Afternoon Markets Brief 5-12-2020

Summary and Price Action Rundown

US stocks retreated today as closely-followed testimony by Dr. Fauci emphasized the risks of a premature economic reopening. The S&P 500 accelerated to the downside into the close of trading, ultimately falling 2.1% on the day to deepen year-to-date downside to 11.2% and the decline from February’s record high to 15.2%. Equities in the EU and Asia were more upbeat but generally directionless. Longer-dated Treasury yields reversed much of their recent upside, with the 10-year yield sinking to 0.66%. The dollar gained slightly and remains within a tightening trading range. Crude oil fluctuated around three-week highs.


Investor Continue to Grapple with Uncertainty Over Economic Reopening

Today’s virtual Senate testimony by self-quarantined White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Fauci highlighted the challenges of reopening the economy. Dr. Fauci sounded a cautious note in his testimony today, warning that restarting economic activity before important containment benchmarks are achieved carries the “real risk” of widening outbreaks that reverse progress toward recovery. With investors refocusing on the risks of secondary infection spikes and re-imposed lockdowns, US equities retraced a portion of their recent rally today. Meanwhile, the marked divergence in performance among “winners” from the pandemic, like health care and IT stocks, and “losers,” like banks and industrials, was less apparent today as all sectors posted meaningful losses. Treasury markets, meanwhile, remain consistent with a lengthy economic trough, though fed fund futures have not reverted to negative territory in December and January contracts after a series of FOMC officials have downplayed the likelihood that policy rates would be cut below zero (more below). – MPP view: Our base case has been for an unfortunately long tail for this pandemic, with an uneven and challenging reopening process. We have been skeptical that extreme IT/healthcare sector outperformance can continue to drag the S&P 500 higher, but nevertheless have been impressed by the relative buoyance of US equities over recent weeks despite the apparently thin justification for optimism, the lack of upside validation from Treasury, credit, and commodities markets, and the scant likelihood of a V-shaped recovery. 

Economic Pain Spurs Efforts Toward Another Pandemic Relief Bill

House Democrats are readying the latest fiscal support package for the economy as data continues to highlight the depths of the pandemic-related contraction. This afternoon, House Democrats released a draft version of the latest Covid-19 relief bill totaling $3 trillion, which is set to go to the House Rules committee on Thursday in preparation for a vote on Friday. For context, the so-called Heroes Act features $1 trillion in support for states and municipalities, money for Covid-19 testing, direct payments to households of up to $6000, and surpasses the size of its predecessor, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which was signed into law in March. Republicans in the House are set to oppose the relief bill while Senate Republicans are said to be split, with Majority Leader McConnell calling instead for “narrowly-targeted legislation.” The White House has sent mixed signals on this latest round, with President Trump today referencing the potential for a second round of stimulus payments to households.

These efforts come amid more depressed US economic data ahead of closely-watched April retail sales and industrial production data, which is due on Friday. Today’s release of the headline consumer price index (CPI) showed a decline of 0.8% month-on-month (m/m) in April, the most since December 2008, as gasoline prices plunged 20.6%. This leaves the CPI up a mere 0.3% year-on-year (y/y), the lowest level since 2015. While energy prices plunged last month, the cost of food at home surged 2.6% m/m, the most since 1974, as Americans stocked up at grocery stores. Prices for bread, chicken, carbonated drinks, and snacks all posted record increases, as did household paper products. Meanwhile, Core CPI, which excludes the more volatile food and fuel prices, fell 0.4% m/m, following a 0.1% decrease in March, which was the steepest decrease since 1957. This dropped the Core Index to 1.4% y/y after it rose 2.1% in March.

Meanwhile, small business confidence took another hit in April as the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index fell 5.5 points to 90.9, down from 104.5 in February. Owners expect the economy will weaken in the near-term and saw sales expectations plummet 30 points to -42. However, there is optimism that the recovery will be “V” shaped as business conditions expectations over the next six months erased the entirety of the decline seen in March. As many states are beginning the process of easing stay-at-home restrictions, both investors and business will be paying close attention to daily infection rates across the US and globe to see if this optimism is based in the reality of the virus. – MPP view: The ongoing US equity rally has (at least in part) been premised on expectations of continued stimulus, but the strength of the rally has made continued stimulus less likely. Rightly or wrongly, policymakers respond to signals from equities and we think the soaring stock market has contributed to a sense of complacency in some quarters on Capitol Hill.

Additional Themes

US-China Tensions Rising but Still Restrained – Despite last week’s improving atmospherics in the trade relationship, friction between China and the US, as well as some of its allies, has continued rising this week. President Trump ordered the federal thrift savings plan (TSP) for federal employees to halt investments in Chinese stocks, valued at $4.5 billion, yesterday. The action is in line with a hardening White House stance against China premised on charges of malfeasance in Beijing’s handling the initial outbreak. Chinese shares evidenced little reaction to the move, but Asian equity futures remained choppy amid pandemic-related concerns. President Trump’s TSP move has received bipartisan support but do not represent the extent of American investment in Chinese securities. Governor Newsom has also been subject to calls from federal legislators to divest his state’s largest public pension fund, CALPers, from its $3.1 billion of Chinese assets, but has not responded publicly. State pension funds in the United States have invested over $300 billion in Chinese assets. These funds’ divestment policies are currently at the discretion of their respective governors. Still, the federal divestment is one more component in escalating hawkishness from the administration.

Meanwhile, Australian stocks fell but and the Aussie dollar dipped after China suspended a significant portion of beef imports, a decision that may be tied to a spat over the pandemic.  

More Fed Officials Talk Down NIRP – Today, St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Dallas Fed President Kaplan both downplayed the potential for the FOMC to adopt a negative interest rate policy (NIRP), sentiments echoed by Minneapolis Fed President Kashkari, although he declined to rule out the policy entirely. This comes after yesterday’s remarks from Chicago Fed President Evans and Atlanta Fed President Bostic also expressed skepticism over the appropriateness of NIRP. Correspondingly, fed fund futures have shifted out of negative territory on the late 2020/early 2021 contracts. Analysts expected Fed Chair Powell to mirror his colleagues’ skepticism on NIRP in his remarks on tomorrow. Meanwhile, the New York Fed announced yesterday that it will begin to buy corporate credit, some of it below investment grade, though exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Reports suggest an initial amount of $250 billion among the Fed’s overall purchase programs will be allocated to corporate credit ETFs.