Negative rates: not now Bernard

Morning Note

Not Now, Bernard is a children’s story about parents who don’t pay attention and don’t notice their son has been gobbled up by a monster, which they duly allow into the house. One could make parallels with central banks and the monstrosity of negative rates.

Last week a strange thing happened: Fed funds futures – the market’s best guess of where US interests will be in the future – implied negative rates were coming. The market priced in negative rates in Apr 2021. It doesn’t mean they will go negative, but the market can exert serious gravitational pull on Federal Reserve policy. Often, the tail wags the dog, and the market forces the Fed to catch up. Of course, given the vast deluge of QE, it’s not always easy to read the bond market these days – central bank intervention has destroyed any notion of price discovery.

Now this is a problem for the Fed. Japan and Europe, where negative rates are now embedded, are hardly poster children for monetary policy success. Nevertheless, the President eyes a freebie, tweeting:

As long as other countries are receiving the benefits of Negative Rates, the USA should also accept the “GIFT”. Big numbers!

The Fed needs to come out very firmly against negative rates, or it could become self-fulfilling. Numerous Fed officials this week are trying their best to sound tough, but they are not brave enough to dare sound ‘hawkish’ in any way. Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari said Fed policymakers have been ‘pretty unanimous’ in opposing negative interest rates, but he added that he did not want to say never with regards to negative interest rates.

It’s up to Fed chair Jay Powell today to set the record straight and make it clear the Fed will never go negative, or the US will go the way of Japan and Europe. Powell has to push very hard against this market mood. Too late says Scott Minerd, Guggenheim CIO, who believes the 10-year yield will eventually hit -0.5% in the coming years. Powell speaks today in a webinar organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. If he doesn’t lean hard on the negative rate talk it will cause a fair amount of mess on the short end.

UK 2yr yields turn negative, RBNZ doubles QE

Another strange thing happened this morning – UK interest rates also went negative. The 2yr gilt yield sank to an all-time low at -0.051% as markets assessed how much stimulus the UK economy is going to need (more on this below).

Inflation may or not be coming; deflation is the big worry right now as demand crumbles. The Covid-19 outbreak, or, more accurately, the response by governments, creates a profoundly deflationary shock for the global economy. Just look at oil prices. And yet, as central banks approach the precipice of debt monetization and Modern Monetary Theory, inflation could be coming in a big way.

So, we move neatly to the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ), which last month said it was ‘open minded’ on direct monetisation of government debt. Today’s it has doubled the size of its bond buying programme but kept rates at 0.25%. The kiwi traded weaker.

German judge slams ECB

Sticking with central banks, and Peter Huber, the German judge who drafted the constitutional court’s controversial decision was reported making some pretty stunning remarks about the European Central Bank. Speaking to a German publication he warned the ECB is not the ‘Master of the Universe’, and, according to Bloomberg, said: ‘An institution like the ECB, which is only thinly legitimized democratically, is only acceptable if it strictly adheres to the responsibilities assigned to it’. These are pretty stunning and underline the extent to which this decision upends the assumption of ECJ oversight in the EU and over its institutions. Remarkable.

US stocks tumble on talk of lockdown extensions

US stocks had a dismal close, sliding sharply in the final hour of trading as Los Angeles County looked set to extend its stay at home order for another three months and Dr Fauci warned of reopening too early. The S&P 500 fell 2% and closed at the session low at 2870. The close could leave a mark as it broke support and we note the MACD crossover on the daily chart. European markets followed suit and drove 1-2% lower – this might be the time for the rollover I’ve been talking about for the last fortnight.

Pound off overnight lows after Q1 GDP decline softer-than-expected

Sterling is softer but off the overnight lows after less-bad-than-feared economic numbers. GBPUSD traded under 1.23 having tested the Apr 21st swing low support at 1.2250 ahead of the GDP print. The UK economy contracted by 5.8% in March. However, the –1.6% contraction in Q1 was less than the –2.2% expected, while quarter-on-quarter the economy contracted -2% vs –2.6% expected. GBPUSD bounced off its lows following the release, but upside remains constrained and the bearish MACD crossover on the daily chart still rules. We know it’s bad – the extension of the furlough scheme does not indicate things will be back to normal this year.

Oil markets are still looking quite bullish. A number of OPEC ‘sources’ yesterday suggested the cartel would stick to the 9.7m bpd cuts beyond June. API figures showed a build of 7.6m barrels, though there was a draw on stocks at Cushing, Oklahoma of 2.3m barrels. Gasoline inventories fell 1.9m barrels, but distillates continued to build by 4.7m barrels. EIA inventory data is later today is expected to show a build of 4.8m barrels.