Buying is Brisk

Apparently, there is no fear
As it’s become patently clear
The shape we will see
Of growth is a ‘V’
As long as that vaccine is near

So, don’t talk to me about risk
Who cares ‘bout the federal fisc?
A hot war in Asia?
That’s bearish fantasia
Instead, retail buying is brisk!

If you are not adding to your risk positions this morning, you are clearly not paying attention. Virtually unbridled bullishness has gripped markets on word that a vaccine has had very promising results and is soon heading into Phase 3 trials. This news is more than sufficient to overwhelm pedantic issues like increasing tensions between the US and China playing out in Hong Kong; US bank results showing a massive increase in loan-loss reserves as expectations of defaults climb; or the complete lack of activity by the Senate regarding the potential extension of extraordinary unemployment benefits that are due to lapse on July 31.

Historically, issues like the US-China tension, or arguably more importantly, the signal from banks about the pending collapse of loan repayments, would have played out with more investor trepidation. While risk asset prices might not have collapsed, they certainly would not have shown the strength they have of late. But then, the central bank community has done their very best to rewrite history, or perhaps demonstrate that they have learned from history, by expanding their balance sheets dramatically and injecting trillions of dollars’ worth of liquidity into the global economy. It should be no surprise that those trillions have made their way into markets, rather than the real economy, given the trend of financialization that has played out over the past two decades.

Curmudgeons would argue that no central bank is supposed to care about markets per se, rather their role is to foster price stability primarily, with a number, including the Fed, having been tasked with insuring full employment. But nowhere is it written that supporting equity markets is part of the mandate. And yet, that is essentially where the situation now stands. Equity market displacements are met with increased central bank activity. In fact, this is so ingrained in investor attitudes that we now have equity rallies on bad news under the assumption that the relevant central bank will be forced to add more liquidity by buying more risk assets.

There is, however, one market that seems to be paying attention to the historic storyline; government bonds. Treasury yields continue to grind lower (10-year at 0.61%) as a certain class of investors seem to see a less rosy future. Of course, one could make the argument that bonds are rallying because the Fed is buying them, but the problem with that story right now is the Fed’s balance sheet has actually been slowly shrinking over the past several weeks, by something on the order of $300 billion. Instead, this appears to be a genuine concern over future risks, something that is completely absent from the equity space.

So, which market is correct? Are the equity bulls prescient, implying there is a V-shaped recovery in our future? Or are the fixed income buyers seeing more clearly, recognizing that the economy is rebounding, but the pace will be much slower than desired? If we look to an outside agency to help us, the FX market, for example, recent price action is aligned with adding to risk appetites. But then, the ultimate haven asset, gold, is also continuing to rally. Being a curmudgeon myself, I tend toward the view that the next several years are going to be much tougher than currently expected by the risk bulls. But for now, they remain in control!

With this in mind, it should be no surprise that the dollar is under pressure this morning. In the G10 space, NOK is the leader, up 1.0%, as a combination of broad-based dollar weakness and higher oil (WTI +1.4%) has seen demand increase. But all the high beta currencies (SEK, AUD, NZD) are higher as well, on the order of 0.6%. Even the yen is stronger into this mix, rising 0.3%, as distaste for the dollar spreads.

At this point, I cannot ignore the euro. While today’s movement is a modest 0.3% gain, it has been on a mission of late, rising 1.7% since Friday. There are many subplots here, with discussions about the relative stance of the ECB vs. the Fed, short-term risk-on knee-jerk reactions to buy euros, and perhaps most importantly, the questions over the long-term viability of the US government running enormous twin deficits (budget and current account) and how those are going to get financed. For now, the Fed has been the financier for the government, but debt monetization has never been the path to a stronger currency, rather just the opposite. What is interesting is that this longer-term discussion is being dusted off by analysts once again, with many newly revamped calls for the dollar to continue its decline for the rest of the year.

One thing that would definitely support this thesis would be if the EU actually moved forward on mutualization of debt. You will recall several weeks ago that Merkel and Macron announced they both agreed on a €500 billion EU support program that was to be funded by 30-year and 40-year EU bond issuance, jointly payable by the entire bloc. This has been held up by a minority of countries, the so-called frugal four, as they are uninterested in paying for Southern Europe’s profligate history. But word this morning from France indicated a belief that a deal was to be completed at this week’s EU Summit. If this is the case, that is an unambiguous euro positive. But if we know anything about the EU, it is that nothing proceeds smoothly, even when everyone there agrees. We shall see, but the story has definitely helped the single currency.

In the EMG bloc, ZAR is the runaway leader, rising 1.3% on the general story as well as higher gold and commodity prices. What is interesting is that this continues despite news that Eskom, the national utility, is going to reduce power production, certainly not a sign of economic strength. But we are seeing gains almost universally in this bloc as HUF (+0.9%), MXN (+0.8%) and the rest of the CE4 all perform quite well. In other words, there is no need for dollars to assuage fears. The one exception here is IDR (-1.0%), which suffered overnight as traders anticipate the central bank to cut rates more than 25bps tonight, while the pace of infection growth there increases, leading many to believe there will be another economic shutdown.

The strong risk positive attitude has also manifested itself across equity markets (Nikkei +1.6%, DAX +1.6%, CAC +1.9%), with US futures pointing sharply higher as well (Dow and S&P e-minis both higher by 1.3%). And finally, while the trend in Treasury yields is certainly lower, today has seen a modest back up across all bond markets (Bunds +1bp, Gilts +2.5bps, Treasuries +2bps).

Turning to the morning’s session, we have only modest data releases; Empire Manufacturing (exp 10.0), IP (4.3%) and Capacity Utilization (67.8%). Then at 2:00 comes the Fed’s Beige Book, which should be an interesting look at the progress of the reopening of the economy. There is only one Fed Speaker, Philly Fed President Harker, but what has been interesting lately is the dissent in views between various FOMC members regarding the pace of the recovery. And that is why the data is still important.

But for now, the risk bulls are running the show, so do not be surprised if the dollar weakness trend continues.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

A Vaccine’s Required

Mnuchin and Powell explained
That Congress ought not be restrained
In spending more cash
Or else, in a flash
The rebound might not be maintained

Meanwhile, as the quarter expired
The data show growth is still mired
Within a great slump
And hopes for a jump
Are high, but a vaccine’s required

I continue to read commentary after commentary that explains the future will be brighter once a Covid-19 vaccine has been created. This seems to be based on the idea that so many people are terrified of contracting the disease they they will only consider venturing out of their homes once they believe the population at large is not contagious. While this subgroup will clearly get vaccinated, that is not likely to be majority behavior. If we consider the flu and its vaccine as a model, only 43% of the population gets the flu shot each year. Surveys regarding a Covid vaccine show a similar response rate.

Consider, there is a large minority of the population who are adamantly against any types of vaccines, not just influenza. As well, for many people, the calculation seems to be that the risk of contracting the flu is small enough that the effort to go and get the shot is not worth their time. Ask yourself if those people, who are generally healthy, are going to change their behavior for what appears to be a new form of the flu. My observation is that human nature is pretty consistent in this regard, so Covid is no scarier than the flu for many folks. The point is that the idea that the creation of a vaccine will solve the economy’s problems seems a bit far-fetched. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses have already closed permanently because of the economic disruption, and we are all well acquainted with the extraordinary job loss numbers. No vaccine is going to reopen those businesses nor bring millions back to work.

And yet, the vaccine is a key part of the narrative that continues to drive risk asset prices higher. While we cannot ignore central bank activities as a key driver of equity and bond market rallies, the V-shaped recovery is highly dependent on the idea that things will be back to normal soon. But if a vaccine is created and approved for use, will it really have the impact the market is currently anticipating? Unless we start to see something akin to a health passport in this country, a document that certifies the holder has obtained a Covid-19 shot, why would anyone believe a stranger is not contagious and alter their newly learned covid-based behaviors. History shows that the American people are not fond of being told what to do when it comes to restricting their rights of movement. Will this time really be different?

However, challenging the narrative remains a difficult proposition these days as we continue to see the equity bulls in charge of all market behavior. As we enter Q3, a quick recap of last quarter shows the S&P’s 20% rally as its best quarterly performance since Q4 1998. Will we see a repeat in Q3? Seems unlikely and the risk of a reversal seems substantial, especially if the recent increase in Covid cases forces more closures in more states. In any event, uncertainty appears especially high which implies price volatility is likely to continue to rise across all markets.

But turning to today’s session, equity markets had a mixed session in Asia (Nikkei -0.75%, Hang Seng +0.5%) despite the imposition of the new, more draconian law in Hong Kong with regard to China’s ability to control dissent there. Meanwhile, small early European bourse gains have turned into growing losses with the DAX now lower by 1.5%, the CAC down by 1.4% and the FTSE 100 down by 1.0%. While PMI data released showed that things were continuing on a slow trajectory higher, we have just had word from German Chancellor Merkel that “EU members [are] still far apart on recovery fund [and the] budget.” If you recall, there is a great deal of credence put into the idea that the EU is going to jointly support the nations most severely afflicted by the pandemic’s impacts. However, despite both German and French support, the Frugal Four seem to be standing their ground. It should be no surprise that the euro has turned lower on the news as well, as early modest gains have now turned into a 0.3% decline. One of the underlying supports for the single currency, of late, has been the idea that the joint financing of a significant budget at the EU level will be the beginning of a coherent fiscal policy to be coordinated with the ECB’s monetary policy. If they cannot agree these terms, then the euro’s existence can once again be called into question.

Perhaps what is more interesting is that as European equity markets turn lower, and US futures with them, the bond market is under modest pressure as well this morning. 10-year Treasury yields are higher by more than 2bps and in Europe we are seeing yields rise by between 3bps and 4bps. This is hardly risk-off behavior and once again begs the question which market is leading which. In the long run, bond investors seem to have a better handle on things, but on a day to day basis, it is anyone’s guess.

Finally, turning to the dollar shows that early weakness here has turned into broad dollar strength with only two currencies in the G10 higher at this point, the haven JPY (+0.4%) and NOK (+0.2%), which has benefitted from oil’s rally this morning with WTI up by about 1% and back above $40/bbl. In the emerging markets, only ZAR has managed any gains of note, rising 0.4%, after its PMI data printed at a surprisingly higher 53.9. On the flip side, PLN (-0.6%) is the laggard, although almost all EMG currencies are softer, as PMI data there continue to disappoint (47.2) and concerns over a change in political leadership seep into investor thoughts.

On the data front, we start to see some much more important data here today with ADP Employment (exp 2.9M), ISM Manufacturing (49.7) and Prices Paid (44.6) and finally, FOMC Minutes to be released at 2:00. Yesterday we saw some thought provoking numbers as Chicago PMI disappointed at 36.6, much lower than expected, while Case Shiller House Prices rose to 3.98%, certainly not indicating a deflationary surge.

Yesterday we also heard the second part of Chairman Powell’s testimony to Congress, where alongside Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, he said that the Fed remained committed to doing all that is necessary, that rates will remain low for as long as is deemed necessary, and that it would be a mistake if Congress did not continue to support the economy with further fiscal fuel. None of that was surprising and, quite frankly, it had no impact on markets anywhere.

At this point, today looks set to see a little reversal to last quarter’s extremely bullish sentiment so beware further dollar strength.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

 

‘Twas Nothing At All

Does anyone here still recall
When Covid had cast a great pall
On markets and life
While causing much strife?
Me neither, ‘twas nothing at all!

One can only marvel at the way the financial markets have been able to rally on the same story time and again during the past two years. First it was the trade talks. After an initial bout of concern that growing trade tensions between the US and China would derail the global economy led to a decline in global equity market indices, about every other day we heard from President Trump that talks were going very well, that a Phase One deal was imminent and that everything would be great. And despite virtually no movement on the subject for months, those comments were sufficient to drive stock prices higher every time they were made. Of course, we all know that a phase one deal was, in fact, reached and signed, but it occurred a scant week before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

What has been truly remarkable is that the market’s reaction to the virus has followed almost the exact same pattern. Once it became clear that Covid-19 was going to be a big deal, causing significant disruption throughout the world, stock prices tumbled in a series of extraordinary sessions in March and early April. But since then, we have seen a powerful rally back to within a few percent of the all-time highs set in February. And these days, every rally is based on the exact same story; to wit, some company [insert name here] is on the cusp of creating a successful Covid vaccine and things will be back to normal soon.

So, as almost all of us continue to work from home, shelter in place and maintain our social distance, investors (gamblers?) have discerned that everything is just fine, and that economic recovery is on the way. And maybe they are right. Maybe history is going to look back on this time and show it was an extremely large disruption, but an extremely short-term one that had almost no long-term impact. But, boy, that seems like a hard picture to paint if you simply look at the data and understand how economies work.

Every day we see data that describes how extraordinary the impact of government lockdown policies has been, with rampant unemployment, virtual halts in manufacturing, complete halts in group entertainment and bankruptcies of erstwhile venerable companies. And every day the global equity markets rally on the prospect of a new vaccine being discovered. I get that markets are forward looking, but they certainly seem blind to the extent of damage already inflicted and what that means for the future. Even if activities went back to exactly the way they were before the outbreak, the fact remains that many businesses are no longer in existence. They could not withstand the complete absence of revenues for an extended period of time, and so have been permanently shuttered. And while new businesses will rise to take their place, that is not an overnight process. It seems thin gruel to rally on the fact that Germany’s IFO Expectations Index rallied from its historically worst print (69.4) to its second worst print (80.1), but slightly higher than expected. Or that the GfK Consumer Confidence managed the same feat (-23.4 to -18.9). Both of these data points are correlated with extremely deep recessions.

And yet, that is the situation in which we find ourselves. The dichotomy between extremely weak economic activity and a strong belief that not only is the worst behind us, but that the damage inflicted has been modest, at best. Today is a perfect example of that situation with risk firmly in the ascendancy after the long holiday weekend.

Equity markets are on fire, rallying sharply in Asia (Nikkei +2.5%, Hang Seng +1.9%, Shanghai +1.0%) despite the fact that there is evidence that a second wave of infections is growing in China and may once again force the government there to shut down large swathes of the economy. Europe, too, is rocking with the FTSE 100 (+1.2%) leading the way although gains seen across the board (DAX +0.6%, CAC +1.1%). And US futures would not dare to be left out of this rally, with all three indices up around 2.0%. Meanwhile, Treasury yields are higher by 3.5 basis points with German bund yields higher by 6bps. Of course, Italy, Portugal and Greece have all seen their yields slide as those bond markets behave far more like risk assets than havens.

I would be remiss to ignore the commodity markets which have seen oil rally a further 2.25% this morning, back to $34/bbl and the highest point since the gap down at the beginning of this process back in early March. Gold, on the other hand, is a bit softer, down 0.3%, but remains firmly above $1700/oz as many investors continue to look at central bank activity and register concern over the future value of any fiat currency.

And then there is the dollar, which has fallen almost across the board overnight, and is substantially lower than where we left it Friday afternoon. In the G10 space, AUD (+1.3%) and NZD (+1.5%) are the leaders on the back of broadly positive risk sentiment helped by a better than expected Trade Surplus in New Zealand along with a larger than expected rebound in the ANZ Consumer Confidence Index, to its second lowest reading in history. But the pound is higher by 1.1% on prospects of an end to the nationwide lockdown in the UK. And in fact, other than the yen, which is unchanged, the rest of the bloc is firmer by 0.5% or more, largely on the positive risk sentiment.

In the emerging markets, the runaway winner is the Mexican peso, up 2.7% since Friday’s close as a combination of higher oil prices, a more hawkish Banxico than expected and growing belief that the US, its major export partner, is reopening has led to a huge short-squeeze in the FX markets. In the past week, the peso has recouped nearly 7% of its losses this year and is now down a mere 14.5% year-to-date. Helping the story is the just released GDP number for Q1, which showed a decline of only -1.2%, better than the initially reported -1.6%. But we are also seeing strength throughout the EMG bloc, with PLN (+1.8%), BRL (+1.6%) and ZAR (+1.2%) all putting in strong performances. Risk sentiment is clearly strong today.

Into this voracious risk appetite, we will see a great deal of data this holiday-shortened week as follows:

Today Case Shiller Home Prices 3.40%
  New Home Sales 480K
  Consumer Confidence 87.0
Wednesday Fed’s Beige Book  
Thursday Initial Claims 2.1M
  Continuing Claims 25.75M
  Q1 GDP -4.8%
  Q1 Personal Consumption -7.5%
  Durable Goods -19.8%
  -ex transport -15.0%
Friday Personal Income -6.5%
  Personal Spending -12.8%
  Core PCE Deflator -0.3% (1.1% Y/Y)
  Chicago PMI 40.0
  Michigan Sentiment 74.0

Source: Bloomberg

In addition to the plethora of data, we hear from six different Fed speakers, including Chairman Powell on Friday morning. On this front, however, the entire FOMC has been consistent, explaining that they will continue to do what they deem necessary, that they have plenty of ammunition left, and that the immediate future of the economy will be awful, but things will improve over time.

In the end, risk is being snapped up like it is going out of style this morning, as both investors and traders continue to look across the abyss. I hope they are right…I fear they are not. But as long as they continue to behave in this manner, the dollar will remain under pressure. It rallied a lot this year, so there is ample room for it to decline further.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Won’t Be Repaid

Said Merkel and French Prez Macron
This calls for a grant, not a loan
When speaking of aid
That won’t be repaid
By nations where Covid’s full-blown

The euro is firmer this morning, up a further 0.35% after yesterday’s 0.9% rally, as the market responds to the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron have agreed on a plan for EU-wide assistance to all members. This is the first time that there has been German support for a plan that includes grants to nations, not loans to be repaid, and that these grants are to be distributed to the membership, not based on the capital key, but rather based on where the money is needed most. The funding will come from debt issued by the European Commission and paid out of that entity’s budget. In sum, while this is not actually Eurozone bond issuance, it is a clear step in that direction.

Of course, nothing in the EU is easy, and this is no different. Immediately upon the announcement, Austrian Chancellor Kurz explained that there is no path forward for grants, and that Austria is happy to lend money to those countries in need. Too, the Dutch, Danes and Finns are none too happy about this outcome, but with Germany on board, it will be very difficult to fight. Even so, French FinMin LeMaire made it clear that it will take time to complete the procedure (and he is 100% behind the idea) with the first funds not likely available before early 2021.

However, the importance of this step cannot be underestimated. The tension within the Eurozone has always revolved around how much Germany and its frugal northern neighbors would be willing to pay to the more profligate south in order to maintain the euro as a functioning currency. When looking at which nations benefit most from the single currency, Germany tops the list as the euro is certainly weaker than the Deutschemark would have been in its stead, and thus Germany’s export industries, and by extension its economic performance, have benefitted significantly. It appears that Chancellor Merkel and her administration have now done the math and decided that spending some money to maintain that export advantage is a smart investment. While in the past I have been suspect of the euro’s longevity, this appears to be the first step toward a joint fiscal policy resulting in a far stronger basis for the euro. While there will no doubt be rough seas for this process ahead, if Germany and France are on board, they will ultimately drag everyone else along. This is arguably the most bullish long-term euro story since its creation two decades ago.

The other bullish news for markets yesterday was the announcement that a tiny biotech company in Massachusetts, Moderna Inc, with just 25 employees (although a $29 billion market cap) has seen extremely positive results from a Covid vaccine trial. Apparently, it not only does the job, but does so with limited side effects to boot. While it has yet to undergo larger phase 2 and phase 3 trials, it is certainly extremely bullish news.

The combination of these stories was extremely beneficial for risk assets yesterday, which explains the 3+% rallies in US equity indices, the sell-off in Treasuries (10-year yields rose 7bps) and the dollar’s overall weakness. That bullishness followed through overnight with Asian equity markets gaining nicely (Nikkei +1.5%, Hang Seng +1.9%, Shanghai +0.8%) and Europe starting in the green as well. However, those early gains in Europe have turned red now, with what appears to be profit taking after yesterday’s substantial gains. Clearly, European equity markets were the main beneficiaries of the Franco-German announcement on debt although Italian debt has not done too badly either, with yields on 10-year BTP’s falling 22bps since Friday’s close.

Put it all together and we have a very positive backdrop for the near-term. While data continues to be dreadful, with today’s poster child being the 856K jump in Jobless Claims in the UK last month, we already know the market is looking through the bad news toward the recovery. Of much more importance to market sentiment is the prospect for the reopening of economies around the world. This is where the vaccine story supports everything, because undoubtedly, if there was a widely available vaccine, the stories of devastation would diminish and confidence would quickly return. And while there will certainly be changes in the way people behave going forward, they are not likely to be as dramatic as once imagined. After all, if people are confident they are immune to Covid-19 after a vaccination, they will likely return to their previous lifestyle as quickly as they can.

So, with that overall bullish framework, we cannot be surprised that the other key haven assets, the dollar and the yen, are under pressure this morning. Yesterday’s dollar weakness has extended this morning virtually across the board. In the G10 space, it is the high beta currencies, NZD (+0.85%) and SEK (+0.6%) leading the way, but even the pound, after that terrible employment data, is higher by 0.5%. Only the yen (-0.2%) has ceded ground to the dollar this morning in what is clearly a straight risk-on session.

The EMG bloc is much the same, with every currency on the board firmer vs. the dollar this morning led by HUF (+1.4%) and CZK (+1.2%) as clear beneficiaries of the mooted EU financing program. Remember, this €500 billion can be spent anywhere desired by the Commission. But we are also seeing commodity currencies benefit as MXN (+1.0%) and ZAR (+0.8%) continue to perform well. In fact, over the past two sessions, one is hard-pressed to find a currency that has not appreciated vs. the dollar.

On the data front, beyond the awful UK data, we did see a much better than expected German ZEW Expectations outcome, printing at 51.0, although the current conditions index remains horrendous at -93.5. But the future is much brighter this morning, adding to the euro’s strength. At home, we see Housing Starts (exp 900K) and Building Permits (1000K), neither of which is likely to have a big impact, although stronger than expected data would surely add to the overall positive risk feeling this morning.

As well, Chairman Powell will be testifying to the Senate Banking Committee, but after Sunday night’s performance it is not clear what they will ask that he has not already answered. The Fed is all-in to do everything possible to support the economy. Arguably, the bigger question is will they be able to stop once things have evidently turned better. History shows that once government programs get going, they are virtually indestructible. In this instance, that implies ongoing Fed largesse far past when it is needed, thus much lower interest rates than are appropriate. Combine negative real rates in the US with a bullish structural story in the EU and we have the recipe for a much weaker dollar over time. This week could well be the beginning of a new trend.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf