By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Wednesday's version of reading tea leaves involves Argentina's economy minister Axel Kicillof, who will be in New York to speak to the United Nations about Argentina's debt situation. In case the U.N. missed it, Argentina defaulted a while back - 12 years ago - and they've been fighting with a group of investors on paying some of their debt since. Which is a roundabout way of saying Kicillof may not just be in New York to talk to the U.N., not when NML, Aurelius and the other holders are all also in New York too, and the judge in question, and any special envoy he introduces to try to wring some kind of compromise out of this situation. There's a big coupon payment due June 30, and the country has been prohibited from doing so unless it pays the holdouts, which it has pledged not to do, giving it a 30-day grace period before being declared in default.
The contagion is building. Major world markets are taking it on the chin, U.S. stocks have slumped, and major asset managers in Europe are seeing shares fall, with some citing corporate exposure to emerging markets in general and Spanish exposure to Latin America in particular.
ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.
Far from the rules of the dusty old investment almanac, it’s up, up and away in May after all. And judging by the latest batch of economic data, markets may well have had good reason to look beyond the global economic ‘soft patch’ – with US employment, Chinese trade and even German and British industry data all coming in with positive surprises since last Friday. Is QE gaining traction at last?
One of the more startling moves of the week was the fresh rally in euro government debt – with 10-year Italian and Spanish borrowing rates falling to their lowest since late 2010 when the euro crisis was just erupting and 2-year Italian yields even falling to 1999 euro launch levels. The trigger? There's been a slow build up for weeks on the prospect of new Japanese investor flows seeking liquid overseas government bonds - but it was signs of a sharp slowdown in Germany’s economy that seems to have had a perversely positive effect on the region’s asset markets as a whole. The logic is that German objections to another ECB rate cut will ebb, as will its refusal to ease up on front-loaded fiscal austerity across Europe. If its own economic engine is now suffering along with the rest, significantly just five months ahead of German Federal elections, then a tilt toward growth in the regional policy mix may not seem so bad for Berlin after all. And if euro economies are more in synch, albeit in recession rather than growth, then perhaps it will lead to a more effective regional policy response.
Figuring out what was driving pretty violent market moves this week was trickier than usual – and that says something about how much the herd has scattered this year, with ‘risk on-risk off’ correlations having weakened sharply. Just as everyone puzzled over a potential "wall of money" from Japan after the BOJ’s aggressive reflation efforts, the bottom seemed to fall out of gold, energy and broader commodity markets – dragging both equity markets and, unusually, peripheral euro zone bond yields lower in the process. As dangerous as it may be to seek an overriding narrative these days, you could possibly tie all up these moves under the BOJ banner – something along these lines: the threat of a further yen losses pushes an already pumped-up US dollar ever higher across the board and undermines dollar-denominated commodities, which have already been hampered by what looks like yet another lull in global demand. Developed market equities, whose Q1 surge had been reined in by several weeks of disappointing economic data and an iffy start to the Q1 earnings season, were then hit further by a lunge in heavy cap mining and energy stocks. The commodities hit may also help explain the persistent underperformance of emerging markets this year. What's more the lift to Italian and Spanish government bonds comes partly from an assumption any Japanese money exit will seek U.S. and European government bonds and relatively higher-yielding euro government paper may be favoured by some over the paltry returns in the core ‘safe havens’ of Treasuries or bunds. The confidence to reach for yield has clearly risen over the past six months as wider systemic fears have receded – something underlined in dramatic style this week by a huge lunge in gold, now lost almost 20 percent in the year to date.