More Growth to Ignite

While Congress continued to fight
The President stole the limelight
Four orders he signed
As he tries to find
The kindling, more growth to ignite

As I return to action after a short hiatus, it doesn’t appear the market narrative has changed very much at all.  Broadly speaking, markets continue to be focused on, and driven by, the Fed and other central banks and the ongoing provision of extraordinary liquidity.  Further fiscal stimulus remains a key objective of both central bankers and central planners everywhere, and the arguments for the dollar’s decline and eventual collapse are getting inordinate amounts of airtime.

Starting with the fiscal side of the equation, the key activity this weekend was the signing, by President Trump, of four executive orders designed to keep the fiscal gravy train rolling.  By now, we are all aware that the Democratic led House had passed a $3.5 trillion fiscal stimulus bill while the Republican led Senate had much more modest ambitions, discussing a bill with a price tag of ‘only’ $1.0-$1.5 trillion.  (How frightening is it that we can use the term ‘only’ to describe $1 trillion?)  However, so far, they cannot agree terms and thus no legislation has made its way to the President’s desk for enactment.  Hence, the President felt it imperative to continue the enhanced unemployment benefits, albeit at a somewhat reduced level, as well as to prevent foreclosures and evictions while reducing the payroll tax.

Naturally, this has inflamed a new battle regarding the constitutionality of his actions, but it will certainly be difficult for either side of the aisle to argue that these orders should be rescinded as they are aimed directly at the middle class voter suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Another group that must be pleased is the FOMC, where nearly to a (wo)man, they have advocated for further fiscal stimulus to help them as they try to steer the economy back from the depths of the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic.  Perhaps we should be asking them why they feel it necessary to steer the economy at all, but that is a question for a different venue.  However, along with central banks everywhere, the Fed has been at the forefront of the calls for more fiscal stimulus.  Again, despite the unorthodox methodology of the stimulus coming to bear, it beggars belief that they would complain about further support.

So, while political squabbles will continue, so will enhanced unemployment benefits.  And that matters to the more than 31 million people still out of work due to the impact of Covid-19 on the economy.  Of course, the other thing that will continue is the Fed’s largesse, as there is absolutely no indication they are going to be turning off the taps anytime soon.  And while their internal discussions regarding the strength of their forward guidance will continue, and to what metrics they should tie the ongoing application of stimulus, it is already abundantly clear to the entire world that interest rates in the US will not be rising until sometime in 2023 at the earliest.

Which brings us to the third main discussion in the markets these days, the impending collapse of the dollar.  Once again, the weekend literature was filled with pontifications and dissertations about why the dollar would continue its recent decline and why it could easily turn into a rout.  The key themes appear to be the US’s increasingly awful fiscal position, with debt/GDP rising rapidly above 100%, the fact that the Fed is going to continue to add liquidity to the system for years to come, and the fact that the US is losing its status as the global hegemon.

And yet, it remains exceedingly difficult, at least in my mind, to make the case that the end of the dollar is nigh.  As I have explained before, but will repeat because it is important to maintain perspective, not only is the dollar not collapsing, it is actually little changed if we look at its value since the beginning of 2020.  And as I recall, there was no discussion of the dollar collapsing back then.  Whether looking at the G10 or the EMG bloc, what we see is that there are some currencies that have performed well, and others that have suffered this year.  For example, despite the dollar’s “collapse”, CAD has fallen 3.0% so far in 2020, and NOK has fallen 2.9%.  Yes, SEK is higher by 7.0% and CHF by 5.3%, but the tally is six gainers and four laggards, hardly an indication of irretrievable decline.

Looking at the EMG bloc, it is even clearer that the dollar’s days are not yet numbered.  YTD, BRL has tumbled 25.9%, ZAR has fallen 21.2% and TRY, the most recent victim of true economic mismanagement, is lower by 18.6%.  The fact that the Bulgarian lev (+4.8%) and Romanian leu (+3.8%) are a bit higher does not detract from the fact that the dollar continues to play a key role as a haven asset.

Finally, I must mention the euro, which has gained 4.8% YTD.  When many people think of the dollar’s value rising or falling, this is the main metric.  But again, keeping things in context, the euro, currently trading around 1.1750, is still below the midpoint of its historic range (0.8230-1.6038) as well as its lifetime average (1.2000).  The point is, there is no evidence of a collapse.  And there are two other things to keep in mind; first, the fact that it is assumed the Fed will continue to ease policy for years ignores the fact that the ECB will almost certainly be required to ease policy for an even longer time.  And second, long positioning in EURUSD is now at historically high levels, with the CFTC showing record long outstanding positions.  The point is, there is far more room for a correction than for a continued collapse.

One last thing to consider is that despite the shortcomings of the US economy right now, the reality remains that there is currently no viable alternative to replace the greenback as the world’s reserve currency.  And there won’t be one for many years to come.  While modest further dollar weakness vs. the euro and some G10 currencies is entirely reasonable, do not bet on a collapse.

With that out of the way, the overnight session was entirely lackluster across all markets, as summer holidays are what most traders are either dreaming about, or living, so I expect the next several weeks to see less volatility.  As to the data this week, Retail Sales and CPI are the highlights, although I continue to look at Initial Claims as the most important number of all.

Today JOLTS Job Openings 5.3M
Tuesday NFIB Small Business 100.4
  PPI 0.3% (-0.7% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.1% (0.0% Y/Y)
Wednesday CPI 0.3% (0.7% Y/Y)
  -ex food & energy 0.2% (1.1% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 1.1M
  Continuing Claims 15.8M
Friday Retail Sales 1.9%
  -ex autos 1.3%
  Nonfarm Productivity 1.5%
  Unit Labor Costs 6.2%
  IP 3.0%
  Capacity Utilization 70.3%
  Business Inventories -1.1%
  Michigan Sentiment 71.9

Source: Bloomberg

While I’m sure Retail Sales will garner a great deal of interest, it remains a backward-looking data point, which is why I keep looking mostly at the weekly claims data.  In addition to this plethora of new information, we hear from six different Fed speakers, but ask yourself, what can they say that is new?  Arguably, any decision regarding the much anticipated changes in forward guidance will come from the Chairman, and otherwise, they all now believe that more stimulus is the proper prescription going forward.

Keeping everything in mind, while the dollar is not going to collapse anytime soon, that does not preclude some further weakness against select currencies.  If I were a hedger, I would be thinking about taking advantage of this dollar weakness, at least for a portion of my needs.

Good luck and say safe

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Those Doves

The dollar continues as king
Of currencies and that’s the thing
The Fed really loves
Especially those doves
Who want to cut rates before spring

It’s not really clear to me what else to discuss these days as everything runs through the following chain of thought: how long before the Covid-19 pandemic epidemic passes its peak; what will be the ultimate economic impact; and when will we see more aggressive monetary intervention by central banks, notably the Fed.

Since the Lunar New Year holiday (and coronavirus scare) began, back on January 24, the dollar has rallied vs. every other currency on the planet. I think it is worthwhile to consider just how big this move has been:

Swiss franc -0.70%
Japanese yen -0.95%
Canadian dollar -1.28%
British pound -1.40%
Danish krone -1.62%
Euro -1.63%
Swedish krona -2.10%
Australian dollar -4.03%
Norwegian krone -4.12%
New Zealand dollar -4.84%

Source: Bloomberg

A look at this list of currencies reveals pretty much what you would expect; those with the highest beta to China’s economy, Australia and New Zealand, have fallen the furthest, along with the currency most closely linked to the price of oil, Norway. Of course, since that day, the price of WTI has tumbled nearly 15%, on significantly reduced demand, so it is no surprise NOK has suffered. Perhaps more interestingly is that both the Swiss franc and Japanese yen, considered the two safest currencies, have both given up solid ground vs. the greenback as well. Any idea that the dollar has lost its haven status is simply incorrect. Granted, one of the key reasons the dollar is a haven is due to US Treasuries, which nobody denies as the safest of havens, and which have seen yields tumble in this same time period amidst substantial demand. In fact, 10-year Treasury yields are down by 37bps in the past month.

The emerging market picture is no different, with even HKD, the pegged currency, lower by 0.25% since the Lunar New year began. While a chart here would be too long, the highlights are as follows: commodity producing countries have seen the worst performance with ZAR (-5.6%, RUB (-5.6%), BRL (-5.0%) and CLP (-4.7%) leading the way. After those come the currencies from those nations most closely linked to China’s economy; notably THB (-4.4%), KRW (-4.0%), MYR (-3.7%) and SGD (-3.3%). The renminbi itself is down 1.1%, which all things considered is a pretty good performance, but also one that is being strictly controlled by the PBOC. As to the rest of the EMG bloc, every one of them has weakened in this time frame, many despite local central bank intervention, and quite frankly, all of their prospects are directly dependent on how the Covid-19 epidemic plays out.

Yesterday’s halting efforts at a rebound were quashed when the CDC revealed the truth that Covid-19 was coming to a city near you at some point and would likely result in significant disruptions in daily life. And of course, the market reactions to comments like these are the reason that officials, especially central bank and FinMin types, routinely lie about conditions. The truth often results in unfavorable outcomes, especially for elected officials.

So a quick recap of the overnight news is that there were more cases highlighted in Italy, South Korea, and Iran, with Brazil finally getting its first confirmed infection. The death toll continues to climb, currently at 2,715 as the official count of infections is well over 80K. As well, in the past twenty-four hours we have heard from central bank officials around the world explaining that it is too soon to react, but they are carefully monitoring the situation and primed and ready to adjust policy if it is deemed necessary. FWIW my view is that if we see US equities fall another 5% this week, we are going to see an emergency rate cut, even before the March 18 meeting. Too, futures markets are now pricing in the first Fed cut in June with two cuts by September. When all this started back at the Lunar New Year, the probability of a June cut was just 19% and a full cut wasn’t priced in until December. One important thing to remember is that the Fed has never disappointed the market on a policy move when it was fully priced by the futures market. It will take a great deal of both positive news and serious discussion by Fed speakers to avoid a real mess come the middle of March if they really don’t want to cut rates.

There was virtually no economic news overnight and this morning brings only New Home Sales (exp 718K), which is the one part of the economy that should continue to benefit from the remarkably low interest rate structure. Currently we are seeing European equity markets continuing their sell-off although US futures have stopped hemorrhaging for the time being and are essentially flat as I type. But until we see some positive news, like a cure has been found, it is difficult to expect the current momentum will change. With that in mind, I expect that equities will remain under pressure, Treasuries will remain well bid and the dollar will continue to find adherents.

Good luck
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