Posts tagged equities
The New Regime

Friday’s initial price action in response to the June U.S. payroll report provides a nice microcosm for investors’ mood and short-term expectations. The data themselves were so-so. The unemployment rate increased slightly, due mainly to a lower labour force participation rate, and wage growth slipped, albeit marginally. Markets, however, homed in on the above-consensus increase in headline payrolls, a 224K jump relative to expectations of a 160K gain, and immediately started selling equities and bonds. Running the risk of skipping several important steps in the argument, I reckon the story is relatively simple. Markets have been angling for a 50bp cut by the Fed in July, a position that was washed out, at least for the time being, by Friday’s above-consensus NFP print. Even if this interpretation is right—and it might not be—it doesn’t change the main thrust of the story, which I have been trying to describe on these pages in recent months. Markets have made their bet on further easing by monetary policymakers, and they’re now expecting central banks to deliver. Friday’s session suggests that the consensus is easily spooked, though as I type, Spoos are virtually flat on the day, and EDZ9 is still pricing-in two-to-three cuts between now and year-end.

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Circular Reasoning

It’s easy to trip over trying to formulate a market narrative at the moment. One interpretation of the dramatic decline in global bond yields is that the smart money is de-risking their portfolios ahead of global slowdown and a rout in equities and credit. The ramp-up in the global trade wars, and still-soggy economic data seem to confirm this version of the narrative, but it is also a somewhat naive story. The global economy is not in perfect shape, but it is hardly on the brink of a recession, especially not since it is usually coordinated tightening by central banks that push the major economies over the edge in the first place. The market is now pricing-in one-to-two rate cuts by the Fed this year, and three in 2020. The money market curve in the Eurozone is even starting to price in the idea that the ECB will further scythe its deposit rate below -0.4%. The argument in the U.S. is particularly delicious. Last year, the consensus was angling for a recession in 2020 based on the idea that the Fed was in search for a “neutral” FF rate at about 3%. Now that the Fed has thrown in the towel, the idea is that it will cut rates to prevent the recession that it itself was supposed to have sown the seeds for in the first place, by hiking interest rates.

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Testing Time

The Q1 earnings numbers have kicked up a lot of dust across sectors and individual companies, which is good news for stock-pickers eager to prove their worth. For markets as a whole, though, I see little change in the underlying narrative relative to what I have been talking about recently. Equity investors remain focused on what policymakers are saying rather than what they’re doing, sticking with the idea that central banks, and perhaps even politicians at large, have their backs. Bond markets are nodding in agreement. Solid labour market data in the U.S., and a robust Q1 GDP print, have not dented market-implied expectations that the next move by the Fed will be a cut. And in the Eurozone, markets have priced out an adjustment in the deposit rate through 2021. Blackrock’s Rick Rieder summed it up neatly last week by referring to the asymmetric outlook for policy. I am paraphrasing, but the idea goes something like this: “If central banks raise rates, they will do so slowly and hesitantly. If they have to cut, due to tightening financial conditions and a slowing economy, they will do so fast and aggressively.” I would even wrap in fiscal policy here, though this admittedly tends to operate more slowly, and over a longer timeframe than monetary policy.

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The End of Easy Street

One great quarter down, only three to go to wash away the horror show of 2018. The portfolio did well, though it is still bogged down by a number of single names which are beginning to look a lot like value traps, of the nastiest kind. I am, as ever, optimistic about redemption in coming quarters, but I fear that the retired Macro Man, a.k.a. Bloomberg strategist Cameron Crise, is right when he says that; “the sobering reality for asset allocators is that the returns of balanced portfolios are going to struggle mightily to approach anything like 1Q performance.” It won’t be as easy for punters from here on in, but they’ll do their best.  Bond markets have taken centre stage in recent weeks, aided and abetted by significant dovish shifts in the communication by both ECB and the Fed. The result has been a heart-warming rally in both front-end and long-end fixed income, or a pain trade if you’ve been short, and the U.S. yield curve showing further signs of inversion. The 2s5s went a while a ago and now the 3m/10s is gone too, which, apparently, is a big thing. As per usual, economists and strategists are squabbling on the significance of this price action, and I doubt that I’ll be able to settle anything here, so I will stick with the grand narratives, which are tricky enough. 

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