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(Simultaneously published at Money Daily)
Saturday, March 14, 2020
UPDATE 9:15 am, Monday, March 16: Late Sunday, the Federal Reserve jumped the shark, lowering the federal funds rate by a full one percent, or, 100 basis points, from 1.00-1.25% to 0.00 to 0.25%.
This panicked approach, three days before their official rate policy meeting would have done the exact same thing, sent a message that the system was broken or about to break down, and index futures collapsed with the Dow, S&P, and NASDAQ futures going limit down moments after the announcement.
The Fed also announced the latest quantitative easing program, proposing purchases of $700 billion in assets, including $500 billion worth of treasuries and $200 billion in agency-backed mortgage securities (MBS).
These actions make clear that the Federal Reserve has lost control over markets and the economy. No amount of stimulus is going to rearrange the deck chairs on the stock market Titanic where a wholesale house-cleaning has been delayed since 2008 by perverting the market and stunting price discovery with trillions of dollars in ready cash and credit from the central banks of the world and massive stock buybacks by corporations.
Despite Friday's massive rally, this past week was one of the worst on record for Wall Street, as the Dow lost another 10 percent and the NYSE Composite, the broadest measure of equities in the United States, dropped more than 12 percent, below levels last seen in late 2016.
With all the major indices ensconced in bear market territory (-20%), which the Dow entered on Wednesday afternoon, Friday's jaunt to the upside was more short-covering and a boatload of pent-up, falsely-placed optimism than anything positive, manifesting itself in the final 27 minutes of trading while President Trump was declaring a national emergency over the COVID-19 crisis, the outbreak declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) two days prior.
The week in financial markets was literally one for the record books, with record gains and losses recorded on all US indices, Friday's meteoric rise becoming the largest one-day gain on the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500, just a day after the biggest point losses. Market volatility has been off the charts as well, as the VIX has remained at an inflated level over the past three weeks, rising as high as 77.54 on Friday before coming down through the week-ending rally.
Putting that into perspective, the VIX closed at 17.08 on February 21. On Thursday, March 12, it ended the session at 75.47, and Friday, 57.83. These are extraordinary numbers.
It wasn't just stocks that were battered and bruised during the week. Bonds took painful hits at the long end of the curve, the 10-year note yield rising from 0.54% on Monday to 0.94% on Friday. Yield on the 20-year was up 44 basis points, from 0.87 to 1.31%. The 30-year bond yield went from 0.99 to 1.56, an enormous, 57 basis point move in just four days.
Shorter duration offerings were bought, sending yields in the other direction, which helped steepen the curve and iron out most of the inversion. Top-to-bottom, the curve was at a mere 73 basis points on Monday, increasing to 128 by Friday.
The most perplexing trade had to be precious metals, which were whipsawed to unforeseen levels as the week wore on. Gold, which had rocketed to 1683.65 on March 6, plummeted to 1529.90 on Friday. Silver fell from a high of 18.78 on February 24 to a close Friday of 14.69. That puts the gold:silver ratio at a record, 104.15.
Closings and cancellations were all the rage late in the week. The NBA canceled their remaining regular season games, as did the NHL. The NCAA cancelled the annual Men's and Women's basketball tournaments and all the major conferences canceled the remainder of their championships. Major League Baseball suspended all Spring Training games and pushed back the opening of the regular season temporarily by two weeks, from March 26th to April 9, at the earliest.
Broadway shows were cancelled in New York, as were any gatherings of 500 or more, throughout the state. California banned gatherings of 250 or more. Disney closed all of its major resort properties, including Disney World in Florida, and halted production on a number of films in progress.
More than 46,000 schools had announced closures by week's end. In Europe, Italy closed its borders, followed by Spain on Saturday. Just about any kind of social activity involving an audience has been shut down indefinitely. DollyWorld in Tennessee closed its doors on Friday. Augusta National postponed the Masters golf tournament and did not specify a date for when it would be held.
For many people, the cancellation of sporting events, shows, and theme parks leaves them with little to do. All cruise lines are on hiatus and President Trump imposed a travel ban to and from Europe and included Great Britain and Ireland on Saturday.
Shopping for essentials seemed to be on the mind of quite a few. Stores like Costco, Wal-Mart and other large grocery chains (Kroger's, Wegman's) saw some shelves emptied quickly, especially the staples, bread, milk, and toilet paper, which was apparently the hottest commodity on the planet this past week. The Players Championship, which was halted on Thursday due to darkness, never got the second round started, cancelling the event and dividing half the prize money evenly among players.
What will continue is the pursuit of money and all its derivatives in equity, bond, and commodity markets, as of this writing. Markets should open Monday as scheduled, though floor traders at the NYSE will surely be screened upon entering the building. Most trading is done electronically, and many traders are working from home instead of offices on Wall Street, throughout Manhattan and in New Jersey and Connecticut.
The Fed has promised as much as $1.5 trillion in repo operations and probably more will be needed. Additionally, the FOMC meeting this Tuesday and Wednesday promises to be of paramount interest, with expectations of another 75 to 100 basis points cut to the federal funds rate, bringing it effectively to the zero bound. The Fed executed an emergency cut of 50 basis points on March 3rd, bringing the overnight lending rate to 1.00-1.25% The Bank of England cut its main bank rate to 0.25% with a 50 basis point slash on March 11.
As the economy weighs the impacts of COVID-19 on the business community and global economies, the threat of recession looms large in all developed nations. With markets turning decidedly bearish since the spread of the disease expanded out of mainland China, companies are looking at major disruptions to business and first quarter earnings. If the crisis is an extended one, second quarter results will also be impacted to a greater degree than they already are.
Estimates for US GDP in the first quarter were already low, teetering around 1.5 to 2.0 percent and that will certainly come in lower than expected, but economists believe the hit to the second quarter (April-June) will be even greater, with some calling for a GDP decline of three to four percent.
With all that's gone on over the course of the past three weeks, nothing is for certain as the market searches for a bottom. While it's nearly assured that Thursday's knee-shaking rout will not prove to be the ultimate drop point, it brings some interesting perspectives to light, particularly, what if the virus does actually peter out with the onset of warmer weather and all this emergency preparedness turns out to be major overkill in addition to being a major buzz kill?
If conditions begin to improve rapidly, the impact to the second quarter would be minimal and first quarter results might actually be skewed positively due to all the panic buying by the general public. That would certainly wrong-foot any number of investors, sending alternate shock waves back at the bears.
Opinion is still out on how long this state of emergency will exist and whether measures will become more severe in coming weeks remains to be seen. The outbreak in the United States has not been particularly alarming, with 2,569 cases and now, 51 deaths, though those numbers continue to accelerate and probably will exceed 8,000 and 200 over the coming week. Most cases are mild, but lack of testing due to fumbling incompetence at the CDC and being slow in preparing overall might cause the numbers to spike.
Whatever the case, the money people will carry on, Washington will bail out anybody and anything with freshly printed greenbacks and the deficit will soar even further into the stratosphere. The global economy has reached a point of no return and is rapidly applying the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to a system that has basically been dysfunctional since October 2008.
At the Close, Friday, March 13, 2020:
For the Week: