Hubris

Said Janet, the risk remains “small”
Inflation could come to the ball
But if that’s the case
The tools are in place
To stop it with one conference call

hu∙bris
/ (h)yoobrəs/
noun: excessive pride or self-confidence

Is there a risk of inflation?  I think there’s a small risk and I think it’s manageable.”  So said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Sunday morning on the talk show circuit.  “I don’t think it’s a significant risk, and if it materializes, we’ll certainly monitor for it, but we have the tools to address it.”  (Left unasked, and unanswered, do they have the gumption to use those tools if necessary?)

Let me take you back to a time when the world was a simpler place; the economy was booming, house prices were rising, and making money was as easy as buying a home with 100% borrowed money (while lying on your mortgage application to get approved), holding it for a few months and flipping it for a profit. This was before the GFC, before QE, before ZIRP and NIRP and PEPP and every acronym we have grown accustomed to hearing.  In fact, this was before Bitcoin.

In May 2007, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, responding to a reporter’s question regarding the first inklings of a problem in the sector told us,  “Given the fundamental factors in place that should support the demand for housing, we believe the effect of the troubles in the sub-prime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited.”  Ten months later, as these troubles had not yet disappeared, and in fact appeared to be growing, Bennie the Beard uttered his most infamous words, “At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the sub-prime market seems likely to be contained.

Notice anything similar about these situations?  A brewing crisis in the economy was analyzed and seen as insignificant relative to the Fed’s goals and, more importantly, inimical to the Fed’s desired outcomes.  As such, it is easily dismissed by those in charge.  Granted, Janet is no longer Fed chair, but we have heard exactly the same story from Chairman Jay and can look forward to hearing it again on Wednesday.

Of course, Bernanke could not have been more wrong in his assessment of the sub-prime situation, which was allowed to fester until such time as it broke financial markets causing a massive upheaval, tremendous capital losses and economic damage and ultimately resulted in a series of policies that have served to undermine the essence of capital markets; creative destruction.  While hindsight is always 20/20, it does not detract from the reality that, as the proverb goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But right now, the message is clear, there is no need to be concerned over transient inflation readings that are likely to appear in the next few months.  Besides, the Fed is targeting average inflation over time, so a few months of above target inflation are actually welcome.  And rising bond yields are a good thing as they demonstrate confidence in the economy.  Maybe Janet and Jay are right, and everything is just ducky, but based on the Fed’s track record, a lot of ‘smart’ money is betting they are not.  Personally, especially based on my observations of what things cost when I buy them, I’m with the smart money, not the Fed.  But for now, inflation has been dismissed as a concern and the combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus are moving full speed ahead.

Will this ultimately result in a substantial correction in risk appetite?  If Yellen’s and Powell’s view on inflation is wrong, and it does return with more staying power than currently anticipated, it will require a major decision; whether to address inflation at the expense of slowing economic growth, or letting the economy and prices run hotter for longer with the likelihood of much longer term damage.  At this stage, it seems pretty clear they will opt for the latter, which is the greatest argument for a weakening dollar, but perhaps not so much vs. other fiat currencies, instead vs. all commodities.  As to general risk appetite, I suspect it would be significantly harmed by high inflation.

However, inflation remains a future concern, not one for today, and so markets remain enamored of the current themes; namely expectations for a significant economic rebound on the back of fiscal stimulus leading to higher equity prices, higher commodity prices and higher bond yields.  That still feels like an unlikely trio of outcomes, but so be it.

This morning, we are seeing risk acquisition with only Shanghai (-1.0%) falling of all major indices overnight as Tencent continues to come under pressure after the government crackdown on its financial services business.  But the Nikkei (+0.2%) and Hang Seng (+0.3%) both managed modest gains and we have seen similar rises throughout Europe (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.3%) despite the fact that the ruling CDU party in Germany got clobbered in weekend elections in two states.  US futures are also pointing higher by similar amounts across the board.

Bond markets, interestingly, have actually rallied very modestly with Treasury yields lower by 1.2 basis points, and similar yield declines in both Bunds and OATs.  That said, remember that the 10-year did see yields climb 8 basis points on Friday amid a broad-based bond sell-off around the world.  In other words, this feels more like consolidation than a trend change.

Commodity markets have also generally edged higher, with oil (+0.35%), gold (+0.1%) and Aluminum (+1.0%) showing that the reflation trade is still in play.

Given the modesty of movement across markets, it seems only right that the dollar is mixed this morning, with a variety of gainers and laggards, although only a few with significant movement.  In the G10 this morning, SEK (-0.7%) is the worst performer as CPI was released at a lower than expected 1.5% Y/Y vs 1.8% expected.  This has renewed speculation that the Riksbank may be forced to cut rates back below zero again, something they clearly do not want to do.  But beyond this, price action has been +/- 0.2% basically, which is indicative of no real news.

In EMG currencies, it is also a mixed picture with ZAR (+0.7%) the biggest gainer on what appear to be carry trade inflows, with TRY (+0.6%) next in line as traders anticipate a rate hike by the central bank later this week.  Most of LATAM is not yet open after this weekend’s change in the clocks, but the MXN (+0.3%) is a bit firmer as I type.  On the downside, there is a group led by KRW (-0.3%) and HUF (-0.25%), showing both the breadth and depth (or lack thereof) of movement.  In other words, movement of this nature is generally not a sign of new news.

On the data front, all eyes are on the FOMC meeting on Wednesday, but we do get a few other releases this week as follows:

Today Empire Manufacturing 14.5
Tuesday Retail Sales -0.5%
-ex autos 0.1%
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 75.5%
Wednesday Housing Starts 1555K
Building Permits 1750K
FOMC Decision 0.00% – 0.25%
Thursday Initial Claims 700K
Continuing Claims 4.07M
Philly Fed 24.0
Leading Indicators 0.3%

Source: Bloomberg

While Retail Sales will garner some interest, the reality is that the market is almost entirely focused on the FOMC and how it will respond to, or whether it will even mention, the situation in the bond market.  Certainly, a strong Retail Sales report could encourage an even more significant selloff in bonds, which, while seemingly embraced by the Fed, cannot be seen as good news for the Treasury.  After all, they are the ones who have to pay all that interest. (Arguably, we are the ones who pay it, but that is an entirely different conversation.)

As to the dollar, while it has wandered aimlessly for the past few sessions, I get the sneaking suspicion that it is headed for another test of its recent highs as I believe bond yields remain the key market driver, and that move is not nearly over.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Misled

Said Janet, do not be misled
Strong growth is no sub for widespread
Support from the bill
In Congress which will
Insure budget’s stay in the red
Insure higher yields lay ahead
Insure every table has bread

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who polished her dovish bona fides as Fed Chair from 2013 to 2017, has taken her act to the executive branch and is vociferously trying to make the case that recent positive data is of no concern at this time and that the $1.9 trillion package that is slowly wending its way through Congress remains critical for the economy.  “It’s very important to have a big package that addresses the pain this has caused.  The price of doing too little is much larger than the price of doing something big,” was her exact quote in an interview yesterday.  I wonder, is ‘going big’ the new zeitgeist, replacing YOLO?  After all, not only has Ms Yellen been harping on this theme, which has been taken up by others in government, but there is even a weekly TV Show with that name that opens the door to some of the more remarkable, if ridiculous, things people are willing to do to get on TV.

But go big it is, with no indication that the current administration is concerned about potential longer term negative fiscal outcomes.  The pendulum has swung from the Supply Side rationale for fiscal stimulus (cutting taxes to drive incentives) to the MMT rationale for fiscal stimulus (as long as we borrow in our native currency, we can always repay any amount).  History will almost certainly show that this side of the pendulum is no less damaging than the other side, but given that politics is a short-term phenomenon, only concerned with the time until the next election, we are virtually guaranteed to continue down this road to perdition.

Thus far, the results have been relatively benign, first off because the bill has not yet been made into law, although markets clearly assume it will be, and secondly because the depths of the government induced recession from which we are emerging were truly historic, so it takes some time to go from collapse to explosive growth.  The gravest concern for some (this author included) is that we are going to see significant price inflation in the real economy, not just in asset prices, and in the end, the economy will simply suffer from different problems.  But then, isn’t that what elections are really about?  When administrations change it is a cry to address different issues, not improve the overall situation.

So, with that in mind on this Friday, let’s take a tour of the markets.  Today is one of the few sessions so far this year where the major themes entering 2021 are actually playing out according to plan.  As such, we are seeing continued support in the equity space, with yesterday’s modest sell-off being reversed in most markets.  We are seeing bond markets continue to come under pressure with yields rising on the reflation narrative, and we are watching the dollar decline, albeit still firmly in the middle of the trading range it has traced out this year.

In the equity space, while the Nikkei (-0.7%) was under modest pressure, we saw small gains in the Hang Seng (+0.2%) and Shanghai (+0.5%).  Also noteworthy was the Sydney /ASX 200 (-1.3%) which fell after a widely followed analyst Down Under increased his forecast for interest rates by nearly 50 basis points by year end.  Not surprisingly, this helped AUD (+1.0%) which is the best performing currency today.  As to Europe, the gains are more broad-based with both the CAC and DAX rising by 0.5% although the FTSE 100 is basically flat on the day.  Here, too, there was data that helped drive the market narrative with UK Retail Sales disastrous in January (-8.2%, -8.8% ex fuel) weighing on the FTSE despite stronger than expected preliminary PMI data from the UK (Composite PMI rising to 49.8, up more than 8 points from last month).  Meanwhile, German PPI data jumped sharply (+1.4% in Jan), its largest rise since 2008.  I find it quite interesting that we saw a similarly large rise in the US earlier this week.  It appears that inflationary pressures are starting to bubble up, at least in some economies.  French and Italian CPI data remain mired well below 1.0%, a sign that neither economy is poised to rebound sharply quite yet.  As to US futures, they are all green, but with gains on the order of 0.2%-0.3%, so hardly earth-shattering.

Bond markets, however, continue to sell off around most of the world which is feeding a key conundrum.  One of the rationales for the never-ending stock market rally is the low yield environment, but if bond yields keep rising, that pillar may well be pulled out with serious consequences to the bull case.  But in true reflationary style, Treasury yields have backed up 1 basis point and we are seeing larger yield gains in Europe (Bunds +1.7bps, OATs +1.2bps, Gilts +2.1bps).  In fact, the only bonds in Europe rallying today are Super Mario bonds Italian BTPs (-1.5bps) as the market continues to give Draghi the benefit of the doubt with respect to his ability to save Italy’s economy.

In the commodity space, oil has ceded some of its recent gains with WTI (-2.25%) back below $60/bbl, although still higher by 22% this year.  Precious metals are slightly softer and base metals are mixed with Copper (+1.9%) the true outperformer.

Finally, in the FX market, the dollar is under pressure against the entire G10 space and much of the emerging market space.  In G10, we already discussed Aussie, which has helped drag NZD (+0.7%) higher in its wake.  But the rest of the bloc is seeing solid gains of the 0.3%-0.4% variety with the pound (+0.15%) the laggard after that Retail Sales data.  However, the pound did trade above 1.40 briefly this morning for the first time since April 2018, nearly three years ago.

In the Emerging markets, CNY (+0.5%) has been the biggest gainer with CLP (+0.4%) right behind on the strong copper showing.  However, the CE4 have all tracked the euro higher and are performing well today.  On the downside, BRL (-0.6%), ZAR (-0.5%) and MXN (-0.4%) are the laggards, with the real suffering after cryptic comments from President Bolsonaro regarding fuel price rises by Petrobras and potential government action there.  Meanwhile, the peso has been under pressure of late after Banxico’s 25bp rate cut last week, and growing talk that there could be others if inflation remains quiescent.  And lastly, South Africa suffered almost $1 billion of outflows from the local bond market there, with ensuing pressure on the rand.

On the data front this morning we get Existing Home Sales (exp 6.6M) and the preliminary US PMI data (58.8 Mfg, 58.0 Composite), although as we already learned, strong US data is irrelevant in the fiscal decision process right now.  Two more Fed speakers, Barkin and Rosengren, are on the docket for today, but again, until we hear of a change from Chairman Powell, it is unlikely that the other Fed speakers are going to have much impact.

Summing things up, right now, the reflation trade, as imagined on January 1st, is playing out.  Quite frankly, the dollar is simply trading in a new range (1.1950/1.2150) and until the euro can make new highs, above 1.2350, I would not get too excited.  The one thing that is very true is that market liquidity is shallower than it has been in the past which explains the choppiness of trading, but also should inform hedging expectations.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

De Minimis Sellin’

There once was a Fed Chair named Yellen
Whose term saw di minimis sellin’
Of bonds or of stocks
As from her soapbox
She promised a balance sheet swellin’

But now she’s the Treasury Sec
And her goal’s to get a blank check
For spending, not saving
Though that might be paving
The way to a financial wreck

Investors continue to add to their risk portfolios this morning amid the never-ending hopes for yet more fiscal stimulus from the US.  This can be seen most clearly from the combination of rising stock prices and rising bond yields.  In classic risk-on fashion, the ongoing speculative mania continues to drive equity markets higher around the world.  Asia is uniformly green, with the Nikkei (+2.1%) leading the way but strength in Shanghai (+1.0%) and Hong Kong (+0.1%).  The concern for the latter has to do with the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday and the fact that the link between the mainland and Hong Kong stock markets will be turned off during that period, thus reducing inflows. Meanwhile, Europe is also firmer across the board with Italy’s FTSE MIB (+1.4%) the leader as investors gain confidence that Super Mario Draghi will be as “successful” a PM as he was an ECB President.  But the FTSE 100 (+0.95%), CAC (+0.6%) and DAX (+0.3%) are all firmer with the DAX lagging on the back of weaker than expected IP data (0.0%, exp +0.3%) indicating that the ongoing lockdowns in Germany, which are slated to continue for another 6 to 8 weeks, are taking a toll.  And don’t worry, US futures are all green too, higher by roughly 0.4% each.

The second piece of this puzzle is the bond market, which is behaving exactly as expected in a risk-on session by selling off nicely.  In fact, Treasury yields have touched new highs for the move with the 10-year at 1.19% (+2.9bps) while 30-year bonds have just traded to 2.00% for the first time since Feb 19 of last year, right as the Covid crisis was beginning.  But this is not an isolated US feature, we are seeing higher yields throughout Europe, Italy excepted, as Bunds (+2.6bps), OATs (+2.5bps) and Gilts (+3.3bps) are all under pressure today.  Why, you may ask, are European bond markets selling off if the story is US stimulus?  Because it’s one big global trade, and if the $1.9 trillion stimulus package gets passed, the idea is a faster US recovery will support European and Asian companies that sell into the US.

Of course, politics being what it is, even control of the House and Senate doesn’t mean that passing a bill this large is easy.  And this is where Ms Yellen comes in, she needs to forcefully make the case passage is critical for the nation’s economy.  The problem is that the recent data trend, which has been generally better than expected (excluding Friday’s jobs data) points to the fact that perhaps not so much stimulus is needed.  So, on the Sunday morning talk shows she was emphatic in her comments that it is critical, and that erring by spending too much is a significantly better mistake than spending too little.  Interestingly, even some left-leaning economists don’t back that view.  Notably, Larry Summers, former director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, and Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist at the IMF, have highlighted the risks to this package on two fronts; first, it could result in inflation and second, it may prevent the passage of other legislation focused on infrastructure and green investment deemed more important.

Now, the one thing we know about Congress is that virtually none of the members of either the House or Senate have any understanding of economics or finance.  As such, they take their cues from their financial backers staffers and the pronouncements of eminent economists from their side of the aisle.  And this is what makes the Summers and Blanchard comments noteworthy, they are both clearly left of center and both are arguing for less Covid stimulus. Janet has her work cut out for her to get what she wants.  Ironically, the fact that this package may not be passed until March is probably a positive for stocks, after all, that means another 4-6 weeks of stimulus hopes!

A quick look at commodity prices shows that virtually every commodity price is higher this morning led by oil (+1.3%), but with strength in precious metals (gold +0.4%, silver +1.0%) and agriculturals (wheat +0.7%, corn +0.6%).  Again, this is a risk-on market.

The one piece of the relation trade narrative that continues to fail, however, is the weak dollar story.  For now, before inflation data starts to rise sharply and real yields tumble, rising US rates are leading to a rising US dollar.  So, this morning the pound (-0.4%) is the laggard, but the weakness is across the board.  Even NOK (-0.1% and CAD (-0.15%) are softer despite the ongoing oil price rally.  In fact, the entire commodity bloc is suffering despite firmer commodity prices.  This is true in emerging markets as well which is led lower by ZAR (-1.0%) and both BRL (-0.7%) and MXN (-0.7%) today.  The rand story continues to be virus related as the vaccine rollout stalls given the realization that the new strain of virus is not responding well to the AstraZeneca vaccines they have.  In fact, the vaccine story is part of the LATAM problems, but of greater consequence is the fact that as US yields rise, the carry trade is becoming less attractive, and both these currencies are beneficiaries of carry.  On the plus side in EMG, KRW (+0.35%) is the best performing currency around after virus restrictions were eased somewhat amid declining infection statistics.

Speaking of statistics, it is a very quiet week on the data front, with CPI the marquis number on Wednesday.

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 97.5
JOLTs Job Openings 6.4M
Wednesday CPI 0.3% (1.5% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.2% (1.5% Y/Y)
Thursday Initial Claims 760K
Continuing Claims 4.41M
Friday Michigan Sentiment 80.9

Source: Bloomberg

Regarding the CPI data, it has printed higher than the survey in all but one month since June and given the ongoing inflationary pressures of higher commodity prices and supply chain issues, my sense is we will see that again.  On the speaking front, just three Fed speakers this week, Mester today, Bullard tomorrow and then Chairman Powell speaks Wednesday afternoon.  This makes Wednesday the day to watch.  Until then, I expect the market will focus on stimulus matters and equity prices.  If US yields continue to rise I suspect the dollar will test resistance again, with the key level in the euro at 1.1910.  Once again, nothing has changed my medium-term view about dollar weakness, and last week did see a halving of the long euro positions in the CFTC data, but for now, I feel like the dollar still has the upper hand.

Good luck and stay safe
Adf

Money’s Still Free

There once was a time, long ago
When traders all just had to know
If payrolls were strong
So they could go long
If not, they would sell with the flow

But these days, with ZIRP and QE
Attention’s not on NFP
Instead it’s the pace
Of central bank grace
And making sure money’s still free

One of the biggest changes in the market environment since the onset of the global pandemic has been the change in what markets find important.  This is not the first time market focus has changed, nor will it be the last, but a change has definitely occurred.  Consider, for a moment, why the market focuses so intently on certain data points.  Essentially, traders and investors are looking for the information that best describes the policy focus of the time, and therefore, changes in that information are sufficient to change opinions, at least in the short term, about markets.  And remember, that policy focus can come from one of two places, either the Fed or the Administration.

A step back in time shows that in the early 1980’s, when Paul Volcker was Fed Chair, the number that mattered the most was the M2 money supply which was reported on Thursday afternoons.  In fact, the market impact grew so large that they had to change the release time from 3:50 pm to 4:10 pm, after the stock market closed, to reduce market volatility. Trading desks would have betting pools on the number and there were a group of economists, Fed watchers, whose entire job was to observe Fed monetary activity in the markets and make estimates of this number.  At the time, the Fed would not explicitly publish their target Fed Funds rate, they would add and remove liquidity from the money markets in order to achieve it.  And, in fact, you never heard comments from FOMC members which is why Fed Chairs are now compelled to testify to Congress twice a year.

But as time passed and the economy recovered from the recession of 1980-81, the Reagan Administration became highly focused on the US Trade Balance, (especially the deficit with Japan) which became THE number right up through the early 90’s.  Once again, betting pools were common on trading desks and futures markets would move sharply in the wake of the 8:30am release.

At some point there, while Alan Greenspan was still Fed Chair, but there was a new administration, the market turned its attention away from trade and started to focus on domestic indicators, with payrolls claiming the mantle of the best indicator of economic activity.  This suited the Fed, given its mandate included employment, and it suited the Clinton Administration, given they were keen to show how well the economy was doing in order to distract the populace from various scandals.

With the change in Fed Chair from Greenspan to Ben Bernanke, the Fed suddenly became a very different source of market information.  No longer did economists need to read tea leaves, but instead the Fed told us explicitly what they were doing and where rates were set.  Thus, during the GFC, Bernanke was on the tape constantly trying to guide markets to his preferred place.  And that place was full employment, so payrolls still mattered a great deal.  Of course, the market still cared about other things, like the level of interest rates, but still, NFP was seen as the single best indicator available.  Remember, during Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed initiated the QE that began the expansion of its balance sheet and changed the way the Fed worked, seemingly forever.  No longer would the Fed adjust the reserve balances in the system, instead, they would simply post an interest rate and if supply or demand didn’t suffice to achieve that rate, they would step into the markets and smooth things out.

Payrolls were still the focus through Chair Yellen’s term, especially since her background is as a labor economist, so the employment half of the mandate was far more important to her than the inflation half, and so, if anything, NFP took on greater importance.

Jay Powell’s turn at the Fed started amid a period where the economy was getting significant fiscal support and interest rates were trying to be normalized.  In fact, the Unemployment Rate had fallen to its lowest level in more than 50 years and seemed quite stable there, so Powell seemed to have an easy job, just don’t screw things up.  Alas, his efforts to continue normalizing interest rates (aka tightening policy) resulted in a sharp equity market correction in December 2018.  The President was none too pleased with that outcome, as the Trump administration was highly focused on the stock market as a barometer of its performance.  Thus, once again, the Fed stepped in to stabilize markets, and turned from tightening policy to easing in the Powell Pivot.  And perhaps that is the real message here, the most important data point to both the Fed and every administration is not payrolls or unemployment or inflation.  It is the S&P500.

But Covid’s shock to the market was unlike anything seen in a century, at least, and arguably, given the interconnectivity of the global economy compared to the last pandemic in 1918-20, ever.  So, the first NFP data points were shocking, but the market quickly grew accustomed to numbers that would have been unthinkable just months prior.  Instead, the numbers that mattered were the infection count, and the mortality rate.  And arguably, those are still the numbers that matter, along with the vaccination rate and the stimulus size.  All of these have been the market’s primary focus since March last year, and until the idea of the government lockdown fades, are likely to continue to be the keys for market behavior.

Which brings us back to this morning, when the payroll report is to be published.  Does it really have that much impact any longer?  Or has its usefulness as an indicator faded?  Well, it seems apparent that market participants are far more intent on hearing from Fed speakers and trying to discern when monetary accommodation is going to be reduced (never) than on the jobs number.  In fact, given virtually every major central bank has explained that rates will remain at current levels for the next 3 to 4 years, at least, the only thing the data can tell us is if that will last longer than currently expected.

Ok, ahead of payrolls we have seen a general embrasure of risk, with equity markets strong, following yesterday’s US rally.  The Nikkei (+1.5%) and Hang Seng (+0.6%) both performed well although shanghai (-0.2%) slipped slightly.  In Europe, the CAC (+1.1%) leads the way followed by the DAX (+0.3%) after weak Factory order numbers (-1.9%) and the FTSE 100 (+0.1%).  US futures are currently trading higher by about 0.5% to round things out.

Bond markets are behaving as you would expect in a risk on session, with 10-year Treasuries printing at a new high yield for the move, 1.16%, up 2.1bps.  In Europe, the bond selling is greater with Bunds (+2.5bps) and Gilts (+5.3bps) getting tossed in favor of stocks.  Commodities are still in vogue, with oil (+1.0%) and gold (+0.4%) firm alongside all the base metals and agriculturals.

Finally, the dollar, is acting a bit more like expected, softening a bit while risk is being acquired.  The dollar’s recent rally alongside the equity rally seemed unusual compared to recent history, but today, things look more normal.  S,o NOK (+0.4%) and CAD (+0.3%) lead the G10 charge while JPY (-0.15%) is today’s laggard.  Clearly these stories are commodities and risk preference.  In the EMG space, APAC currencies were under a bit of pressure overnight, led by KRW (-0.4%) and MYR (-0.25%), but this morning we are seeing strength in TRY (+1.0%), RUB (+0.8%) and MXN (+0.4%) to lead the way.  The CE4 are also performing relatively well alongside modest strength in the euro (+0.2%).

Now the data:

Nonfarm Payrolls 105K
Private Payrolls 163K
Manufacturing Payrolls 30K
Unemployment Rate 6.7%
Average Hourly Earnings 0.3% (5.0% Y/Y)
Average Weekly Hours 34.7
Participation Rate 61.5%
Trade Balance -$65.7B

Source: Bloomberg

Which brings us back to the question, does it really matter?  And the answer is, not to the stock market, and therefore not really to the Fed.  However, a strong number here could well hit the bond market pretty hard as well as support the dollar more fully.  We shall see.  FWIW, I don’t believe the dollar’s correction is over, and another 1%-2% is entirely viable in the short-run.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe
Adf

Go Big

This morning, a former Fed chair
Will speak and is set to declare
It’s time to “go big”
In order to dig
The nation out from its despair

After a quiet holiday shortened session yesterday, markets are showing modest positivity overall, although European equity markets seem to be lacking any oomph.  However, most other risk indicators are pointing to a resumption of risk appetite with haven assets declining, commodity prices rising and the dollar under pressure.

Though we await the outcomes from three key central bank meetings later this week, there is little in the way of data to consider otherwise, so market participants are looking for other potential catalysts.  Chief among those catalysts today is the testimony by former Fed Chair, Janet Yellen, in the Senate as she is being vetted for Treasury Secretary in the new administration.

According to the release of the prepared statement, ahead of questions, she will explain that the US has been suffering from a K-shaped recovery for many years (in fact since she exacerbated that situation as Fed chair) and therefore the government needs to support policies that will help more people.  On the subject of issuing more Treasury debt, it appears she has weighed the consequences of excessive government debt and will say, with rates so low, it is time to “go big” and issue even more in order to fund the new administration’s priorities.  One other key topic of market interest is the dollar, where she will explain that a market set exchange rate is the best possible outcome, and that should be true of all nations.

For our purposes, the question is how these policies will impact markets overall, and the dollar specifically.  It is abundantly clear from the Treasury market’s performance ever since the Georgia run-off elections (10-year yields have risen 20.6 basis points, including 3.6 today) that the market is already anticipating the Treasury ‘going big’ when it comes to further debt issuance.  In fact, that is part and parcel of the reflation trade that has come back into vogue, with the expected further steepening of the yield curve.  In other words, while there may be some pushback from specific Senators, it seems implausible that reconfirming there will be significant new debt issuance to fund deficits will be seen as a mainstream concern.  Rather, the question will be how the Fed will respond when interest rates continue to rise and the cost of funding all that new debt issuance increases.

As to the dollar, while it appears she will not explicitly state a preference with respect to a weak or strong dollar, it seems pretty clear that the combination of the new administration debt policies with a Fed that is unlikely to allow interest rates to rise to true market-clearing levels will result in significantly more negative real yields as inflation continues to rise.  The result of this process will inevitably be a much weaker dollar.  While the market is currently in a consolidation phase, the dollar’s weakness has been manifesting since last spring.  And though positioning in this trade is huge, it does not mean the idea underpinning those positions is wrong.  As well, I believe there will be a very clear signal for when the dollar will begin it next leg lower; the Fed hinting at   whatever rate mitigation strategy they choose will be clear evidence that the negative real yield structure will expand, and the dollar will henceforth decline more substantially.  However, it could well be several months before that is the case, as we will need to see a continued climb in inflation data as well as the increased debt issuance to drive nominal interest rates higher thus forcing the Fed’s response.

But, as I said, that dollar story is still several months into the future, so let us focus on today’s happenings.  Overall, risk appetite is continuing to improve.  Asian equity markets were mostly stronger (Nikkei +1.4%, Hang Seng +2.7%) although Shanghai (-0.8%) didn’t manage to join in the fun.  While money is flowing rapidly into Hong Kong, it seems there is some concern that the PBOC may be tapping the brakes on liquidity in the real estate market in China, thus removing some of the spare cash and hurting equities as a side effect.  Europe, though, has had a different type of session this morning, with the three main markets all just marginally higher (DAX +0.3%, CAC +0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.2%) and several continental exchanges in the red.  The most notable piece of data from the Eurozone was the German ZEW Expectations survey, which was released slightly better than expected at 61.8, which while historically low, does indicate continue confidence in a recovery there.  US futures, though, are all in for more government spending and are currently higher by between 0.65% (DOW) and 1.0% (NASDAQ).  Clearly, there is no concern over too much debt there.

Speaking of debt, bond markets are behaving as you would expect in a risk-on scenario, with haven bonds declining around the world.  While Treasury yields have risen the most on the day, we seen Bunds (+1.1bps), OATs (+0.5bps) and Gilts (+1.5bps) all under pressure this morning.  Similarly, the PIGS are seeing demand grow on the back of increasing risk appetite with yields in those four nations’ bonds declining between 1 and 2 basis points.

Commodity prices are firmer with oil higher by 0.4% and the ags al looking at gains of between 0.25% and 2.0%, with most of them at multi-year highs.  And finally, the dollar is under pressure almost universally, with only JPY (-0.3%) weaker in the G10, the classic risk-on price action.  SEK (+0.9%) and NOK (+0.8%) are leading the way higher here, with oil clearly supporting the latter while the former is simply demonstrating its high beta with respect to the euro (+0.45%).

In the EMG bloc, ZAR (+1.3%) leads the way on the stronger commodity story, while BRL (+0.85%) and HUF (+0.8%) are next in line.  The real seems to be responding to both firmer commodity prices as well as news that the Covid vaccination program, which had been delayed through bureaucratic misfires, is finally set to get going, which is especially important given the surge in cases there.  As to HUF, the story is more about the CE4 rallying with the euro than with any specific economic or political stories from the country.  But the entire EMG bloc is higher, with the worst performers simply unchanged on the day.

On the data front, there is no mainstream data today, and no Fed speakers either as we are in the quiet period ahead of next Wednesday’s FOMC meeting.  Which brings us back to Yellen’s testimony as the most significant potential new information we are likely to see.  As Fed chair, she was one of the most dovish in history and there is no reason to believe that she will have changed that stance as Treasury secretary.  Instead, I fear we will see a virtual combination of the Fed and Treasury, and the resultant monetization of US debt will be a long term drag on the economy amid rising inflation.  That is not a dollar positive, I assure you, but not today’s problem.

Good luck and stay safe
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Sh*t Out of Luck

Consensus remains that the buck
This year is just sh*t out of luck
Though lately it’s jumped
It soon will be dumped
Or so say the bears run amok

This will be a holiday-shortened note to match our holiday shortened session today.  The broad theme in markets this morning is one of risk avoidance, with most European equity markets lower (CAC -0.4%, FTSE 100 -0.3%, DAX 0.0%), following the Nikkei (-1.0%) although we did see strength in China with both the Hang Seng (+1.0%) and Shanghai (+0.8%) putting in solid sessions.  The Chinese market activity comes on the heels of their latest data which showed that GDP in 2020 grew 2.3%, slightly better than forecast and certainly the only major economy that will show positive growth for the year.  Interestingly, the other data released was not quite as robust with Retail Sales rising a less than forecast 4.6%, down from November and investment activity rising more slowly than anticipated, both Fixed Asset (2.9%) and Property (7.0%).  However, no matter how you slice it, the Chinese economy seems to have weathered the pandemic better than most.

One of the interesting things we have seen of late is the seeming breakdown in the correlation between stocks and bonds.  Whereas the risk meme had generally been stocks falling led to haven asset buying, so Treasuries and the big 3 European government bonds would rally, that is not today’s story.  While the Treasury market is closed today, looking across Europe, despite the weakness in stocks, we are seeing weakness in bonds, with Bund (+1.2bps), OAT (+1.8bps) and Gilt (+0.8bps) prices all sliding a bit on the day.  The news from the PIGS is worse, with yields rising between 1.9 and 2.8 basis points, although given those assets are more risk than haven, this is no real surprise.

There have been three main stories out of Europe this morning, the election of a new CDU party leader in Germany, Armin Laschet, who will replace the retiring Angela Merkel.  However, there is concern that he is a weak candidate for Chancellor and may face a challenge amid slumping popularity ratings.  A weak German Chancellor is not a Eurozone positive, keep that in mind.  The second story is the French dismissal of the unsolicited bid for Carrefour, the largest grocery chain in the country.  Once again, they have proven they have little interest in a free market and will name any company critical to the national interest to prevent the loss of control.  And finally, in Italy, it appears PM Giuseppe Conte is losing his grip on power after a key ally, Matteo Renzi, took his party out of the ruling coalition.  The broader concern there is that if an election is called, Matteo Salvini, the head of the League, a right-wing party with nationalist tendencies could win the election outright, and wreak significant havoc on the Continent with respect to issues like monetary and fiscal policy, immigration and even addressing Covid.

However, at this point, the bulk of that news is fairly noncommittal and almost certainly not having a real impact on the FX markets…yet.  Rather, the story that caught my eye was that Janet Yellen, whose vetting by the Senate for her role as Treasury Secretary takes place tomorrow, will reputedly say she believes the dollar’s value should be determined by the market and that the Treasury will neither speak to it, nor attempt to weaken it directly in any manner.  Of course, the disingenuous part of that statement is that her other policies, which when combined with the Fed’s activity, will almost certainly drive real yields to greater and greater depths of negativity, will undermine the dollar without her having to ever mention the currency once.

Ironically, for now, the dollar continues its rebound from its nadir on January 6th, just three days into the year.  In fact, in the G10, it is stronger against the entire bloc except JPY (+0.1%), with the commodity bloc leading the way lower (NO -0.45%, AUD -0.45%, CAD -0.4%).  You won’t be surprised to know commodities are pulling back a bit as well today (WTI -0.3%).  In the EMG space, the screen is largely red as well, led by RUB (-0.85%) and ZAR (-0.65%) with only BRL (+0.15%) showing any support on the day.  That support seems to be emanating from a survey of Brazilian economists who are calling for a return to growth in 2021 alongside rising interest rates, with the Selic rate (their overnight rate) forecast to rise 125 basis points this year and a further 150 basis points next year to get back to 4.75%.  If that is the case, BRL will certainly find significant support as expectations remain that dollar rates are not going to rise at all.

On the data front, it is a pretty light week, and remember, there are no Fed speakers either.

Thursday ECB meeting -0.5%
Initial Claims 923K
Continuing Claims 5250K
Philly Fed 11.3
Housing Starts 1560K
Building Permits 1603K
Friday Existing Home Sales 6.55M

Source: Bloomberg

While the Fed doesn’t meet until next week, we do hear from the Bank of Canada (exp no change), BOJ (no change) and the ECB (no change) this week, although as you can tell from the forecasts, there is no anticipated movement on policy at this time.  So, adding it all up, it feels to me like the dollar’s short-term momentum remains modestly firmer, although this has not changed my longer-term view that the Fed will be forced to cap nominal yields and as real yields decline, so will the dollar.  But that is more of a summer phenomenon I believe, late Spring at the earliest.

Good luck and stay safe
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A Major Mistake

There once was a pundit named Fately
Who asked, is Fed policy lately
A major mistake
Or did Yellen break
The mold? If she did t’was sedately

Please sanction my poetic license by listing Janet Yellen as the primary suspect in my inquiry; it was simply that her name fit within the rhyme scheme better than her fellow central bankers, all of whom acted in the same manner. Of course, I am really discussing the group of Bernanke, Draghi, Kuroda and Carney as well as Yellen, the cabal that decided ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), NIRP (negative interest rate policy) and QE (quantitative easing) made sense.

Recently, there has been a decided uptick in warnings from pundits about how current Fed Chair, Jay Powell, is on the verge of a catastrophic policy mistake by raising interest rates consistently. There are complaints about his plainspoken manner lacking the subtleties necessary to ‘guide’ the market to the correct outcome. In this case, the correct outcome does not mean sustainable economic growth and valuation but rather ever higher equity prices. There are complaints that his autonomic methodology (which if you recall was actually instituted by Yellen herself and simply has been followed by Powell), does not take into account other key issues such as wiggles in the data, or more importantly the ongoing rout in non-US equity markets. And of course, there is the constant complaint from the current denizen of the White House that Powell is undermining the economy, and by extension the stock market, by raising rates. You may have noticed a pattern about all the complaints coming back to the fact that Powell’s policy actions are no longer supporting the stock markets around the world. Curious, no?

But I think it is fair to ask if Powell’s policies are the mistake, or if perhaps, those policies he is unwinding, namely QE and ZIRP, were the mistakes. After all, in the scope of history, today’s interest rates remain exceedingly low, somewhere in the bottom decile of all time as can be seen in Chart 1 below.

5000 yr interest rate chart

So maybe the mistake was that the illustrious group of central bankers mentioned above chose to maintain these extraordinary monetary policies for nearly a decade, rather than begin the unwinding process when growth had recovered several years after the recession ended. As the second chart shows, the Fed waited seven years into a recovery before beginning the process of slowly unwinding what had been declared emergency policy measures. Was it really still an emergency in 2015, six years after the end of the recession amid 2.0% GDP growth, which caused the Fed to maintain a policy stance designed to address a severe recession?

Chart 2

real gdp growth

My point is simply that any analysis of the current stance of the Federal Reserve and its current policy trajectory must be seen in the broader context of not only where it is heading, but from whence it came. Ten years of extraordinarily easy monetary policy has served to build up significant imbalances and excesses throughout financial markets. Consider the growth in leveraged loans, especially covenant lite ones, corporate debt or government debt, all of which are now at record levels, as key indicators of the current excesses. The history of economics is replete with examples of excesses leading to shakeouts throughout the world. The boom and bust cycle is the very essence of Schumpeterian capitalism, and as long as we maintain a capitalist economy, those cycles will be with us.

The simple fact is that every central bank is ‘owned’ by its government, and has been for the past thirty years at least. (Paul Volcker is likely the last truly independent Fed Chair we have had, although Chairman Powell is starting to make a name for himself.) And because of that ownership, every central bank has sought to keep rates as low as possible for as long as possible to goose growth above trend. In the past, although that led to excesses, the downturns tended to be fairly short, and the rebounds quite robust. However, the advent of financial engineering has resulted in greater and greater leverage throughout the economy and correspondingly bigger potential problems in the next downturn. The financial crisis was a doozy, but I fear the next one, given the massive growth in debt outstanding, will be much worse.

At that point, I assure you that the first person who will be named as the culprit for ‘causing’ the recession will be Jay Powell. My point here is that, those fingers need to be pointed at Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi, Carney and Kuroda, as it was their actions that led to the current significantly imbalanced economy. The next recession will have us longing for the good old days of 2008 right after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the political upheaval that will accompany it, or perhaps follow immediately afterwards, is likely to make what we are seeing now seem mild. While my crystal ball does not give me a date, it is becoming abundantly clear that the date is approaching far faster than most appreciate.

Be careful out there. Markets and politics are going to become much more volatile over the next several years.

One poet’s view!

Now She’s Complaining

Remember when Yellen was Chair
And wouldn’t raise rates on a dare?
Well now she’s complaining
They should be constraining
Growth lest prices rise everywhere

Former Fed Chair, Janet Yellen, was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal yesterday and was substantially more plainspoken than during her policymaking years. (Perhaps Chairman Powell’s new style has rubbed off on her). At any rate, she closed ranks with every other central bank chief in the world decrying President Trump’s criticism of the Fed and demanding that central banks remain independent. But more interestingly, she seemed to indicate that higher rates were appropriate, so much so that she was willing to dismiss the shape of the yield curve as being important. When asked about that, her response was, “this time is different.” While that sentiment is understandable given the structural changes of the Fed’s balance sheet and its impact on long term yields, history has shown that ‘this time is never different’! In the end, though, the woman who never saw a bad reason to delay normalizing policy has suddenly turned hawkish. And while this will have no impact on markets, it does speak to the politics involved in central banking, independence be damned. Every government wants to see low rates to help support their economy. Yellen apparently was more than happy to accommodate the Obama Administration’s desires, but suddenly sees the economic rationalization for higher rates today. Go figure!

In the meantime, the dollar is doing little this morning, edging lower in mixed fashion. In the G10 bloc the biggest mover has been the pound, rising 0.5% after wage data showed growth of 3.1% excluding bonuses, the highest pace since January 2009. However, despite this rise, there was no change in the market pricing for the next BOE rate hike. Instead, it is clear that the BOE will remain on the sidelines until the Brexit situation becomes clearer. There is no way Governor Carney can consider raising rates ahead of a possible hard Brexit given the economic uncertainty that would surround that outcome. However, FX traders seem willing to bet that higher rates are eventually in store. That said, there has been no new movement on the negotiations and now all eyes will be focused on the EU meeting tomorrow and Thursday to see if something new is proposed.

Meanwhile, the Italians passed a budget last night, maintaining their 2.4% deficit projection and the EU is duly unhappy. There is now a two-week period where the EU will scrutinize the budget and either accept it or send it back for revision. If the latter, that would be the first time in history it occurred, despite the fact that the French ran budget deficits greater than the 3.0% explicit ceiling for more than a decade. Italian markets are responding favorably this morning, with both bond and stocks there rallying a bit, but there is certainly potential for further discord. Consider the fact that if the EU backs down after their recent declarations that the Italian budget was unacceptable, its ability to persuade any other nation going forward will be dramatically reduced. On the other hand, by acting they may foster a market crisis if the Italian government fights back, which based on their actions to date, they almost certainly will. As this is Europe, I expect there will be some fudge ultimately agreed, but that does not mean there won’t be more damage first. As to the euro, it is little changed on the day, and actually on the month as it has recouped its losses from the first week and seems pretty comfortable trading either side of 1.1600.

Versus the emerging market bloc, however, the dollar is somewhat softer today, falling against virtually all its main counterparts here. While the year-to-date numbers for most of this group show dollar strength, recent price action has been consolidative rather than extensive. This morning’s numbers show strength in ZAR (0.7%), KRW (0.75%), MXN (0.25%) and even CNY (0.2%), with very few decliners. As global equity markets (China excepted) seem to have found a temporary floor this morning, this FX movement appears to be of the relief variety, as investors and traders start to dip their respective toes back into risky markets. If equity markets truly find their footing, then these currencies have room to rebound further. However, another leg lower in stocks will almost certainly be followed by the EMG bloc feeling more pressure.

Turning to the US data picture, yesterday’s Retail Sales numbers were disappointing, with the headline rising only 0.1% (had been expected 0.6%) and the ex-auto number falling -0.1%. Unfortunately, it is unclear what impact Hurricane Florence had on the data, so these numbers may be quite misleading…or not. We just don’t know yet. This morning’s data brings IP (exp 0.2%) and Capacity Utilization (78.2%) along with the JOLT’s Job Openings number (6.945M). However, these numbers are not usually market movers in their own right, but rather form part of a larger pattern. As such, there is every reason to believe that the dollar will be driven by equity markets today, and with futures pointing higher in the US, it seems that risk is being embraced for now. Based on recent activity, that should actually help the dollar, although that is the opposite of what we have known for the past decade.

Good luck
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