The treaties that built the EU
Explain what each nation should do
The German high court
Ruled that to comport
A challenge was in their purview
But politics trumps all the laws
And so Lagarde won’t even pause
In buying up debt
To aid and abet
The PIGS for a much greater cause
Arguably, the biggest story overnight was just not that big. The German Constitutional Court (GCC) ruled that the Bundesbank was wrong not to challenge the implementation of the first QE program in 2015 on the basis that the Asset Purchase Program (APP) was a form of monetary support explicitly prohibited. Back when the euro first came into existence, Germany’s biggest fear was that the ECB would finance profligate governments and that the Germans would ultimately have to pay the bill. In fact, this remains their biggest fear. While technically, QE is not actually debt monetization, that is only true if central banks allow their balance sheets to shrink back to pre-QE sizes. However, what we have learned since the GFC in 2008-09 is that central bank balance sheets are permanently larger, thus those emergency purchases of government debt now form an integral part of the ECB structure. In other words, that debt has effectively been monetized. The essence of this ruling is that the German government should have challenged QE from the start, as it is an explicit breach of the rules preventing the ECB from financing governments.
The funny thing is, while the court ruled in this manner, it is not clear to me what the outcome will be. At this point, it is very clear that the ECB is not going to be changing their programs, either APP or PEPP, and so no remedy is obvious. Arguably, the biggest risk in the ruling is that the GCC will have issued a binding opinion that will essentially be ignored, thus diminishing the power of their future rulings. Undoubtedly, there will be some comments within the three-month timeline laid out by the GCC, but there will be no effective changes to ECB policy. In other words, like every other central bank, the ECB has found themselves officially above the law.
While the actuality of the story may not have much impact on ECB activities, the FX market did respond by selling the euro. This morning it is lower by 0.5%, which takes its decline this month to 1.2% and earns it the crown, currently, of worst performing G10 currency. The thought process seems to be that there is nothing to stop the ECB in its efforts to debase the euro, so the path of least resistance remains lower.
Beyond the GCC story though, there is little new in the way of news. Equity markets have a better tone on the strength of oil’s continuing rebound, up nearly 10% this morning as I type, as production cuts begin to take hold, as well as, I would contend, the GCC ruling. In essence, despite numerous claims that central banks have overstepped their bounds, it is quite clear that nobody can stop them from buying up an ever larger group of financial assets and supporting markets. So, yesterday’s late day US rally led to a constructive tone overnight (Hang Seng +1.1%, Australia +1.6%, China and Japan are both closed for holidays) which has been extended through the European session (both DAX and CAC +1.8%, FTSE 100 +1.4%) with US futures pointing higher as well.
In the government bond market, Treasury yields are 3.5bps higher, but the real story seems to be in Europe. Bund yields have also rallied a bit, 2bps, but that can easily be attributed to the risk-on mentality that is permeating the market this morning. However, I would have expected Italian and Spanish yields to have fallen on the ruling. After all, they have become risk assets, not havens, and yet both have seen price declines of note with Italian yields higher by 10bps and Spanish (and Portuguese) higher by 5bps. Once again, we see the equity and bond markets looking at the same news in very different lights.
As to the FX market, it is a mixed picture this morning. While the Swiss franc is tracking the euro lower, also down by 0.5% this morning, we are seeing NOK (+0.4%) and CAD (+0.2%) seeming to benefit from the oil price rally. Aussie, too, is in better shape this morning, up 0.2% on the broad risk-on appetite and news that more countries are trying to reopen after their Covid inspired shutdowns.
The EMG space is similarly mixed with ZAR (+1.25%), RUB (+1.0%) and MXN (+0.6%) the leading gainers. While the ruble’s support is obviously oil, ZAR has benefitted from the overall risk appetite. This morning, the South African government issued ZAR 4.5 billion of bonds in three maturities and received bid-to-cover ratios of 6.8x on average. With yields there still so much higher than elsewhere (>8.0%), investors are willing to take the risk despite the recent credit rating downgrade. Finally, the peso is clearly benefitting from the oil price as well as the broad risk-on movement. The peso remains remarkably volatile these days, having gained and lost upwards of 5% several times in the past month, often seeing daily ranges of more than 3%. Today simply happens to be a plus day.
On the downside, the damage is far less severe with CE4 currencies all down around the same 0.5% as the euro. When there are no specific stories, those currencies tend to track the euro pretty tightly. As to the rest of APAC, there were very modest gains to be seen, but nothing of consequence.
On the data front, yesterday’s Factory Orders data was even worse than expected at -10.3% but did not have much impact. This morning brings the Trade Balance (exp -$44.2B) as well as ISM Non-Manufacturing (37.9). At this point, everybody knows that the data is going to look awful compared to historical releases, so it appears that bad numbers have lost their shock value. At least that is likely to be true until the payroll data later this week. The RBA left rates unchanged last night, as expected, although they have reduced the pace of QE according to their read of what is necessary to keep markets functioning well there. And finally, we will hear from three Fed speakers today, Evans, Bostic and Bullard, but again, it seems hard to believe they will say anything really new.
Overall, risk appetite has grown a bit overnight, but for the dollar, it is not clear to me that it has a short-term direction. Choppiness until the next key piece of news seems the most likely outcome. Let’s see how things behave come Friday.
Good luck and stay safe