Resolute

The narrative is resolute
That though prices did overshoot
They’re certain to fall
And that, above all,
The Fed’s in control, absolute

However, concern is now growing
That growth round the world’s started slowing
Though Friday’s report
On jobs was the sort
To help the bull market keep going

Clearly, my concerns over a weak payroll report were misplaced as Friday’s data was strong on every front, although perhaps too strong on some.  Nonfarm payrolls grew a robust 943K with net revisions higher of 119K for the past two months.  The Unemployment Rate crashed to 5.4%, down one-half percent, and Average Hourly Earnings rose 4.0% Y/Y.  It is the last of these that may generate some concern, at least from the perspective of the transitory inflation story.

While it is unambiguously good news for the working population that their wages are rising, something that has been absent for the past two decades, as with Newton’s first law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) the direct result of rising wages tends to be rising prices.  So, while getting paid more is good, if the things one buys cost more, the net impact may not be as positive.  And in fact, consider that while the 4.0% annual rise is the highest (excluding the distortions immediately following the  Covid-19 lockdowns) in the series since at least the turn of the century, when compared to the most recent CPI data (you remember, 5.4%) we find that the average employee continues to fall behind on a real basis.

When discussing inflation, notice that the Fed harps on things like used car prices or hotel prices as the key drivers of the recent rise in the data.  They also tend to explain that commodity prices play a role, and that is something they cannot control.  But when was the last time Chairman Powell talked about rapidly rising wages or housing prices as an underlying cause of inflation?  In fact, when asked about whether the Fed should begin tapering mortgage-backed securities purchases sooner because of rapidly rising house prices, he claimed the Fed’s purchases have no impact on house prices, but rather it was things like the temporary jump in lumber prices that were the problem.  Oh yeah, and see, lumber prices have fallen back down so there is nothing to worry about.

Of course, wages are not part of CPI directly.  Rising wages are reflected in the rising prices of everything as companies both large and small find it necessary to raise prices to maintain their profitability.  Certainly, there are some companies that have more pricing power than others and so are quicker to raise prices, but in the end, rising wages result in one of two things, higher prices or lower margins, and oftentimes both.  In the broad scheme of things, neither of these outcomes is particularly positive for generating real economic growth, which is arguably the goal of all monetary policies.

Consider, to the extent rising wages force companies to raise the price of their product or service, the result is an upward bias in inflation that is independent of the price of oil or lumber or copper.  In fact, one of the key features of the past 40 years of disinflation has been the fact that labor’s share of the economic pie has fallen substantially compared to that of capital.  This has been the result of the globalization of the workforce as the addition of more than 1 billion new workers from developing nations was sufficient to keep downward pressure on wages.

Arguably, this has also been one of the key reasons corporate profit margins have risen and stock prices along with them.  Now consider what would happen if that very long-term trend was in the process of reversing.  There is a likelihood of rising prices of goods and services, otherwise known as inflation.  There is also a likelihood of a revaluation of equity prices if margins start to decline. And nothing helps margins decline like rising labor costs.

Consider, also, this is the sticky type of inflation, exactly the opposite of all the transitory claims.  This is the widely (and rightly) feared wage-price spiral.  I am not saying this is the current situation, at least not yet, but that things are falling into place that could easily result in this outcome.

Now put yourself in Chairman Powell’s shoes.  Prices have begun rising more rapidly as companies respond to rising wage pressures.  The employment situation has been improving more rapidly so there is less concern over the attainment of that part of your mandate.  But…the amount of leverage in the system is astronomical with government debt running at record high levels (Federal government at 127%) and all debt, including household and corporate at 400% of GDP.  Do you believe that the economy can withstand higher interest rates of any substance?  After all, in order to tackle inflation, real rates need to be positive.  What do you think would happen if the Fed raised rates to 6%?  And this is my point as to why the Fed has painted themselves into the proverbial corner.  They cannot possibly respond to inflation with their “tools” because the negative ramifications would be far too large to withstand.  It is also why I don’t’ believe the Fed will make any substantive policy changes despite all the tapering talk.  They simply can’t afford to.

Ok, on to the markets.  One of the notable things overnight was the flash crash in the price of gold, which tumbled $73 as the session began on a huge sell order in the futures market, although has since regained $54 and is currently down 1.1% from Friday’s close.  The other things was the release of Chinese CPI (1.0%) and PPI (9.0%), both of which printed a few ticks higher than expected.  Obviously, there is not nearly as much pass-through domestically from producer to consumer prices in China, but that tends to be a result of the fact that consumption is a much smaller share of the Chinese economy.  However, higher prices on the production side, despite the government’s efforts to stop commodity speculation and hoarding, does not bode well for the transitory story.  And while discussing EMG inflation readings, early this morning we saw Brazil (1.45% M/M) and Mexico (5.86% Y/Y) both print higher than forecast results.  Certainly, it is no surprise that both central banks are in tightening mode.

A quick peak at equity markets showed Asia performed reasonably well (Nikkei +0.3%, Hang Seng +0.4%, Shanghai +1.0%) although Europe has been struggling a bit (DAX -0.2%, CAC -0.1%, FTSE 100 -0.4%).  US futures, meanwhile, are either side of unchanged with very modest moves.

Treasury yields have given back 2 basis points from Friday’s post-NFP surge of 7.5bps, although there are many who continue to believe the short-term down trend has been ended.  European sovereigns are also rallying a bit, with Bunds (-1.3bps), OATs (-1.3bps) and Gilts (-3.5bps) leading a screen that has seen every European bond rally today.

Commodity prices are perhaps the most interesting as oil prices have fallen quite sharply (-4.0%) with WTI back to $65.50/bbl, its lowest level since late May.  This appears to be a recognition of the growth of the Delta variant and how more and more nations are responding with another wave of lockdowns and restrictions on movement, thus less travel and overall economic activity.  As such, it should be no surprise that copper (-1.5%) is lower or that the metals space as a whole is under pressure.

Interestingly, the dollar is not showing a clear trend at all today, with gainers and losers about evenly mixed and no particularly large moves.  In the G10, NOK (-0.3%) is the laggard, clearly impacted by oil’s decline, but away from that, the mix is basically +/- 0.1%, in other words, no real change.  In the emerging markets, ZAR (+0.3%) is the leader, although this appears more to be a response to its sharp weakness last week than to any specific news.  And that is the only EMG currency that moved more than 0.2%, again, demonstrating very little in the way of new information.

Data this week brings CPI amongst a bunch of lesser numbers:

Today JOLTS Jobs Openings 9.27M
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 102.0
Nonfarm Productivity 3.2%
Unit Labor Costs 0.9%
Wednesday CPI 0.5% (5.3% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.4% (4.3% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 375K
Continuing Claims 2.88M
PPI 0.6% (7.1% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.5% (5.6% Y/Y)
Friday Michigan Sentiment 81.2

Source: Bloomberg

At this point, the response to the CPI data will be either of the following; a high number will be ignored (transitory remember), and a low number will be proof they are correct.  So, while we may all be suffering, the narrative will have no such problems!

There are a handful of Fed speakers this week as well, with the two most hawkish voices (Mester and George) on the calendar.  Right now, the narrative has evolved to tapering is part of the conversation and Jackson Hole will give us more clarity.  The market is pricing the first rate hike by December 2022 based on the recent commentary.  We shall see.  Until then, I don’t anticipate a great deal as many desks will be thinly staffed due to summer vacations.  Just be careful if you have a large amount to execute.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

A Popular View

It seems that a popular view

Explains that the Fed will pursue

A slowdown in buying

More bonds as they’re trying 

To bid, fondly, QE adieu





At least that’s what pundits all thought

The Powell press conference had wrought

They talked about talking

But are not yet walking

The path to where policy’s taut

It appears virtually unanimous that the punditry believes the FOMC is going to be tightening policy (i.e. tapering) in the ‘near future’.  Of course, the near future is just as imprecise as transitory, the Fed’s favorite word.  Neither of these words convey any specificity, which makes them very powerful in the narrative game, but perhaps not so powerful when directly addressed.  My take on transitory is as follows: initial expectations were it meant 2 or 3 quarters of price pressures which would then dissipate as supply chains were quickly reconnected.  However, it has since morphed into as much as 2 to 3 years given the reality that certain shortages, notably semiconductors, may take much longer to abate as the timeline to build out new capacity is typically 2 to 3 years.  I guess it all depends on your frame of reference as to what transitory means.  For instance, to a tortoise, 2 to 3 year is clearly but a blip in their lives, but to a fruit fly, it is beyond an eternity.  Sadly, the market’s attention span is much closer to that of a fruit fly’s than a tortoise’s so 2 to 3 years feels a lot more permanent than not.  This is especially so since there is no way to know if other, more persistent inflationary issues may arise in the interim.

As to the ‘near future’, that seems to mean somewhere between the middle of 2022 and the middle of 2024.  Here too, the timeline is extremely flexible to accommodate whatever story is trying to be sold told.  When puffing up the strength of the economic recovery, expectations tend toward the earliest estimates.  In fact, we continue to hear from several FOMC members that tapering will soon be appropriate.  However, if we look at who is making those comments (Bullard, Kaplan, Rosengren and Bostic), we find that only Raphael Bostic from Atlanta currently has a vote.  At the same time, those who are least interested in the idea of tapering include the leadership (Powell, Clarida and Williams) as well as the other governors (Bowman, Brainard, Quarles and Waller), and they have permanent votes.  In other words, my take on the FOMC meeting is it was far less hawkish than much of the punditry has described.  And there is one group, which really matters, that is apparently in agreement with me; the bond market!  Treasury prices after an initial sell-off (yield rally) have reversed that move and are essentially unchanged with a flatter yield curve.  It strikes me that if the Fed were to taper, yields would start to rise in the long end as the removal of that support would have a significant negative price impact.

So, if I were to piece together the narrative now it appears to be the following: inflation is still transitory if it remains well above target for the next 2 years and the bond market is convinced that is the case (ostensibly a survey showed that 70% of fixed income managers believe the transitory story).  Meanwhile, despite the transitory nature of inflation, the Fed is going to tighten its monetary policy sometime next year and potentially even raise the Fed Funds rate in 2023.  Personally, that seems somewhat contradictory to me, but apparently cognitive dissonance is a prerequisite to becoming an FOMC member these days.

At any rate, given the lack of actual policy changes by the Fed, all we have is the narrative.  This week we will have four more Fed speakers to continue to reiterate that narrative, that despite the transitory nature of inflation we are going to tighten policy in the future.  Of course, that begs the question, Why?  Why tighten policy if there is no inflation?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

In the meantime, as markets continue to try to figure out what exactly is happening, we wind up with paralysis by analysis and relatively limited movement.  For instance, equity markets in Asia were all essentially unchanged overnight, with not one of them moving even 0.1%.  Europe, on the other hand is having a tougher go this morning with red across the screen (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.5% and FTSE 100 -0.5%) with a real outlier as Spain’s IBEX (-1.5%).  There has been no data released but there is growing concern that the Delta variant of Covid is going to cause another lockdown in Europe before they finished reopening the first time.  This is based on the fact that we have seen lockdowns reimposed in Australia, Japan, Singapore and Israel after all those nations seemed to be moving forward.  As to US futures, they are either side of unchanged at this hour awaiting some clarity on anything.

It can be no surprise that bond markets are rallying slightly with Treasuries (-1.7bps) leading the way but small yield declines in Europe as well (Bunds -0.8bps, OATs -1.1bps, Gilts -1.8bps).  With equity markets under pressure, this is a natural reaction.  And if you consider the reasoning, worries over another Covid wave, then slower growth would be expected.

Funnily enough, Covid is having a currency impact today as well.  In the G10, the new Health Minister, Sajid Javid, has said he wants to see the country return to normal “as soon and as quickly as possible.”  Despite the equity market concerns, the FX market saw that as bullish and the pound (+0.2%) is the leading gainer in the G10 this morning.  But as the morning has progressed and risk sentiment has become less positive, the dollar is starting to asset itself against most of the rest of the bloc with NZD (-0.35%) and NOK (-0.3%) the laggards.  Both of these are under pressure from declining commodity prices as oil (-0.1%) is sagging a bit.

In the EMG bloc, ZAR (-0.8%) is in the worst condition this morning as the Delta Covid variant has increased its spread and the government is behind the curve in treating the issue.  But we saw weakness overnight in THB (-0.6%), and this morning the CE4 are all under the gun as well.  And the story seems to be the same everywhere, tighter Covid restrictions are undermining currencies while positivity is helping them.

It is a big data week as it culminates in the payroll report on Friday:

TuesdayCase Shiller Home Prices14.85%
 Consumer Confidence119.0
WednesdayADP Employment550K
 Chicago PMI70.0
ThursdayInitial Claims389K
 Continuing Claims3335K
 ISM Manufacturing61.0
 ISM Prices Paid86.0
FridayNonfarm Payrolls700K
 Private Payrolls600K
 Manufacturing Payrolls25K
 Unemployment Rate5.7%
 Average Hourly Earnings0.3% (3.6% y/Y)
 Average Weekly Hours34.9
 Participation Rate61.7%
 Trade Balance-$71.3B
 Factory Orders1.5%

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, all eyes will be on the payroll data as the Fed has made it clear that employment is their key focus for now.  There was an interesting story in the WSJ this morning highlighting how the states that have ended the Federal Unemployment Insurance bonus have seen an immediate pickup in employment with jobs suddenly being filled.  That bodes well for the future, but it also means we will have this issue for another quarter if all the states that maintain the bonuses continue to do so.

As mentioned above, several Fed speakers will be out selling the narrative that inflation is transitory, but tapering may be coming anyway.  (A cynic might think they are not being totally honest in what they are saying, but only a cynic.)

A quick top down look at the FX market leads me to believe that individual national stories are currently the real drivers.  So those nations that are raising interest rates to fight inflation (Mexico, Brazil, Hungary, Russia) are likely to see their currencies hold up.  Those nations that are having serious relapses in Covid infections (South Africa, much of Europe) are likely to see their currencies come under pressure.  Where the two meet (South Korea), it seems to depend on the day as to which way the currency goes.  With that in mind, though, I would bet the monetary policy story will have more permanence will be the ultimate driver.

Today, the dollar seems to be in fine fettle as risk is on the back foot given the increasing Covid concerns over the Delta variant.  But do not be surprised if tomorrow is different.

Good luck and stay safe

Adf

Do Not Be Afraid

Said Jay, “you must listen to me”

And not to the numbers you see

Do not be afraid

Inflation will fade

So, keep up the stock buying spree!

Last week’s FOMC meeting seems to have been an inflection point in the recent market narrative which has resulted in a great many conflicting thoughts about the future.  The dichotomy of the meeting was the virtual absence of discussion on current high inflation readings juxtaposed with the Dot Plot forecasts on interest rates rising in 2023.  Arguably, the Dot Plot reflects the participants’ growing concern that inflation is rising, and that the FOMC will need to address that situation.  One could argue that this dichotomy has been the underlying cause for the increased volatility evident in markets, with sharp gains and losses seen across bonds, equities and currencies.

This afternoon, Chairman Powell will once again regale us with his views as he testifies before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.  His prepared testimony was released yesterday afternoon with some key comments.  “Inflation has increased notably in recent months.  As these transitory supply effects abate, inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run goal.”  That pretty much sums up the Fed view and confirms that there is very little concern about inflation over time.  

Yesterday we also heard from three other Fed speakers, NY’s Williams, Dallas’ Kaplan and St Louis’ Bullard, with slightly different messages.  Williams, a permanent voter, remains adamant that it is too soon to consider adjusting policy, although he is willing to discuss the idea of tapering.  Meanwhile, both Kaplan and Bullard, both non-voters, are far more interested in getting the tapering talk off the ground as both see the economy picking up pace and have evidenced concern about overheating areas in the economy.  One can surmise from these comments that both of them are amongst the ‘dots’ above 1.0% for 2023.  In fact, Bullard admitted that he was a 0.6% ‘dot’ for 2022 in comments last week.  

Looking ahead, we have a long list of Fed speakers this week, with Mester, a hawkish non-voter, and Daly, a dovish voter, also set to comment today.  It almost appears as though voting members have been given a set of marching (speaking?) orders to which they are to adhere that express no concern over prices and the need to continue with current policy for the foreseeable future, while non-voting members have no such restrictions.  This is a very different dynamic than what we have become used to seeing, where everybody on the committee was saying the same thing.  Perhaps this is Powell’s solution to being able to maintain the policy he wants while having the Fed overall avoid criticism for groupthink.  But groupthink remains the base case, trust me.

During this period of policy adjustments, or at least narrative adjustments, investors have found themselves without their previous strong signals that all asset prices will rise and that havens serve little purpose.  Instead, we have seen a much choppier market in both stock and bond prices as previously long-held convictions have come into question. The most notable change has been in the shape of the yield curve, which has flattened dramatically.  For instance, the 2yr-10-yr spread, which had reached a high above 160 basis points in early April has seen a decline from 137 to below 110 and a rebound back to 122 in the past three sessions.  Other than March 2020, during the initial Covid confusion, there has not been movement of that nature since President Trump was elected in 2016.  And that was a one-day phenomenon.  At this point, the volatility we are experiencing is likely to continue until a new narrative takes hold.  As to today’s session, so far, we are seeing a modest bond rally with yields softer in Treasuries (-1.7bps after a 5bp rally yesterday) and European sovereigns (Bunds -0.4bps, OATs -1.4bps, Gilts -0.5bps) all slightly firmer on the day.  

Meanwhile, equity markets are also somewhat confused.  Last night, for instance, the Nikkei (+3.1%) rebounded sharply after the BOJ explained they had restarted their ETF buying program on Monday, so all was right with the world.  The Hang Seng (-0.6%) didn’t get that message but Shanghai (+0.8%) did despite rising short-term interest rates in China.  Those climbing rates appear to be a function of quarter end demand for bank funding that is not being supplied by the PBOC.  My sense is once July comes those rates will drift back down.  Europe, has had a more mixed equity session after a nice rally yesterday, with both the DAX and CAC flat on the day and the FTSE 100 (+0.3%) rising a bit, but weakness in the peripheral markets of Spain and Italy, with both of those lower by about 0.5%.  US futures are virtually unchanged at this hour as market participants seem to be awaiting Mr Powell.

Commodity markets are following suit, with some gainers (Au +0.2%, Ag +0.2%, Al +0.1%), some losers (WTI -0.7%, Soybeans -0.7% and Fe -3.2%) and many with little overall movement.  In a market that has lost its direction with respect to both growth and inflation expectations, or at least one which is re-evaluating those expectations, it should be no surprise there is a hodgepodge of price movements.

The dollar, however, is broadly firmer on the day, with GBP (-0.35%) the weakest performer in the G10 as traders await Thursday’s BOE meeting and their latest discussion on the inflation situation in the UK.  This will be BOE Chief Economist Andy Haldane’s last meeting, and he is expected to make some hawkish noises, but thus far, the rest of the committee has not been aligned with him.  Right now, the market is not looking for him to receive any support, hence the pound’s ongoing weakness, but if we do hear some hawkishness from another member or two, do not be surprised if the pound jumps back up.  As to the rest of the G10, losses range from 0.1%-0.25% and are all a reflection of the dollar’s strength, rather than any idiosyncratic stories here.  

Emerging market currencies are also broadly softer this morning, with a mix of laggards across all three blocs.  HUF (-0.5%), ZAR (-0.5%, THB (-0.45%) and MXN (-0.35%) reflect that this is a dollar and Fed story, not an EMG one.  The one exception to this rule is TRY (+1.0%) as hopes for an early lifting of Covid restrictions and a modest rise in Consumer Confidence there has underpinned the lira.

On the data front, we see Existing Home Sales (exp 5.72M) this morning at 10:00, but that seems unlikely to excite the market.  Rather, I expect limited movement until Chairman Powell speaks this afternoon.  

For now, volatility is likely to be the norm as the market adjusts to whatever the new narrative eventually becomes.  The inflation debate continues to rage and when Core PCE is released later this week, there will be more commentary.  However, it will require high inflation readings into the autumn to change the Fed’s stance, in my view, and until then, the idea that the Fed is considering tighter policy is likely to support the dollar for now.  However, that doesn’t mean further strength necessarily, just not any real weakness.

Good luck and stay safe

Adf

Contracted, Not Grown

There once was a continent, grand
Whose culture and history fanned
Both science and art
Which helped to jumpstart
Expansion across all the land

But lately the data has shown
That Europe’s contracted, not grown
This bodes ill for those
Who purchased euros
As markets take on a new tone

Entering 2021, one of the highest conviction trades amongst the analyst and investment community was that the dollar would decline sharply this year.  After all, it fell broadly and steadily in 2020 from the moment it peaked in mid-March on the initial pandemic fears.  But the narrative that developed was that the Fed would be the king of all monetary easers, pumping so much liquidity into markets that the surfeit of dollars would simply drive the value of the greenback lower vs. all its main counterparts.  Adding to the tale was the election of Joe Biden as president, and the belief that he would be able to enact massive stimulus to help reflate the economy, thus adding fiscal stimulus to the Fed’s already humongous monetary efforts.  The pièce de résistance was the Georgia runoff elections, when the Democrats gained effective control of the Senate, and so all of these dreams seemed destined to come true.

However, there was always one conundrum that never made sense, at least to me, and that was the idea that the dollar would decline while the US yield curve steepened.  The thesis was that all the fiscal stimulus would result in massive Treasury issuance (check), which would result in higher yields as the market had trouble absorbing all that debt (partial check) and then the dollar would decline sharply (oops).  The problem is that historically, as the US yield curve steepens, the dollar typically rallies.

The other quibble with this narrative was that it seemed to ignore the facts on the ground in Europe.  It was never realistic to believe that the ECB would sit back and allow the euro to rally sharply without responding.  And of course, that is exactly what we have seen.  In the past three weeks, we have heard from numerous ECB speakers, including Madame Lagarde, that the exchange rate is quite important in their deliberations.  The proper translation of that comment into English is, if the euro keeps rallying, we will directly respond via further easing or even intervention if necessary.  Remember, Europe can ill afford a strong euro from both a growth and inflationary perspective, and they will do all they think they can to prevent it from coming about.

At the same time, there is another issue that the dollar bears seemed to neglect, the pathetic state of affairs in the Eurozone economy, as well as the vast incompetence displayed throughout the continent with respect to the inoculation of their populations with the new Covid vaccines. Based on current trends, the US and UK will have vaccinated 75% of their respective populations by the end of 2021.  Italy, Germany and France are looking at 2024 at the earliest to achieve the same milestone.  Ask yourself how beneficial that will be for the Eurozone economy if the current lockdowns remain in place for the next 2-3 years.

The one possible saving grace for this view is that the Fed responds more aggressively to any steepening of the yield curve.  While Europe cannot afford for the euro to rise, the US cannot afford for interest rates to rise, at least not very much.  While yields have clearly risen from their summer lows, they remain extremely accommodative.  However, if yields should start to rise further, say because inflation starts to accelerate, the Fed seems destined to stop that move, either explicitly, via YCC, or tacitly via extending and expanding QE such that they absorb all the new Treasury issuance and prevent yields from rising.  Of course, this will result in much deeper negative real yields which, in my view, will be what leads to the dollar’s eventual decline.  Given Europe’s much duller inflationary pulse, it will be much harder for the ECB to drive real yields in Europe as low as in the US.  But that is a story for the second half of 2021, not the first.

Which brings us to today’s activity.  The discussion above was prompted by the much weaker than expected Eurozone Retail Sales data released this morning, with December’s monthly growth at 2.0% and the Y/Y number at just 0.6%, half of expectations.  And this was before the extended and expanded lockdowns in January.  It is increasingly evident that the Eurozone is in its second recession in just over a year, again, hardly a rationale to buy its currency.  Which makes it completely unsurprising that the euro has declined yet again, -0.4%, and breaking below the psychological 1.20 level.  For those keeping track, this is he fourth consecutive day of declines and it is pretty easy to look at a chart and see a downtrend developing.  In fact, since its peak on January 7, the euro is down a solid 3%.

But the dollar is performing well against all its G10 brethren, and most EMG counterparts as well.  SEK (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.5%) are the worst performers with the latter somewhat surprising given that oil (+0.75%) continues to rally.  It seems that both these countries are seeing doubts over their ability to inoculate their populations from Covid similar to the Eurozone, so it should not be surprising that their currencies decline.  The same is true of CAD (-0.25%) where the current trend for vaccinations shows it will take a full ten years to vaccinate 75% of Canada’s population!  I imagine the pace will increase, but it does demonstrate the futility so far.  CAD, however, has not been as weak as the euro given the benefits from the rising oil price seem to be offsetting some of its other problems.

In the Emerging markets, ZAR (-0.8%) is the worst performer today, falling on a combination of broad dollar strength and concerns over the possibility of a debt crisis as the nation’s debt/GDP ratio has climbed rapidly to 80%, and with its still high yields, debt service ability is becoming a bigger problem.  Of course, there is also a new strain of Covid, first identified there, that has increased virulence and is working against the economy.  With the euro lower, it is no surprise that the CE4 have followed it down, and we are also seeing weakness in MXN (-0.6%), again, after central bank comments indicating possible rate cuts in the future.  On the flipside, TRY (+0.5%) is the star performer today, continuing to gather interest given its world-beating interest rate structure and promises from the central bank to maintain those yields.

While I skipped over both equity and bond markets today, it is only because there was precious little movement in most cases and certainly no discernible trend.

On the data front, yesterday saw better than expected ADP Employment and ISM Services prints, once again highlighting the differences between the US and Europe.  This morning brings a raft of data as follows: Initial Claims (exp 830K), Continuing Claims (4.7M), Nonfarm Productivity (-3.0%), Unit Labor Costs (4.0%) and Factory Orders (0.7%).  With Payrolls tomorrow, all eyes will be on the Initial Claims number, but it is hard to believe any print will change market sentiment.

Finally, the BOE met this morning and left policy unchanged, as expected.  However, they did tell banks to start preparing for negative interest rates going forward.  While they claim the policy is not imminent, it seems unlikely that they are asking banks to prepare for a low probability event.  Despite significant evidence that negative rates do not help the economy, although they do help stock prices, the BOE looks like it is going to ignore that and go there anyway.  The only analyses that showed NIRP was beneficial was produced by the central banks that are operating under NIRP.  This cannot be good for the pound over time.

For the day, the dollar is starting to gain momentum to move higher, and I think a slow continuation of this move is likely.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Compelled

Just last week the narrative spoke
And told us the world would soon choke
On dollars they held
Thus, would be compelled
To sell them, ere they all went broke

But funnily, this week it seems
The selling had reached its extremes
So, shorts are now squeezed
And traders displeased
As they now must look for new themes

It had been the number one conviction trade entering 2021, that the dollar would sell off sharply this year.  In fact, there were some who were calling for a second consecutive year of a 10% decline in the dollar versus its G10 counterparts, with even more gains in some emerging market currencies.  The market, collectively, entered the new year short near record amounts of dollars, riding the momentum they had seen in Q4 of last year and looking for another few percentage points of decline.  Alas, one week into the year and things suddenly seem quite different.

The first thing to highlight is that while a few percent doesn’t seem like much of a move, certainly compared to equities or bitcoin, the institutional trading community, consisting of hedge funds and CTA’s, lever up their positions dramatically.  In fact, 10x capital is quite common, with some going even further.  So, that 2% move on a 10x leverage position results in a 20% gain, certainly very respectable.  The second thing to highlight is that if a short-term trading reversal is able to cause this much angst in the trading community, conviction in the trade must not have been that high after all.

But let us consider what has changed to see if we can get a better understanding of the market dynamics.  Clearly, the biggest change was the run-off election in Georgia, which had been expected to result in at least one seat remaining in Republican hands, and thus a Republican majority in the Senate.  This outcome of a split government was seen to be a general positive for risk, as it would prevent excessive increases in debt financed stimulus, thus force the Fed to maintain low US interest rates.  And of course, we all know, that low rates should undermine the currency.

But when the Democrats won both seats, and the Senate effectively flipped, the new narrative was that there would be massive stimulus forthcoming, encouraging the reflation trade.  The thing is, the reflation trade is part and parcel of the steepening yield curve trade based on the significant amount of new Treasury debt that would need to be absorbed by the market, with the result being declining prices and higher Treasury yields.  (One thing that I never understood about the weak dollar trade in this narrative was the idea that a steeper yield curve would lead to a weaker dollar, when historically it was always the other way around; steep curve => strong dollar.)

Last week, of course, we saw Treasury yields back up 20 basis points in the back end of the curve, exactly what you would expect in a reflation trade.  And so, it cannot be surprising that the dollar has found a bottom, at least in the short-term, as higher yields are attracting investors.  But what does this say about the future prospects for the dollar?

My thesis this year has been the dollar will decline on the back of declining real yields in the US, which will be driven by rising inflation and further Fed support.  Neither the US, nor any G10 country for that matter, can afford for interest rates to rise as they continue to issue massive amounts of debt, since higher rates would ultimately bankrupt the nation.  However, inflation appears to be making a comeback, and not just in the US, but in many places around the world, specifically China.  Thus, the combination of higher inflation and capped yields will result in larger negative real rates, and thus a decline in the dollar.  Last week saw real yields rise 15 basis points, so the dollar’s rally makes perfect sense.  But once the Fed makes it clear they are going to prevent the back end of the curve from rising, the dollar will come under renewed pressure.  However, that may not be until March, unless we see a hiccup in the equity market between now and then.  For now, though, as long as US yields rise, look for the dollar to go along for the ride.

Of course, higher US yields and a stronger dollar do not encourage increased risk appetite, so a look around markets today shows redder screens than that to which we have become accustomed.  The exception to the sell-off rule was Tokyo, where the Nikkei (+2.35%) rallied sharply as the yen continues to weaken.  Remember, given the export orientation of the Japanese economy, a weaker yen is generally quite positive for stocks there.  The Hang Seng (+0.1%) managed a small gain, but Shanghai (-1.1%), fell after inflation data from China showed a much larger rebound than expected with CPI jumping from -0.5% to +0.2%.  Obviously, that is not high inflation, but the size and direction of the move is a concern.

European markets, however, are all underwater this morning, with the DAX, CAC and FTSE 100 all lower by 0.5%.  US futures are pointing down as well, between 0.4%-0.6% to complete the sweep.  Bond markets are modestly firmer this morning, with Treasury yields slipping 1.5 bps, while Bunds, OATS and Gilts have all seen yields fall just 0.5bps.  Do not be surprised that yields for the PIGS are rising, however, as they remain risk assets, not havens.

In the commodity space, oil is under modest pressure, -0.65%, while gold is essentially unchanged, although I cannot ignore Friday’s 2.5% decline, and would point out it fell another 1.5% early in today’s session before rebounding.  Since I had highlighted Bitcoin’s remarkable post-Christmas rally, I feel I must point out it is down 17% since Friday, with some now questioning if the bubble is popping.

Finally, the dollar continues its grind higher, with commodity currencies suffering most in the G10 (NOK -1.1%, NZD -0.7%, AUD -0.6%) as well as the pound (-0.6%) which is feeling the pain of Covid-19 restrictions sapping the economy.  In the EMG space, we are also seeing universal weakness, with the commodity focused currencies under the most pressure here as well.  So, ZAR (-1.0%), MXN (-0.85%) and BRL (-0.8%) are leading the pack lower, although there were some solid declines out of APAC (IDR -0.75%, KRW -0.7%) and CE4 (PLN -0.75%, HUF -0.7%).

On the data front, this week brings less info than last week, with CPI and Retail Sales the highlights:

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz 100.3
JOLTs Job Openings 6.5M
Wednesday CPI 0.4% (1.3% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.1% (1.6% Y/Y)
Fed’s Beige Book
Thursday Initial Claims 785K
Continuing Claims 5.0M
Friday Retail Sales 0.0%
-ex autos -0.2%
PPI 0.3% (0.7% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.1% (1.3%)
Empire Manufacturing 5.5
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 73.5%
Business Inventories 0.5%
Michigan Sentiment 80.0

Source: Bloomberg

Aside from that, we also will hear a great deal from the Fed, with a dozen speakers this week, including Powell’s participation in an economics webinar on Thursday.  Last week, you may recall that Philadelphia’s Patrick Harker indicated he could see a tapering in support by the end of the year, but the market largely ignored that.  However, if we hear that elsewhere, beware as the low rates forever theme is likely to be questioned, and the dollar could well find a lot more support.  The thing is, I don’t see that at all, as ultimately, the Fed will do all they can to prevent higher yields.  For now, the dollar has further room to climb, but over time, I do believe it will reverse and follow real yields lower.

Good luck and stay safe
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A New Paradigm

Awaiting a new paradigm
The market is biding its time
Will Brexit be hard?
Or will Ms. Lagarde
Do something that’s truly sublime?

And what of next week and the Fed?
Are traders now looking ahead?
Will Jay make a change?
And thus rearrange
The views that are now so widespread

Come with me now, on a trip down memory lane.  Back to a time when hope (for a vaccine) sprung eternal, the blue wave was cresting, and investors were sidling up to the all-you-can-eat risk buffet with a bottomless appetite.  You remember, November.  Reflation was on the menu, along with a massive fiscal stimulus bill; progress was concrete with respect to Brexit negotiations; and the prospect of another wave of government shutdowns, worldwide, was just a gleam in petty tyrants’ politicians’ eyes.  Well, it turns out that those expectations were somewhat misplaced.  While we did, indeed, get that vaccine announcement, with the milestone first injection made today in the UK, many of those views turned out differently than expected.  As we are all aware, there was no blue wave in the US election.  Regarding Brexit, it appears that the time has finally come for the leaders of both sides to sit down and hash things out.  This morning brought news that Boris and Ursula will be meeting tomorrow to see if they can agree on what each side is willing to accept as their top negotiators have clearly reached their limits.

As to risk appetite, certainly November was beyond impressive, with massive risk rallies in equities around the world while haven assets, notably Treasuries and gold, suffered significant losses.  Since then, however, the euphoria has been far less prevalent, with some sessions even winding up in the red.  Lockdowns?  Alas, those have returned in spades, with seemingly new orders each and every day by various governmental authorities around the world.

The upshot of this mixture of news is that the market is now searching for the next big thing.  Don’t misunderstand, the 2021 conviction trades remain on the table.  Thus, expectations for a much weaker dollar, huge returns in emerging markets, both bonds and stocks, and continued strength in the US market are rife.  Just not right now.  The short-term view is more muddled which is why the price action we are currently experiencing is so mixed and until that new view develops, choppy markets with no net directional movement is the most likely outcome.  For instance, let’s look at today’s activity, which is a perfect example of the situation.

Equity markets around the world are softer, but not aggressively so.  Asian markets sold off modestly last night (Nikkei -0.3%, Hang Seng -0.75%, Shanghai -0.3%), but look simply to be consolidating what have been impressive gains since the beginning of November.  European markets are also a bit softer this morning, led by the CAC (-0.65%) although the DAX (-0.3%) and FTSE 100 (-0.4%) are drifting lower as well.  We did see some data from Europe, with ZEW readings from Germany turning out bi-polar (Expectations were strong at 55.0, Current Situation was weak at -66.5), thus showing how financial markets continue to focus on the post-covid economy while ignoring the current situation.  Meanwhile, US futures are all pointing a bit lower, between 0.4%-0.5%, after a mixed performance yesterday.  In other words, all that risk appetite from last month appears to have been satisfied for now, although we are, by no means, seeing serious risk reduction.

In the bond market, surprisingly, 10-year Treasury yields have actually edged higher by 0.7bps this morning, despite the modest risk-off theme, whereas in Europe, we see marginal yield declines across Germany, France and the UK. Bonds from the PIGS, however, are definitely feeling a little stress as they are trading with yields nearly 2bps higher than yesterday.  And that is a bit surprising given that Thursday, the ECB is going to announce their latest expansion of monetary policy, thus guaranteeing to buy yet more debt from these nations.  (We will cover the ECB tomorrow).

Commodities?  Well, gold has been rocking since its nadir on November 30, having rebounded more than 6% since then, and while unchanged on the day, remains in a short-term uptrend.  Oil, meanwhile, is ever so slightly softer this morning, just 0.5%, but also remains in its powerful uptrend, which has seen it rally more than 33% since its nadir on November 2nd.  In fact, metals and energy overall remain well bid and in strong uptrends.  Clearly, they are looking ahead to stronger growth (or possibly higher inflation) once the pandemic finally fades.

And lastly, the dollar, which can best be described as mixed today, remains the linchpin for many market expectations in 2021.  Remember this; given the dollar’s place in the world economy, as the financing vehicle of choice, a too strong dollar is generally associated with broad economic underperformance.  As debt loads worldwide have exploded, even at remarkably low interest rates, the need for foreign issuers, whether private or government, to acquire dollars to service that debt is perpetual.  When the dollar is strong, it crimps the ability of those foreign debtors to both invest and repay the outstanding debt, with investment suffering.  So, while a strong dollar may signal growth in the US economy, given that the US economy now represents only about 20% of the global economy, well down from its previous levels, and that trade continues to represent such a small portion of the US economy, just 12%, these days, a strong dollar simply hurts foreign economies without the previous benefits of knock-on global growth.  This is the key link between the views of a weaker USD and strong EMG performance next year, the two are tightly linked on a fundamental basis.

But as for today, the proper description of the dollar would be mixed.  In the G10, SEK (-0.45%) and GBP (-0.45%) are the leading decliners, with the latter clearly under pressure from the ongoing concerns over Brexit while the former seems to be feeling the sting of hints from the Riksbank that ZIRP will remain longer than previously expected.  On the plus side, the gains are less impressive, with CHF (+0.2%) the leader, while the euro has edged higher by 0.1%.  However, trying to explain a movement that small is a waste of time.

EMG currencies, on the other hand, are showing a little life, led by ZAR (+0.55%) and RUB (+0.5%) as commodity prices continue to hold the bulk of their gains.  INR (+0.5%) also had a good evening after the FinMin there explained that there would be no reduction in fiscal support for the economy for the foreseeable future, and that the government would continue to work with the RBI to insure a return to sustainable growth.  On the downside, KRW (-0.3%) is the laggard after the president there urged people to cancel holiday plans and stay home.

On the data front, NFIB Small Business Optimism fell to 101.4, a bit weaker than expected, but given the stories of closures around the nation, this cannot be that surprising.  A little later we get Nonfarm Productivity (exp 4.9%) and Unit Labor Costs (-8.9%), although neither is likely to excite the market.  There are no speakers on the docket, so the dollar will be taking its cues from the equity markets in all likelihood.  Right now, with futures pointing lower, that implies the dollar may have a bit of a rebound coming.  However, until that new narrative forms, I don’t anticipate too much movement.

Good luck and stay safe
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