No Bonds Will They Shed

Chair Powell explained that the Fed
Cared not about bubbles widespread
Employment’s the key
And ‘til he can see
Improvement, no bonds will they shed

Meanwhile, cross the pond, Ollie Renn
Repeated the mantra again
The ECB will
Not simply stand still
And let euros outgain the yen

At the first FOMC meeting of 2021, Chairman Powell was very clear as to what was in focus, employment.  To nobody’s surprise, they left policy rates on hold and did not change the purchase metrics of the current QE program.  However, in the statement, they downgraded their outlook for the economy, which given the ongoing vaccination program seemed somewhat surprising.  However, the fact that vaccinations are taking longer to be administered than had been expected, seems to be driving their discussion.  He was also explicit that the Fed was set to continue their current program until such time as they achieve their twin goals of maximum employment and 2% average inflation.  Based on the recent rising trajectory of Initial Claims (expected today at 875K) and given even Powell described the fact that the Unemployment Rate likely significantly understates the true situation, it will be a very long time before the Fed even considers reducing their program.

When asked at the press conference following the meeting about potential bubbles in asset markets, with several questions specifically about GameStop stock (a truly remarkable story in its own right), the Chairman was also clear that employment was the thing that mattered, and the Fed was not focused on things like this.  He even explained that the Fed fully expected inflation data to rise this summer but would not waver from their course until maximum employment is achieved.  So, the message is clear, the balance sheet will continue to grow regardless of any ancillary issues that arise.

Keeping our focus on central banks, we turn to the ECB, where this morning it was Finnish Central Bank president Ollie Renn’s turn to explain to the markets that the ECB was carefully watching the exchange rate and its impact on inflation, and would use all the tools necessary to help boost inflation, including addressing a ‘too strong’ euro.  Kudos for their consistency as this was exactly the same message we heard yesterday from Klaas Knot, the Dutch central bank chief.  As well, during yesterday’s session there was an ECB statement that “markets [are] underestimating rate-cut odds.”  You may recall the Knot specifically mentioned the possibility of cutting interest rates by the ECB as well.  All told, there is a consistent message here as well, the euro is a key focus of the ECB and they will not allow it to trade higher unabated.  I have made this point for months, as the dollar bearish views became more entrenched, that the ECB would not sit idly by and allow the euro to rally significantly without responding.  This is the first response.

What are we to conclude from these two messages?  The conclusion I draw is that beggar thy neighbor policies continue to be at the forefront of monetary policy discussions within every major central bank.  While I’m sure they are not actually described in that manner, the results, nevertheless are just that, every central bank is committed to continuing to expand their balance sheet while adding accommodation to their respective economies, and so the relative impact remains muted.  In the end, nothing has changed my view that the Fed will cap yields, which right now are doing a good job of that all by themselves (10-year Treasury yields are -1bp today and back to 1.00%, their lowest level since the break higher on the Georgia election results), and that the dollar will suffer as real yields in the US plummet.  But again, that is Q2 or Q3, not Q1.

Perhaps, what is more interesting is that despite all this promised central bank largesse, yesterday was a massive risk-off session and today is following right in those footsteps.  Starting with equity markets, the bloodbath is universal.  Asia saw sharp declines (Nikkei -1.5%, Hang Seng -2.6%, Shanghai -1.9%) following the US selloff.  And it wasn’t just the main indices, literally every Asian market that was open yesterday fell, most by more than 1%.  European bourses are also all red this morning, but the magnitude of losses has been more muted.  Of course, they got to participate in yesterday’s sell-off, so perhaps that is not too surprising.  As I type, the CAC (-0.1%) is the best performer, with the DAX (-0.6%) and FTSE 100 (-1.0%) suffering more acutely.  Here, too, every market is in the red.  Interestingly, US futures are mixed, with DOW futures actually higher by 0.1%, but NASDAQ futures are down 0.7% after weaker than expected earnings and guidance from some of the Tech megacaps last night.

Bond markets are pretty much all in the green, with yields lower, but essentially, the entire space has seen yields decline just 1 basis point.  That is not really a sign of panic.  Perhaps, with yields so low, investors are beginning to understand that bonds no longer offer the hedge characteristics for risk that they have historically held.  In other words, is earning -0.64% to hold 10-year bunds really hedging negative outcomes in your equity portfolio?  A key part of the thesis that bonds are a haven is that you earn a stable return during tough times.  These days, that is just not the case, and the risk that yields normalize means the potential losses attendant to holding a bond portfolio at current yields is quite substantial.

Commodity prices are generally softer, but not by very much.  WTI (-0.4%) continues to consolidate its gains from Q4 but has basically gone nowhere for the past two weeks.  Gold (-0.2%), too, is treading water lately, although the technicians are starting to say it is in a mild downtrend.

And finally, the dollar is basically stronger once again this morning.  This is true vs. every G10 currency, with AUD (-0.7%) the worst performer, but all the commodity currencies (NZD -0.5%, CAD -0.4%) under pressure along with the havens (JPY -0.2%, CHF -0.2%).  This is simply another dollar up day, with risk still in question.  In the emerging markets, KRW (-1.35%) is by far the worst performer, suffering from the changing risk appetite as well as weaker than expected earnings from Samsung, the largest company in the country.  Capital exited the KOSPI and drove the won to its lowest level since early November.  But we are seeing weakness in the usual suspects with RUB (-0.6%), MXN (-0.4%) and BRL (-0.3%) all under some pressure.  The outlier here is ZAR (+0.2%) which after a very weak start alongside other commodity linked currencies, has rebounded on the news that the first Covid vaccines would be arriving by the end of the week.

There is a bunch of data this morning led by Initial Claims but also Q4 GDP (exp 4.2%), Leading Indicators (0.3%) and New Home Sales (870K).  This is the first reading for Q4, but the market is more intently focused on Q1 and Q2, so it is not clear the print will matter much.  Housing we know continues to perform extremely well, so the Claims data is likely the most important release, especially given Powell’s focus on employment.

As of now, risk remains on its heels, but it would not be that surprising if things turned around as Powell’s message of non-stop stimulus should encourage the bulls.  If that is the case, I would look for the dollar to cede some of its gains, but it is certainly not a signal to sell aggressively.

Good luck and stay safe