Riddle Me This

On Monday, the dollar went higher
Though stocks, people still did acquire
So riddle me this
Is something amiss?
Or did links twixt markets expire?

The risk-on/risk-off framework has been critical in helping market participants understand, and anticipate, market movements.  The idea stems from the fact that market psychology can be gleaned from the herd behavior of investors.  As a recap, observation has shown that a risk-off market is one where haven assets rally while those perceived as riskier decline.  This means that Treasury bonds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, US dollars and oftentimes gold are seen as stable stores of value and see significant demand during periods of fear.  Similarly, equities, credit and most commodities are seen as much riskier, with less staying power and tend to suffer during those times.  Correspondingly, a risk-on framework is typified by the exact opposite market movements, as investors are unconcerned over potential problems and greed drives their activities.

What made this framework so useful was that for those who interacted with the market only periodically, for example corporate hedgers, they could take a measure of the market tone and get a sense of when the best time might be to execute their needed activities.  (It also helped pundits because a quick look at the screens would help explain the bulk of the movement across all markets.)  And, in truth, we have been living in a risk-on/risk-off world since the Asia crisis and Long Term Capital bankruptcy in 1998.  That was also the true genesis of the Powell (nee Greenspan) Put where the Fed was quick to respond to any downward movement in equity markets (risk coming off) by easing monetary policy.  Not surprisingly, once the market forced the Fed’s hand into easing policy, it would revert to snapping up as much risk as possible.

Of course, what we have seen over the past two plus decades is that the size of each downdraft has grown, and in turn, given the law of diminishing returns, the size of the monetary response has grown even more, perhaps exponentially.

Overall, market participants have become quite comfortable with this operating framework as it made decision-making easier and created profit opportunities for the nimblest players.  After all, in either framework, a movement in a stock index was almost assured to see a specific movement in both bonds and the dollar.  Given that stocks are typically seen as the most visible risk signal, causality almost always moved in that direction.

But lately, this broad framework is being called into question.  Yesterday was a perfect example, where stock markets performed admirably, rising between 0.75% and 2.5% throughout the G10 economies and at the same time, the dollar rose along with bond yields.  Now I grant you that neither increase was hugely significant, and in fact it faded somewhat toward the end of the session, but nonetheless, the correlations had the wrong sign.  And yesterday was not the first time we have seen that price action, it has been happening more frequently over the past several months.

So, the question is, has something fundamental changed?  Or is this merely a quirk of recent markets?  Looking at the nature of the assets in question, I think it is safe to say that both equities and credit remain risk assets which are solidly representative of investors’ overall risk appetite.  In fact, I challenge anyone to make the case in any other way.  If this is the case, then it points to a change in the nature of the haven assets.

Regarding bonds, specifically Treasuries, there is a growing dispersion of views as to their ultimate use as a safe haven.  I don’t believe anyone is actually concerned with being repaid, the Fed will print the dollars necessary to do so, but rather with the safety of holding an asset with almost no return (10-year yields at 0.54%, real yields at -1.0%), that correspondingly has massive convexity.  This means that in the event bonds start to sell off, every basis point higher results in a much more significant capital depreciation, exactly the opposite of what one would be seeking in a haven asset.  Quite frankly, I don’t think this issue gets enough press, but it is also not the purview of this commentary.

Which takes us to the dollar, and the yen and Swiss franc.  Here the narrative continues to evolve toward the idea that given the extraordinary amount of monetary and fiscal ease promulgated by the US, the dollar’s value as a haven asset ought to diminish.  Ironically, I believe that the narrative argument is exactly backwards.  In fact, the creation of all those dollars (which by the way has been in response to extraordinary foreign demand) makes the dollar that much more critical in times of stress and should reinforce the idea of the dollar as a safe haven.  The one thing of which you can be certain is that the dollar will be there and allow the holder to acquire other things.  And after all, isn’t that what a haven is supposed to do?  A haven asset is one which will maintain its value during times of stress.  This encompasses its value as a medium of exchange, as well as a store of value.  Dollars, at this point, will always be accepted for payment of debt, and that is real value.  In the end, I expect that recent market activity is anomalous and that we are going to see a return to the basic risk-on/risk-off framework by the Autumn.

Today, however, continues to show market ambivalence.  Other than Asian equity markets, which were generally strong on the back of yesterday’s US performance, the picture today is mixed.  European bourses show no pattern (DAX -0.4%, CAC +0.1%), US futures are ever so slightly softer and bond markets are very modestly firmer (yields lower) with 10-year Treasuries down 1.5bps.

However, along with these movements, the dollar and yen are generally a bit softer. Or perhaps a better description is that the dollar is mixed.  We have seen dollar strength vs. some EMG currencies (ZAR -1.35%, RUB -0.9%, MXN -0.5%) all of which are feeling the strains of declining commodity prices (WTI and Brent both -1.5%).  But several Asian currencies along with the CE4 have all continued to perform well this morning, notably THB (+0.45%) as investor demand for baht bonds continues to grow.  In the G10 space, the picture is mixed as well, with the pound the worst performer (-0.3%) and the Swiss franc the best (+0.25%).  The thing is, given the modest amount of movement, it is difficult to spin much of a story in either case.  If we continue to see eqity market weakness today, I do expect the dollar will improved slightly as the session progresses.

As to data for the rest of the week, there is plenty with payrolls the piece de resistance on Friday:

Today Factory Orders 5.0%
Wednesday ADP Employment 1.2M
  Trade Balance -$50.2B
  ISM Services Index 55.0
Thursday Initial Claims 1.414M
  Continuing Claims 16.9M
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls 1.5M
  Private Payrolls 1.35M
  Manufacturing Payrolls 280K
  Unemployment Rate 10.5%
  Average Hourly Earnings -0.5% (4.2% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.4
  Participation Rate 61.8%
  Consumer Credit $10.0B

Source: Bloomberg

The thing is, while all eyes will be on the payroll report on Friday, I still believe Thursday’s Initial Claims number is more important as it gives a much timelier indication of the current economic situation.  If we continue to plateau at 1.4 million lost jobs a week, that is quite a negative sign for the economy.  Meanwhile, there are no Fed speakers today, although yesterday we heard a chorus of, ‘rates will be lower for longer and if inflation runs hot there are no concerns’.  Certainly, that type of discussion will undermine the dollar vs. some other currencies but does not presage a collapse (after all, the BOJ has been saying the same thing for more than two decades and the yen hasn’t collapsed!).  For the day, I expect that the market is getting just a bit nervous and we may see a modest decline in stocks and a modest rally in the dollar.

Finally, I am taking several days off so there will be no poetry until Monday, August 10.

Good luck, stay safe and have a good rest of the week



About to Retrace

The question investors must face
Is what type of risk to embrace
Are we in a movie
Where things turn out groovy?
Or are stocks about to retrace?

The risk narrative is having a harder time these days as previous rules of engagement seem to have changed. For instance, historically, when risk was ‘off’, stock prices fell, government bond markets rallied, although credit spreads would widen, the dollar and the yen, and to an extent the Swiss franc, would all out perform the rest of the currency world and gold would outperform the rest of the commodity complex. Risk on would see the opposite movement in all these markets. Trading any product successfully mostly required one to understand the narrative and then respond mechanically. Those were the days!

Lately, the risk narrative has been in flux, as a combination of massive central bank interference across most markets and evolving views on the nature of the global geopolitical framework have called into question many of the previous market assumptions.

The adjustments have been greatest within the bond markets as global debt issuance has exploded higher ever since the GFC in 2009, taking an even sharper turn up in the wake of Covid-19. Of course, central banks have been so heavily involved in the market via QE purchases that it is no longer clear what the bond market is describing. Classical economics explained that countries that issued excessive debt ultimately saw their interest rates rise and their currencies devalue amidst an inflationary spike. However, it seems that theory must be discarded because the empirical evidence has shown that massive government debt issuance has resulted in low inflation and relative currency stability for most nations.

The MMT crowd will explain this is the natural response and should be expected because government spending is an unalloyed good that can be expanded indefinitely with nary a consequence. Meanwhile, the Austrians are hyperventilating over the idea that the ongoing expansion of both government spending and debt issuance will result in a debt deflation and anemic growth for as long as that debt remains a weight on the economy.

These days, the distortion in the bond markets has rendered them unrecognizable to investors with any longevity. Central banks are actively buying not only their own government debt, but corporate debt (IG and junk) and municipal debt. Thus, credit spreads have been compressed to record low levels despite the fact that the current economic situation is one of a cataclysmic collapse in activity. Bankruptcies are growing, but debt continues to be sought by investors worldwide. At some point, this final dichotomy will reconcile itself, but for now, central banks rule the roost.

Equity markets have taken a slightly different tack; when things are positive, buy the FANGMAT group of stocks before anything else, although other purchases are allowed. But when it is time to be concerned because the economic story is in question, simply buy FANGMAT and don’t touch any other stocks. If you remove those seven stocks from the indices, the result is that the S&P and NASDAQ have done virtually nothing since the crash in March, and US markets have actually underperformed their European brethren. Of course, those stocks are in the indices, so cannot be ignored, but the question that must be asked is, based on their current valuation of >$6.8 trillion, are they really worth more than the GDP of Germany and the UK combined? While yesterday saw a modest sell-off in the US, which has continued overnight (Hang Seng -2.2%, Shanghai -3.9%, DAX -1.5%, CAC -1.3%) the fact remains stock markets continue to price in a V-shaped recovery and nothing less. And since stock markets tend to drive the overall narrative, if that story changes, beware the movement elsewhere.

It should be noted that yesterday’s Initial Claims data, printing at 1.41M, the first rise in the data point since March, bodes ill for the idea that growth is going to quickly return to pre-Covid levels. And given the uncertainty over how long that recovery will take, stocks may soon be telling us a different story. Just stay alert.

While idioms tell us what’s bold
Is brass, we must all now behold
The barbarous relic
Whose rise seems angelic
Of course, I’m referring to gold!

Turning to precious metals as risk indicators, price action in both gold and silver indicates a great deal of underlying concern in the current market framework. Gold, as you cannot have missed, is fast approaching $1900/oz and its record high level of $1921 is in sight. Silver, while still well below its all-time highs of $49.80/oz, has rallied more than 24% in July, and is gaining more and more adherents. The key unknown is whether this is due to an impending fear of economic calamity, or simply the fact that real interest rates have turned negative throughout the G10 nations and so the cost of owning gold is de minimis.

For the conspiracy theorists, the concern is that ongoing central bank money printing is going to ultimately debase the value of all currencies, so while they may remain relatively stable in the FX markets, their value in purchasing real goods will greatly diminish. In other words, inflation, that the central banks so fervently desire, will reveal itself as a much greater threat than currently imagined by most. Here, too, the geopolitics comes into play, as there is growing concern that the current tit-for-tat squabbles between the US and China will escalate into a more dangerous situation, one where shots are fired in anger, at which times gold is seen as the ultimate safe haven. Personally, I do not believe the US-China situation deteriorates into a hot war as while both presidents need to show they are strong and tough against their rivals, thus the rhetoric and diplomatic squabbles, neither can afford a war.

And finally, to the FX market, where the dollar has clearly lost its luster as the ultimate safe haven, a title it held as recently as two month’s ago. While today’s movement is relatively benign across all currencies, what we have seen this month is a dollar declining against the entire G10 bloc and the bulk of the EMG bloc as well, with several currencies (CLP +7.0%, HUF +5.4%, SEK +5.2%) showing impressive gains. If we think back to the narrative heading into the July 4th holiday, it was focused on the upcoming payroll release and the recent FOMC meeting which had everyone buying into the risk-on narrative. That came from the fact that the payroll data was MUCH better than expected and the Fed made clear they were going to stand ready to continue to add liquidity to markets forever, if they deemed it necessary. Back then, the euro was trading just above 1.12, and its future path seemed uncertain to most. But now, here we are just three weeks later, and the euro has been rising steadily despite the fact that concerns continue to grow over the growth narrative.

Is the euro becoming the new haven currency of last resort? That seems a bit premature, although the EU’s recent agreement to issue mutual debt and inaugurate a more fulsome EU-wide fiscal policy will be an important part of that story in the future. But for now, it seems that there is an almost willful blindness on the part of the investor community as they pay lip service to worries about the recovery’s shape but continue to find succor in (previous) risk-on assets.

While the dollar today is mixed with limited movement in any currency, there is no doubt the FX narrative is evolving toward ‘the dollar has much further to fall between the political chaos and the still positive view of the economy’s future. But remember this, while the dollar has traded to its weakest point in about two years, it is far away from any level that could be considered weak. Current momentum is against the dollar, and if the euro were to trade to resistance between 1.17-1.18, it would not be surprising, but already the pace of its decline has been ebbing, so I do not expect a collapse of any sort, rather a further gradual decline seems the best bet for now.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe


Rule By Decree

The virus continues to be
Our number one priority
The global response
Has been to ensconce
The idea of rule by decree

Thus governments, both left and right
Expand as they all try to fight
Their total demise
And what that implies
‘Bout politics as a birthright

Covid-19 has created a new lens through which we view everything these days, from financial market activity to whether or not to answer the doorbell. And in every task, we have become more circumspect as to the potential effects of our choices. As Dorothy said, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” But despite the major upheavals we have seen, we must still seek the best possible outcomes at our appointed tasks, be they as important caring for our loved ones, or as mundane as hedging FX risk. Of course, this note talks about the latter not the former, so while I truly wish you all to stay healthy and safe, that will not be the topic du jour.

Instead, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss just how much firepower central banks and governments have thrown at Covid-19, or more accurately at the disruptions the spread of the virus has wrought. I have gathered from central bank websites the remarkable amount of actions that they have taken so far in just March of this year. This is not meant to be exhaustive but merely illustrative of the breadth of activity we have seen:

Central Bank Rate cuts Current rate QE  Bio USD equivalent
Fed -1.50% 0.25% 5000
BOC -1.50% 0.25% 90
Norgesbank -1.25% 0.25%
RBNZ -0.75% 0.25%
Chile -0.75% 1.00%
RBI -0.75% 4.40% 12
Bank of England -0.65% 0.10% 240
RBA -0.50% 0.25% 80
BOKorea -0.50% 0.75%
Philippines -0.50% 3.75%
BCBrazil -0.50% 3.75%
Colombia -0.50% 3.75%
Banxico -0.50% 6.50%
Thailand -0.25% 0.75%
Indonesia -0.25% 4.50%
PBOC -0.20% 2.20%
SNB 0.00% -0.75%
ECB 0.00% -0.50% 1100
BOJ 0.00% -0.10% 205
Riksbank 0.00% 0.00% 30
MASingapore 0.00% 1.26%
Russia 0.00% 6.00%
Danmark Nationalbank 0.15% -0.60%

The collective amount of rate cutting has been 10.70%! And QE that was easily confirmed now totals more than $6.75 trillion equivalent. Central banks are pulling out all the stops. Meanwhile, governments, to the extent they are separate than central banks, have been adding fiscal stimulus by the truckload as they create inventive new ways to support both businesses and individuals in this most remarkable of situations. Will it be enough to stem the tide? Only time will tell, but nobody can accuse these officials of not trying, that’s for sure.

Of course, as I have discussed previously, the biggest concern ought to be just how much of the economy is controlled by governments, especially in ostensibly free market nations, when all this finally passes. And even more importantly, how quickly they reduce that control. Alas, if history is any guide, it will require a revolution for governments to cede their grip on the economy, and by extension the power it brings. There is a book, “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe, which discusses the cycles of history. It is a fascinating read, and one which seems quite prescient as to the current global political situation. I highly recommend taking a look.

In the end, what seems quite certain is that what we assumed was normal just two months ago may never return. This is true of businesses as well as market behaviors. Safe havens have lost much of their luster as investors find themselves in a very difficult situation. How can getting paid just 0.6% nominally for 10 years (current 10-year treasury yield) be considered a safe place to hold your funds with inflation running at 2.3%, and after a likely short-term deflationary bout due to demand destruction, set to move to heights not seen since prior to the GFC? Of course, the answer is, it can’t. But then Treasuries have a higher return than Gilts, Bunds or JGB’s, the other nations to which one would naturally gravitate for a safe haven. Equities certainly don’t create warm and fuzzy feelings given the extraordinary situation with businesses shutting down everywhere and revenues and earnings collapsing. Commodities? Even gold has had a tough time, although it is marginally higher since all this really got going in earnest, but as a safe haven? Cryptocurrencies? (LOL). In fact, despite the ongoing depreciation of the dollar through creeping inflation, Benjamins are clearly the one thing that remain accepted as a place to maintain value. They are fungible and recognized worldwide as a store of value and medium of exchange. It is with this in mind that we should recognize the near-term outlook for the dollar should remain positive.

So what has happened overnight? The dollar is king once again, rising against all its G10 counterparts with CAD the laggard, -1.1%, after oil prices once again sold off sharply (WTI briefly traded below $20/bbl and isdown about 5.2%) this morning. But the weakness is widespread with SEK -1.0% and EUR -0.8% following closely behind the Loonie. European data released this morning showed, not surprisingly, that Economic Confidence (94.5 from 103.5) had fallen at its fastest pace ever, although it has not yet plumbed the depths of the Eurozone crisis in 2012. Give it time!

Emerging markets are also under significant pressure, with MXN today’s biggest loser, down 1.8%, as the combination of tumbling oil prices, the rapid decline of US demand and AMLO’s remarkably insouciant response to Covid-19 has investors fleeing despite the highest yields available in LATAM. But RUB (-1.3%) on the back of declining oil prices and ZAR (-1.1%) on the back of declining commodity prices as well as internal credit problems, are also suffering. In fact, just two currencies, MYR and PHP were able to rally today, each by about 0.2% as each nation announced additional fiscal and monetary support.

Looking ahead this week, aside from the ongoing virus news, we do get more data as follows:

Tuesday Case Shiller Home Prices 3.29%
  Chicago PMI 40.0
  Consumer Confidence 110.0
Wednesday ADP Employment -150K
  Construction Spending 0.5%
  ISM Manufacturing 45.0
  ISM Prices Paid 41.8
Thursday Trade Balance -$40.0B
  Initial Claims 3150K
  Factory Orders 0.2%
Friday Nonfarm Payrolls -100K
  Private Payrolls -110K
  Manufacturing Payrolls -10K
  Unemployment Rate 3.8%
  Average Hourly Earnings 0.2% (3.0% Y/Y)
  Average Weekly Hours 34.2
  Participation Rate 63.3%
  ISM Non-Manufacturing 44.0

Source: Bloomberg

Obviously, much of this is still backward looking and the real question on the NFP report is just how much of the disruption took place during the survey week, which was 3 weeks ago. I think the Initial Claims number will have more power this month, as well as the ISM data. But boy, next month’s NFP report is going to be UGLY!

At any rate, there is not going to be anything positive from the economic data set this week, or probably throughout April. Rather the next piece of positive news we will hear is when the infection curve has started to flatten and there is an end to this disruption in sight. As of now, one man’s view is we will be like this for another month at least. I sincerely hope for everyone, that it is shorter than that.

Good luck and stay safe