Just an Illusion

It seems there’s a bit of confusion
‘Bout whether this time of seclusion
Will actually end
The virus’ growth trend
Or if this is just an illusion

Markets have a less certain feel about them this morning than we have seen the past several days. Consider, despite continuing increases in both deaths and the caseload in the hardest hit areas, risk has been gathered up pretty aggressively. I realize that the narrative that is trying to be told is that we have passed the peak of infections and that with a little perseverance regarding all the shelter-in-place orders, we can expect the virtual halt in the global economy to end. The problem with this narrative is that the earliest infection sites in Asia; China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, have recently seen the infection data turn higher again. At the same time, we continue to hear of daily increases in the fatality count in Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and New York, with all of those places considering extensions of their lockdowns.

And yet, US and European stock markets are higher by between 8% and 12% so far this week. I continue to be confused by this price action as it appears to imply that investors expect companies to simply pick up where they left off before the lockdowns and disruption began. The problem with that view is it appears to be complete fantasy. Consider, this morning we are going to get our third consecutive Initial Claims number that prints in the millions. Prior to two weeks ago, the largest single data point ever in the series was 695K. The median expectation on Bloomberg this morning is for 5.5M with the range of estimates 2.5M and 7.5M. The thing is, this number has the potential to be much higher than that. In fact, it would not surprise me if we saw a 10.0M print. One of the biggest problems that has consistently been reported is that most states’ employment systems have not been able to handle the crush of applications, although they have been working feverishly to catch up. Add to that the fact that over the past week we have heard an increasing number of states declare that more and more non-essential businesses need to close down for the remainder of the month, while more and more large companies are furloughing employees and only covering health care costs. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the workforce in the US numbered about 178 million. If 25% of the economy has been shuttered, and I think that is a conservative estimate, that implies some 44 million people will eventually be applying for unemployment insurance. Three plus weeks into this process, we have only heard about 10 million. I fear there are many more to come, so don’t be surprised if today’s number is MUCH higher.

Continuing along this premise, if the claims data turns out to be much worse than expected, will that unravel the narrative that the worst is behind us? Or in fact, will markets begin to understand that even when the infection is well past its peak, economic activity will take a long time to recover. There is a great deal of discussion right now about what shape the recovery will take later this year and next. The first big assumption is that the recovery will start in Q3, which seems brave given we still don’t have an accurate representation of Covid-19’s actual pathology. But let’s work with that assumption. The bulk of the debate is whether the recovery will chart like a ‘V’ or a ‘U’. However, the more pessimistic discuss a ‘W’ or even an ‘L’. Alas, I fear we may see a ‘Harry Potter’ recovery, one that looks more like

We will learn much in a short while. However, until then, let’s take a look at the markets this morning, where the dollar remains under pressure, akin to yesterday, yet government bonds are rallying and equity markets are having a mixed performance. Aside from the Claims data, all eyes are on the tape to see what comes out of the OPEC+ meeting and whether or not they can agree on significant production cuts to help stem the extraordinary build-up in stored oil. Oil traders remain quite bullish as we are seeing Brent crude futures higher by 4.1% and WTI higher by 6.7%. That is clearly helping support the narrative that the worst is behind us. But even if they manage to agree to the mooted 10 million barrel/day production cut, will that be enough to stem the tide? Estimated usage prior to the current situation was 93 million barrels/day, so this represents a nearly 11% production cut. But again, if I go back to my 25% decline in activity, that still means there is a lot of surplus oil being pumped with fewer and fewer places to put it. This price move has all the earmarks of a buy the rumor situation. Just watch out upon the news of an agreement. And especially be careful if they cannot agree production cuts, which is likely to be a significant market negative.

Turning to FX markets, in the G10 space, NOK is the leader today, rallying 0.5% on the back of oil’s gains, and we also see the pound rallying this morning, up 0.4%, after the BOE changed its mind and explained it would be monetizing UK debt, thus expanding the government’s ability to increase stimulus. Meanwhile, a few currencies, CAD, NZD, are a bit softer, but the movement is so small as to be meaningless. Looking at the EMG bloc, IDR is today’s champ, rising 2.3%, after the government issued 50-year dollar bonds and laid out its path to help finance extraordinary stimulus. The rupiah has been under significant pressure since the beginning of March, having fallen nearly 13% before today’s rebound. Allegedly the fundamentals show the currency is still too cheap, but markets may have another take. Beyond the rupiah, RUB has rallied 1.4% on the strength of oil, while HUF and CZK are both higher by a bit more than 1.0% as both currencies seem to be benefitting from large bond financings. However, with the Easter holiday upcoming, there were a number of markets closed last night and we will see many closed tomorrow as well, so price action has been somewhat muted.

On the data front, along with Initial Claims, we see PPI (exp 1.2%, 1.3% ex food & energy), as well as Michigan Sentiment (75.0). However, it is all about the Claims data today. My expectation is that if the print is within the range of expectations, that will not derail the recent equity strength, but if we come out on the high side, especially with Good Friday tomorrow and US equity markets closed, we could easily see a significant risk-off outcome by the end of the day.

Good luck and stay safe
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All Screens Are Red

Last week it was how Covid spread
That filled most investors with dread
This weekend we learned
The Russians had spurned
The Saudis, now all screens are red

Wow!! It has been more than a decade since we have seen market activity like this across the entire spectrum of asset classes, dating back to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008 and the ensuing six months of activity. And just like then, the only thing that is going to change the current investor dynamic is a series of policy responses that are broadly seen as being effective. Unfortunately for most policymakers in the G10, they don’t have nearly enough tools available to be instantly effective. In other words, my sense is that while we will certainly get a series of announcements in the next several days, even coordinated announcements, investors and traders are going to need to actually see that deeds follow the words, and that the deeds have a chance to be effective. After all, as we have already discussed, cutting the Fed funds rate will not slow the spread of the coronavirus, nor will it patch things up between OPEC and Russia. Oftentimes, passage of time is a critical feature of any solution, but that just means that we will live with the current volatility that much longer.

A brief recap shows that markets, which were already fragile due to the unknown ultimate impact of the spread of the coronavirus, received one negative catalyst too many this weekend when the, always suspect, alliance of OPEC and Russia broke down regarding production cuts to shore up the price of oil. The Russians walked out of the negotiations and the Saudis responded by cutting their prices dramatically and opening the taps fully on production thus driving WTI lower by more than 34% at one point earlier this morning, although as I type at 6:35am it is “only” down by 29% to $32.50/bbl.

The financial market response was exactly as one would expect with fear rising exponentially and risk assets sold at any price. Meanwhile, haven assets are bid through the roof. So, stock markets around the world are all lower by at least 3.0% with the worst performers (Australia -7.3%, Thailand -7.9%, Italy -9.4%) down far more. US futures hit their 5.0% circuit breakers immediately upon opening and have been quiet all evening pinned at limit down. Cash market circuit breakers in the US are 7.0% for 15 minutes, 13.0% for 15 minutes and then if we should decline by 20%, trading is halted for the rest of the day. It certainly appears that we will trigger at least the first one around the opening, but after that I hesitate to speculate.

The other thing that is almost certainly going to happen is we are going to get a policy statement, at least from the Fed, if not a joint statement from G7 central bankers, or the Fed and the Treasury or all of the above, as they make every effort to try to assuage investor confidence. But in this environment, it is hard to come up with a statement that will do that. As I said, passage of time will be required to calm things down.

Regarding the bond market, by now you are all aware of the historic nature of the movement with the entire US yield curve now below 1.0%. The futures market is pricing in a 75bp cut next week by the Fed and another 25bps by June. Thursday, we hear from the ECB with the market anticipating a 10bp cut and analysts looking for additional stimulus measures, perhaps widening further the assets they are willing to purchase. And next week, the BOJ meets as well as the Fed, with the market looking for a 10bp cut there as well.

All this leads us to the FX markets, where the dollar is having a mixed day. Mixed but violent! It should be no surprise that the yen is dramatically higher this morning, currently by 3.0% although at its peak it was nearly 4.0% stronger. As we flirt with the idea of par on the yen, we need to go back to 2013 to see a time when the currency was stronger, which was driven by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The Swiss franc and euro are also firmer this morning, both by about 1.25% as the former sees haven flows while the latter, in my estimation, is seeing the last of the benefits of the Fed’s ability to ease policy more aggressively than the ECB.

On the flip side, NOK has been devastated, down 2.8%, with CAD falling 1.5%, both on the back of oil’s sharp decline. Aussie, Kiwi and the pound are all trading within 0.4% of Friday’s close, although Aussie did see a 5.0% decline early in the session as lack of liquidity combined with algorithmic stop-loss orders to lead to a significant bout of unruliness.

In the EMG space, the champion is MXN, which has fallen 8.5%! This is a new historic low in the currency which is getting decimated by the coming economic slowdown and now the collapse in oil prices. Let’s just say that all those investors who took comfort in the higher interest rate as a cushion are feeling a lot less sanguine this morning. But we have also seen a sharp decline in ZAR (-2.4%) and a number of Asian currencies fell around 1.0% (MYR, IDR and KRW). And we are awaiting the opening in Sao Paolo as my sense is BRL, which has been falling sharply for the past week, down nearly 5.0%, seems likely to weaken much further.

My advice for those with cash flow programs is to pick a level and leave an order as bid-ask spreads will be much wider today and liquidity will be greatly impaired.

Looking ahead to the week, the ECB meeting on Thursday is clearly the highlight. At home, we only get a bit of data, and given what’s going on it doesn’t seem likely to be very impactful. But here it is:

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 102.9
Wednesday CPI 0.0% (2.2% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.3% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 219K
  PPI -0.1% (1.8% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (1.7% Y/Y)
Friday Michigan Sentiment 95.0

Source: Bloomberg

The thing about this week’s data is that it mostly predates both the onset of the spread of Covid as well as this weekend’s OPEC fiasco. In other words, it is unlikely to be very informative of the current world. We already know that going into these problems, the US economy was in pretty decent shape. The $6.4 trillion question is: How will it look in eight months’ time when the nation heads to the polls?

Remember, orders are likely to be the best execution methodology on a day like today.

Good luck
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Just Dreams

Last night saw a rocket attack
On assets, US, in Iraq
The oil price surged
While stocks were submerged
’neath selling by bulls who cut back

This morning, however, it seems
Concerns about war were just dreams
The losses reversed
As traders still thirst
For assets now priced at extremes

What a difference a day makes…or does it? Yesterday saw market participants’ initial evaluation of the threat of escalation in Iran/Iraq as limited with the result that early price action favoring haven assets reversed and most markets closed within a few basis points of Monday’s prices. The one exception to that rule was the dollar, which maintained its bid all day long, actually extending its gains late into the session. Other than the idea that international investors are buying dollars so they can buy US stocks, it is hard to come up with a short term rationale for the dollar’s recent strength. If anything, news this morning that the Fed’s balance sheet has grown even further, to $4.17 trillion, would imply that a weaker dollar is in the offing.

Of course, last night, shortly after the US markets closed, came the news that Iran fired a number of missiles at two different military bases in Iraq that are jointly used by the US and Iraqi militaries. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing from Iran, they announced the attacks themselves on Iranian TV, but in the end, they were nothing more than damp squibs. There was no material damage and no personnel killed, or even severely wounded. (And that is a good thing!) But at the time the news hit the tape, this outcome was not clear and risk assets plunged while haven assets soared. Thus, overnight saw gold trade up to $1610/oz, WTI rise to $65.65 (Brent to $71.75), Treasury yields fall to 1.74% and the yen rise to 107.65 (0.75%). But that price action, and the fear driving it, was quite short-lived. Once it became clear that the Iranian retaliation was completely ineffective, and they announced they were not interested in a major conflict, essentially all of that movement was reversed. So this morning we see gold at $1579/oz, WTI at $62.60, Treasury yields back to 1.82% and the yen actually net weaker on the day, at 108.70 (-0.25%).

This begs the question of how to consider this new potential risk going forward. The first rule of an exogenous market risk is the law of diminishing returns. In other words, even if there is another attack of some sort, you can be sure that the haven rally will be smaller and risk assets will not decline as much as the first time. And since this entire affair is occurring in a locale that, other than oil production, has almost no impact on the global economy, the impact is likely to be even smaller. Now I waved off oil production as though it is not important, but there is no question that the remarkable rise of US oil production has significantly altered the global politics of oil. When the Middle East was responsible for more than 50% of global production, OPEC ruled the roost, and anything that happened there had a global impact. But as oil production elsewhere in the world has grown and OPEC’s market share sinks below 40% (remember, the US is the world’s largest oil producer now), the impact of Middle Eastern conflagrations has fallen dramatically. The point is that short of a major attack by Iran on Saudi oil facilities or attempts to close the Persian Gulf, this situation has probably driven all the market excitement it is going to. In other words, we need to look elsewhere for market catalysts.

With that in mind, if we turn to the ongoing data releases, we find that German Factory Orders once again missed the mark, falling 6.5% Y/Y in November, highlighting that the industrial malaise in the engine of Europe continues. French Consumer Confidence fell more than expected, and Eurozone Confidence indices were almost uniformly worse than expected. It is difficult to look at this data and conclude that the situation in Europe is improving, at least yet. I guess, given this situation it should be no surprise that the euro is lower again this morning, down 0.3%, and actually trading at its lowest point this year (a little unfair, but the lowest level in two weeks). But the dollar’s strength is evident elsewhere in the G10 as the pound remains under pressure, -0.1% today and 0.45% this week. And the same is true pretty much throughout the space.

In the EMG bloc, the results have been a bit more mixed overnight with THB the worst performer (-0.5%) after comments from the central bank decrying the baht’s strength and implying they may do something about it. Remember, too, that APAC currencies, in general, saw weakness on the fear story, which dissipated after those markets closed. On the flip side, ZAR is the day’s biggest gainer, +0.6%, completely recouping its early-session Middle East related losses, as investors apparently focused on the incipient US-China trade deal and how it will benefit the global economy and South African interests.

On the US data front, yesterday saw a smaller than expected Trade Deficit and better than expected ISM data (55.0 vs. 54.5 exp). This morning we are awaiting the ADP Employment numbers (exp 160K) and Consumer Credit ($16.0B) this afternoon. We also hear from Fed Governor Lael Brainerd this morning, but it doesn’t appear as though she will focus on monetary policy as part of her discussion on the Community Reinvestment Act.

In the end, US data has continued to perform well, which thus far has been enough to offset the early impact of the Fed’s (not) QE. However, as the Fed balance sheet continues to grow, I continue to look for the dollar to decline throughout the year. As such, payables receivers should consider taking advantage of the dollar’s early year strength.

Good luck
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Progress Was Made

The Presidents, Trump and Xi, met
Attempting, trade talks, to reset
Some progress was made
Though China downplayed
Reductions in tariffs as yet

Risk is back! At least it is for today, with the news that there has been a truce, if not an end, to the trade war between the US and China seen as a huge positive for risky assets. And rightly so, given that the trade contretemps has been one of the key drivers of recent investor anxiety. In addition, the G20 managed to release a statement endorsed by all parties, albeit one that was a shadow of its former self. There remain significant disagreements on the value of the G20 with the Trump administration still convinced that these gatherings seek to institutionalize rules and regulations that are contra to the US best interests.

At any rate, equity markets around the world have rallied sharply with Shanghai jumping 2.5%, the Nikkei up 1.25% and the South Korean KOSPI rising by 1.75%. In Europe, the FTSE is higher by 1.75%, the DAX by 2.2% and the CAC, despite ongoing riots in Paris and throughout France, higher by 1.0%. Ahead of the opening here, futures are pointing to an opening on the order of 2.0% higher as well. It should be no surprise that Treasury bonds have fallen somewhat, although the 2bp rise in 10-year yields is dwarfed relative to the equity movements. And finally, the dollar is lower, not quite across the board, but against many of its counterparts. Today, EMG currencies are leading the way, with CNY rising 0.9%, MXN rising 1.7% and RUB up 0.75% indicative of the type of price movement we have seen.

However, the trade story is not the only market driver today, with news in the oil market impacting currencies as well. The story that OPEC and Russia have agreed to extend production cuts into 2019, as well as the news that Alberta’s Premier has ordered a reduction of production, and finally, the news that Qatar is leaving OPEC all combining to help oil jump by more than 3% this morning. The FX impact from oil, however, was mixed. While the RUB and MXN both rallied sharply, as did CAD (+0.9%) and BRL (+0.9%), those nations that are major energy importers, notably India (INR -1.1%), have seen their currencies suffer. I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the euro, which is a large energy importer, has actually moved very little as the two main stories, trade war truce and oil price rise, have offsetting impacts in FX terms on the Continent.

But through it all, there is one currency that is universally underperforming, the British pound, which has fallen 0.3% vs. the dollar and much further against most others. Brexit continues to cast a long shadow over the pound with today’s story that the DUP, the small Northern Irish party that has been key for PM May’s ability to run a coalition government, is very unhappy with the Brexit deal and prepared to not only vote against it in Parliament next week, but to agree a vote of no confidence against PM May as well. This news was far too much for the pound, overwhelming even much better than expected Manufacturing PMI data from the UK (53.1 vs. exp 51.5). So the poor pound is likely to remain under pressure until that vote has been recorded next Tuesday. As of now, it continues to appear that the Brexit deal will fail in its current form, and that the UK will be leaving the EU with no framework for the future in place. This has been the market’s collective fear since the beginning of this process, and the pound will almost certainly suffer further in the event Parliament votes down the deal.

While all this has been fun, the week ahead brings us much more news and
information, as it is Payrolls week in the US.

Today ISM Manufacturing 57.6
  ISM Prices Paid 70.0
  Construction Spending 0.4%
Wednesday ADP Employment 197K
  Nonfarm Productivity 2.3%
  Unit Labor Costs 1.2%
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 59.2
  Fed’s Beige Book  
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
  Trade Balance -$54.9B
  Factory Orders -2.0%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 200K
  Private Payrolls 200K
  Manufacturing Payrolls 19K
  Unemployment Rate 3.7%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.1% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.5
  Michigan Sentiment 97.0

So a lot of data, and even more Fed speakers, with a total of 11 speeches, including congressional testimony by Chairman Powell on Wednesday, from six different Fed Governors and Presidents. Now we have heard an awful lot from the Fed lately and it has been interpreted as being somewhat less hawkish than the commentary from September and October. In fact, Minneapolis President Kashkari was out on Friday calling for an end to rate hikes, although he is arguably the most dovish member of the FOMC. Interestingly, the trade truce is likely to lead to one less problem the Fed has highlighted as an economic headwind, and may result in some more hawkish commentary, but my guess is that the current mindset at the Eccles Building is one of moderation. I continue to believe that a December hike is a done deal, but I challenge anyone who claims they have a good idea for what 2019 will bring. The arguments on both sides are viable, and the proponents are fierce in their defense. While the Fed continues to be a key driver of FX activity, my sense is that longer term FX views are much less certain these days, and will continue down to be that way as the Fed strives to remove Forward Guidance from the tool kit. Or at least put it away for a while. I still like the dollar, but I will admit my conviction is a bit less robust than before.

Good luck
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A Too Bitter Pill

Three stories today are of note
First, Italy’s rocking the boat
Next Brexit is still
A too bitter pill
While OPEC, a cut soon may vote

The outcome in all of these cases
Has been that the market embraces
The dollar once more
(It’s starting to soar)
And quite clearly off to the races

On this Veteran’s Day holiday in the US, where bond markets will be closed although equity markets will not, the dollar has shown consistent strength across the board. Interestingly, there have been several noteworthy stories this morning, but each one of them has served to reinforce the idea that the dollar’s oft-forecast demise remains somewhere well into the future.

Starting with Italy, the current government has shown every indication that they are not going to change their budget structure or forecasts despite the EU’s rejection of these assumptions when the budget was first submitted several weeks ago. This sets up the following situation: the EU can hold firm to its fiscal discipline strategy and begin the procedure to sanction Italy and impose a fine for breaking the rules, or the EU can soften its stance and find some compromise that tries to allow both sides to save face, or at least the EU to do so.

The problem with the first strategy is the EU Commission’s fear that it will increase the attraction of antiestablishment parties in the Parliamentary elections due in May. After all, the Italian coalition was elected by blaming all of Italy’s woes on the EU and its policies. The last thing the Commission wants is a more unruly Parliament, especially as the current leadership may find themselves on the sidelines. The problem with the second strategy is that if they don’t uphold their fiscal probity it will be clear, once and for all, that EU fiscal rules are there in name only and have no teeth. This means that going forward, while certain countries will follow them because they think it is proper to do so, many will decide they represent conditions too difficult with which to adhere. Over time, the second option would almost certainly result in the eventual dissolution of the euro, as the problems from having such dramatically different fiscal policies would eventually become too difficult for the ECB to manage.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the euro is softer again today, down 0.6% and now trading at its lowest level since June 2017. In less than a week it has fallen by more than 2.0% and it looks as though this trend will continue for a while yet. We need to see the Fed soften its stance or something else to change in order to stop this move.

Turning to the UK, the clock to make a deal seems to be ticking ever faster and there is no indication that PM May is going to get one. Over the weekend, there was no progress made regarding the Irish border issue, but we did hear from several important constituents that the PM’s current deal will fail in Parliament. If Labour won’t support it and the DUP won’t support it and the hard-line Brexiteers won’t support it, there is no deal to be had. With this in mind it is no surprise that the pound has suffered greatly this morning, down 1.4% and back well below 1.30. You may recall that around Halloween, the market started to anticipate a Brexit deal and the pound rallied 3.7% in the course of a week. Well, it has since ceded 2.7% of that gain and based on the distinct lack of progress on the talks, it certainly appears that the pound has further to fall. Do not be surprised if the pound trades below its recent lows of 1.2700 and goes on to test the post-Brexit vote lows of 1.1900.

The third story of note is regarding OPEC and oil prices, which have fallen nearly 20% during the past six weeks as US production and inventories continue to climb while the price impact of sanctions on Iran turned out to be much less then expected. This has encouraged speculation that OPEC may cut its production quotas, although the news from various members is mixed. Adding to oil’s woes (and in truth all commodity prices) has been the fact that global growth has been slowing as well, thus reducing underlying demand. In fact, the biggest concern for the market has been the slow down in China, which continues apace and where stories of further policy ease by the PBOC, including interest rate cuts, are starting to be heard. Two things to note are first, the typical inverse correlation between the dollar and commodity prices such that when the dollar rises, commodity prices tend to fall, and second, in line with the dollar’s broad strength, the Chinese yuan has fallen further today, down 0.3%, and pushing back to the levels that inspired calls for a move beyond 7.00 despite concerns over increased capital outflows.

And frankly, those are the stories of note. The dollar is higher vs. pretty much every other currency today, G10 and EMG alike, with no distinction and few other stories that are newsworthy. Looking at the data this week, there are two key releases, CPI and Retail Sales along with a bit of other stuff.

Tuesday NFIB Biz Confidence 108.0
  Monthly Budget -$98.0B
Wednesday CPI 0.3% (2.5% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (2.2% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 215K
  Philly Fed 20.2
  Empire State 20.0
  Retail Sales 0.5%
  -ex Autos 0.5%
Friday IP 0.2%
  Capacity Utilization 78.2%

Overall, the data continues to support the Fed’s thesis that tighter monetary policy remains the proper course of action. In addition to the data we will hear from three Fed speakers including Chairman Powell on Wednesday. It seems hard to believe that he will have cause to change his tune, so I expect that as long as the rest of the world exhibits more short-term problems like we are seeing today, the dollar will remain quite strong.

Good luck
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