Stocks stage mild comeback after tough day, US jobless claims in focus

Morning Note

Stocks suffered yesterday as bulls hopes ran up against a wall of bad economic data, another drop in oil prices and banks’ earnings reports, but have recovered some composure in early trade today.

Wall Street fell about 2%, with the S&P 500 back under 2800 after a couple of shocking economic data releases ratcheted up the pressure on the bulls to find reasons to sustain the rally. US retail sales were sharply lower, falling around 8.7% month on month, the sharpest fall since it was first tracked in 1992. Britain followed suit, with UK retails down 4.3% in March from the same month a year ago, marking the steepest decline since records began in 1995.

Meanwhile the Empire State Manufacturing Index, a gauge of factory activity in New York state recorded its steepest ever fall to hit –78.2, far worse than the –32 expected. April will be even worse for these data sets, as much of the US was not shut down for the entirety of the survey period.

Today’s focus will be the US weekly initial jobless claims, expected to show again that more than 5m Americans claiming unemployment insurance last week. US 2yr yields sank to an 8-yr low on the news to 0.195% whilst stocks fell across the board amid a very weak day for risk.

The FTSE 100 broke down through the rising trend support line to close under 5600. In early trade Thursday the index was up 1%. Travel & leisure at the top indicated a better day for risk, but there is a caution about the move. I think we are back to looking for more good news on the virus now.

We’ve also had a bunch of bank earnings out that weighed on sentiment. With the largest US banks pretty well done with earnings, what is obvious is that the single biggest take-home is the extent of the increase in loss reserves. It’s a funny situation where the main thing we’ve learned also leaves with the biggest unanswered question – will these loan loss provisions be enough?

At Bank of America, credit loss provisions rose $3.8bn, from $1bn in the first quarter of 2019 to $4.8bn today. Citigroup hiked its provisions to $7bn from $2bn, a much bigger hike than others likely down to exposure to credit card debt, which is going to be probably the nastiest area of credit. Wells Fargo raised its reserves by $3.1bn and took a $950 impairment charge. JPMorgan provisions for losses jumped to $8.3bn.

Trading revenues were strong across the board after the massive dislocation in markets, huge volatility and widening of spreads. The strength there makes it a good time to be setting aside cash for loan loss provisions.

Couple of points to make:

1) The big banks are all to slightly varying degrees taking big upfront provisions for expected losses. This looks prudent – better to front load the bad news now so they can over deliver later down the line. If you’ve had a good quarter in trading – which they have – it’s sensible to effectively take those profits and put to one side now. Good news today won’t mean much, better to hold it back.

2) It’s guesswork. We still don’t know what kind of damage the economy will suffer, and we don’t know how quickly it can bounce back. That is to say; we don’t know the extent or duration of economic recession. Banks have been keen to stress the provisions for loan losses could well increase. JPM says it could be worth $45bn this year, implying a significant upward revision of loan losses in the worst-case scenario.

On the coronavirus outbreak itself, UK health secretary Matt Hancock says this morning that the country is reaching its peak but lifting the lockdown now would be premature. Some good news, but there is no time for celebration.

On the shape of the recovery, the W-shape is gaining more credence. The Economist Intelligence Unit is warning of a recession to be followed by a ‘possibly much worse’ downturn sparked by a sovereign debt crisis among highly indebted countries. Helen Thomas of BlondeMoney and a regular contributor to XRay, thinks a U shape is most likely. “The economic outlook is grim, with a double dip recession or even absolute stagnation the most likely outcome,” she says.

Oil took another dive yesterday as the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that demand in 2020 would crumble, whilst US inventory data showed more massive builds of crude. The IEA said demand would fall by 29m bpd in April, around 30% of global demand, and by 9.3m bpd across the whole of 2020. The Energy Information Administration in the US said crude oil inventories rose 19.248m barrels vs 12.7 million barrels expected, the largest stockpile build on record. WTI plunged as low as $19.20, marking a fresh 18-year low.

In FX, the US dollar is staging a fightback as the dire economic outlook again makes it look like the least ugly sister. GBPUSD broke down through the 1.25 level and EURUSD has retreated below 1.09. For GBP we are monitoring the events around Brexit – the UK is keen to get on with it, whilst the EU and IMF would prefer to wait. Expect this to lead to fresh jitters around GBP once the coronavirus news starts to drop down the running order.

Equities

EasyJet shares jumped 8% expected to lose as much as £380m in the first half and has no idea when flights will resume but added that it can survive an extended grounding with a notional cash balance to last 9 months. That would be an absolute worst-case scenario and would burn through about £3bn – slightly more than £1bn for every quarter of grounding is expected. Management say they have already raised £1bn to cover 3 months initially. Investors are relieved for now and will be hopeful that once the lockdown ends people start booking up flights again.