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.

US dollar surges through key levels

Demand for risky assets continues to strengthen as reflected in various indicators including my Risk Aversion Barometer which has moved deeper into risk loving territory while equities remain on an upward trajectory. Central banks are providing the main source of support for investor risk appetite, with a combination of lower policy rates and quantitative easing providing a major fillip.

Additionally various central banks appear to be talking down their currencies and/or intervening (note RBNZ and Riksbank) adding to the downward pressure versus USD. In Japan’s case the G7 appeared to give its blessing to Japanese policy over the weekend, aiding in the decline in the JPY.

Usually the USD would not benefit in times of improving risk appetite but it is finding plenty of support from the fact that Fed policy is set to diverge with other central banks, with the currency breaking key levels against major currencies including EUR (below 1.30), JPY (above 100) and AUD (below 1.00). The surge in US Treasury yields is underpinning the USD helped by firmer US economic data in particular on the jobs front.

According to a Wall Street Journal article over the weekend the Fed is already formulating an exit strategy from QE although the timing is still being debated, another factor supporting the USD at the beginning of this week. Various Fed speeches over coming days will likely provide more clues on any timing or plans for an exit policy. Meanwhile, higher US yields and a firmer USD continue to pile on the pressure on gold prices.

There may be a little caution in pushing the USD higher this week as US data releases are likely to look softer, with retail sales, industrial production and housing starts set to record declines. Nonetheless, any pull back in the USD or yields may simply provide better levels for investors to go long the USD and short Treasuries especially as data elsewhere will not look much better. Indeed, while in Europe there will be a likely bounce in the German ZEW investor confidence index in May, Q1 Eurozone GDP will record a contraction for the sixth consecutive quarter.

Euro slipping ahead of Eurogroup meeting

The US September jobs report released last Friday will provide some encouraging news for markets to digest this week but holidays in the US and Japan today will keep trading relatively subdued. The jobs report itself was in any case somewhat mixed, and while the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8%, the actual increase in payrolls was relatively soft at 114k although there were revisions higher to past months.

The US jobs report does not necessarily change the picture regarding US quantitative easing. The Fed and subsequently markets will not change their expectations based on one month’s data. In this respect, any benefit to the USD will be limited although the increase in US 2-year bond yields has already exhibited itself in a firmer USD/JPY exchange rate. Nonetheless, this week’s US data will help maintain the assessment of gradual US recovery, with the Beige Book, trade data and Michigan confidence in the spotlight. US data will continue to look relatively better than in Europe.

Most attention will remain on Europe and the Eurogroup meeting beginning today. The reluctance of Spain to request a formal bailout will be a negative factor for European markets, although Portuguese austerity measures likely to be approved today, negotiations between Greece and the Troika (EU, IMF and ECB) on the next tranche of loan disbursements for the country, as well as potential for Cyprus and Slovenia to request a bailout will also come under scrutiny at the meeting.

Currencies are generally range bound, although EUR/USD is verging on another drop below 1.3000. Spain’s refusal to request for a formal bailout holds risks to the EUR especially if peripheral including Spanish bond yields move higher again. While ECB President Draghi’s commitment to OMT (Outright Monetary Purchases) reinforced last week, will provide some solace to the EUR, it will prove meaningless unless moves ahead with a bailout.

Two of the biggest FX losers so far into October have been the NZD and AUD. The AUD in particular has been struck by the surprise RBA rate cut and faltering commodity prices. AUD/USD looks set for a test of 1.0100 technical support, but direction this week business and consumer confidence data over the next couple of days ands the September jobs report on Thursday.

Risk assets to slip ahead of ECB and US payrolls

Although Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke did not categorically state that a third round of quantitative easing or QE3 is on the cards his stoic defence of past QE while playing down of the risks emanating from such actions, highlight that the prospects are more likely than not for more Fed balance sheet expansion.

Markets clearly liked what they heard, with risk assets finishing off the week on a positive note. Notably commodities continue to outperform and the prospects of more currency debasing by the Fed and European Central Bank suggest that gold in particular, will continue to look attractive. However, the weaker than expected Chinese manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) in August, with the index dropping below the 50 boom/bust level, will put a dampener on markets.

The main impediment to QE3 would be a major improvement in job market conditions and in this respect markets will have the August jobs report to digest at the end of this week. Preliminary estimates of an 125k increase in payrolls and an unemployment rate stuck at 8.3% suggests that it should be no hindrance to more QE.

The other key event of the week is the European Central Bank meeting although markets will eye events in Greece ahead of this, with the Troika set to revisit the country mid week. The ECB continues to play its game of brinkmanship with governments, and while they Bank will likely commit to a bond buying programme it is unlikely to announce the onset of a new round of bond purchases until governments in particular Spain formally request aid from the EFSF / ESM bailout funds. Although there is some scope for disappointment expectations of major ECB action have already been pared back.

Other central banks in the frame include the Reserve Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada but unlike the ECB policy easing is unlikely from either of these central banks. Overall, risk assets to trade with a heavy tone and the USD will recoup some of its losses over coming days, especially against the EUR.

Market tensions set to return

Having returned from my summer break it appears that markets are in reasonable shape. Volatility is low, while equities have registered solid gains over recent weeks and markets in general appear to be more settled. In part this is due to hopes and expectations of further stimulus measures in the US and Europe. The coming weeks may be much less calm than experienced over the summer.

Having lost steam over recent weeks the USD may benefit from renewed market nervousness over coming weeks. On the one hand there are hopes of more Fed stimulus in September following comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke that there is “scope for further action”. More information will likely come from the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday and expectations of more quantitative easing could restrain the USD.

On the other hand, it increasingly appears that the summer rally in risk assets is beginning to fade, a factor that will help the USD. The latter effect is likely to be more dominant on the USD especially as it is far from clear that another round of Fed quantitative easing will be USD negative. My analysis suggests that the impact on the USD from QE is ambiguous.

There is plenty of event risk over coming weeks which could feed potential nervousness in the market and help the USD. Markets have to contend with the IMF / EU review of Portugal’s aid program tomorrow which takes place against the background of reports that deficit targets have slipped amid weakening growth. In addition, the 6 September European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will be a major focus given expectations of a further cut in policy rates and other policy steps to purchase Eurozone peripheral debt

Aside from these events, Dutch general elections on 12 September could provoke more uncertainty given that polls currently show a split outcome while the decision by the German constitutional court on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same date will add to tensions especially as the outcome remains unclear.

Meanwhile, discussions and speculation on Greece’s future within the Eurozone or at least some easing in its bailout terms and a potential formal request for Spanish bailout from the EFSF temporary bailout fund will run alongside these other uncertainties.

To cap it all off, these events combined with the the Eurogroup / Ecofin meeting on 14-15 September will leave markets with plenty to fret about over coming weeks. EUR/USD will struggle to extend upon its gains against this background, with moves above 1.2600 likely to provide better levels to sell EUR.

Central banks fail to impress

Three central banks acted within a short time of each other to provide yet more monetary stimulus. However, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) 25 bps cut in its refi rate and deposit rate, China’s central bank, PBoC’s cut in interest rates and an additional GBP 50 billion of asset purchases by the Bank of England have failed to stimulate markets. This is a worrying development for policy makers especially as the drug of monetary stimulus has been a major factor spurring equity markets and risk assets since the global financial crisis began in 2008.

The lack of positive momentum emanating from the policy easing by central banks yesterday reflects the reality that the efficacy of further easing has now become very limited. Will a quarter percent rate cut from the ECB or yet another round of asset purchases from the BoE really make a difference at a time when core bond yields are already at extremely low levels and the demand for credit globally is very weak? Moreover, are policy makers really addressing the underlying problems in the Eurozone or elsewhere? I think the answers are obvious.

The same argument applies to the Fed if it was to embark on a third round of quantitative easing. Admittedly more Fed QE could weaken the USD and boost equities but would it really have a lasting impact? In any case I don’t think the Fed is on the verge of more QE following the recent extension of ‘Operation Twist’ which itself will do little more than have a psychological impact on markets. Today’s release of the June jobs report could give some further impetus to QE expectations if it comes in weak but I doubt this will occur.

One casualty of the cut in ECB rates was the EUR which dropped sharply, having not only given up its post EU Summit gains over recent days but extending its losses even further. This is perhaps an odd reaction considering that a rate cut was widely expected. ECB President Draghi’s warnings about the path ahead will have played negatively on the currency as well expectations of more stronger easing in the months ahead perhaps involving ECB QE.

I still stick to the view that European policy makers have at least put a short term floor under the EUR in the wake of the decisions at the EU Summit suggesting that further downside will be limited, with the 2012 low around 1.2288 likely to act as a short term floor for EUR/USD. Nonetheless, with many details of the plans announced in the Summit yet to be ironed out and implementation risks running very high a degree of market caution should be expected.

USD and JPY remaining firm

The USD has rebounded since 19 June in the wake of growing uncertainties and potential disappointment emanating from the EU Summit. As I previously highlighted a rally in the USD was to be expected in the wake of an extension of Operation Twist.

Looking ahead, as Bernanke and Co. also left open the option of more quantitative easing the USD is not out of the woods yet. The USD’s path will not only depend on risk but also on upcoming data releases. A further run of weak data will once again raise the spectre of more QE potentially leading to a softer USD.

Today’s US releases are unlikely to lend support to QE expectations, however. A bounce in May durable goods orders is expected while pending home sales are likely to recoup some of the sharp drop registered in April. However, markets will have to wait until next week for the release of the most important indicator, the June jobs report, before a clearer USD direction emerges.

USD/JPY remains well and truly constrained below the 80.00 level. Elevated risk aversion and a decline in the US yield advantage over Japan are acting as a restraint to any upside move in USD/JPY. Moreover, I do not expect any impact on the JPY from the passage of a bill to raise the consumption tax. Evidence that the Japanese economy is recovering may explain the lack of official enthusiasm to weaken the JPY but this assessment is prone to disappointment.

Increasingly, JPY bears are becoming frustrated by the lack of JPY downside traction. This has been reflected in the turnaround in speculative sentiment which turned positive for the first time in 15 weeks. Going forward, it will be difficult for USD/JPY to rise much unless US yields move higher. Eventually I think this will happen and look for USD/JPY to end the year around 83.00

%d bloggers like this: