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.

EUR/USD edging towards 1.20

There hasn’t been much of a respite before Eurozone concerns have resurfaced. Spain and Greece are once again in the spotlight, with the formal approval of a bank bailout for the former providing little solace as speculation of a full scale sovereign bailout grows. The fact that two Spanish regions have asked for government help, with more likely in the pipeline, has only acted to reinforce such concerns.

As for Greece, the halting of a bailout tranche due to failure to meet targets, the European Central Bank (ECB) decision not to accept Greek debt as collateral and the visit of the Troika (EC, ECB. IMF) will keep markets nervous as default fears intensify. Unsurprisingly Eurozone peripheral bond yield have come under renewed pressure while core Eurozone yields have turned negative in some cases.

Spanish yields have moved above the critical 7% threshold while the EUR has tanked versus USD and on the crosses as it increasingly takes on a funding currency role and makes its way towards the 1.20 level versus USD that I expect it to test soon.

Hopes of further monetary stimulus, especially in the US and China have provided some support to markets recently but the provision of drugs will not cure the patient this time around. Even relatively decent US corporate earnings, with around 2/3 of S&P earnings released beating admittedly lowered expectations so far, have failed to stop the rout.

Big cap defensive and high dividend companies have fared well, giving a degree of resilience to US equities which are up over 8% (S&P 500) this year, but with around 171 companies set to deliver results this week it is not clear that this will continue.

Weakening US data, with a deceleration in US Q2 GDP set to be revealed this week will provide more evidence that US economic momentum is slowing. Nonetheless, as long as US Fed quantitative easing is not an imminent prospect the USD will likely find plenty of support as risk aversion creeps back into the market psyche.

Calm start to the week

There will be some relief reverberating through markets at the news this weekend that Greek opinion polls show growing support for pro-bailout parties. While the Greek election is still some weeks off suggesting that uncertainty will not ease quickly this news will allay fears of a quick ‘Grexit”. The week will begin quietly, with holidays in the US, keeping market trading largely thin and within ranges.

However, there are plenty of data releases and events which will result in increased nervousness as the week goes on. Data this week will reveal further contrasts between the US and Eurozone, with sentiment gauges in the latter set to deteriorate further while consumer confidence in the former will improve. In turn, Eurozone asset underperformance including EUR weakness will remain in place.

The contrast in the outlook for the US and Eurozone has been reflected in a significant shift in speculative positioning. CFTC IMM data reveals an all time high in speculative US positioning but in contrast an all time low in EUR positioning. The USD is winning by being a less ugly currency than the EUR and for now the markets are content to ignore US problems. This is set to continue over coming weeks.

Key data and events this week include the Irish referendum on the fiscal pact on Thursday and the US May jobs report on Friday. Ahead of these there is some periphery supply, with Italy coming to the primary market today. Polls point to a ‘yes’ vote in the Irish referendum, perhaps unsurprising given the risks of losing access to funding if voters vote ‘no’.

In the US markets look for a 150k increase in payrolls though its worth noting that there are less clues this month given the early release date. This slow but steady improvement in jobs will not be particularly exciting but at the same time it will no do the USD much damage either.

Europe’s crunch time

It’s crunch time for EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB under the helm of Mario Draghi is steadfastly refusing to provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery either directly via lower interest rates or securities market purchases or indirectly via another Long term refinancing operation (LTRO) . Any prospect of debt monetization as carried out already by other central banks including the Fed and Bank Of England is a definite non-starter. The reason for this intransigence is that the ECB does not want to let Eurozone governments off the hook, worrying that any further assistance would allow governments to slow or even renege upon promised reforms.

Whether this is true or not it’s a dangerous game to play. The fact that the previously unthinkable could happen ie a country could exit the Eurozone should have by now prompted some major action by European officials. Instead the ECB is unwilling to give ground while Germany continues to stand in the way of any move towards debt mutualisation in the form of a common Eurobond and/or other measures such as awarding a banking license to the EFSF bailout fund which would effectively allow it to help recapitalize banks and purchase peripheral debt. Germany does not want to allow peripheral countries to be let off the hook either arguing that they would benefit from Germany’s strong credit standing and lower yields without paying the costs.

To be frank, it’s too late for such brinkmanship. The situation in The Eurozone is rapidly spiraling out of control. While both the ECB and Germany may have valid arguments the bottom line is that the situation could get far worse if officials fail to act. As noted above there are various measures that could be enacted. Admittedly many of these will only buy time rather than fix the many and varied structural problems afflicting a group of countries tied together by a single currency and monetary policy and separate fiscal policies but at the moment time is what is needed the most.

It’s good to see that European officials are finally talking about boosting growth and realising that austerity is killing the patient. However, measures such as increasing trade, investment etc are all long term in nature. Europe needs action now before it’s too late. After years of keeping the Eurozone together by sheer force of political will rather than strong fundamental reasons lets hope that politicians in Europe begin to realize this before it’s too late. The lack of traction at this week’s EU summit was disappointing but with their backs to the wall ahead of Greek elections in mid June Germany and the ECB may be forced to give ground. In the meantime the beleaguered EUR looks destIned to remain under pressure.

Greek deal reached but euro rally to fade

The EUR rallied on the news of a breakthrough in talks to reach a deal to provide Greece with a second bailout of up to EUR 130 billion until 2014 and PSI (private sector involvement) in a debt swap with a nominal haircut of 53.5%. The question is whether the EUR has room to rally further. I suspect that a deal has been increasingly priced in and the room for further appreciation is set to be limited in the short term.

A stronger EUR shows some confidence in the ability of officials to move forward but will prove counter productive given the negative impact on the Eurozone economy at a time when growth is already sliding into recession. Moreover, the relative rise in US bond yields compared to bund yields will create headwinds to any further EUR appreciation. Overall, we are cautious of buying into the EUR rally at current levels.

Effectively the deal buys time for Greece to implement its stated reforms allowing the debt / GDP ratio to drop to 120.5% by 2020. The private sector debt swap procedure will be launched tomorrow. However, the deal was reached shortly after a report that suggested that Greece may need a further bailout on top of the EUR 130 billion announced.

The report which highlighted the risks of an especially deep recession in Greece and consequent risks to reducing the county’s debt / GDP ratio explains the reluctance of countries including Germany, Netherlands and Finland to agree on the proposals.

The bottom line is that the positive impact on markets may fade soon. There was already a great deal of expectation built into the rally in risk currencies over recent weeks and it is doubtful whether the final announcement of a Greek deal will be sufficient for the rally to continue.

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