Tremors of Dread

This weekend we learned nothing new
‘Bout what central bankers will do
As they look ahead
With tremors of dread
That QE’s a major miscue

There is a bit of a conundrum developing as headlines shout about a surge in new cases of the coronavirus at the same time that countries around the world continue to reopen from their previous lockdowns. It has become increasingly apparent that governments everywhere have determined that the economic damage of the shutdown in response to Covid now outweighs the human cost of further fatalities from the disease. Of course, three months on from when the epidemic really began to rage in the West, there is also a much better understanding of who is most vulnerable and how to maintain higher levels of safe behavior, notably social distancing and wearing masks. And so, while there are still extremely vocal views on both sides of the argument about the wisdom of reopening, it is very clear economies are going to reopen.

Meanwhile, central banks continue to bask in the glow of broadly positive press that their actions have been instrumental in propping up the stock market preventing an even greater contraction of economic activity than what has actually played out. The constant refrain from every central bank speaker has been that cutting rates and expanding their balance sheets has been very effective. Oh, they are also prepared to do even more of both if they deem such action necessary because it turns out it wasn’t effective.

However, despite these encomiums about central bank perspicacity, investors find themselves at a crossroads these days. Risk assets continue to perform extremely well overall, with stocks having recouped most of their losses from March, but haven assets continue to demonstrate significant concern over the future as long-term government bond yields continue to point to near-recessionary economic activity over the medium and long term. At the end of the day, however, I think the only universal truth is that the global economy, and certainly financial markets, have become addicted to QE, and the central banks are not about to stop providing that liquidity no matter what else happens.

On this subject, this morning we had two very different visions espoused, with BOE Governor Bailey explaining that when things get better, QT will be the first response, not a raising of rates. Of course, we all remember the “paint drying” effect of QT in the US in 2018, and how it turns out removing that liquidity is really hard without causing a financial earthquake. At the same time, the ECB’s Madame Lagarde and her minions have been enthusiastically describing just how proportionate their QE purchases have been in response to the German Constitutional Court ruling from last month. Frankly, it would be easy for the ECB to point out the proportionality of buying more Italian debt given there is much more Italian debt than any other type in the EU. But I don’t think that was the German court’s viewpoint. At any rate, there is no reason to expect anything but ongoing QE for the foreseeable future. In fact, the only thing that can stop it is a significant uptick in measured inflation, but that has not yet occurred, nor does it seem likely in the next couple of quarters. So, the presses will continue to roll.

With this as background, a turn to the markets shows a fairly benign session overall. Equity market in Asia were very modestly lower (Nikkei -0.2%, Hang Seng -0.5%, Shanghai flat) while European markets are also a touch softer (DAX -0.1%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 flat) although US futures are pointing higher, with all three indices up about 0.75% as I type. Meanwhile, bond markets are also showing muted price action, although the tendency is toward slightly lower yields as Treasuries have decline 1bp and Bunds 2bps. While the direction here is consistent with a risk off session, the very slight magnitude of the moves makes it less convincing.

As to the dollar, it is definitely on its back foot this morning, falling against most G10 and many EMG currencies. Kiwi is atop the leaderboard this morning, rallying 0.6% with Aussie just behind at 0.5%, as both currencies recoup a bit of the past two week’s losses. In fact, that seems to be the story behind most of the G10 today, we are seeing a rebound from the dollar’s last two weeks of strength. The only exception is the yen, which is essentially unchanged, after its own solid recent performance, and NOK, which has edged lower by 0.15% on the back of a little oil price weakness.

In the EMG bloc, the picture is a bit more mixed with APAC currencies having suffered last night, led by KRW (-0.5%) as tensions with the North increase, and IDR (-0.35%) as the market demonstrated some concern over the future trajectory of growth and interest rates there. On the positive side, it is the CE4 that is showing the best gains today with PLN (+0.8%) far and away the best performer after posting a much better than expected Retail Sales number of +14.5%, which prompted the government to highlight the opportunity for a v-shaped recovery.

Looking ahead to data this week, nothing jumps out as likely to have a big impact.

Today Existing Home Sales 4.09M
Tuesday PMI Manufacturing 50.8
  PMI Services 48.0
  New Home Sales 635K
Thursday Initial Claims 1.35M
  Continuing Claims 19.85M
  Durable Goods 10.9%
  -ex transport 2.3%
  GDP Q1 -5.0%
Friday Personal Income -6.0%
  Personal Spending 8.8%
  Core PCE 0.0% (0.9% Y/Y)
  Michigan Sentiment 79.0

Source: Bloomberg

The thing about the PMI data is that interpretation of the data is more difficult these days as a rebound from depression levels may not be indicative of real strength, rather just less weakness. In fact, the bigger concern for policymakers these days is that the Initial Claims data is not declining very rapidly. After that huge spike in March, we have seen a substantial decline, but the pace of that decline has slowed alarmingly. It seems that we may be witnessing a second wave of layoffs as companies re-evaluate just how many employees they need to operate effectively, especially in a much slower growth environment. And remember, if employment doesn’t rebound more sharply, the US economy, which is 70% consumption based, is going to be in for a much longer period of slow or negative growth. I assure you that is not the scenario currently priced into the equity markets, so beware.

As to the dollar today, recent price activity has not been consistent with the historic risk appetite, and it is not clear to me which is leading which, stocks leading the dollar or vice versa. For now, it appears that the day is pointing to maintaining the overnight weakness, but I see no reason for this to extend in any major way.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The Real Threat

Around the world, government’s fret
Is it safe to reopen yet?
As growth worldwide slows
Each government knows
Elections are now the real threat

The common theme in markets today, the one that is driving asset prices higher, is that we are beginning to see a number of countries, and in the US, states, schedule the easing of restrictions on activity. Notably, in Italy, the European epicenter of the virus, PM Conte is trying to reschedule the return to some sense of normality with the first relief to occur one week from today in the manufacturing and construction industries, followed by retailers two weeks later. Personal services and restaurants, alas, must wait until June 1 at the earliest. While that hardly seems like an aggressive schedule, the forces arrayed on both sides of the argument grow louder with each passing day, neither of which has been able to convince the other side. (This sounds like the Democrats and Republicans in Congress.) But the reality is, there is no true playbook as to the “right” way to do this as we still know remarkably little about the disease, and its true infectiousness. Of course, collapsing the global economy in fear is likely to result in just as many, if not more, victims.

But it’s not just Italy that is starting. In the US, Georgia is under close scrutiny as it begins easing restrictions as of today. New York’s Governor Cuomo is now talking about a phased in reopening of certain areas, mostly upstate NY, beginning on May 15. And the truth is that many states in the US are preparing to reopen sections of their respective economies. The same is true throughout Europe and Asia, as the rolling lockdowns globally have essentially inflicted as much pain as governments can tolerate.

Of course, the real question is, what exactly does it mean to reopen the economy? I think it is fair to say that the immediate future will not at all resemble the pre-virus situation. Even assuming that most personal financial situations were not completely disrupted (and they truly were), how many people are going to rush out to sit in a movie theater with 200 strangers? How many people are going to jump on an enclosed metal tube with recirculated air for a quick weekend getaway? In fact, how many are going to be willing to go out to their favorite restaurant, assuming it reopens? After all, you cannot eat dinner while wearing an N95 mask!

My point is, the upcoming recovery of this extraordinary economic disruption is likely to be very slow. In fact, history has shown that traumatic events of this nature (think the Depression in the 1930’s) result in significant behavioral changes, especially regarding personal financial habits. The virus has highlighted the fragility of many job situations. It has exposed just how many people worldwide live close to the edge with almost no ability to handle a situation that interrupts their employment cashflow. And these lessons are the type that stick. They will almost certainly result in reduced consumption and increased personal savings. And that is almost the exact opposite of what built the global economy since the end of WWII.

With this in mind, it strikes me that the dichotomy we continue to see in markets, where equity investors are remarkably bullish, while bond and commodity investors seem to be planning for a very long period of slow/negative growth, is going to ultimately be resolved in favor of the bond market. No matter how I consider the next several months, no scenario results in that fabled V-shaped recovery.

But perhaps I am just a doom monger who only sees the negatives. After all, a quick look at markets today shows that the bulls are ascendant. Equity markets around the world are firmer this morning as the combination of prospective reopening of economies and additional central bank stimulus have convinced investors that the worst is behind us. Last night, the BOJ, as widely expected, promised unlimited JGB buying going forward. In addition, they increased their corporate bond buying to ¥20 trillion, essentially following in the Fed’s footsteps from two weeks ago. If their goal was to prop up the stock market, then it worked as the Nikkei closed higher by 2.7% helping the rest of Asia (Hang Seng +1.9%, Australia +1.5%) as well. Europe took the baton, and with more policy ease expected from the ECB on Thursday, has seen markets rise between 1.4% (FTSE 100) and 2.4% (DAX). Meanwhile, the euphoria continues to seep westward as US futures are all higher by roughly 1% this morning.

Bond markets, too, are feeling a bit better with Treasuries and bunds both seeing yields edge higher, 2bp and 1bp respectively, while the risky bonds from the PIGS, all see yields fall sharply. Interestingly, commodity markets don’t seem to get the joke, as oil (-15.8%) is under significant pressure. Finally, the dollar is under pressure across the board, falling against all its G10 counterparts with AUD (+1.4%) leading the way on a combination of today’s positivity and some short-term positive technicals. Even NOK (+0.75%) is firmer today despite oil’s sharp decline, showing just how much the big picture is overwhelming market idiosyncrasies.

In EMG space, pretty much the entire bloc is firmer vs. the dollar with ZAR (+1.15%) and HUF (+0.85%) on top of the list. The rand seems to be the beneficiary of the idea that South Africa is set to receive $5 billion from the IMF and World Bank to help them cope with Covid-19 related disruptions. Meanwhile, the forint is seeing demand driven by expectations of the country easing its lockdown restrictions this week. One quick word about BRL, which has not opened as yet. Last week saw some spectacular movement with the real having fallen nearly 10% at its worst point early Friday afternoon as President Bolsonaro’s most important ally, Justice Minister Moro, resigned amid allegations that Bolsonaro was interfering with a corruption investigation into his own son. The central bank stepped in to stem the tide, and successfully pushed the real higher by nearly 3%, but the situation remains tenuous and as Bolsonaro’s popularity wanes, it seems like there is a lot of room for further declines.

On the data front this week, the first look at Q1 GDP will be closely scrutinized, as well as the FOMC meeting on Wednesday and Thursday’s Claims data.

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.13%
  Consumer Confidence 87.9
Wednesday Q1 GDP -3.9%
  FOMC Rate Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 3.5M
  Continuing Claims 19.0M
  Personal Income -1.6%
  Personal Spending -5.0%
  Core PCE -0.1% (1.6% Y/Y)
  Chicago PMI 38.2
Friday ISM Manufacturing 36.7
  ISM Prices Paid 28.9

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, the data will be nothing like any of us have ever seen before, but the real question is just how much negativity is priced into the market. In addition, while the Fed is not expected to change any more policies, you cannot rule out something new to goose things further.

In the end, there is no economic evidence yet that the situation is improving anywhere in the world. And while measured cases of Covid-19 infections may be dropping in places, human behaviors are likely permanently altered. This crisis is not close to over, regardless of what the stock markets are trying to indicate. My money is on the bond market view that things are going to be very slow for a long time to come. And that implies the dollar is going to retain its bid as well.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

The First Battlefield

The data from China revealed
This bug, is in fact, the windshield
It splattered the hope
That ‘war’ was a trope
Instead ‘twas the first battlefield

China released its main grouping of March data last night and the picture was not pretty. Q1 GDP fell 9.8% Q/Q and was 6.8% below Q1 2019. Those are staggeringly large contractions of economic activity and likely portend what we will begin to see throughout the rest of the world over the next several weeks. The other key data points were Retail Sales (-15.8%), Fixed Asset Investment (-16.1%), both with record declines, and then surprisingly, Industrial Production, which fell just 1.1% in March from last year’s results, though has declined 8.4% thus far in 2020. The official spin of the data was that while February was abysmal, given the nation was essentially completely closed that month, things have started to pick up again and the future is bright. While Q2 seems likely to be better than Q1, bright may overstate the case a bit. After all, the Chinese economy remains highly dependent on its export industries, and the last I checked, most of its major western markets like the US and Europe remain closed for business. So even if Chinese factories are restarting and producing goods again, their client base is not yet in the market for consuming most things.

Excitement is starting to build
And President Trump’s clearly thrilled
That plans are afoot
To increase output
In states where Covid has been chilled

But as important as that data is, and despite the harbingers it brings regarding the rest of the world in Q1 and Q2, market focus is clearly on an even more important subject, the timing of the reopening of the US economy. Last evening, in his daily press conference, the President explained that there will be a three-step approach outlined for individual states to follow in order to try to return to more normal conditions. The idea is that when reported infections show a downward trend over a two-week period, that would be an appropriate time to allow certain businesses (e.g. restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and places of worship) to reopen amid strict social distancing guidelines. Assuming no relapse in the data, phase two would include the allowance of non-essential travel with bars and schools reopening, while phase three, also assuming a continued downward slope of the infection curve, would allow the bulk of the remaining economy to reopen, while observing ongoing social distancing.

At least, that is the gist of the idea. Each state will be able to decide for itself when it reaches appropriate milestones to expand allowable activities with the Federal government not imposing any specific restrictions. While the exact timing of these activities remains uncertain, there are likely some states that will be ready to start phase one before the end of April, while others will take much longer to get there.

Investors, though, see one thing only, that the worst is behind us and that if the US is going to reopen, then so, soon, will the rest of the world. After all, Europe was inundated with the virus earlier than the US. Thus, the prospect of restarting economic activity combined with the extraordinary stimulus measures undertaken by governments around the world has encouraged the investment community to race back into equity markets before they get too rich! At least that is what it seems like this morning.

Fear has taken a back seat to greed and stock markets around the world are higher. So, we saw Asian markets (Nikkei +3.1%, Hang Seng +1.6%, Shanghai +0.7%) all perform well despite the Chinese data. Europe has been even better, with the DAX +4.2%, CAC +4.0% and FTSE 100 + 3.4%, and US futures are closely following Europe with all three indices up well more than 2.0% at this point in the session. In other words, earnings collapses are now seen to be one-time impacts and will soon be reversed. At the same time, pent-up demand will restore much of the luster to so many beaten down stocks, especially in the retail and consumer space.

This seems a tad aggressive for two reasons. First, though undoubtedly reopening the economy will result in better outcomes, it is not clear that the future will resemble the past that closely. After all, are we going to see a much greater use of telecommuting, thus less need for daily transport? Will restaurant and bar business pick up in the same way as prior to the virus’s onset? Will shopping malls ever recover? All these questions are critical to valuations, and answers will not be known for many months. But second, the one thing of which we can be pretty certain, at least in the short run, is that share repurchase programs are going to be thin on the ground for quite a while, and given the more than $1 trillion of spending that we have been seeing in that space, it seems that a key pillar of equity market support will have gone missing. So, while today is clearly all about risk being acquired, it will be a bumpy ride at best.

Speaking of risk-on, a quick look at the FX market shows that the dollar, for the first time in a week is under pressure this morning, having fallen against all its G10 peers. NZD is the leading gainer today, up 0.75%, as kiwi appears to be the highest beta currency in the group and is responding to the US reopening story. Aussie is next on the list, +0.45%, with its beta second only to kiwi, and then the rest of the bloc is higher but in a more limited fashion.

EMG currencies, too, are showing life this morning with IDR in the lead, having rallied 1.1% alongside TRY up a similar amount. The rupiah seems to be the beneficiary of the announcement by the central bank there that they are going to begin direct purchases of government bonds, i.e. monetizing the debt, on Monday, which is apparently a positive statistic in the beginning of the process. Meanwhile, on this risk-on day, Turkey’s 8%+ yields remain extremely attractive for investors, drawing funds into the country. But essentially, the entire bloc is firmer today, even the Mexican peso, which has been one of the absolutely worst performing currencies around. It has rallied 0.25%, its first gain in more than a week.

Today’s narrative is clearly that whatever damage has been incurred by Covid-19, the worst is behind us. Investors are looking forward and anxious to take part in the next up cycle. Alas, the curmudgeon in me sees a scenario where it will take far longer to regain previous levels of activity than the market currently seems to be pricing, and so risk attitudes have room to reverse, yet again, in the not too distant future. But as long as the narrative is the future is bright, the dollar should soften while equity markets rally.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf