts across the board.

Bond markets, interestingly, have actually rallied very modestly with Treasury yields lower by 1.2 basis points, and similar yield declines in both Bunds and OATs.  That said, remember that the 10-year did see yields climb 8 basis points on Friday amid a broad-based bond sell-off around the world.  In other words, this feels more like consolidation than a trend change.

Commodity markets have also generally edged higher, with oil (+0.35%), gold (+0.1%) and Aluminum (+1.0%) showing that the reflation trade is still in play.

Given the modesty of movement across markets, it seems only right that the dollar is mixed this morning, with a variety of gainers and laggards, although only a few with significant movement.  In the G10 this morning, SEK (-0.7%) is the worst performer as CPI was released at a lower than expected 1.5% Y/Y vs 1.8% expected.  This has renewed speculation that the Riksbank may be forced to cut rates back below zero again, something they clearly do not want to do.  But beyond this, price action has been +/- 0.2% basically, which is indicative of no real news.

In EMG currencies, it is also a mixed picture with ZAR (+0.7%) the biggest gainer on what appear to be carry trade inflows, with TRY (+0.6%) next in line as traders anticipate a rate hike by the central bank later this week.  Most of LATAM is not yet open after this weekend’s change in the clocks, but the MXN (+0.3%) is a bit firmer as I type.  On the downside, there is a group led by KRW (-0.3%) and HUF (-0.25%), showing both the breadth and depth (or lack thereof) of movement.  In other words, movement of this nature is generally not a sign of new news.

On the data front, all eyes are on the FOMC meeting on Wednesday, but we do get a few other releases this week as follows:

Today Empire Manufacturing 14.5
Tuesday Retail Sales -0.5%
-ex autos 0.1%
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 75.5%
Wednesday Housing Starts 1555K
Building Permits 1750K
FOMC Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 700K
Continuing Claims 4.07M
Philly Fed 24.0
Leading Indicators 0.3%

Source: Bloomberg

While Retail Sales will garner some interest, the reality is that the market is almost entirely focused on the FOMC and how it will respond to, or whether it will even mention, the situation in the bond market.  Certainly, a strong Retail Sales report could encourage an even more significant selloff in bonds, which, while seemingly embraced by the Fed, cannot be seen as good news for the Treasury.  After all, they are the ones who have to pay all that interest. (Arguably, we are the ones who pay it, but that is an entirely different conversation.)

As to the dollar, while it has wandered aimlessly for the past few sessions, I get the sneaking suspicion that it is headed for another test of its recent highs as I believe bond yields remain the key market driver, and that move is not nearly over.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

No Paradox

In Europe, the ECB hawks
Explained in their most recent talks
The rising of late
In THE 10-year rate
Was normal and no paradox

At home, hawks are also reduced
To cheering the 10-year yield’s boost
Since Powell’s a dove
And rules from above
The hawks can’t shake him from his roost

In a world where every central bank is adding massive amounts of liquidity, how can you determine which central bankers are hawks and which are doves?  Since no one is allowed to make the case that short-term rates should be raised to try to slow down rising inflation, the next best thing for the hawks to do is to cheer on the rise in longer term yields.  And that continues to be the number one story in markets around the world, rising bond yields.  Yesterday saw Treasury yields rise 9 basis points as investors continue to see US data point to rising inflationary pressures.  The ISM Services Price Index rose to its highest level since 2008, just like we saw in the Manufacturing Index on Monday.  Even official inflation measures continue to print a bit higher than forecast, a sign that underlying price pressures are quite widespread.

In the past, this type of economic data would encourage the hawkish contingent of every central bank to argue for raising the short-term rate.  But hawkish views appear to have been written by Dr Seuss, as they have been removed from the canon of financial discussion.  Which leaves the back end of the curve the only place where they can express their views.  And so, we now hear from Klaas Knot, Dutch central bank president that rising government bond yields are a “positive story”, while Jens Weidmann, Bundesbank president explained that these moves are not “a particularly worrisome development.”  We have heard the same thing from Fed speakers as well, although not universally, as the doves, notably Lael Brainerd, hint at Fed action to prevent an unruly market.  My take is an unruly market is one that goes in the opposite direction to their desires.

But despite the central bank commentary, it is becoming ever clearer that inflationary pressures are rising around the world.  We have spent the past 40 years in an environment of constantly decreasing inflation as a combination of globalization and technological advancement have reduced the cost of so many things.  And while technology continues to march forward, globalization is under severe attack, even from its previous political cheerleaders.  This is evident in the current US administration, where strengthening and localizing supply chains is a goal, something that will clearly increase costs.  Add to that increased shipping costs alongside capacity shortages and rising energy costs, and you have the makings of a higher price regime.  (An anecdote on rising price pressures: a friend of mine who lives in Paris told me the prices of the following foods; fresh salmon €60/kg, 1 grapefruit €2.25 and 1 avocado €2.65.  I checked my supermarket app and found the following prices here in New Jersey; fresh salmon $9.99/lb, 1 grapefruit $1.00 and 1 avocado $2.50.  Prices are high and rising everywhere!)

The final piece of this puzzle is broad economic activity, which the data continues to show has seen a real burst in the US, although there is still concern over the employment situation.  Every survey has shown the US economy growing rapidly in Q1 with the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast currently at 10%.  Adding it all up leads to the following understanding; it is not only the Fed that is willing to run the economy hot, but every G10 central bank, which means that monetary support will continue to flow for years to come.  Combining that activity with the massive fiscal support and the still significant supply bottlenecks that were a result of the government shutdowns in response to Covid brings about a scenario where there is a ton of money in the system and not enough goods to satisfy the demand.  If central banks don’t tap the breaks, rising prices and price expectations will lead to rising yields, and ultimately to declining equities.  The only asset class that will continue to perform is commodities, because owning “stuff” will be a better trade than owning paper assets.  And that’s enough of those cheery thoughts.

On to today’s markets, where, alas, risk is being jettisoned around the world.  After yesterday’s tech led selloff in the US, Asian equity markets really got hammered (Nikkei -2.1%, Hang Seng -2.1%, Shanghai -2.1%) and European markets are also under the gun (DAX -0.45%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 -1.0%).  US futures?  All red at this hour, down about 0.3%, although that is off the lows seen earlier this morning.

Bond yields, meanwhile, despite my discussion of how they are rising, have actually slipped back a bit this morning in classic risk-off price action.  So, Treasuries (-1.9bps), Bunds (-2.6bps), OATs (-2.1bps) and Gilts (-4.1bps) are all rallying.  But this is not a trend change, it is merely indicative of the fact that now that yields have backed up substantially, the concept of government bonds as an effective risk mitigant is coming back in vogue.  After all, when 10-yr Treasuries yield 0.7%, it hardly offers protection to a portfolio, but at more than double that rate, it is starting to help a little in times of stress.

Commodity prices are mixed this morning with oil taking back early session losses to sit unchanged as I type, but base metals in the midst of a modest correction after a remarkable rally for the past several months.  This morning copper (-4.1%) and Nickel (-8.2%) are leading the way lower, but with the ongoing economic activity and absence of new capacity, these are almost certainly temporary moves.  Gold, which has been under significant pressure lately seems to have found a floor, perhaps only temporarily, at $1700, but given the dollar’s ongoing strength, it cannot be surprising gold remains under pressure.

As to the dollar, I would say it is very modestly stronger today, although what had earlier been virtually universal has now ebbed back a bit.  In the G10, CHF (-0.4%) and JPY (-0.3%) are the worst performers, which given the risk attitude is actually quite surprising.  I think the Swiss story is actually a Polish one, where Poland has refused to support local banks who took out CHF loans and have been suffering from currency strength far outstripping the interest rate benefits.  It seems, concern is growing that these loans may be restructured and ultimately impact the Swiss banks and Swiss economy.  Meanwhile, the yen’s weakness stems from a poor response to a 30-year bond sale last night, where yields rose 3.5 bps amid a very weak bid-to-cover ratio for the sale.  Perhaps even the Japanese are getting tired of zero rates!  But away from those two currencies, the rest of the bloc is +/- 0.2% or less, indicating nothing of real interest is going on.

EMG currencies are also mixed with Asian currencies suffering amid the broad risk off environment overnight and CE4 currencies lower on the back of euro weakness.  On the plus side, BRL (+0.7%) and MXN (+0.6%) are the leading gainers, which appears to be an ongoing reaction to aggressive central bank of Brazil intervention to try to prevent further weakness there.  In this space too, the broad risk appetite will continue to remain key.

On the data front we see a bunch of stuff starting with Initial Claims (exp 750K) and Continuing Claims (4.3M), but we also see Nonfarm Productivity (-4.7%), Unit Labor Costs (6.6%) and Factory Orders (2.1%) this morning.  Perhaps of more importance we hear from Chairman Powell today, right at noon, and all eyes and ears will be focused on how he describes recent market activity as well as to see if he hints at any type of Fed response.  Many pundits, this one included, believe there is a cap to how high the Fed will allow yields to rise, the question is, what is that cap.  I have heard several compelling arguments that 2.0% is where things start to become uncomfortable for the Fed, but ultimately, I believe that it will depend on the data.  If the data starts to show that the economy is under pressure before 2.0% is reached, the Fed will step in at that time and stop the madness.  Until then, as we have heard from central bankers worldwide, higher yields in the back end are a good thing, so they will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future.  And yes, that means that until US inflation data starts to print higher, and real yields start to decline, the dollar is very likely to retain its bid.

Good luck and stay safe
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More Terrified

The narrative starting to form
Is bond market vol’s the new norm
But Jay and Christine
Explain they’re serene
Regarding this new firestorm

However, the impact worldwide
Is some nations must set aside
Their plans for more spending
As yields are ascending
And FinMins grow more terrified

Confusion is the new watchword as investors are torn between the old normal of central bank omnipotence and the emerging new normal of unfettered chaos.  Now, perhaps unfettered chaos overstates the new normal, but price action, especially in the Treasury and other major government bond markets, has been significantly more volatile than what we had become used to since the first months of the Covid crisis passed last year.  And remember, prior to Covid’s appearance on the world stage, it was widely ‘known’ that the Fed and its central bank brethren had committed to insuring yields would remain low to support the economy.  Of course, there was the odd hiccup (the taper tantrum of 2013, the repo crisis of 2018) but generally speaking, the bond market was not a very exciting place to be.  Yields were relatively low on a long-term historical basis and tended to grind slowly lower as debt deflation central bank action guided inflation to a low and stable rate.

But lately, that story seems to be changing.  Perhaps it is the ~$10 trillion of pandemic support that has been (or will soon be) added to the global economy, with the US at $5 trillion, including the upcoming $1.9 trillion bill working its way through Congress, the leading proponent.  Or perhaps it is the fact that the novel coronavirus was novel in how it impacted economies, with not only a significant demand shock, but also a significant supply shock.  This is important because supply shocks are what tend to drive inflation with the OPEC oil embargos of 1973 and 1979 as exhibits A and B.

And this matters a lot.  Last week’s bond market price action was quite disruptive, and the terrible results of the US 7-year Treasury auction got tongues wagging even more about how yields could really explode higher.  Now, so far this year we have heard from numerous Fed speakers that higher yields were a good sign as they foretold a strong economic recovery.  However, we all know that the US government cannot really afford for yields to head that much higher as the ensuing rise in debt service costs would become quite problematic.  But when Chairman Powell spoke last week, he changed nothing regarding his view that the Fed was committed to the current level of support for a substantially longer time.

Yesterday, however, we heard the first inkling that the Fed may not be so happy about recent bond market volatility as Governor Brainerd explained that the sharp moves “caught her eye”, and that movement like that was not appropriate.  This is more in sync with what we have consistently heard from ECB members regarding the sharp rise in yields there.  At this point, I count at least five ECB speakers trying to talk down yields by explaining they have plenty of flexibility in their current toolkit (they can buy more bonds more quickly) if they deem it necessary.

But this is where it gets confusing.  Apparently, at least according to a top story in Bloomberg this morning which explains that ECB policymakers see no need for drastic action to address the rapidly rising yields of European government bonds, everything is fine.  But if everything is fine, why the onslaught of commentary from so many senior ECB members?  After all, the last thing the ECB wants is for higher yields to drive the euro higher, which would have the triple negative impact of containing any inflationary impulses, hurting export industries and ultimately slowing growth.  To me, the outlier is this morning’s story rather than the commentary we have been hearing.  Now, last week, because of a large maturity of French debt, the ECB’s PEPP actually net reduced purchases, an odd response to concerns over rising yields.  Watch carefully for this week’s action when it is released next Monday, but my sense is that number will have risen quite a bit.

And yet, this morning, bond yields throughout Europe and the US are strongly higher with Treasuries (+5.3bps) leading the way, but Gilts (+3.6bps), OATs (+2.7bps) and Bunds (+2.4bps) all starting to show a near-term bottom in yields.  The one absolute is that bond volatility continues to be much higher than it has been in the past, and I assure you, that is not the outcome that any central bank wants to see.

And there are knock-on effects to this price action as well, where less liquid emerging and other markets are finding fewer buyers for their paper.  Recent auctions in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand, Italy and Germany all saw much lower than normal bid-to-cover ratios with higher yields and less debt sold.  Make no mistake, this is the key issue going forward.  If bond investors are unwilling to finance the ongoing spending sprees by governments at ultra-low yields, that is going to have significant ramifications for economies, and markets, everywhere.  This is especially so if higher Treasury yields help the dollar higher which will have a twofold effect on emerging market economies and really slow things down.  We are not out of the woods yet with respect to the impact of Covid and the responses by governments.

However, while these are medium term issues, the story today is of pure risk acquisition.  After yesterday’s poor performance by US equity markets, Asia turned things around (Nikkei +0.5%, Hang Seng +2.7%, Shanghai +1.9%) and Europe has followed along (DAX +0.9%, CAC +0.6%, FTSE 100 +0.8%).  US futures are right there with Europe, with all three indices higher by ~0.6%.

As mentioned above, yields everywhere are higher, as are oil prices (+1.5%).  However, metals prices are soft on both the precious and base sides, and agricultural prices are mixed, at best.

And lastly, the dollar, which had been softer all morning, is starting to find it footing and rebound.  CHF (-0.3%) and JPY (-0.25%) are the leading decliners, but the entire G10 bloc is lower except for CAD (+0.1%), which has arguably benefitted from oil’s rally as well as higher yields in its government bond market.  In what cannot be a great surprise, comments from the ECB’s Pablo Hernandez de Cos (Spanish central bank president) expressed the view that they must avoid a premature rise in nominal interest rates, i.e. they will not allow yields to rise unopposed.  And it was these comments that undermined the euro, and the bulk of the G10 currencies.

On the EMG front, overnight saw some strength in Asian currencies led by INR (+0.9%) and IDR (+0.55%) as both were recipients of foreign inflows to take advantage of the higher yield structure available there.  On the downside, BRL (-0.7%) and MXN (-0.5%) are the laggards as concerns grow over both governments’ ongoing response to the economic disruption caused by Covid.  We have seen the Central Bank of Brazil intervening in markets consistently for the past week or so, but that has not prevented the real from declining 5% during that time.  I fear it has further to fall.

On the data front, ADP Employment (exp 205K) leads the day and ISM Services (58.7) comes a bit later.  Then, this afternoon we see the Fed’s Beige Book.  We also hear from three more Fed speakers, but it would be shocking to hear any message other than they will keep the pedal to the metal for now.

Given all the focus on the Treasury market these days, it can be no surprise that the correlation between 10-year yields and the euro has turned negative (higher yields leads to lower euro price) and I see no reason for that to change.  The story about the ECB being unconcerned with yields seems highly unlikely.  Rather, I believe they have demonstrated they are extremely concerned with European government bond yields and will do all they can to prevent them from moving much higher.  While things will be volatile, I have a sense the dollar is going to continue to outperform expectations of its decline for a while longer.

Good luck and stay safe
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