Down in Flames

The nation that built the Great Wall
Has lately begun to blackball
Its best and its brightest
For even the slightest
Concerns, causing prices to fall

Last night it was TenCent’s new games
Which suffered some unfounded claims
Concerns have now grown
They’ll need to atone
So their stock price went down in flames

The hits keep coming from China where last night, once again we were witness to a government sanctioned hit on a large private company, in this case Tencent.  In fact, Tencent is was the largest company in China by market cap but has since fallen to number two, after an article in an official paper, Xinhua News Agency’s “The Economic Information Daily” wrote about online gaming and how it has become “spiritual opium” for young people there.  While the government did not actually impose any restrictions, the warning shot’s meaning was abundantly clear.  Tencent’s stock fell 6.5% and Asian equity markets overall fell (Nikkei -0.5%, Hang Seng -0.2%, Shanghai -0.5%) as investors continue to fret over President Xi’s almost nightly attacks on what had been considered some of the greatest success stories in the country.  Apparently, that has been the problem; when companies are considered a greater success than the government (read communist party) they cease to serve their purpose.  It seems that capitalism with Chinese characteristics is undergoing some changes.

There is, perhaps, another lesson that we can learn from the ongoing purge of private sector success in China, that it has far less impact on global risk opinion than the activities in other geographies, namely the US.  While China has grown to the second largest economy in the world and is widely tipped to become the largest in the next decade or two, its capital markets remain significantly smaller on the world stage than those elsewhere.  So, when idiotic idiosyncratic situations arise like we have seen lately, with ideological attacks on successful companies, investors may reduce risk in China, but not necessarily everywhere else.  This is evident this morning where we see gains throughout Europe (DAX +0.15%, CAC +0.9%, FTE 100 +0.4%) as well as in the US futures markets (DOW and SPX +0.4%, NASDAQ +0.2%).  Despite last night’s poor performance in Asia, risk remains in vogue elsewhere in the world.

Away from the ongoing theatrics in China, last night we also heard from the RBA, who not only left policy on hold, as universally expected, but explained that they remain on track to begin tapering their QE purchases, down from A$ 5 billion/week to $A 4 billion/week, come September, despite the recent Covid lockdowns in response to the spread of the delta variant.  They see enough positive news and incipient credit demand to believe that tapering remains the proper course of action.  While there were no expectations of a policy change currently, many pundits were expecting the lockdowns to force a delay in tapering and the result was a nice little rally in the Aussie dollar, rising 0.5% overnight.

But, as we have just entered August, the month where vacations are prominent and government activity slows to a crawl, there were few other interesting tidbits overnight.  At this point, markets are looking ahead to Thursday’s BOE meeting, where there is some thought that tapering will be on the agenda, as well as Friday’s NFP report.  One final story that is gaining interest is the US financing situation with the debt ceiling back in place as of last Saturday.  Congress is on its summer recess, and Treasury Secretary Yellen has been forced to adjust certain cash outlays in order to continue to honor the government’s debt obligations.  As it stands right now, Treasury cannot issue new debt, although it can roll over existing debt.  However, that will not be enough to pay the bills come October.  There is no reason to believe this will come to a messy conclusion, but stranger things have happened.

As to the rest of the markets, bonds are under a bit of pressure today with Treasury yields rising 1.5bps, and similar size moves throughout Europe.  Of course, this is in the wake of yesterday’s powerful bond rally where yields fell 5bps after ISM data once again missed estimates.  In fact, we continue to see a pattern of good data that fails to match forecasts which is a strong indication that we have seen the peak in economic growth, and it is all downhill from here.  Trend GDP growth prior to Covid was in the 1.5%-1.7% range, and I fear we will soon be right back at those levels with the unhappy consequence of higher inflation alongside.  It is an outcome of this nature that will put the most stress on the Fed as the policy prescriptions for weak growth and high inflation are opposite in nature.  And it is this reason that allowing inflation to run hot on the transitory story is likely to come back to haunt every member of the FOMC.

Commodity markets today are offering less clarity in their risk signals as while oil prices are higher, (WTI +0.5%), we are seeing weakness throughout the rest of the space with precious metals (Au -0.2%), base metals (Cu -0.85%, Al -0.5%) and agriculturals (Soybeans -0.7%, Corn -0.9%, Wheat -0.5%) all under pressure today.

Finally, the dollar is falling versus virtually all its main counterparts today, with the entire G10 space firmer and the bulk of the EMG bloc as well.  NOK (+0.75%) leads the G10 group as oil’s rally bolsters the currency along with general dollar weakness.  Otherwise, NZD (+0.6%) and AUD (+0.5%) have benefitted from the RBA’s relative hawkishness.  The rest of the bloc is also higher, but by much lesser amounts.  I do want to give a shout out to JPY (+0.1% today, +2.3% in the past month) as it seems to be performing well despite the risk preferences being displayed in the market.  something unusual seems to be happening in Japan, and I have not yet been able to determine the underlying causes.  However, I also must note that last night, exactly zero 10-year JGB’s traded in the market, despite a JGB auction.  If you were wondering what a dysfunctional market looked like, JGB’s are exhibit A.  The BOJ owns 50% of the outstanding issuance, and the idea that there is a true market price of interest rates is laughable.

As to emerging markets, we are seeing strength throughout all three regional blocs led by ZAR (+0.8%), HUF (+0.7%) and PHP (+0.6%), with the story in all places the sharp decline in US rates leading to investors seeking additional carry.  While BRL is not yet open, it rallied 0.7% yesterday as the market is beginning to believe the central bank may hike rates by 100 bps tomorrow, a shockingly large move in the current environment, but one that is being driven by rapidly rising inflation in the country.

Data today brings Factory Orders (exp 1.0%) and Vehicle Sales (15.25M), neither of which is likely to distract us from Friday’s payroll report.  We also hear from one Fed speaker, governor Bowman, who appears to be slightly dovish, but has not make public her opinions on the tapering question as of yet.

Yesterday saw modest dollar strength despite lower interest rates.  Today that strength is being unwound, but net, we are not really going anywhere.  And that seems to be the best bet, not much direction overall, but continued choppy trading.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

A Small Crisis Grows

Investors are starting to feel
That China has lost its appeal
So, capital flees
From all stocks, Chinese
As Xi brings exploiters to heel

While, thus far the impact’s been small
On markets elsewhere, please recall
That history shows
A small crisis grows
Quite quickly with each margin call

Giving credit where it is due, the Chinese have successfully distracted almost every market participant from tomorrow’s FOMC meeting.  The ongoing rout in Chinese equity markets (Shanghai -2.5%, Hang Seng -4.2%) has been fueled by the government’s hardline stance against several different industries that had become investor favorites.  If you think of the progression of events, it began with private financial firms (remember the Ant IPO that was squashed when Jack Ma was disappeared for a while?) and has continued as the evolution of the DC/EP (China’s digital yuan or CBDC) has forced the two big private payment firms, Alipay and WeChat Pay to fall into line and restrict their offerings going forward.

We have also seen the government address concerns over other tech companies and their capitalist intentions and actions, which has taken the form of questions over data security in Didi Global, the ride hailing app, and Meituan, the food service company.  After all, both of these companies are clarion calls for people to be independent, choosing their work schedule and effort, as opposed to toiling for a proper, state-owned firm.  Naturally, this is anathema to President Xi as he continues to remold the nation into his preferred view.

The latest attack has been on the private education industry, which while nominally teaching the approved curriculum, were clearly seen as an impediment to government control, and more importantly, the appropriate spread of communism.  Remember, the CCP rules the roost in China and President Xi is General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.  It was certainly dichotomous that an area of such immense social importance, that preached communism, would be offered by capitalist firms.

The takeaway here, though, is not that things are getting tougher for investors in China, but that history has shown that most financial crises start small and gather momentum.  While many of you may not remember the Asia crisis of 1997, it started as an issue solely confined to Thailand and the Thai baht.  Questions over the country’s ability to repay its creditors, especially as its USD reserves had shrunk and the dollar’s rally was becoming a major problem locally.  But Thailand is not a very large country from an economic perspective, and so it was initially thought this would amount to very little.  Within a month or two of the initial concerns, however, the entire region was in turmoil as it turned out virtually none of the countries there had sufficient USD reserves, and all had borrowed heavily in dollars and were having difficulty repaying those loans.  There was a huge swoon in markets, which ultimately led to Russia defaulting on its debt while Long Term Capital, a famed hedge fund of the time, wound up on the brink and was only saved by the Fed forcing the entire Wall Street community to put up money to save it.  (Ironically, Bear Stearns is the one bank that wouldn’t participate in that rescue and we know what happened to them 10 years later!)

Speaking of the GFC, this too, was seen as a minor problem at the start.  As the housing bubble inflated, the working assumption was that the entire national housing market could never fall all at once, so all of those mortgage-backed derivatives were created and sold as low risk, high return investments throughout the world.  When the first concerns were raised, none other than Fed Chair Bernanke explained that “…the troubles in the subprime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited.”  We know how that worked out and of course, the problems quickly became global in nature and forced the first invocation of a new emergency program known as QE.

One last example of the ability of seemingly distant events to impact the entire global financial structure comes from China in 2015.  That summer, just 6 years ago, the PBOC surprised markets with a mini-devaluation of the yuan, about 2%, as a relief valve for an equity market that had started to come under pressure several months previously.  But once the PBOC acted, risk appetite disappeared and we saw a severe contraction in global equity markets, a huge bond rally and strength in the dollar as the haven of choice.

The point is that while you may consider the fact that the Chinese government is cracking down on companies that it considers to be ideologically impure, and that it will have nothing to do with your investments in the FANGMAN group of stocks, there is every chance that this action serves as the catalyst for, at the very least, a short-term price adjustment in equity indices around the world. After all, China’s growth has been a key pillar of the global growth scenario.  If that is slipping, there are likely to be problems everywhere.  Be warned and wary.

OK, on to today’s activity where the Chinese rout continues to be ignored by Japan (Nikkei +0.5%), but continues to pressure European indices lower (DAX -0.4%, CAC -0.3%, FTSE 100 -0.4%) as well as US futures, all of which are down around -0.2% at this hour.

Bond markets are a bit more uniform this morning, led by Treasury yields (-2.9bps) although European sovereigns have not rallied as much, with most seeing yield declines of roughly 1 basis point.  (As an aside, yesterday’s price action, which saw US equity markets ultimately rebound, saw Treasuries give up their early gains and close with slightly higher yields on the day.)

In the commodity space, oil is essentially unchanged on the day, as is gold, with neither moving even 0.1%.  Copper is the biggest mover, falling 1.0%, although there is lesser weakness in other base metals.  Agricultural products are mixed with both Soybean and Corn higher by 1.0% while Wheat has slipped 0.4%.

As to the dollar, on this broadly risk-off day, it is broadly higher.  In the G10 bloc, the commodity currencies are the worst performers (NZD -0.7%, NOK -0.5%, AUD -0.4%) while the rest of the bloc has seen less pressure.  Naturally, JPY (+0.25%) is bucking the dollar trend in this type of session.  In the emerging markets, ZAR (-0.7%) is the laggard as traders digest the post-riot relief act from the government and give it two thumbs down.  The next biggest loser is CNY (-0.35%), although at this point, I’ve already described the reasons capital is leaving the country.  Otherwise, most of these currencies are lower, but the movement has been on the order of -0.1% to -0.2%, so not very dramatic.  There is one outlier on the plus side, KRW (+0.4%) which seems to have been on the back of exporters selling dollars after yesterday’s won decline to its lowest level in almost a year.  However, if CNY continues to weaken, I believe KRW will ultimately follow it.

On the data front this morning we see Durable Goods (exp 2.2%, 0.8% ex transport) as well as Case Shiller House Prices (16.33%) and Consumer Confidence (123.8).  The real information overload starts tomorrow with the FOMC and on through the rest of the week with Q2 GDP and Core PCE.

The dollar is back in risk mode.  If equities continue to suffer, look for the dollar to remain bid.  If they rebound, the dollar is likely to soften by the end of the day.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Time to Flee

No longer will President Xi
Allow billionaires to run free
His edict last night
Proved his grip is tight
And showed traders t’was time to flee

The biggest story overnight was the continued crackdown by Chinese authorities on any private industry that has developed a measure of power in the Chinese economy.  While the tale of Didi Chuxing, the Chinese Uber, was seen as a warning, apparently, the government is becoming more impatient over the pace of adherence to the new view.  Briefly, Didi went public and then several days later the Chinese government forced them to remove their app from public availability and crushed their business under the pretext of data security.  Didi shares fell sharply.  Last night the government explained that private education companies, which were teaching the CCP curriculum, were to cease being profit-making companies “hijacked by capitalism”, and essentially will be forced to delist.  It can be no surprise that the prices of these shares fell dramatically, in one case by 98/%, as investors flee as quickly as possible.  This resulted in sharp declines across all indices there with the Hang Seng (-4.1%) and Shanghai (-2.35%) and led to a general risk-off tone.

Apparently, President Xi is no longer willing to accept that anybody else in China can have some measure of power or influence beyond his control.  Other changes involve the payment networks Alipay and Wechat, which are on the verge of being subsumed by China’s upcoming CBDC, the e-yuan.  Exclusive rights for things like music licenses are being removed and essentially, it appears that capitalism with Chinese characteristics is morphing into a full-blown state-owned economy.  We cannot be too surprised by this; after all, Xi Jinping has been ruling with an increasingly tighter grip on all segments of the economy and he is a clear adherent to strict communism.  Remember, the definition of communism is that all property is publicly (read government) owned.  We have not seen the last of this process so be careful going forward.

The ECB told us that they
Would no longer stand in the way
Of prices that rise
Until they surmise
That growth has made major headway

Now later this week from the Fed
Some pundits think, shortly ahead,
They’ll slow down their buying
Of bonds, as they’re trying,
To counter, inflation, widespread

Inflation (whether CPI or PCE), is a price series that demonstrates characteristics similar to every other price series like stocks or bonds or currencies.  There are trend movements, there are overshoots in both directions that tend to correct and there are periods of consolidation.  One of the best definitions of a trend is a series that makes either higher lows and higher highs, or conversely, lower highs and lower lows.  In other words, something that is trending higher will typically trade to a new high level and then after a period, pull back somewhat, a normal correction, before moving on to further new highs.  When the uptrend is in force, each high is higher than the last, and, more importantly, each low is higher than the last.  I make this point because I am concerned that when looking at the backgrounds of all the FOMC members, not one of them has any trading history.

This is important because, my sense on the inflation story is that it is quite realistic that we see a slowdown in price growth in the next several months, where 5.4% headline CPI falls to 4.8% and 4.5% and so forth, as this price series goes through a correction just like the stock, bond and currency markets.  Of course, if this is what we see, it is almost guaranteed that Chairman Powell, and his band of merry men (and women) will be all over the tape crowing over the transitory nature of inflation.

Alas, my concern is that given what I believe is a strong uptrend in inflation, this retracement in CPI (and PCE) will stop at a higher level than the previous lows and set itself up for another, more powerful move higher.  In the meantime, the Fed will have waved away any concerns over inflation as they continue to pump unlimited liquidity into the system to run the economy as hot as possible.  After all, in their collective mind, they will have proven inflation is transitory.  However, the next leg higher in CPI and PCE is liable to be far more severe, occurring far more quickly than the Fed expects, and lead to a more permanent unanchoring of inflation expectations.

It will also put the Fed in an even tighter bind than they currently find themselves.  This is because if CPI prints 6%, or 7% or more, the market is far less likely to accept their jawboning as a reason to maintain low yields and high stock prices.  Rather, they will be forced to decide between addressing inflation, which means raising interest rates sharply and significantly impacting, in a very negative way, the real economy, as well as asset markets; or they will have to come up with some other way to measure inflation such that it is not rising at such a ferocious clip but is still seen as credible.  One of their dilemmas is that, politically, inflation is already becoming a problem for the Biden administration, and that is at 5%.  Be prepared for the Misery Index (a Ronald Reagan invention that was the sum of CPI and the Unemployment Rate) to become a popular meme from all of President Biden’s opponents going forward.

Oh yeah, if you think that letting inflation run hot like that is going to goose equity market returns, especially when starting from such incredibly steep valuations, you would be wrong.  History shows that when inflation rises above 5%, equity markets do not provide any type of real hedge.  Let me be clear that this is not going to play out by autumn 2021, but could very well be the case come summer or autumn 2022, a particularly difficult time for the incumbent party in Washington as mid-term elections will be upcoming and the party in power tends to get the blame for economic problems.

What about the dollar you may ask?  In this scenario, the dollar is very likely to suffer greatly, so keep that in mind as you look ahead to your hedging needs for next year and beyond.

In the meantime, the Chinese inspired sell-off has led to some risk concerns, but not (yet) a widespread sell-off.  For instance, the Nikkei (+1.0%) managed to rally in the face of the Chinese equity market declines although, outside Japan, the screens are basically all red in Asia.  European bourses are somewhat lower (DAX -0.4%, CAC -0.25%, FTSE 100 -0.25%) as they respond to the general negative tone in risk as well as a much weaker than expected German IFO reading of 101.2, well down from last month’s reading.  However, these levels are well off the session lows, as are US futures, which are down on the order of -0.25%, although were much lower earlier.

Bond markets are a little more mixed as Treasury yields fall 3.2bps (taking real yields to historic lows of -1.12%) but European sovereigns are more mixed with Bunds unchanged and OATs (+0.8bps) and Gilts (-0.8bps) not giving us any direction.

Commodity prices are mostly lower led by oil (-0.8%), although gold (+0.3%) is showing some positive haven characteristics.  Clearly, declining real yields are also supporting the precious metals.  Foodstuffs are softer (about which everyone except farmers are happy) and base metals are mixed with copper (+1.35%) leading the way higher although both Al (-0.4%) and Sn (-0.3%) are under pressure.

Finally, the dollar is not exhibiting its ordinary risk-off attitude this morning, as it is broadly softer vs. its G10 counterparts with only AUD (-0.1%) down on the day, arguably given concerns of changes with the Chinese economy.  But the rest of the bloc is marginally higher as I type led by SEK (+0.35%) and GBP (+0.3%), both of which are seeming to respond to reopening economies.

In the EMG space, however, there are many more decliners than gainers, led by RUB (-0.45%) on the back of oil’s weakness, but also KRW (-0.4%) which is feeling the pinch of the change in tone from China.  This story is going to be the second biggest driver, after the Fed, for a while, I think.

Of course, this week brings the FOMC meeting, but also Q2 GDP and Core PCE, so there is much to look forward to here.

Today New Home Sales 800K
Tuesday Durable Goods 2.0%
-ex Transport 0.8%
Case Shiller Home Prices 16.2%
Consumer Confidence 124.0
Wednesday FOMC Rate Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
IOER 0.15%
Thursday Q2GDP 8.5%
Initial Claims 380K
Continuing Claims 3192K
Friday Personal Income -0.4%
Personal Spending 0.7%
Core PCE 0.6% (3.7% Y/Y)
Chicago PMI 63.3
Michigan Sentiment 80.8

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, the Fed is the big story as the data that comes before will not be seen as critical.  The GDP print will be quite interesting, but it is widely accepted that this is the peak and we will be slowing down from here.  However, Friday’s Core PCE number will really be scrutinized as another high print will make Powell’s task that much harder with respect to convincing people that inflation is transitory, especially if their favorite indicator keeps running higher.  Ultimately, I expect we will see a short-term retracement on the rate of inflation before the next leg up and that is the one about which we should all be concerned.

As to today’s market, if equity markets manage to shake off their concerns over Chinese activities, the dollar seems likely to continue with today’s soft tone.  If not, though, look for a rebound.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf