Fundamentals Versus Liquidity

Markets took fright last week. The divergence between what fundamentals are telling us and what markets are doing has widened dramatically, but bulls will say don’t fight the Fed.  However, after an unprecedented run up from the late March lows, equity markets and risk assets appeared to react negatively to a sober assessment of the economic recovery by Fed Chair Powell at last week’s FOMC meeting. News of a renewed increase in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the US against the background of ongoing protests in the country, added to market nervousness.  On Thursday stocks registered their biggest sell off since March but recovered some composure at the end of the week. Volatility has increased and markets are looking far more nervous going into this week.

Exuberance by day traders who have been buying stocks while stuck in lockdown, with not much to do and government pay outs in hand, have been cited as one reason that equities, in particular those that were most beaten up and even in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, have rallied so strongly.  Many (those that prefer to look at fundamentals) believe this will end in tears, comparing the run up in some stocks to what happened just before the tech bubble burst in 2000/01.  The reality is probably somewhat more nuanced.  There’s definitely a lot of liquidity sloshing around, which to some extent is finding itself into the equity market even if the Fed would probably prefer that it went into the real economy.   However, buying stocks that have little intrinsic value is hard to justify and market jitters over the past week could send such investors back to the sidelines.

Stumbling blocks to markets such as concerns about a second wave of virus infections are very real, but the real question is whether this will do any more damage to the economy than has already happened.  In this respect, it seems highly unlikely that a second or even third round of virus cases will result in renewed lockdowns.  Better preparedness in terms of health care, contract tracing, and a general malaise from the public about being locked down, mean that there is no appetite for another tightening in social distancing restrictions.  The result is a likely increase in virus cases, but one that may not do as much economic damage.

Last week’s equity market stumble has helped the US dollar to find its feet again.  After looking oversold according to various technical indicators such as the Relative Strength Index (RSI) the dollar rallied against various currencies recently.  Sentiment for the dollar had become increasingly bearish (overly so in my view), with the sharp decline in US yields , reduced demand for dollars from central banks and companies globally amid an improvement in risk appetite weighing on the currency.  However, I think the dollar is being written off way to quickly.  Likely US economic and asset market outperformance suggests that the US dollar will not go down without a fight.

Fed, ECB, BoJ In Focus This Week

Three major central banks meet to decide on monetary policy this week, but after massive and unprecedented actions over past weeks, there is likely to be little new in terms of additional policy measures announced by the US Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BoJ) in the days ahead.  Key data this week include US Q1 GDP, the April US ISM manufacturing survey and China’s April purchasing manager’s index (PMI).

The Fed has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Covid-19 to combat the severe economic and market impact emanating from the virus.  This included aggressive rate cuts, unlimited asset purchases (Treasuries, MBS), purchases of commercial paper, loans to small businesses, easing rules for banks and provision of US dollar swap lines with other central banks to help ease global USD demand pressures.  Aside from some fine tuning, there may not be much else the Fed will do at its meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile the US ISM survey (Fri) is likely to post a sharp decline (consensus 37.0).

Markets have reacted well to the measures announced and implemented so far, but as noted there is a growing disconnect between the rally in equity markets over recent weeks and rapidly worsening economic data.  US Q1 GDP data (Wed) this week will likely reveal some of the damage, with a 4% q/q annualised fall in GDP forecast by the consensus. Q2 GDP will be even weaker however, as most of the weakness in activity will have taken place in April and will have likely continued into May and June.

The ECB continues to face pressure to do more as Eurozone activity continues to plunge.  So far the main thrust of the ECB’s measures are EUR 750bn of bond purchases and loosening of restrictions on such purchases.  However, sovereign spreads, especially in the periphery (especially Italy) are under pressure and the ECB may need to act again soon though perhaps not as early as the meeting this Thursday.  The ECB will also likely shift the onus of further easing to fiscal, especially the proposed “recovery fund”, which continues to fuel major divisions between European countries.

Last but not least the BoJ meeting on Monday will probably be the most active in terms of new measures, but on balance they will probably do little to move markets.   At the last meeting the BoJ significantly increased the amount of ETFs they would purchase, which to some extent has helped the Nikkei 225 rally over recent weeks.  At this meeting the BoJ is unlikely to alter its negative interest rate policy, but is likely to remove its JPY 80 trillion cap on JGB purchases and announce an increase in corporate bond purchases along with other measures to ease credit.

On the data front China’s official manufacturing PMI is likely to remain around or just above the expansionary threshold of 50 as much of China’s supply side of the economy opens up.  However, the ability to retain expansion at a time when global demand and therefore China’s export markets are collapsing, will prove difficult.  China’s authorities appear to be increasingly realising this and have stepped up support both on the fiscal (via special bond issuance) and monetary side (targeted cuts in various rates), but so far the scale of easing has been limited and Q1 growth was especially weak.

Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

Since my last post there has been an even bigger onslaught of fiscal and monetary stimulus measures globally in an attempt to combat the devasting health and economic impact of COVID-19.  Fiscal stimulus in the US will amount to over 10% of GDP while the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is set to grow further from an already large $6+ trillion at present as the Fed throws everything but the kitchen sink to combat the impact of the virus. There is already preparations underway for another phase of fiscal stimulus in the US.

Europe meanwhile, has struggled to agree upon a package given divisions between the North and South of the region, but eventually agreed upon EUR 500bn worth of fiscal stimulus while the ECB is undertaking renewed asset purchases in a new quantitative easing programme.  Many other countries have stepped up their efforts too.  All of this will provide an invaluable cushion, but will not prevent a massive economic downturn, nor will it stop the virus from spreading.

Markets have attempted to look past the growing economic risks, spurred by data showing that in many countries the rate of growth of coronavirus cases has slowed, including in those with a substantial number of deaths such as Italy and Spain.  Even in New York, which has been the epicentre of COVID-19 infections in the US, there are positive signs though it is an ominous sign that the US has now recorded the most deaths globally.

This move towards flattening of the curve has fuelled hopes that many countries will soon be able to emerge from lock downs.  In China, which was first in, most of the manufacturing sector has opened up, while there has even been some relaxation of measures to constrain movement of people.  The net result of all of the above last week, was the biggest weekly rally in US stocks since 1974.

While the 25%+ rally in US equities since their lows is reflecting this optimism, there is a major risk that this is a bear market rally given the risks ahead.  Economic growth estimates continue to be revised lower and the IMF’s revised forecasts scheduled to be published this week are likely to show a global economy on the rails, with growth likely to be at its worst since the Great Depression according to the IMF’s Managing Director.  Emerging markets, which do not have anywhere near the firepower or health systems of developed economies are particularly at risk.

At the same time earnings expectations have yet to reflect the massively negative impact on corporate profits likely in the months ahead; Q1 earnings to be released in the days ahead will be closely watched.  Not only are earnings expectations likely to be revised substantially lower, but many companies will simply not survive and many of those that do could end up in state hands if they are important enough.  Separately there is a risk that shutdowns last longer than expected or once economies begin to open up there another wave of infections.  These risk have not yet been fully appreciated by markets unfortunately.

Central Banks and Governments Act To Combat COVID-19. Will It Be Enough?

In just a few weeks the world has changed dramatically.  What was initially seen as a virus localised in Asia has spread throughout the world with frightening speed.  The shocking destruction that COVID-19 has wrought globally in both health and economic terms will not fade quickly.  The virus is destroying complacency in all areas.  Total and complete lock down is becoming key to arrest the virus’ ascent, but many have yet to change their ways, believing that they will be ok.  How naïve is that!

Governments and central banks are finally coming to grips with the economic and health costs, but also the realisation that even in many developed countries, they are woefully unequipped to deal with the health crisis that is unfolding.  Global policy makers and the public at large has gone from a phase of denial, to outright panic and increasingly into fear, which then brings forth the most aggressive responses.

Unfortunately, the lack of global cohesion amongst policy makers has meant that responses have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.  Two of the biggest super powers, the US and China, have despite a now forgotten about Phase 1 trade deal, become increasingly acrimonious in their dealings with each other.  This, at a time when the world is looking for leadership, is proving to be major impediment to dealing with the effects of the virus.

It is not all bad news in term of co-ordination.  Central banks globally appear to be acting in unison, even if accidently, in terms of slashing interest rates, aggressively increasing quantitative easing, flushing the financial system with US dollar liquidity and easing some of the regulatory burden on banks.  This has helped to improve market functioning, which increasingly appeared to be breaking down over recent weeks.  It may not however, prevent further pressure on asset markets given the destruction in economic  activity globally.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.  Governments are now stepping up to the plate.  Massive fiscal stimulus plans are being ramped up around the world.  G7 economies have pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and to co-ordinate actions though much has been un coordinated.  US lawmakers are currently deliberating on a stimulus package worth over a $1tn though this could rise significantly in the weeks ahead, Germany is planning to create a EUR 500bn bailout fund, and the UK has announced an “unprecedented” multi billion pound package of measures.  These are but a few of the various stimulus measures being undertaken globally.

China has yet to announce a major stimulus package, but has instead opted for more incremental measures as its economy begins to recover following a major lockdown.  However, just as China’s supply constraints are easing, demand is weakening sharply as economies globally shut down.  The implication is that China’s recovery will not be a quick one either.  More stimulus is likely.  Recent reports suggest China will step up special bond issuance for infrastructure spending, but more is likely.

Overall, the economic shock is just beginning as the health shock is intensifying.  We will need to brace for more pain in the weeks and months ahead.  We can only hope that the measures announced so far and yet to be announced alongside with strict adherence to health recommendations will be sufficient to prevent deeper and longer lasting damage.  The jury is still out.

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