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.

Confidence Dives, Markets Shattered

COVID-19 fears have proliferated to such a large extent that confidence is being shaken to the core.   Confidence in markets, policy makers and the system itself is being damaged.  Today’s moves in markets have been dramatic, continuing days and weeks of turmoil, as panic liquidation of risk assets and conversely buying of safe assets, is leading to intense asset market volatility.  Economic fears are running rampant, with the failure of OPEC to agree a deal to prop up oil prices over the weekend adding further fuel to the fire.  Consequently, oil prices dropped a massive 30%, leading to a further dumping of stocks.

When does it end?  Confidence needs to return, but this will not be easy.  Policy makers in some countries seems to have got it right, for example Singapore, where containment is still feasible.  In Italy the government has attempted to put around 16 million people in quarantine given the rapid spread of the virus in the country. However, in many countries the main aim has to be effective mitigation rather than containment.  I am by no means an expert, but some experts predict that as much as 70% of the world’s population could be infected.  Washing hands properly, using hand sanitizers, social distancing and avoiding large gathering, appears to the main advice of specialist at least until a cure is found, which could be some months away.

In the meantime, markets look increasingly shattered and expectations of more aggressive central bank and governmental action is growing.  Indeed, there is already significantly further easing priced into expectations for the Federal Reserve and other major central banks.  This week, the European Central Bank is likely to join the fray, with some form of liquidity support/lending measures likely to be implemented.  Similarly, the Bank of England is set to cut interest rates and implement other measures to support lending and help provide some stability.  The UK government meanwhile, is set to announce a budget that will contain several measures to help support the economy as the virus spreads.

It is also likely that the US government announces more measures this week to help shore up confidence, including a temporary expansion of paid sick leave and help for companies facing disruption.  What will also be focused on is whether there will an increase in number of virus tests being done, given the limited number of tests carried out so far.  These steps will likely be undertaken in addition to the $7.8bn emergency spending bill signed into law at the end of last week.

All of this will be welcome, but whether it will be sufficient to combat the panic and fear spreading globally is by no means clear.  Markets are in free fall and investors are looking for guidance.  Until fear and panic lessen whatever governments and central banks do will be insufficient, but they may eventually help to ease the pain.  In the meantime, at a time of heightened volatility investors will need to batten down the hatches and hope that the sell off abates, but at the least should steer clear of catching falling knives.

Fed, ECB, UK elections In Focus

An event filled week lies ahead.  Several central bank decisions including the Federal Reserve FOMC (11th Dec), European Central Bank (ECB) (12 Dec) and Swiss National Bank (SNB)  (12 Dec) are on the calendar.  All of these major central banks are likely to leave policy unchanged and the meetings should prove to be uneventful.  Fed Chair Powell is likely to reiterate the Fed’s patient stance, with last Friday’s strong US November job report (payrolls rose 266k) effectively sealing the case for no change in policy at this meeting, even as a Phase 1 trade deal remains elusive.

Similarly recently firmer data in Europe have pushed back expectations of further ECB easing, though President Lagarde is likely to sound cautious highlighting her desire to maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance.  The picture is rather different for emerging market central banks this week, with policy easing likely from Turkey (12 Dec), Russia (13 Dec) and Brazil (12 Dec) while Philippines (12 Dec) is likely to keep policy unchanged.

UK general elections on Thursday will be closely watched, with GBP already having rallied above 1.30 vs USD as polls show a strong lead for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.  The main question is whether Johnson will have gained enough of a share of the vote to gain a majority, allowing him to push ahead with his Brexit plans, with Parliament voting to leave the European Union by Jan 31.

Polls may not be as accurate as assumed in the past given surprises over recent years including the Brexit vote itself, but the wide margin between the two parties highlights the relatively stronger position of the Conservatives going into the election.  Nonetheless, given that a lot is in the price already, the bigger (negative) reaction in GBP could come from a hung parliament or Labour win.

This week is also crunch time for a decision on the threatened December 15 tariffs on China.  As previously noted there is little sign of any deal on any Phase 1 trade deal.  It appears that issues such as the amount of purchases of US goods by China remain unresolved.  Recent comments by President Trump suggest that he is prepared to delay a deal even as far as past the US elections in November 2020.

Whether this is tactic to force China to agree on a deal or a real desire not to rush a deal is difficult to determine, but it seems as though Phase 1 will deal will not be signed this year given the limited time to do so.  December 15 tariffs could be delayed but this is also not guaranteed.  President Trump’s attention will also partly be on the potential for an impeachement vote in the House this week.

Looking At Central Banks For Direction

This week feels as though its one where markets have gone into limbo waiting for developments on the trade war front, and for direction from central bankers.  So far there has been no indication that a date or even location has been set to finalise details of a Phase 1 deal between the US and China.  While officials on both sides suggest that progress is being made, markets are left wondering if a deal will even be signed this side of the new year.  Despite such uncertainty there does not seem to be too much angst in markets yet, and if anything, risk assets including equities look rather resilient.

Central bankers and central bank minutes will garner plenty of attention over coming days.   Overall it looks as though major central banks led by the Fed are moving into a wait and see mode and this means less direction from these central banks to markets over the next few weeks and likely into year end.

Fed FOMC minutes this week will give more information on the Fed’s thinking when it eased policy in October, and markets will be looking for clues as to what will make them ease again.  In his recent Congressional testimony Fed Chair Powell highlighted that he sees little need to ease policy at the December meeting, strongly suggesting no more easing from the Fed this year.

Reserve Bank of Australia minutes overnight highlighted that the Bank will also now wait to assess past monetary easing measures before cutting rates again while still holding the door open to further cuts if necessary.  While the RBA noted that a case could have been made for easing this month, it doesn’t appear that they are in a rush to move again, with easing now becoming more likely next year than in December.

Another central bank in focus is the ECB, with ECB President Lagarde delivering the keynote address at the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt.  This will be an opportunity for markets to see whether her views are in line with previous ECB President Draghi and also to see how she reacts to criticism of the ECB’s decision from outside and within the governing council, to ease policy further at the September meeting, when it cut the deposit rate to -0.5% and restarted asset purchases.

Another central bank in focus over coming days includes the PBoC in China.  The PBoC cuts its 7-day reverse repo rate by 5bps this week, the first decline in this rate since 2015 in an attempt to lower funding cots to banks.  While the move is small the direction of travel is clearly for lower rates and this is likely to be echoed in the release of the new Loan Prime Rate tomorrow, which could also reveal a small 5bps reduction.  China is likely to maintain this path of incremental easing in the weeks ahead.

Brexit Developments Sharply In Focus

Two major market risks have been sidelined, though admittedly not taken off the table.  Firstly the prospects of an intensification of the US-China trade war appears to have diminished and secondly the risks of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal have lessened.  This presents a calmer and less volatile backdrop for markets even as global growth continues to remain under pressure.  Separately markets are hoping and expecting for some icing on the cake in the form of Fed easing later this month. As long as US Q3 earnings are not too bad, this suggests a period of calm ahead.

US-China trade developments are likely to take a back seat in the run up to the APEC meeting on 16-17 November in Chile where a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal may be signed by both US and Chinese leaders.  Talks rumbling in the background appear to progressing well, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Trade Representative Lighthizer scheduled to speak to China’s Vice Premier Liu He this week by phone.  Markets will carefully eye what the prospects are for a delay of the $156bn of US tariffs on China that are due to take effect on December 15.

Brexit developments will move sharply back into focus today, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to make a fresh attempt at passing a ‘meaningful vote’ today or gaining a majority in a vote on legislation implementing the deal tomorrow.  This follows having to jettison a vote on Saturday and being forced to write to the EU requesting a three-month delay to the Article 50 exit process.  The government thinks it has the number of votes necessary to pass the vote and the fact that GBP has only lost a little ground today (at the time of writing) suggests that markets think the chances are high.

Other than this, the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday will garner attention although President Draghi is unlikely to offer any further changes in policy, having come under criticism from hawks in the ECB governing council who opposed the renewed bond buying from the ECB.  Expect Draghi to maintain a dovish stance at this meeting.  Other central banks in focus this week include Norway, Sweden, Turkey and Indonesia.  The former two are likely to leave policy unchanged while both Turkey and Indonesia are likely to ease policy.

 

Bonds Under Pressure, UK Parliament Rejects Election Again

Market sentiment remains positive as hopes of a US-China trade deal continue to provide a floor under risk sentiment amid hopes that the escalation in tariffs can be reversed.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend has largely been ignored and instead markets have focused on further stimulus unleashed by China in the wake of the cut in its banks’ reserve ratios, which freed up around USD 126bn in liquidity to help shore up growth.  Expectations that the European Central Bank (ECB) will this week provide another monetary boost by lowering its deposit rates and embarking on a fresh wave of quantitative easing, are also helping to support risk sentiment though a lot is already in the price in terms of ECB expectations.

One of the casualties of the turn in sentiment has been bonds, with yields rising in G10 bond markets.  For example US 10 year yields have risen by around 18 basis points since their low a week ago.   The US dollar has also come under pressure, losing ground in particular to emerging market currencies over the past week.  Safe haven currencies such as the Japanese yen (JPY) and Swiss franc (CHF) have fared even worse.   As I noted last week I think the bounce in risk appetite will be short-lived, but how long is short?  Clearly markets anticipate positive developments in US-China trade talks, and it seems unlikely that risk appetite will deteriorate ahead of talks, at least until there is some clarity on the discussions.  Of course a tweet here or there could derail markets, but that is hard to predict.

Sterling (GBP) has been another currency that has benefited from USD weakness, but also from growing expectations that the UK will not crash out of the EU without a deal.  Developments overnight have done little to provide much clarity, however.  UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed in his bid for an early election on October 15, with MPs voting 293 in favour of an election against 46 opposed;  Johnson required two-thirds or 434 MPs to support the motion.  Johnson is now effectively a hostage in his own government unable to hold an election and legally unable to leave without a deal.  Parliament has been suspended until October 14, with Johnson stating that he will not delay Brexit any further, reiterating that he is prepared to leave the EU without an agreement if necessary.

This would effectively ignore legislation passed into law earlier blocking a no-deal Brexit forcing the PM to seek a delay until 31 Jan 2020. Separately parliament passed a motion by 311 to 302 to compel Downing Street to release various documents related to no-deal Brexit planning, but officials are so far resisting their release.  A lack of progress in talks with Irish PM Varadkar in Dublin on Monday highlights the challenges ahead.  GBP has rallied following firmer than expected Gross Domestic Product data (GDP) yesterday and growing hopes that the UK will be prevented from crashing out of the EU at the end of October, but could the currency could be derailed if there is still no progress towards a deal as the deadline approaches.

 

What To Watch This Week

Market expectations for Fed FOMC interest rate cuts have gyrated back and forth following a recent speech by NY Fed President Williams, one of the key decision makers within the Fed FOMC. He appeared to support a 50bps rate cut at the meeting at the end of the month, but unusually this was clarified later.  If anything, as the clarification may suggest, the bigger probability is that the Fed eases policy by 25bps in an insurance cut.

There will be no Fed speakers in the days ahead but the Fed will assess developments this week in helping to determine the magnitude of easing. Attention will continue to centre on US earnings, with more than a quarter of S&P 500 companies reporting Q2 earnings this week.   On the data front, US Q2 GDP and July durable goods orders will command most attention.  The consensus looks for a slowing in GDP growth to 1.8% q/q in Q1 from 3.1% q/q in Q1 while durable goods orders are expected to increase by 0.7% m/m.

A major central bank in action this week is the European Central Bank on Thursday. While policy easing is unlikely at this meeting, the ECB is likely to set to set the market up for an easing in deposit rates at the September meeting.  ECB President Draghi could do this by strengthening his forward guidance, but as a lot of this is priced in by the market, a dovish sounding Draghi is unlikely to weigh too much on the EUR.

In the UK this week it’s all about politics. Boris Johnson is widely expected to be announced as the new Prime Minister.  GBPUSD has clung onto the 1.25 handle, as worries about a no deal Brexit continue to impact sentiment towards the currency.  Once Johnson is sworn in he and the government could face a no confidence motion, which could gain support should it be seen as an alternative to the UK crashing out of the EU.

National elections in Japan yesterday resulted in a victory according to Japanese press for Shinzo Abe’s coalition, its sixth straight victory, with the governing LDP winning over half the 124 seats. The results were no surprise, and unlikely to have a significant market impact, but notably Abe suffered a setback by not gaining a supermajority. He therefore cannot change the country’s pacifist constitution.

In emerging markets, both Russia and Turkey are likely to cut interest rates this week, with Russia predicted to cut its key rate by 25bp and Turkey to cut by at least 200bps if not more.  Elsewhere geopolitical tensions will remain a major focus for markets, as tensions between the UK and Iran intensify.

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