Selling Aggression

There once was a time when the dip
Was what people bought ere the rip
As equity prices
Would brush off all crises
And FAANGs showed incredible zip
 
But this year there is a new theme
That’s more like a nightmare than dream
The end of each session
Sees selling aggression
As bearishness moves to mainstream
 
There has been an evolution in the market narrative recently that is growing in strength.  After a very long period where BTFD (buy the f***ing dip) was the mantra of algorithms and day traders alike, backed up with don’t fight the Fed, it seems that market price action has turned around to sell every rally you see.  While there is not yet an acronym in place (and I’m sure there will be one soon, perhaps AS for Abandon Ship), what has become abundantly clear is that the sentiment that inflated the broad asset bubble in which we have been living is starting to change.
 
Arguably, the Fed is the cause of this change, which is to be expected as it was their monetary policies that inflated the everything bubble in the first place.  Consider that since the GFC, the Fed has increased the size of its balance sheet by $8 trillion, and the US economy has expanded by another $7.3 trillion (already a problem that the balance sheet grew faster than the economy), while the S&P500 has grown by $28.2 trillion, nearly twice as fast again.  It is certainly difficult to continue to justify the valuation premiums attributed to the equity market if there are any concerns about future growth rates.  And there are plenty of concerns about future growth rates, especially if the Fed is true to its word and actually tightens monetary policy.   
 
The upshot is that investors have been paying an increasing premium for the same dollar of earnings during the past 14 years and we appear to be reaching the breaking point.  The key thing to remember about markets is that their behavior in a rally and in a decline tend to be very different.  Rallies are made of steady, albeit sometimes sharp, moves higher with much buying at the end of each session to insure that asset allocators have their proper proportions in various sectors.  Declines are characterized by mayhem, where sellers often seek to sell anything that is liquid and as quickly as possible.  So, in the vernacular, stocks ride the escalator up and fall down the elevator shaft.  And quite frankly, having witnessed some of the biggest market declines in history (Oct 1987 anyone?) price action recently has started to take on those negative characteristics. 
 
Just think, too, this is happening before the Fed has actually even begun to tighten.  In fact, this week, their balance sheet rose to a new record high!  How will things perform when they actually raise rates, let alone start to allow the balance sheet to shrink.  For those of you who disagree with my thesis that any Fed tightening will be small and short-lived, this market reaction function is exactly how I have arrived at my conclusions.
 
Earlier this week I explained that I believe we are at peak Fed hawkishness, where market expectations have moved to the first (of four) rate(s) hike in March (some calling for 50bps) while balance sheet reduction (QT) will start this summer and proceed to the tune of $40-$60 billion per month thereafter.  Arguably, QT will be much more damaging to the equity markets than a 50-basis point rise in Fed funds, but neither will help.  Many analysts believe that next week’s FOMC meeting will result in a clear timetable for the Fed’s future actions, but I disagree.  Between the recent equity decline and the softening data, the Fed will not want to lock itself into a tightening schedule.  As I wrote earlier, look for Wednesday’s meeting to appear dovish compared to current expectations.  However, that is unlikely to help change risk attitudes that much.
 
Risk is off and has further to go.  Yesterday’s US price action was abysmal as equity markets were higher all day until the last hour and then turned around and fell between 1.5%-2.0% to close with sharp losses.  Asia generally followed that line of reasoning with both the Nikkei (-0.9%) and Shanghai (-0.9%) falling although the Hang Seng was unchanged on the day.  In fact, the Hang Seng was the only bright spot around.  Europe is much softer (DAX -1.6%, CAC -1.4%, FTSE 100 -0.9%) with the only data being weaker than expected Retail Sales in the UK (-3.7%, exp -0.6%).  It can be no surprise that US futures are also under pressure, with the NASDAQ (-0.7%) leading the way at this hour, but all in the red.
 
Remember when the bond bears were certain that the 10-year was getting set to trade through 2.0%?  Yeah, me too. Except, that is not what is going on as this morning, the 10-year Treasury has seen yields decline by another 1.6bps, taking it more than 10bps from its recent high yield.  European bonds are rallying as well with Bunds (-3.0bps), OATs (-2.2bps) and Gilts (-2.4bps) all behaving as havens this morning, and even the PIGS’ bonds performing well.  It is abundantly clear that heading into the weekend, the marginal investor does not want to own risky assets.
 
Today’s risk-off theme is alive and well in commodities too with oil (-1.9%) leading the way lower but weakness in precious metals (Au -0.3%, Ag -0.4%) and industrials (Cu -1.8%, Al -0.8%).  The only outlier is NatGas (+2.8%) which based on the 13-degree temperature at my house this morning seems driven by the weather and not risk.
 
Finally, looking at the dollar this morning it is difficult to discern a strong theme.  In the G10, gainers and losers are split 5:5 with the commodity currencies (AUD -0.4%, NZD -0.4%) leading the way lower while the financials (CHF (+0.4%, SEK +0.35%) are rising.  Given commodity price weakness, this should not be that surprising.  As to the financial side, with Treasury yields declining, those suddenly seem more attractive.
 
However, that same thesis does not appear to be valid for the EMG bloc where the leading gainers (ZAR +0.5%, CLP +0.4%, MXN +0.3%) are all commodity focused while the laggards, aside from TRY which has its own meshugas (look it up), are all commodity importers (TWD -0.25%, THB -0.25%, HUF -0.2%).  In other words, it is difficult to tell a coherent story about the FX markets right now although the one thing that is very clear is that volatility across virtually all currencies has been moving higher.  Old correlations seem to be breaking down, which is leading to the increased volatility we are observing.
 
On the data front, only Leading Indicators (exp +0.8%) are due this morning at 10:00.  Yesterday’s US data was kind of awful with Initial and Continuing Claims both printing far higher than forecast (although attributed to omicron’s impacts) while Existing Home Sales also fell far more than expected which was attributed to a lack of inventory.  However, I would contend that the US growth trajectory is definitely pointing lower as evidenced by the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow Forecast which is currently at 5.14%, down from 9.7% just one month ago. 
 
As we all await next week’s FOMC meeting, the dollar’s cues are likely to continue to come from the equity markets, and given how poor they currently look, if nothing else, I expect the haven currencies to continue to perform reasonably well.
 
Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf
 
 
 

Confidence Wilts

As central banks worldwide prepare
To raise rates investors don’t dare
Buy bonds, bunds or gilts
While confidence wilts
Defining Jay Powell’s nightmare

The upshot is negative rates
Are no longer apt for long dates
But we’re still a ways
From NIRP’s end of days
While Christine and friends have debates

Whatever else you thought mattered to markets (e.g. Russia/Ukraine, oil prices, omicron) you were wrong.  Right now, there is a single issue that has every pundit’s tongue wagging; the speed at which the Fed tightens policy.  Don’t get me wrong, oil’s impressive ongoing rally feeds into that discussion, but is clearly not the driver.  So too, omicron’s impact as it spreads rapidly, but seems clearly to be far less dangerous to the vast majority of people who contract the disease.  As to Russia and the widespread concerns that it will invade the Ukraine shortly, that would certainly have a short-term market impact, with risk appetite likely reduced, but it won’t have the staying power of the Fed tightening discussion.

So, coming full circle, let’s get back to the Fed.  The last official news we had was that tapering of asset purchases was due to end in March with the Fed funds rate beginning to rise sometime after that.  Based on the dot plot, expectations at the Eccles Building were for three 0.25% rate increases this year (Jun, Sep and Dec).  Finally, regarding the balance sheet, expectations were that process would begin at a modest level before the end of 2022 and its impact would be minimal, you remember, as exciting as watching paint dry.  However, while the cat’s away (Fed quiet period) the mice will play (punditry usurp the narrative).

As of this morning, the best I can figure is that current market expectations are something along the following lines: QE will still end in March but the first of at least four 0.25% rate hikes will occur at the March FOMC meeting as well.  In fact, at this point, the futures market is pricing in a 12.5% probability that the Fed will raise rates by 0.50% in March!  In addition, regarding the balance sheet, you may recall that in 2017, the last time the Fed tried to reduce the size of the balance sheet, they started at $10 billion/month and slowly expanded that to $50 billion/month right up until the stock market tanked and they reversed course.  This time, the punditry has interpreted Powell’s comments that the runoff will be happening more quickly than in 2017 as a starting point of between $40 billion and $50 billion per month and rising quickly to $100 billion/month as they strive to reach their target size, whatever that may be.

The arguments for this type of action are the economy is much stronger now than it was in 2017 and, more importantly, inflation is MUCH higher than it was in 2017, as well as the fact that the balance sheet is more than twice the size, so bigger steps are needed.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong proponent of the Fed disentangling itself as much as possible from the markets and economy, however, I can’t help but wonder if the Fed moves according to the evolving Street narrative, just how big an impact that will have on asset markets.  Consider that since the S&P 500 traded to its most recent high on January 4th, just 2 weeks ago, it has fallen 5.0%.  The NASDAQ 100 has fallen 10.5% from its pre-Thanksgiving high and 8.5% from its level on January 4th.  Ask yourself if you believe that Jay Powell will sit by and watch as a much deeper correction unfolds in equity markets.  I cannot help but feel that the narrative has run well ahead of reality, and that next week’s FOMC meeting is going to be significantly more dovish than currently considered.  We have seen quite substantial market movement in the past several weeks, and if there is one thing that we know for sure it is that central banks abhor sharp, quick movement in markets, whether higher (irrational exuberance anyone?) or lower (Powell pivot, “whatever it takes”.)

The argument for higher interest rates is clear with inflation around the world (ex Japan) soaring, but central bankers are unlikely, in my view, to tighten as rapidly as the market now seems to believe.  They simply cannot stand the pain and more importantly, fear the onset of a recession for which they will be blamed.  For now, though, this is the only story that matters, so we have another week of speculation until the FOMC reveals their latest moves.

Ok, so yesterday was a massive risk-off day, with equities getting clobbered while bonds sold off sharply on fears of central bank actions.  In fact, the only things that performed well were oil, which rose 2.7% (and another 1.5% this morning) and the dollar, which rallied against virtually all its G10 and EMG counterparts.  Overnight saw the Nikkei (-2.8%) follow in the footsteps of the US markets although the Hang Seng (+0.1%) and Shanghai (-0.3%) were far more sanguine.  Interestingly, European bourses are mostly green today (DAX +0.25%, CAC +0.55%, FTSE 100 +0.25%) despite further data showing inflation is showing no sign of abating either on the continent (German CPI 5.7%) or in the UK (CPI 5.4%, RPI 7.5%).  As to US futures, +0.2% describes them well at this hour.

Bond markets remain under severe pressure with yields higher everywhere except China and South Korea.  Treasuries (+1.4bps) continue their breakout and seem likely to trade to 2.0% sooner rather than later.  Bunds (+2.6bps and yielding +0.003%) have traded back to a positive yield for the first time since May 2019.  Of course, with inflation running at 5.7%, that seems small consolation.  OATs (+2.4bps) and the rest of the continental bonds are showing similar yield rises while Gilts (+5.2bps) are leading the way lower in price as investors respond to the higher than already high expectations for inflation this morning.  Remember, the BOE is tipped to raise the base rate as well next week, but the global impact will be far less than whatever the Fed does.

Oil prices continue to soar as the supply/demand situation continues to indicate insufficient supply for growing demand.  This morning, the IEA released an update showing they expect demand to grow by an additional 200K barrels/day in 2022 while OPEC+ members have been unable to meet their pumping quotas and are actually short by over 700K barrels/day.  I don’t believe it is a question of IF oil is going to trade back over $100/bbl, it is a question of HOW SOON.  Remember, with NatGas (-0.5% today) still incredibly expensive in Europe, utilities there are now substituting oil for gas as they try to generate electricity, adding more demand to the oil market.  And remember, none of this pricing includes the potential ramifications if Russia does invade the Ukraine and the pipelines that run through Ukraine get shut down.

Finally, the dollar is retracing some of yesterday’s substantial rally, falling against all its G10 brethren (NOK +0.45%, AUD +0.4%, CAD +0.3%) led by the commodity currencies, and falling against most of its EMG counterparts with RUB (+1.4%) and ZAR (+1.05%) leading the way.  The former is clearly benefitting from oil’s sharp rally, but also from rising interest rates there.  Meanwhile, a higher than expected CPI print in South Africa, (5.9%) has analysts calling for more rate hikes there this year and next with as much as 250bps expected now.

On the data front, yesterday saw a horrific Empire Manufacturing outcome (-0.7 vs. exp 25.0), clearly not a positive sign for the economic outlook.  This morning brings only Housing Starts (exp 1650K) and Building Permits (1703K), neither of which seem likely to move the needle.

With the Fed silent, the narrative continues to run amok (an interesting visual) but that is what is driving markets right now.  This is beginning to feel like an over reaction to the news we have seen, so I would be wary of expecting a continuation of yesterday’s risk-off sentiment.  While we will almost certainly see some more volatility before the FOMC announcements next week, it seems to me that we are likely to remain within recent trading ranges in the dollar rather than break out for now.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Lest Things Implode

The central banks all through the West
Are trying to figure how best
To, policy, tighten
But not scare or frighten
Investors and so they are stressed

Meanwhile from Beijing data showed
That Chinese growth actually slowed
With prospects now dimmed
The central bank trimmed
Two interest rates, lest things implode

There is a new contest amongst the punditry to see who can call for the most shocking rate policy by the Fed this year.  With the FOMC in their quiet period, they cannot respond to comments by the likes of JPM Chair Jamie Dimon (the Fed could raise rates 7 times this year!) or hedge fund manager and noted short seller Bill Ackman (the Fed should raise rates by 50 basis points in March to shock the market), and so those comments get to filter through the market discussion and creep into the narrative.  A quick look at Fed funds futures shows that the market is now pricing in not only a 25bp rate hike, but a probability of slightly more at the March meeting.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the Fed is hugely behind the curve, as evidenced by the fact they are still purchasing assets despite raging inflation, and think an immediate end to asset purchases would be appropriate policy, as well as raising rates in 0.5% increments or more until they start to make a dent in the depth of negative real yields, but I also know that is not going to happen.  Time and again they have effectively explained to us all that while inflation is certainly not a good thing, the worst possible outcome would be a decline in the stock market.  Their deference to investors rather than to Main Street has become a glaring issue, and one that does not reflect well on their reputation.  And yet, Chairman Powell has never given us a reason to believe that he will simply focus on inflation, which is currently by far the biggest problem in the economy.

However, with the market having already priced in a 0.25% rate hike for March, it is entirely realistic they will raise rates at that meeting.  The key question, though, is will they be able to continue to tighten policy when equity markets start to respond more negatively?  For the past 35 years (since Black Monday in 1987) the answer has been a resounding NO.  Why does anybody think this time is different?

Interestingly, at the same time virtually every Western central bank is trying to figure out the best way to fight the rapidly rising inflation seen throughout the world, the Middle Kingdom has their own, unique, issues, namely disappointing economic growth and expanding omicron growth leading up to the Winter Olympics.  Of course, the last thing that President Xi can allow is any inkling that things in China are not running smoothly, and so after the release of weaker than expected IP, Fixed Asset, Retail Sales and GDP data for Q4, the PBOC cut both its Medium-Term Lending and 7-day Reverse Repo rates by 0.10% last night.  In addition to the weaker data came the news that yet another property developer, Logan Group, may have made guarantees that do not appear on their balance sheet to the tune of $812 million.  I have lost count of the number of property developers in China that are now under growing pressure ever since the initial stories about China Evergrande.  But that is the point, the entire property sector is under huge pressure of imploding and property development has been somewhere between 25%-30% of the Chinese GDP growth.  This does not bode well for Chinese GDP growth going forward, which does not bode well for global growth.  PS, one last thing to mention here is the Chinese birth rate fell to its lowest level since 1950!  Only 10.62 million babies were born in 2021, despite significant efforts by the government to encourage family growth.  As demographics is destiny, unless the Chinese change their immigration policies, the nation is going to find itself in some very difficult straits as the population there ages rapidly and the working population shrinks.  Just sayin’.

Ok, with that out of the way, a look around today’s holiday markets shows that risk is on!  Aside from the Hang Seng (-0.7%) overnight, which is where so many property firms are listed, every other major market is in the green.  The Nikkei (+0.75%) and Shanghai (+0.6%) were both solid performers as that PBOC rate cut was seen as encouraging.  In Europe, the DAX (+0.4%), CAC (+0.6%) and FTSE 100 (+0.6%) are all firmer as are the peripheral markets.  Even US futures (+0.1% across the board) are firmer although there is no trading here today due to the MLK holiday.

Bond markets, on the other hand, are under pressure everywhere as Treasury futures are down 13 ticks or about 3 basis points higher, while European sovereigns (Bunds +1.7bps, OATs +2.0bps, Gilts +2.8bps) are all seeing higher yields as well.  In fact, 10-year Bunds are approaching 0.0% for the first time since May 2019.  Asia was no different with only China (-0.8bps) seeing a yield decline and sharp rises in Australia (+6.7bps) and South Korea (+9.7bps).

In the commodity markets, WTI (0.0%) is flat although Brent (-0.3%) is edging down from its multi-year highs.  NatGas (-0.6%) is also edging lower and European gas prices are falling even more significantly as a combination of LNG cargoes and warmer weather eases some pressure on that market.  Gold (+0.2%) is firmer, despite what appears to be a risk-on day, although copper (-0.7%) is under a bit of pressure.  In other words, the noise is overwhelming the signal here.

As to the dollar this morning, mixed is the best description as there are gainers and losers in both G10 and EMG blocs.  Interestingly, despite oil’s lackluster trading, both NOK (+0.3%) and CAD (+0.2%) are the leading gainers in the G10 while JPY (-0.25%) is following its risk history, selling off as equities gain.  In the emerging markets, RUB (-0.55%) is the worst performer as there seems to be growing concern over the imposition of tighter sanctions in the event Russia does invade the Ukraine.  KRW (-0.45%) is next in line after North Korea launched yet two more ballistic missiles, raising tension on the peninsula.  On the plus side, THB (+0.4%) has been continuing its recent gains as the nation opens up more completely from Covid lockdowns.

It is a relatively light data week with Housing the main focus, and with the Fed in their quiet period, we won’t be getting help there either.

Tuesday Empire Manufacturing 25.0
Wednesday Housing Starts 1650K
Building Permits 1700K
Thursday Initial Claims 220K
Continuing Claims 1521K
Philly Fed 19.8
Existing Home Sales 6.41M
Friday Leading Indicators 0.8%

Source: Bloomberg

In truth, it is shaping up to be a quiet week.  Next week brings the central bank onslaught with the Fed, BOJ and BOC, but until then, we will need to take our cues from equities and geopolitical tensions to see if anything occurs that may inspire the jettisoning of risk assets in a hurry.  My gut tells me we will not be seeing anything of that nature, and so a range bound week for the dollar seems in store.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

A New T#heme

The news yesterday from the Fed
Was Vice-Chair Clarida has fled
While later today
Chair Jay seeks to sway
The Senate to keep him Fed head

But in the meantime, it would seem
The narrative has a new theme
It seems pretty clear
Four rate hikes this year
Have gone from the fringe to mainstream

As we walk in this morning, there seems to be a lot of movement with respect to market expectations regarding the Fed’s actions going forward and exactly how those actions are going to impact the various markets.  Today’s headline event is Chairman Powell’s renomination testimony in the Senate as everyone is waiting to see just how much effort Senator Elizabeth Warren puts into trying to derail the process.  It is widely known that the Senator does not care for Mr Powell going so far as to calling him “dangerous” in his recent semi-annual testimony to the Senate.  Yesterday, she also wrote a letter demanding to see all the personal trading records of all Fed officers which probably was part of the impetus for vice-Chair, Richard Clarida, to step down early from his post.  So, on the one hand, we will be treated(?) to the scene of some Senators trying to play gotcha with the Fed Chair today with the ever-present possibility that some comment is made with a real market impact.

On the other hand, the tightening train has not merely pulled away from the station but is starting to gather serious speed.  Earlier this morning, Atlanta Fed President Bostic commented that he sees 3 rate hikes this year and that the Fed “will act to ensure inflation doesn’t run away from us.”  Futures markets are now pricing in a more than 60% probability of a fourth rate hike in 2022 with an increasing number of Fed speakers explaining a rate hike in March would be appropriate.  We are also hearing the 4-hike scenario from an increasing number of pundits with Goldman Sachs economists publishing that view yesterday while JPMorgan Chairman Jamie Dimon explained that “four rate hikes of 0.25% each would not have an enormous effect on the economy.”  And that is likely correct, a Fed Funds rate of 1.0% doesn’t seem that onerous for businesses.  Of course, what impact would four interest rate hikes have on financial asset prices, especially if they were joined with a reduction in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet?  And it is this latter question that seems likely to be the key as we continue to hear from more and more Fed speakers that the idea of allowing the balance sheet to ‘run-off’ is appropriate.

For those of you with shorter memories, the last time the Fed tried to reduce the size of its balance sheet, from 2017-2018, they were also raising interest rates, albeit far more slowly.  Of course, CPI had peaked below 3.0% in that cycle, GDP was running at 2.4% and wages were growing at 2.5% while the balance sheet was less than half its current size.  The point is conditions were clearly very different.  However, not only did the equity market’s 20% decline inspire the Powell Pivot on Boxing Day 2018, but nine months later, the repo market blew up forcing the Fed to take dramatic action to ensure that sufficient liquidity was made available to the banking system.  I assure you, neither of those outcomes were part of the carefully described plans the Fed had made to ‘normalize’ monetary policy.

Will this time be different?  While starting conditions certainly are different, the one thing of which we can be sure is that the complexities of the international money markets remain opaque even to the central banks charged with their oversight.  While there is no way to anticipate exactly what will happen to derail the current plans, one can almost be certain that things will not work out the way they are currently planned.  Personally, I remain convinced that markets will have a very difficult time handling any reductions in the excess liquidity that has been the dominant feature of the post Covid-19 global financial markets, and that despite a lot of tough talk now, the Fed, at least, will be walking back that hawkishness before too long.

And perhaps, markets are beginning to agree with me.  After all, hawkish monetary policy is rarely the backdrop for a risk-on attitude.  Yet that is a pretty fair description of today’s price action.  Equities are rebounding along with commodities; bonds are benign, and the dollar is softening.

While yesterday saw US equity markets in the red most of the day, the NASDAQ staged a furious late day rally to close flat although market breadth was awful (1205 gainers vs. 2201 losers).  And while Asia was still under pressure (Nikkei -0.9%, Hang Seng 0.05, Shanghai -0.7%), Europe has taken heart from something as we are seeing solid gains across the board there (DAX +1.15%, CAC +1.35%, FTSE 100 +0.7%) despite a complete lack of news.  US futures, too, have turned green with all three main indices up about 0.3% at this hour.

The Treasury rout is on hold with yields essentially unchanged this morning and the 10-year right at the key level of 1.75%.  In Europe, Bunds (-0.9bps) and Gilts (-2.3bps) are both trading well while the rest of the sovereign market is virtually unchanged.  Again, there has been essentially no news of note.

Oil prices are rallying (WTI +1.4%) while NatGas (-0.9%) has consolidated some of yesterday’s gains despite the fact it is 14 degrees here in NJ this morning.  Gold (+0.3%) and silver (+0.6%) are both firmer, as are industrial metals (Cu +0.6%, Al +0.1%, Zn +2.4%) and the ags are strong as well.

Finally, the dollar is under modest pressure with NOK (+0.4%) leading the G10 revival on the strength of oil’s rally, while CAD (+0.3%) follows closely behind.  JPY (-0.25%) is the only laggard here, again pointing to the risk characteristics in today’s price action.  EMG markets have seen similar price action with THB (+0.6%) the leading gainer followed by HUF (+0.4%) and KRW (+0.35%), all benefitting from the pause in the US yield rally and generally better risk appetite.

Today’s only data point has been released, NFIB Small Business Optimism (98.9, slightly better than 98.7 expected) and has had virtually no impact on the market.  This brings us back to the Fed as today’s most likely catalyst, as not only will we hear from Chair Powell starting at 10:00, but also from two of the most hawkish regional bank presidents, Mester and George between 9:00 and 9:30.

With risk in vogue for the session, I expect the dollar will have difficulty gaining any ground, but nothing has changed my short-term view that the Fed’s hawkishness is going to be the key driver of a stronger dollar…right up until they reverse course!

Good luck and stay safe
Adf