Over and Done

Our planet, third rock from the sun
Has had a remarkable run
For ten years, at least
No famine, just feast
But now that streak’s over and done

The IMF said, yesterday
This year will see growth go away
For ‘Twenty, it’s clear
While next year they fear
A second wave, growth will delay

Fear was the order of the day yesterday amid several related stories. Headlines continue to highlight the resurgence in reported Covid cases in the US, notably in those states that have begun to reopen more aggressively. So, California, Texas and Florida have all seen a big jump in infections which many are saying requires a second lockdown. While no orders of that nature have yet been issued, it is clear there is a risk they will be deemed necessary. That would be quite the body blow to the US economy, as well as to the equity markets which are pretty clearly pricing in that elusive V-shaped recovery. If we see second order lockdowns, you can be pretty confident that the equity market will suffer significantly. Simply consider yesterday’s performance, with the three US indices all falling at least 2.2% without having to deal with any actual change in regulations.

Adding insult to injury was the IMF, which released its updated global GDP forecasts and is now looking for a more severe global recession with growth falling 4.9% in 2020. That is down from the -3.0% expectation in April. As well, they reduced their forecasts for 2021, albeit not as dramatically, to +5.4%, down 0.4% from the April forecasts. However, they warned that should a second wave manifest itself, 2021 could see essentially zero growth globally as unemployment worldwide explodes and poverty levels in the emerging markets explodes with it. In other words, they don’t really think we are out of the woods yet.

With that one-two punch, it is no surprise that we saw risk jettisoned yesterday as not only did equity markets suffer, but we saw demand for bonds (Treasury yields -4bps yesterday and another 1.5bps this morning) while the dollar saw broad-based demand, with the DXY rising 0.6% on the day. If nothing else, this is strong evidence that all markets are anticipating quite a strong recovery, and that anything that may disrupt that process is going to have a negative impact on risk asset prices.

Adding to the fun yesterday was oil’s 6% decline on data showing inventories growing more than expected, which of course means that demand remains lackluster. Certainly, I know that while I used to fill up the tank of my car every week, I have done so only once in the past three months! While that is good for my budget, it is not helping support economic activity.

The point is, the risk asset rally has been built on shaky foundations. Equity fundamentals like revenues and earnings are (likely) in the process of bottoming out, but the rally is based on expectations of a V. Every data point that indicates the V is actually a U or a W or, worst of all, an L, will add pressure on the bulls to continue to act solely because the Fed keeps purchasing assets. History has shown that at some point, that will not be enough, and a more thorough repricing of risk assets will occur. Part of that process will almost certainly be a very sharp USD rally, which is, of course, what matters in the context of this note.

Looking at how today’s session has evolved shows that Asian equity markets had a down session, with the Nikkei taking its cues from the US and falling 1.2%, and Australia suffering even more, down 2.5%. China and Hong Kong were closed while they celebrated Dragon Boat Day. European bourses are in the green this morning, but just barely, with the average gain just 0.15% at this hour following yesterday’s 1.3%-2.0% declines. And US futures have turned lower at this time after spending much of the overnight session in the green.

As mentioned, bond markets are rallying with yields falling correspondingly, while the dollar continues to climb even after yesterday’s broad-based strength. So, in the G10 space, the euro is today’s worst performer, down 0.4%, amid overall growing concerns of a slower rebound. While the German GfK Consumer Confidence survey printed better than expected (-9.6), it was still the second worst print in the series history after last month’s. Aside from the euro, perhaps the most interesting thing is that both CHF and JPY have fallen 0.2%, despite the demand for havens. There is no news from either nation that might hint at why these currencies are underperforming from their general risk stance, but as I wrote last week, it may well be that the demand for dollars is leading the global markets these days, rather than acting as a relief valve like usual.

Emerging market currencies are seeing a more broad-based decline, simply following on yesterday’s price action. I cannot ignore the 3.6% fall in BRL yesterday, as the Covid situation grows increasingly out of control there. While the market has not opened there yet, indications are that the real’s decline will continue. Meanwhile, today’s worst performer is HUF, down 1.3%, although here, too, there is no obvious catalyst for the decline other than the dollar’s strength. Now, from its weakest point in April, HUF had managed to rally nearly 12% through the beginning of the month but has given back 5.3% of that since. On a fundamental basis, HUF is highly reliant on the Eurozone economies performing well as so much of their economic activity is generated directly on the back of Europe. Worries over the Eurozone’s trajectory will naturally hit all of the CE4. And that is true today with CZK (-0.7%) and PLN (-0.55%) also amongst the worst performers. APAC currencies suffered overnight, but not to the extent we are seeing this morning, and LATAM seems set to pick up where yesterday’s declines left off.

On the data front, this morning brings the bulk of the week’s important data. Initial Claims (exp 1.32M) and Continuing Claims (20.0M) remain critical data points in the market’s collective eyes. Anything that indicates the employment situation is not getting better will have a direct, and swift, negative impact on risk assets. We also see Durable Goods (10.5%, 2.1% ex transport) and the second revision of Q1 GDP (-5.0%). One other lesser data point that might get noticed is Retail Inventories (-2.8%) which has been falling after a sharp rise in March, but if it starts to rise again may also be a red flag toward future growth.

Two more Fed speakers are on the docket, Kaplan and Bostic, but there is nothing new coming from the Fed unless they announce a new program, and that will only come from the Chairman. So, at this stage, I see no reason to focus on those speeches. Instead, lacking an exogenous catalyst, like another Fed announcement (buying stocks maybe?) it feels like risk will remain on the defensive for the day.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

Off to the Races

Though headlines describe the new cases
Of Covid, in so many places
The market’s real fear
Is later this year
The trade war is off to the races

Risk is under pressure today as, once again, concerns grow that increased trade tensions will derail the rebound from the Covid inspired global recession. You may recall yesterday’s fireworks in Asia after Peter Navarro seemed to describe the phase one trade deal as over. (Remember, too, President Trump quickly remedied that via Twitter.) This morning has seen a somewhat less dramatic market impact, although it has shown more staying power, after the Trump Administration explained that it was targeting $3.1 billion of European and UK goods for tariffs in a WTO sanctioned response to the EU’s illegal Airbus subsidies. Of course, the fact that they are sanctioned does not make them any less damaging to the economic rebound. Pretty much the last thing the global economy needs right now is something else to impede the flow of business. According to reports, the targeted goods will be luxury goods and high-end liquors, so the cost of that Hendricks and Tonic just might be going up soon. Naturally, the EU immediately responded that they would have to retaliate, although they have not released a list of their targets.

Needless to say, even the unbridled optimism over a central bank induced recovery was dented by these announcements as they are a direct attack on the idea that growth will rebound to previous levels quickly. Now, those tariffs are not yet in place, and the US has said they are interested in negotiating a better solution, but investors and traders (and most importantly, algorithms) are programmed to read tariffs as a negative and sell stocks. And so, what we have seen this morning is a solid decline across European bourses led by the DAX (-2.1%) and FTSE 100 (-2.3%) although the rest of the continent is looking at declines between of 1.25% and 1.75%. It is a bit surprising that the bond market has not seen things in quite the same light, with 10-year Treasury yields almost unchanged at this hour, as are German bund yields, and only Italian BTP’s seeing any real movement as yields there rise (prices fall) by 2bps. Of course, we recognize that BTP’s are more akin to stocks than bonds these days.

In the background, though, we continue to hear of a resurgence in Covid cases in many places throughout the world. In the US, newly reported infections are rising in many of the states that are going through a slow reopening process. There are also numerous reports of cases popping up in places that had seemed to have eliminated the virus, like Hong Kong, China and Japan. And then, there are areas, notably LATAM nations, that are seeing significant growth in the caseload and are clearly struggling to effectively mitigate the impact. The major market risk to this story is that economies around the world will be forced to stage a second shutdown with all the ensuing economic and financial problems that would entail. Remember, too, that if a second shutdown is in our future, governments, which have already spent $trillions they don’t have, will need to find $trillions more. At some point, that is also likely to become a major problem, with emerging market economies likely to be impacted more severely than developed nations.

So, with those unappetizing prospects in store, let us turn our attention to this morning’s markets. As I mentioned, risk is clearly under pressure and that has manifest itself in the foreign exchange markets as modest dollar strength. In the G10 space, NZD is the laggard, falling 0.9% after the RBNZ, while leaving policy on hold, promised to do more to support the economy (ease further via QE) if necessary. Apparently, the market believes it will be necessary, hence the kiwi’s weakness. But away from that, the dollar’s strength has been far more muted, with gains on the order of 0.2%-0.3% against the higher beta currencies (SEK, AUD and CAD) while the euro, yen and pound are virtually unchanged on the day.

In the EMG bloc, it has been a tale of two sessions with APAC currencies mostly gaining overnight led by KRW (+0.8%), which seemed to be responding to yesterday’s news of sunshine, lollipops and roses modestly improving economic data leading toward an end to the global recession. Alas, all those who bought KRW and its brethren APAC currencies will be feeling a bit less comfited now that the trade war appears to be heating up again. This is made evident by the fact that the CE4 currencies are all lower this morning, led by HUF (-0.6%) and CZK (-0.4%). In no uncertain terms, increased trade tensions between the US and Europe will be bad for that entire bloc of economies, so weaker currencies make a great deal of sense. As to LATAM, they too are under pressure, with MXN (-0.5%) the only one open right now, but all indications for further weakness amid the combination of the spreading virus and the trade tensions.

On the data front, we did see German IFO data print mildly better than expected, notably the Expectations number which rose to 91.4 from last month’s reading of 80.1. But for context, it is important to understand that prior to the onset of Covid-19, these readings were routinely between 105 and 110, so we are still a long way from ‘normal’. The euro has not responded to the data, although the trade story is likely far more important right now.

In the US we have no data of note today, and just two Fed speakers, Chicago’s Evans and St Louis’ Bullard. However, as I have pointed out in the recent past, every Fed speaker says the same thing; the current situation is unprecedented and awful but the future is likely to see a sharp rebound and in the meantime, the Fed will continue to expand their balance sheet and add monetary support to the economy.

And that’s really all there is today. US futures are pointing lower, on the order of 0.75% as I type, so it seems to be a question of watching and waiting. Retail equity investors continue to pile into the stock market driving it higher, so based on recent history, they will see the current decline as another opportunity to buy. I see no reason for the dollar to strengthen much further barring yet another trade announcement from the White House, and if my suspicions about the stock market rebounding are correct, a weaker dollar by the end of the day is likely in store.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

Money to Burn

If Covid is back on the rise
It’s likely it will compromise
The mooted return
Of money to burn
Instead, growth it will tranquilize

For the past two or three months, market behavior has been driven by the belief that a V-shaped recovery was in the offing as a combination of massive fiscal and monetary stimulus alongside a flatter infection curve and the reopening of economies would bring everything back close to where it was prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. However, since last Thursday, that narrative has lost more than a few adherents with the growing concern that the dreaded second wave of infections was starting to crest and would force economies, that were just starting to reopen, back into hibernation.

The most recent piece of evidence for the new storyline comes from Beijing, where the weekend saw the reporting of 100 new infections after several weeks of, allegedly, zero infections in the country. This has resulted in the Chinese government re-imposing some restrictions as well as massively increasing testing again. Chinese data last night showed that the economy remains under significant pressure, although analysts fell on both sides of the bullish-bearish spectrum. The four key data points are Retail Sales (-13.5% YTD, up from April’s -16.2% and right on the economic estimates); IP (-2.8% YTD, up from -4.9% and slightly better than -3.0% expected); Fixed Asset Investment (-6.3% YTD vs. -10.3% last month and -6.0% expected); and the Jobless Rate (5.9%, as expected and down from 6.0% last month). My read is that the Chinese economy remains quite troubled, although arguably it has left the worst behind it. The PBOC continues to inject liquidity into the market and the Chinese government continues to add fiscal support. Unfortunately for President Xi, China remains an export led economy and given the complete demand destruction that has occurred everywhere else in the world, the near-term prospects for Chinese growth would seem to be muted at best.

For political leaders everywhere, this is not the story that they want to tell. Rather, the narrative of the V-shaped recovery was crucial to maintaining some level of confidence for their populations as well as for their own popularity. Remember, at the government level, everything is political, so crafting a story that people believe accept is just as important, if not more so, than actually implementing policies that work to address the problems.

Another chink in the narrative’s armor is the fact that despite the approach of the summer solstice, and the northern hemisphere warming that accompanies it, infection levels are growing in many different places; not only Beijing, but Korea, Japan, California, Texas and Florida, all locations that had begun to reopen their respective economies due to reduced infections. Remember, a key part of the narrative has been that the virus, like the ordinary flu, thrives in cold weather, and warmth would be a natural disinfectant, if you will. While it remains too early to claim this is not the case, the recent flare-ups are not helping that storyline.

Ultimately, what is abundantly clear is we still don’t know that much about the virus and its potential and weaknesses. While we will certainly see more businesses reopen over the next weeks, it is unclear how long it will take for actual economic activity to start to revert to any semblance of normal. Equity markets have been wearing rose-colored glasses for at least two months. Beware of those slipping off and haven assets regaining their bid quite quickly.

So, a quick look at markets this morning simply reinforces the changing narrative, with equity markets lower around the world, bond markets rallying and the dollar reasserting itself. Overnight, Asian markets all fell pretty sharply, led by the Nikkei’s 3.5% decline, but also seeing weakness in the Hang Seng (-2.2%) and Shanghai (-1.0%). European indices are also bleeding this morning, with the DAX (-0.9%) and CAC (-0.8%) slipping on increasing concerns over the growth of the second wave. US futures will not miss this party, with all three indices sharply lower, between 1.5% and 2.0%.

In the bond market, Treasury yields are sliding, down 3 basis points, as haven assets are in demand. We are seeing increased demand across European bond markets as well, surprisingly even in the PIGS, although that seems more in anticipation of the almost certain increase in the pace of ECB QE. What is clear, however, is that we are seeing a rotation from stocks to bonds this morning.

Finally, the dollar is feeling its oats this morning, rallying against the high-beta G10 currencies with AUD the leading decliner (-0.9%) followed by NOK (-0.6%) and CAD (-0.5%). The latter two are clearly feeling the pressure from oil’s declining price, down 1.75% as I type, although it had been even lower earlier in the session. While we do see both JPY and CHF slightly firmer, the emphasis is on slightly, with both less than 0.1% higher than Friday’s closing levels. Meanwhile the euro and pound are both slightly softer, also less than 0.1% off Friday’s levels, which simply implies a great deal of uncertainty over the next big move. This is corroborated by price action in the option market, where implied volatility continues to climb, as 1mo EURUSD volatility is up 1.3 points in the past week. Of perhaps more interest is the fact that the 1mo risk reversal has flipped from 0.5 for euro calls to 0.35 for euro puts in the same time frame. Clearly, concern is growing that all is not right with the world.

As to the EMG bloc, one would not be surprised to see the Mexican peso as the biggest laggard this morning, down 1.5% as the combination of declining oil prices, increasing infections and risk reduction all play into the move. Asian currencies did not have a good evening, led by KRW (-1.0%) which suffered from a combination of concern over the US-Korean alliance (as the US withdrew some troops unexpectedly and continues to demand more payment for protection) as well as some warmongering from the North. But we have also seen weakness across the rest of the region, with declines in the 0.2%-0.5% range nearly universal. Too, the rand is under pressure this morning, falling 1.0%, on what appears to be broad-based risk reduction as there are no specific stories to note there.

Data this week is on the light side with Retail Sales tomorrow likely to garner the most attention.

Today Empire Manufacturing -30.0
Tuesday Retail Sales 8.0%
  -ex autos 5.3%
  IP 3.0%
  Capacity Utilization 66.9%
Wednesday Housing Starts 1100K
  Building Permits 1250K
Thursday Initial Claims 1.29M
  Continuing Claims 19.65M
  Philly Fed -25.0
  Leading Indicators 2.4%

Source: Bloomberg

We also hear from six Fed speakers in addition to the Chairman’s congressional testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday. Clearly, it will be the latter that keeps everyone most interested. There are those who complain that Powell should have done more last week, starting YCC or adding more stimulus, but that remains a slight minority view. Most mainstream economists seem to believe that we are fast approaching the point where excessive central bank largesse is going to create much bigger problems down the road. In fact, ironically, I believe that is one of the reasons we are in risk-off mode overall, growing concerns that the future is not as bright as markets have priced to date.

My sense is that the dollar is set to end its slide overall and start to regain traction as the reality that the V-shaped recovery is not coming begins to hit home. Hedgers beware, and don’t miss these opportunities.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Jay Was Thinking

If anyone thought Jay was thinking
‘Bout raising rates while growth was sinking
The chairman was clear
That long past next year
Their balance sheet will not be shrinking

The money quote: “We’re not thinking about raising rates. We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates,” said Mr. Powell.  And this pretty much sums up the Fed stance for the time being.  While there are those who are disappointed that the Fed did not add to any programs or announce something like YCC or, perhaps, more targeted forward guidance, arguably the above quote is even more powerful than one of those choices.  Frequently it is the uncertainty over a policy’s duration that is useful, not the policy itself.  Uncertainty prevents investors from anticipating a change and moving markets contrary to policymakers’ goals.  So, for now, there is no realistic way to anticipate the timing of the next rate hike.  Perhaps the proper question is as follows: is timing the next hike impossible because of the lack of clear targets?  Or is it impossible because there will never be another rate hike?

What the Fed did tell us (via the dot plot) is that only two of the seventeen FOMC members believe interest rates will be above 0.0% in 2022 (my money is on Esther and Mester, the two most hawkish members), but mercifully, not a single dot in the dot plot was in negative territory.  They also expressed a pretty dour view of the economy as follows:

 

  2020 2021 2022
Real GDP -6.5% 5.0% 3.5%
Core PCE 1.0% 1.5% 1.7%
Unemployment 9.3% 6.5% 5.5%

Source: Bloomberg

It is, of course, the 11.5% gain from 2020 to 2021 that encourages the concept of the V-shaped recovery as evidenced by simply plotting the numbers (including 2019’s 2.3% to start).

Screen Shot 2020-06-11 at 9.30.05 AM

So, perhaps the bulls are correct, perhaps the stock market is a screaming buy as growth will soon return and interest rates will remain zero for as far as the eye can see.  There is, however, a caveat to this view, the fact that the Fed is notoriously bad at forecasting GDP growth over time.  In fact, they are amongst the worst when compared with Wall Street in general.  But hey, at least we understand the thesis.

Another interesting outcome of the meeting was the tone of the press conference, where Chairman Jay sounded anything but ebullient over the current economic situation, especially the employment situation.  And it is this takeaway that had the biggest market impact.  After the press conference, equity markets in the US sold off from earlier highs (the NASDAQ set another all-time high intraday) and Treasuries rallied with yields falling again.  In other words, despite the prospect of Forever ZIRP (FZ), equity investors seemed to lose a bit of their bullishness.  This price action has been in place ever since with Asian equity markets all falling (Nikkei -2.8%, Hang Seng -2.3%, Shanghai – 0.8%) and Europe definitely under pressure (DAX -2.1%, CAC -2.2%, FTSE 100 -2.0%).  US futures are also lower with the Dow (-1.9%) currently the laggard, but even NASDAQ futures are lower by 1.1% at this hour.

It should be no surprise that bond markets around the world are rallying in sync with these equity declines as the combination of risk-off and the prospect for FZ lead to the inevitable conclusion that lower long term rates are in our future.  This also highlights the fact that the Fed’s concern over the second part of its mandate, stable prices, has essentially been set aside for another era.  The belief that inflation will remain extremely low forever is clearly a part of the current mindset.  Yesterday’s CPI (0.1%, 1.2% core) was simply further evidence that the Fed will ignore prices going forward.  So, 10-year Treasury yields are back to 0.7% this morning, 20 basis points below last Friday’s closing levels.  In other words, the impact of last Friday’s NFP number has been erased in four sessions.  But we are seeing investors rotate from stocks to bonds around the world, perhaps getting a bit nervous about the frothiness of the recent rallies.  (Even Hertz, the darling of the Robinhooders, is looking like Icarus.)

With risk clearly being jettisoned around the world, it should be no surprise that the dollar has stopped falling, and in fact is beginning to rally against almost all its counterparts.  While haven assets like CHF (+0.2%) and JPY (+0.1%) are modestly higher, NOK (-0.9%) and AUD (-0.85%) are leading the bulk of the G10 lower.  Norway is suffering on, not only broad dollar strength, but oil’s weakness this morning, with WTI -3.1% on the session.  As to Aussie, the combination of weaker commodity prices, the strong dollar, and market technicals as it once again failed to hold the 0.70 level, have led to today’s decline.

Emerging market activity is also what you would expect in a risk-off session, with MXN (-1.6%), ZAR (-1.1%) and RUB (-0.7%) leading the way lower.  Obviously, oil is driving both MXN and RUB, while ZAR is suffering from the weakness in the rest of the commodity complex.  I think the reason that the peso has fallen so much further than the ruble is that MXN has seen remarkable gains over the past month, more than 13% at its peak, and so seems overdue for a correction.  One notable exception to this price action today is THB, which is higher by 0.65% on a combination of reports of a fourth stimulus package and a breach of the 200-day moving average which got technicians excited.

This morning’s data brings the latest Initial Claims data (exp 1.55M), as well as Continuing Claims (20.0M) and PPI (-1.2%, 0.4% core).  While nobody will care about the latter, there will be ongoing intense scrutiny on the former as Chairman Jay made it abundantly clear that employment is the only thing the Fed is focused on for now.  With the FOMC meeting behind us, we can expect to start to hear from its members again, but on the schedule, nothing happens until next week.

It is not hard to make the case that both the euro and pound have been a bit toppish at recent levels, and with risk decidedly off today, further declines there seem quite viable.

 

Good luck and stay safe

Adf

Value, Nought

In college Econ 101
Professors described the long run
As when we all died
Like Keynes had replied
Debating a colleague for fun

However, the rest that they taught
Has turned out to have, value, nought
Their models have failed
While many have railed
That people won’t do what they ought

Observing market activity these days and trying to reconcile price action with the theories so many of us learned in college has become remarkably difficult. While supply and demand still seem to have meaning, pretty much every construct more complex than that turns out to have been a description of a special case and not a general model of behavior. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from the fact that essentially every forecast made these days turns out wrong while major pronouncements, regarding the long-term effect of a given policy, by esteemed economists seem designed to advance a political view rather than enhance our knowledge and allow us to act in the most effective way going forward. Certainly, as merely an armchair economist, my track record is not any better. Of course, the difference is that I mostly try to highlight what is driving markets in the very short term rather than paint a picture of the future and influence policy.

I bring this up as I read yet another article this morning, this by Stephen Roach, a former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and current professor at Yale, about the imminent collapse of the dollar and the end of its status as the world’s reserve currency. He is not the first to call for this, nor the first to call on the roster of models that describe economic activity and determine that because one variable has moved beyond previous boundaries, doom was to follow. In this case growth of the US current account deficit will lead to the end of the dollar’s previous role as reserve currency. Nor will he be the last to do so, but the consistent feature is that every apocalyptic forecast has been wrong over time.

This has been true in Japan, where massive debt issuance by the government and massive debt purchases by the BOJ were destined to drive inflation much higher and weaken the yen substantially. Of course, we all know that the exact opposite has occurred. This has been true around the world where negative interest rates were designed to encourage borrowing and spending, thus driving economic growth higher, when it only got half the equation right, the borrowing increase, but it turns out spending on shares was deemed a better use of funds than spending on investment, despite all the theories that said otherwise.

Ultimately, the point is that despite the economics community having built a long list of very impressive looking and sounding models that are supposed to describe the workings of the economy, those models were built based on observed data rather than on empirical truths. Now that the data has changed, those models are just no longer up for the task. In other words, when it comes to forecasting models, caveat emptor.

Turning to the markets this morning, equity markets seem to have stopped to catch their collective breath after having recouped all of their March losses. In fact, the NASDAQ actually set a new all-time high yesterday, amid an economy that is about to print a GDP number somewhere between -20% and -50% annualized in Q2.

I get the idea of looking past the short-run problems, but it still appears to me that equity traders are ignoring long-run problems that are growing on the horizon. These issues, like the wave of bankruptcies that will significantly reduce the number of available jobs, as well as the potential for behavioral changes that will dramatically reduce the value of entire industries like sports and entertainment, don’t appear to be part of the current investment thesis, or at least have been devalued greatly. And while in the long-run, new companies and activities will replace all these losses, it seems highly unlikely they will replace them by 2021. Yet, yesterday saw US equity indices rally for the 7th day in the past eight. While this morning, futures are pointing a bit lower (SPU’s and Dow both lower by 1.2%, NASDAQ down by 0.7%), that is but a minor hiccup in the recent activity.

European markets are softer this morning as well, with virtually every major index lower by nearly 2% though Asian markets had a bit better showing with the Hang Seng (+1.1%) and Shanghai (+0.6%) both managing gains although the Nikkei (-0.4%) edged lower.

Bond markets are clearly taking a closer look at the current risk euphoria and starting to register concern as Treasury yields have tumbled 5bps this morning after a 4bp decline yesterday. We are seeing similar price action in European markets, albeit to a much lesser extent with bunds seeing yields fall only 2bps since yesterday. But, in true risk-off fashion, bonds from the PIGS have all seen yields rise as they are clearly risk assets, not havens.

And finally, the dollar is broadly stronger this morning with only the other havens; CHF (+0.3%) and JPY (+0.4%) gaining vs. the buck. On the downside, AUD is the laggard, falling 1.4% as a combination of profit taking after a humongous rally, more than 27% from the lows in March, and a warning by China’s education ministry regarding the potential risks for Chinese students returning to university in Australia have weighed on the currency. Not surprisingly, NZD is lower as well, by 1.1%, and on this risk-off day, with oil prices falling 2.5%, NOK has fallen 1.0%. But these currencies’ weakness has an awful lot to do with the dollar’s broad strength.

In the emerging markets, the Mexican peso, which had been the market’s darling for the past month, rallying from 25.00 to below 21.50 (13.5%) has reversed course this morning and is down by 1.4%. But, here too, weakness is broad based with RUB (-0.95%), PLN (-0.7%) and ZAR (-0.6%) all leading the bloc lower. The one exception in this space was KRW (+0.6%) after the announcement of some significant shipbuilding orders for Daewoo and Samsung Heavy Industries improved opinions of the nation’s near-term trade situation.

Turning to the data, although it’s not clear to me it matters much yet, we did see some horrific trade data from Germany, where their surplus fell to €3.5 billion, its smallest surplus in twenty years, and a much worse reading than anticipated as exports collapsed. Meanwhile, Eurozone Q1 GDP data was revised ever so slightly higher, to -3.6% Q/Q, but really, everyone wants to see what is happening in Q2. At home, the NFIB Small Biz Index was just released at a modestly better than expected 94.4 but has been ignored. Later this morning we see the JOLT’s Jobs data (exp 5.75M), but that is for April so seems too backward-looking to matter.

Risk is on its heels today and while hopes are growing that the Fed may do something new tomorrow, for now, given how far risk assets have rallied over the past two weeks, a little more consolidation seems a pretty good bet.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Playing Hardball

Last night China shocked one and all
With two policy shifts not too small
They’ve now become loath
To target their growth
And in Hong Kong they’re playing hardball

It seems President Xi Jinping was pining for the spotlight, at least based on last night’s news from the Middle Kingdom. On the economic front, China abandoned their GDP target for 2020, the first time this has been the case since they began targeting growth in 1994. It ought not be that surprising since trying to accurately assess the country’s growth prospects during the Covid-19 crisis is nigh on impossible. Uncertainty over the damage already done, as well as the future infection situation (remember, they have seen a renewed rise in cases lately) has rendered economists completely unable to model the situation. And recall, the Chinese track record has been remarkable when it comes to hitting their forecast, at least the published numbers have a nearly perfect record of meeting or beating their targets. The reality on the ground has been called into question many times in the past on this particular subject.

The global economic community, of course, will continue to forecast Chinese GDP and current estimates for 2020 GDP growth now hover in the 2.0% range, a far cry from the 6.1% last year and the more than 10% figures seen early in the century. Instead, the Chinese government has turned its focus to unemployment with the latest estimates showing more than 130 million people out of a job. In their own inimitable way, they manage not to count the rural unemployed, meaning the official count is just 26.1M, but that doesn’t mean those folks have jobs. At this time, President Xi is finding himself under much greater pressure than he imagined. 130 million unemployed is exactly the type of thing that leads to revolutions and Xi is well aware of the risks.

In fact, it is this issue that arguably led to the other piece of news from China last night, the newly mooted mainland legislation that will require Hong Kong to enact laws curbing acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion. In other words, a new law that will bring Hong Kong under more direct sway from Beijing and remove many of the freedoms that have set the island territory apart from the rest of the country. While Covid-19 has prevented the mass protests seen last year from continuing in Hong Kong, the sentiments behind those protests did not disappear. But Xi needs to distract his population from the onslaught of bad news regarding both the virus and the economy, and nothing succeeds in doing that better than igniting a nationalistic view on some subject.

While in the short term, this may work well for President Xi, if he destroys Hong Kong’s raison d’etre as a financial hub, the downside is likely to be much greater over time. Hong Kong remains the financial gateway to China’s economy largely because the legal system their remains far more British than Chinese. It is not clear how much investment will be looking for a home in a Hong Kong that no longer protects private property and can seize both people and assets on a whim.

It should be no surprise that financial markets in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong, suffered last night upon learning of China’s new direction. The Hang Seng fell 5.6%, its largest decline since July 2015. Even Shanghai fell, down 1.9%, which given China’s announcement of further stimulus measures despite the lack of a GDP target, were seen as positive. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the Nikkei slipped a more modest 0.9% despite pledges by Kuroda-san that the BOJ would implement even more easing measures, this time taking a page from the Fed’s book and supporting small businesses by guaranteeing bank loans made in a new ¥75 trillion (~$700 billion) program. It is possible that markets are slowly becoming inured to even further policy stimulus measures, something that would be extremely difficult for the central banking community to handle going forward.

The story in Europe is a little less dire, although most equity markets there are lower (DAX -0.4%, CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -1.0%). Overall, risk is clearly not in favor in most places around the world today which brings us to the FX markets and the dollar. Here, things are behaving exactly as one would expect when investors are fleeing from risky assets. The dollar is stronger vs. every currency except one, the yen.

Looking at the G10 bloc, NOK is the leading decliner, falling 1.1% as the price of oil has reversed some of its recent gains and is down 6% this morning. But other than the yen’s 0.1% gain, the rest of the bloc is feeling it as well, with the pound and euro both lower by 0.4% while the commodity focused currencies, CAD and AUD, are softer by 0.5%. The data releases overnight spotlight the UK, where Retail Sales declined a remarkable 18.1% in April. While this was a bit worse than expectations, I would attribute the pound’s weakness more to the general story than this particular data point.

In the EMG bloc, every market that was open saw their currency decline and there should be no surprise that the leading decliner was RUB, down 1.1% on the oil story. But we have also seen weakness across the board with the CE4 under pressure (CZK -1.0%, HUF -0.75%, PLN -0.5%, RON -0.5%) as well as weakness in ZAR (-0.7%) and MXN (-0.6%). All of these currencies had been performing reasonably well over the past several sessions when the news was more benign, but it should be no surprise that they are lower today. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that HKD was lower by just basis points, despite the fact that it has significant space to decline, even within its tight trading band.

As we head into the holiday weekend here in the US, there is no data scheduled to be released this morning. Yesterday saw Initial Claims decline to 2.44M, which takes the total since late March to over 38 million! Surveys show that 80% of those currently unemployed expect it to be temporary, but that still leaves more than 7.7M permanent job losses. Historically, it takes several years’ worth of economic growth to create that many jobs, so the blow to the economy is likely to be quite long-lasting. We also saw Existing Home Sales plummet to 4.33M from March’s 5.27M, another historic decline taking us back to levels last seen in 2012 and the recovery from the GFC.

Yesterday we also heard from Fed speakers Clarida and Williams, with both saying that things are clearly awful now, but that the Fed stood ready to do whatever is necessary to support the economy. This has been the consistent message and there is no reason to expect it to change anytime soon.

Adding it all up shows that investors seem to be looking at the holiday weekend as an excuse to reduce risk and try to reevaluate the situation as the unofficial beginning to summer approaches. Trading activity is likely to slow down around lunch time so if you need to do something, early in the morning is where you will find the most liquidity.

Good luck, have a good holiday weekend and stay safe
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Enough Wherewithal

The Chairman explained to us all
The Fed has enough wherewithal
To counter the outbreak
But, too, Congress must take
More actions to halt the shortfall

The US equity markets led global stocks lower after selling off in the wake of comments from Chairman Powell yesterday morning. In what was a surprisingly realistic, and therefore, downbeat assessment, he explained that while the Fed still had plenty of monetary ammunition, further fiscal spending was necessary to prevent an even worse economic and humanitarian crisis. He also explained that any recovery would take time, and that the greatest risk was the erosion of skills that would occur as a huge swathe of the population is out of work. It cannot be a surprise that the equity markets sold off in the wake of those comments, with a weak session ending on its lows. It is also not surprising that Asian markets overnight followed US indices lower (Nikkei -1.75%, Hang Seng -1.45%, Shanghai -1.0%), nor that European markets are all in the red this morning (DAX -1.6%, CAC -1.7%, FTSE 100 -2.2%). What is a bit surprising is that US futures, at least as I type, are mixed, with the NASDAQ actually a touch higher, while both the Dow and S&P 500 see losses of just 0.2%. However, overall, risk is definitely on its back foot this morning.

But the Chairman raised excellent points regarding the timeline for any recovery and the potential negative impacts on economic activity going forward. The inherent conflict between the strategy of social distance and shelter in place vs. the required social interactions of so much economic activity is not a problem easily solved. At what point do government rules preventing businesses from operating have a greater negative impact than the marginal next case of Covid-19? What we have learned since January, when this all began in Wuhan, China, is that the greater the ability of a government to control the movement of its population, the more success that government has had preventing the spread of the disease. Alas, from that perspective, the inherent freedoms built into the US, and much of the Western World, are at extreme odds with those government controls/demands. As I have mentioned in the past, I do not envy policymakers their current role, as no matter the decision, it will be called into question by a large segment of the population.

What, though, are we now to discern about the future? Despite significant fiscal stimulus already enacted by many nations around the world, it is clearly insufficient to replace the breadth of lost activity. Central banks remain the most efficient way to add stimulus, alas they have demonstrated a great deal of difficulty applying it to those most in need. And so, despite marginally positive news regarding the slowing growth rate of infections, the global economy is not merely distraught, but seems unlikely to rebound in a sharp fashion in the near future. Q2 has already been written off by analysts, and markets, but the question that seems to be open is what will happen in Q3 and beyond. While we have seen equity weakness over the past two sessions, broadly speaking equity markets are telling us that things are going to be improving greatly while bond markets continue to point to a virtual lack of growth. Reading between the lines of the Chairman’s comments, he seems to be siding with the bond market for now.

Into this mix, we must now look at the dollar, and its behavior of late. This morning had seen modest movement until about 6:30, when the dollar started to rally vs. most of its G10 counterparts. As I type, NOK, SEK and AUD are all lower by 0.5% or so. The Aussie story is quite straightforward as the employment report saw the loss of nearly 600K jobs, a larger number than expected, with the consequences for the economy seen as potentially dire. While restrictions are beginning to be eased there, the situation remains one of a largely closed economy relying on central bank and government largesse for any semblance of economic activity. As to the Nordic currencies, SEK fell after a weaker than expected CPI report encouraged investors to believe that the Riksbank, which had fought so hard to get their financing rate back to 0.00% from several years in negative territory, may be forced back below zero. NOK, however, is a bit more confusing as there was no data to see, no comments of note, and the other big key, oil, is actually higher this morning by more than 4%. Sometimes, however, FX movement is not easily explained on the surface. It is entirely possible that we are seeing a large order go through the market. Remember, too, that while the krone is the worst performing G10 currency thus far in 2020, it has managed to rally more than 7% since late April, and so we are more likely seeing some ordinary back and forth in the markets.

One other comment of note in the G10 space was from BOE Governor Andrew Bailey, who reiterated that negative interest rates currently have no place in the BOE toolkit and are not necessary. While the comments didn’t impact the pound, which is lower by 0.25% as I type, it continues to be an important distinction as along with Chairman Powell, the US and the UK are the only two G10 nations that refuse to countenance the idea of NIRP, at least so far.

In the emerging markets, what had been a mixed and quiet session earlier has turned into a pretty strong USD performance overall. The worst performer is ZAR, currently down 0.9% the South African yield curve bear-steepens amid continued unloading of 10-year bonds by investors. But it is not just the rand falling this morning, we are seeing weakness in the CE4 (CZK -0.7%, HUF -0.5%, PLN -0.4%) and once again the Mexican peso is finding itself under strain. While the CE4 appear to simply be following the lead of the euro (-0.35%), perhaps with a bit more exuberance, I think the peso continues to be one of the more interesting stories out there.

Both MXN and BRL have been dire performers all year, with the two currencies being the worst two performers in the past three months and having fallen more than 20% each. Both currencies continue to be extremely volatile, with daily ranges averaging in excess of 2% for the past two months. The biggest difference is that BRL has seen a significant amount of direct intervention by the BCB to prevent further weakness, while MXN continues to be a 100% free float. The other thing to recall is that MXN is frequently seen as a proxy for all LATAM because of its relatively better liquidity and availability. The point is, further problems in Brazil (and they are legion as President Bolsonaro struggles to rule amid political fractures and Covid-19) may well result in a much weaker Mexican peso. This is so even if oil prices rebound substantially.

Turning to data, we see the weekly Initial Claims number (exp 2.5M) and Continuing Claims (25.12M), but otherwise that’s really it. While we have three more Fed speakers, Kashkari, Bostic and Kaplan, on the calendar, I think after yesterday’s Powell comments, the market may be happier not to hear their views. All the evidence points to an overbought risk atmosphere that needs to correct at some point. As that occurs, the dollar should retain its bid overall.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Risk Off’s Set To Soar

Though April saw rallies galore
In equities, bonds and much more
The first days of May
Seem set to convey
A tale that risk-off’s set to soar

Last week finished on a down note for risk appetite, as we saw equities decline sharply on Friday, at least in those markets that were open, as well as the first cracks in the rebound in currencies vs. the dollar. This morning, those trends are starting to reassert themselves and we look to be heading toward a full-blown risk-off session.

A quick recap reminds us that Thursday, which was month end, saw a modest decline in equities which was easily attributed to portfolio rebalancing. After all, the April rally was impressive in any context, let alone the current situation where huge swathes of the global economy have been shuttered for more than a month. Friday, while a holiday in many markets around the world, saw far more significant equity market declines in countries that were open, with US markets falling between 2.5% and 3.2%. The weekend saw loads of stories highlighting the adage, ‘Sell in May and go away’, as an appropriate strategy this year. This was compounded by the far more bearish take by Warren Buffett regarding the US economy, where he explained that Berkshire Hathaway had exited its positions in airline stocks and instead had grown its cash pile to $138 billion. These are not the signs of confidence that investors crave, and so this morning, European equity markets are all much lower, led by the CAC (-4.0%) and DAX (-3.5%). While both China and Japan were closed for holidays, the Hang Seng had a terrible performance, falling 4.2%, and we saw sharp declines throughout the rest of Emerging Asia. Meanwhile, US futures markets are all lower by about 1% as I type.

I guess the question at hand remains the sustainability of last month’s price action. Right now, there are two key subjects where the underlying narrative is up for grabs; risk appetite and inflation. For the former, there is a large contingent who believe that the worst is over with respect to Covid-19, and its spread is abating. This means that over the course of the next few weeks and months, economies are going to reopen and that the situation will return to normal. There is much talk of a V-shaped recovery on the strength of the extraordinary efforts of central banks and governments around the world. The flip side of this argument is that despite the tentative steps toward reopening economies worldwide, the pace of recovery will be significantly slower than the pace of the decline. Concerns about how much of the economy has been irrevocably destroyed, with small businesses worldwide closing, and unemployment everywhere rising sharply, are rife. While we are still in the first half of Q1 earnings season, the data to date have not been pretty, and remember, the virus only became a significant issue in March, generally. This implies that the bearish view may have more legs, and it is the side I believe fits the fact pattern more accurately.

The inflation narrative is just as fierce, with the hard money advocates all decrying the central bank activity as opening the door to currency collapses and hyperinflation right around the corner. Meanwhile, the other side of the argument looks to the history of the past twenty years, where Japan has been printing yen and effectively monetizing its debt, while still unable to achieve any sort of inflation at all. In this case, I think the deflationistas make the best case for the near term, as the combination of unprecedented demand destruction as well as extraordinary growth in debt both point to slower growth and price declines in the short and medium term. However, that is not to ignore the fact that central banks have gone far outside the boundaries of what had traditionally been viewed as their bailiwick, and especially if we do see a debt jubilee of some type, where government debt owned by a nation’s own central bank is forgiven, then the opportunity for a significant inflationary outcome remains on the table. Just not right away.

Adding it up for today points to a reduced risk appetite as evidenced by those equity markets that are open. Bond markets have not played along as one might have expected, with Treasury yields lower by only 1bp, and Bund yields, along with the rest of Europe’s, actually higher this morning. That price action seems to be a response to concerns over the outcome of the German Constitutional Court’s ruling due tomorrow, regarding the legality of QE, the PEPP and, perhaps more critically, the necessity of the ECB to follow the Capital Key when purchasing bonds.

In the FX markets, the dollar has resumed its role as king of the world, rallying against every currency except the yen, which has essentially stayed flat. In the G10 space, NOK is the leading decliner, down 1.2% as oil prices are back on the schneid with WTI down 6.3% this morning. But we are seeing the pound (-0.8%) and Swedish krone (-0.7%) under significant pressure as well. GBP traders are looking ahead to Thursday’s BOE meeting where expectations are rising for another bout of policy ease, which fits in with the broad risk-off framework. The krone, meanwhile, is suffering as the Riksbank finds itself in a difficult spot regarding its QE program. It seems that despite its claims that it would be purchasing not only government bonds, but corporates as well, that is illegal based on the bank’s guiding legislation, and so there is some monetary policy confusion now undermining the currency.

In the EMG space, IDR (-1.45%) and RUB (-1.3%) have been the weakest performers, with the ruble suffering from both weaker oil prices as well as the recent increase in the pace of infections in Russia. While things there are already under pressure, they could well get worse before they get better. Meanwhile, Indonesia saw a reversal of half of last week’s currency gains as PMI data (27.5) highlighted just how weak the near-term looks for the island nation. While the bulk of the rest of the space has suffered on the back of the overall risk-off sentiment, there has been a later reversal in ZAR, where the rand is now higher by 0.75% after its PMI data surprised one and all by printing at 46.1, well above expectations and a very modest decline compared to March, albeit still in contractionary territory.

On the docket this week, we see a great deal of information culminating in the payroll report on Friday, and that is certain to be frightful.

Today Factory Orders -9.4%
Tuesday Trade Balance -$44.2B
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 37.8
Wednesday ADP Employment -20.5M
Thursday Initial Claims -3.0M
  Continuing Claims -19.6M
  Nonfarm Productivity -5.5%
  Unit Labor Costs 3.8%
  Consumer Credit $15.0B
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls -21.3M
  Private Payrolls -21.7M
  Manufacturing Payrolls -2.25M
  Unemployment Rate 16.0%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (3.3% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 33.5
  Participation Rate 61.6%

Source: Bloomberg

The range of expectations for the payroll number highlight the ongoing confusion, with estimates between -840K and -30.0M. Regardless, the number will be a record, of that there is no doubt.

In addition to all this data, we hear from the RBA and the BOE on Thursday, with further ease on the cards, and we get to hear from five different Fed speakers. In these unprecedented times, as policymakers struggle to keep up with the economic destruction, we will soon become inured to shocking data. But that will not make it any better, and I fear that shock or not, risk appetites will continue to diminish as the month, and year, progresses. This means that the dollar is likely to retain its bid for a while yet.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Bit Out of Sorts

The ECB stepped to the plate
Effectively cutting the rate
At which it will lend
To help countries spend
As well, to help prices inflate

But last night some earnings reports
Put traders a bit out of sorts
And too, from Down Under
It’s really no wonder
The data inspired some shorts

With many markets globally closed today for the May Day holiday, one would have expected fairly limited price action overall. One would have been wrong. In fact, despite the best efforts of the ECB yesterday to demonstrate further support for the European economies, it turns out that disappointing data has suddenly been recognized. This data story started last evening with key Tech earnings reports from two of the FAANG stocks, both disappointing on the profit side and calling into question the ability of even these companies to be able to withstand the remarkable demand shrinkage caused by Covid-19.

Then, though most of Asia was closed for the holiday, Australia (Manufacturing Index) and New Zealand (Consumer Confidence) both reported weaker than expected economic data. Suddenly, it seems that data was an important issue for markets, a change of recent heart. And there is one more thing to remember, the calendar turned the page. The calendar matters because, especially given the remarkable price action in April, there was a significant amount of month-end rebalancing in institutional portfolios. Remember, we saw a sharp rally in stocks, so it should be no surprise that they were sold off in order for portfolios to get back to desired asset allocations.

Taking it all together resulted in some serious equity market declines in the few markets open overnight, with the Nikkei (-2.85%) and Australia’s ASX 200 (-5.0%) putting in truly awful performances. Meanwhile, in Europe, only the FTSE 100 is trading today, and it is lower by 2.1%. US futures are following suit, currently down around 2.0% across the board.

So, what of the ECB’s actions? Well, they effectively cut interest rates by lowering the rate at which TLTRO funds are borrowed by 0.25%, to -0.25%. That means that Eurozone banks which lend new money to companies can earn to fund themselves. A pretty sweet deal if they charge a positive rate on the loans. In addition, they created yet another loan program, the PELTRO, which has even lower rates, as low as -1.0% funding costs for banks lending under this criterion. Of course, the problem remains that while many companies may borrow in order to try to get through the current ceasing of activity, future growth opportunities will simply be further hindered by the additional debt on corporate balance sheets. Two other things of note from the ECB are that they did not increase their QE programs as there remains considerable concern that the German Constitutional Court may rule next week that QE is illegal, essentially funding governments throughout the Eurozone, and that will call into question everything they have done. The second was the dire forecast from Madame Lagarde that Eurozone growth could see GDP shrink 12% in 2020, which if you consider yesterday’s Q1 data (-3.8% Q/Q) implies a modest rebound by year end.

Turning to the FX markets, it can be no surprise that both AUD (-1.0%) and NZD (-0.8%) are the worst performing currencies in the G10 space. Not only did both report lousy data, but both (AUD +17%, NZD +13%) have been rallying pretty steadily since their nadir on March 19. Thus, if the paradigm is changing back to the future is not as bright, I would look for both these currencies to give up much of last month’s rally. Meanwhile, the oil proxies, CAD (-0.6%) and NOK (-0.7%) are both suffering from oil’s modest declines this morning, with WTI ceding about 2.0% of its recent spectacular gains. After all, even ignoring the odd dip into negative territory two weeks ago, oil has rallied more than 200% since that fateful day, based on the June WTI contract. On the plus side, we see JPY (+0.35%) on what appears to be a modest risk-off trade, leading the way higher, with the rest of the bloc +/- 0.2% and lacking any new information.

EMG currencies have been largely spared movement overnight as the APAC bloc was closed for the holiday although CNH has managed to fall 0.6% in the absence of a domestic market. The three main deliverable EMG currencies, MXN (-1.4%), ZAR (-1.4%) and TRY (-0.7%) have a decidedly risk-off tone to their price action, with the peso being truly impressive. Since Tuesday, we have seen MXN first rally 5.0% then decline 4.1% from its peak. Net it is stronger, but the current trend seems to point to further weakness. Again, if the risk appetite from April begins to wane further, these currencies have the opportunity to fall significantly.

On the data front, this morning brings Construction Spending (exp -3.5%) and ISM Manufacturing (36.0) with the Prices Paid (33.0) and New Orders (30.0) indices looking equally dire. Yesterday we learned that Personal Income fell sharply, and Personal Spending fell even more sharply, a record-breaking 7.5% decline. Initial Claims data was a touch weaker than the median forecast at 3.84M with Continuing Claims (which lag the Initial claims data by a week) not rising quite as much as expected, to ‘just’ 18.0M.

Ultimately, the history of Covid-19’s impact will be written as the most extraordinary destruction of demand in history. The US (and global) economy had evolved from a manufacturing base a century ago, to a service-based economy par excellence. Nobody considered what shelter-in-place and social distancing would do to that construct. It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to that is those restrictions will cause extreme economic damage that is likely to take several years to recoup. Alas, we are not done with this disease, and the restrictions will continue to wreak havoc on the global economy, and asset values, for a while yet. We have not seen the last of risk-off, nor the last of the dollar’s strength.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
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How Far Did It Sink?

This morning the data we’ll see
Is highlighted by GDP
How far did it sink?
And is there a link
Twixt that and the FOMC?

Which later today will convene
And talk about Covid-19
What more can they do
To help us all through
The havoc that we all have seen

Market activity has been somewhat mixed amid light volumes as we await the next two important pieces of information to add to the puzzle. Starting us off this morning will be the first look at Q1 GDP in the US. Remember, the virus really didn’t have an impact on the US economy until the first week of March, although the speed of its impact, both on markets and the broad economy were unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I created a very rough model to forecast Q1 GDP and came up with a number of -13.6% +/- 2%. This was based on the idea that economic activity was cut in half for the last three weeks of the month and had been reduced by 25% during the first week. My model was extremely rough, did not take into account any specific factors and was entirely based on anecdotal evidence. After all, sheltering in home, it is exceedingly difficult to survey actual activity. As it turns out, my ‘forecast’ is much more bearish than the professional chattering classes which, according to the Bloomberg survey, shows the median expectation is for a reading of -4.0%, with forecasts ranging from 0.0% to -10.0%. Ultimately, a range of forecasts this wide tells us that nobody has any real idea what this number is going to look like.

Too, remember that while things have gotten worse throughout April, as much of the nation has been locked down, the latest headlines highlight how many places will be easing restrictions in the coming days and weeks. So, it appears that the worst of the impact will straddle March and April, an inconvenient time for quarterly reporting. In the end, the issue for markets is just how much devastation is already reflected in prices and perhaps more importantly, how quick of a recovery is now embedded in the price. It is this last point which gives me pause as to the current levels in equity markets, as well as the overall risk framework. The evidence points to a strong investor belief that the trillions of dollars of support by central banks and governments around the world is going to ensure that V-shaped rebound. If that does not materialize (and I, for one, am extremely skeptical it will), then a repricing of risk is sure to follow.

The other key feature today is the FOMC meeting, with the normal schedule of a 2:00 statement release and a 2:30 press conference. There are no updated forecasts due to be released, and the general consensus is that the Fed is unlikely to add any new programs to the remarkable array of programs already initiated. Arguably, the biggest question for today’s meeting is will they try to clarify their forward guidance regarding the future path of rates and policy or is it still too early to change the view that policy will remain accommodative until the economy weather’s the storm.

While hard money advocates bash the Fed and many complain that their array of actions has actually crossed into illegality, Chairman Powell and his crew are simply trying to alleviate the greatest disruption any economy has ever seen while staying within a loose interpretation of the previous guidelines. Powell did not create the virus, nor did he spend a decade as Fed chair allowing significant financial excesses to be built up. For all the grief he takes, he is simply trying to clean up a major mess that he inherited. But market pundits make their living on being ‘smarter’ than the officials about whom they write, so don’t expect the commentary to change any time soon.

With that as prelude, a survey of this morning’s activity shows that equity markets in Europe are generally slightly higher, although a few, France and Switzerland, are in the red. Interestingly, Italy’s FTSE MIB is higher by 0.4% despite the surprise move by Fitch to cut Italy’s credit rating to BBB-, the lowest investment grade rating and now the same as Moody’s rating. S&P seems to have succumbed to political pressure last week and left their rating one notch higher at BBB although with a negative outlook. Though Italian stocks are holding in, BTP’s (Italian government bonds) have fallen this morning with yields rising 4bps. In fact, a conundrum this morning is the fact that the bond market is clearly in risk-off mode, with Treasury and bund yields lower (2bp and 3bp respectively) while PIGS yields are all higher. Meanwhile, European equities are performing fairly well, US equity futures are all higher by between 0.5%-1.0%, and the dollar is softer virtually across the board. These latter signal a more risk-on scenario.

Speaking of the dollar, it is lower vs. all its G10 counterparts except the pound this morning although earlier gains of as much as 1.0% by AUD and NZD have been cut by more than half as NY walks in. This currency strength is despite weaker than expected Confidence data from the Eurozone, although with an ECB meeting tomorrow, market participants are beginning to bet on Madame Lagarde adding to the ECB’s PEPP. Meanwhile, CAD and NOK seem to be benefitting from a small rebound in the price of oil, although that seems tenuous at best given the fear of holding the front contract after last week’s dip into negative territory on the previous front contract.

EMG currencies are also uniformly stronger this morning, led by IDR (+1.0%) after a well-received government bond issuance increased confidence the country will be able to get through the worst of the virus’ impact. We are also seeing ZAR (+0.9%) firmer on the modestly increased risk appetite, and MXN (+0.7%) follow yesterday’s rally of nearly 1.7% as the worst fears over a collapse in LATAM activity dissipate. Yesterday also saw Brazil’s real rebound 2.75%, which is largely due to aggressive intervention by the central bank. The background story in the country continues to focus on the political situation with the resignation of Justice Minister Moro and yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that an investigation into President Bolsonaro could continue regarding his firing of the police chief. However, BRL had fallen nearly 14% in the previous two weeks, so some rebound should not be surprising. In fact, on a technical basis, a move back to 5.40 seems quite viable. However, in the event the global risk appetite begins to wane again, look for BRL to once again underperform.

Overall, this mixed session seems to be more likely to evolve toward a bit of risk aversion than risk embrasure unless the Fed brings us something new and unexpected. Remember, any positive sign from the GDP data just means that Q2 will be that much worse, not that things are better overall.

Good luck and stay safe
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