Covid Comebacking

Investors are lately concerned
That risk is what needs to be spurned
With stimulus lacking
And Covid comebacking
The bulls are afraid they’ll get burned

Risk is starting to get a bad name for itself lately as we are heading into our third consecutive day of equity market selling and haven asset buying.  The twin stories of the resurgence in coronavirus cases throughout the world and the terminal diagnosis for additional US fiscal stimulus has many people rethinking the bullish case.  Perhaps the recovery won’t be V-shaped after all.

On the Covid front, as an example of new measures taken, the French government has set a 9:00pm – 6:00am curfew in Paris while the UK is imposing a ban on families from one household mixing with those from another as both nations try to cope with the increase in Covid cases.  (Yesterday, both countries reported 20,000 or more new cases).  And it’s not just those two nations, but the increase in numbers throughout the world is substantial.  India (68K), the US (60K), Brazil (27K) and Russia (14K) are all seeing higher reported infections with most of the rest of Europe also seeing increase in the 5K-10K region.  The data is certainly beginning to look like we are in the midst of a second wave of the disease.  Of course, the one truly noteworthy exception is Sweden, which never went through the lockdown phase, and has not reported any new cases in weeks.

Nonetheless, the fact that the virus is on the march again means that less economic activity will be taking place going forward, and that bodes ill for investors.  Adding to the Covid concerns are the recent announcements by several pharma companies that they are halting trials of their Covid vaccines as recipients got sick from various things. Overall, the Covid story is starting to weigh on investors’ (as well as politicians’) minds and that is undermining some of the previous bullishness on risk assets.

As to fresh fiscal stimulus from the US, it ain’t happening, at least not before the election.  Despite (because of?) all the rhetoric we continue to receive from the central banking and supranational communities about how crucial it is for more US stimulus aid to be injected into the economy, the politics at this point are quite clear.  Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want to allow the other side to have a victory ahead of the election for fear it might help the other side in the election.  This is why the bills proposed by both the House and the Senate were so far apart; they were simply pandering to their respective political bases.  At the same time, the central bankers have essentially admitted that they have done all they can, and any further action on their part will help only at the very margins of the economy.  Although, further central bank stimulus would likely find its way into equity markets, it wouldn’t help Main Street in any way.

With these as the evolving narratives, it should be no surprise that risk is being shed.  It should also be no surprise that these losses are starting to gain some momentum.  For instance, European equities, as measured by the Eurostoxx 600, fell 0.6% on Tuesday, 0.25% yesterday, but are down a hefty 2.65% today.  And that pattern has been repeated across equity markets around the world.  In fact, Europe bourses today are all lower by between 2.0% and 3.0%.  US futures are also pointing to the same phenomenon, after seeing declines of between 0.6% and 0.8% yesterday, they are currently trading at levels between -1.0% (Dow) and -1.5% (NASDAQ).

Bond markets, which many believe have far better predictive capacity than equity markets with respect to the economy, are in a complete risk-off stance.  10-year Treasury yields, which just Friday appeared to be heading above 0.80%, are back down to 0.70%, having fallen 2.5 basis points overnight.  But it is even clearer in the European markets where the PIGS have each seen their bonds sold today with yields rising between 1 and 4 basis points, while Bunds (-3.8bps), Oats (-2.5bps) and Gilts (-4.1bps) are all seeing significant haven demand.  As I have written before, the reality is that government bonds issued by the PIGS are risk assets, not havens.  After all, do you think any of those four nations will ever be able to repay their debt?

Turning to the dollar, in true risk off fashion, it is the leading light in the currency market today.  In the G10 space, the best performers are CHF and JPY, both of which are essentially unchanged, while we are seeing NOK (-1.1%), AUD (-1.1%) and NZD (-0.75%) lead the way lower.  You will not be surprised to know that oil prices are lower this morning, with WTI and Brent both down by 1.6%, hence NOK’s troubles.  Too, other commodity prices, including the precious metals, are lower, which is clearly undermining the latter two.

One of the interesting things is the recent behavior of Aussie.  Historically, AUD has been almost a proxy on the Chinese economy, given the strong reliance on China for Australia’s economic growth.  Essentially, all the commodities Australia produced were ship north to the mainland.  But lately, there is a great deal of tension between the two nations as the Australians have called out the Chinese on issues like human rights and Hong Kong, and the Chinese have responded by imposing quotas on Australian goods and preventing state-owned companies from purchasing there.  Thus, despite the more positive economic data from China (last night saw CPI rise a less than expected 1.7% and expectations for Monday’s Q3 GDP data have risen to 5.5%), AUD has not been able to benefit. Adding to the Aussie’s woes were comments from the RBA regarding extending the tenor of QE purchases to the 10-year bucket and driving rates lower there.  Naturally, the market did the RBA’s work for it, and yields there fell 7.5 basis points.

Meanwhile, the euro and pound are both under pressure as well, just not as much, as investors continue to reduce exposures to both areas.

As to the EMG bloc, in a bit of a surprise, PLN (-1.1%) is the worst performer of the day, which seems to be on the back of a story about no additional Covid fiscal stimulus (and you thought that was a uniquely US phenomenon).  But ZAR (-1.0%) and MXN (-0.7%) are next in line, with both obviously feeling the pain of weaker commodity prices as well as increases in their Covid case count.  The rest of the bloc is also under pressure, just not quite to the same extent.  And as long as fear reigns, it will be difficult for these currencies to regain a bid.

On the data front, this morning brings Initial Claims (exp 825K), Continuing Claims (10.55M), Empire Manufacturing (14.0) and Philly Fed (14.8).  The Initial Claims data, while obviously well off the worst (highest) levels, has really started to plateau at much higher levels than the economy has ever seen before, which suggests that any rebound remains uneven and modest at best.  But while economic activity is clearly under pressure in the US, and we will see that spelled out in Q3 earnings data which has just started coming in, investor risk appetites, or lack thereof, will be the key driver for now, and that points to further gains in the dollar.  Maybe not huge, but that is the direction most likely.

Good luck and stay safe
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