US Presidential Election 2020: The Coronavirus Election

The outcome of the US Election depends on who swing state voters perceive to be the candidate best placed to fight the twin health and economic crises. President Donald Trump has the advantage of incumbency and healthy campaign coffers, but Democrat Joe Biden polls well in swing states. This is Donald’s to lose, and Joe will be hoping to pick up the pieces.

President Trump’s management of the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the advantages of incumbency: he is the one that can actually do something. A recent poll showed that 44% of respondents thought Trump was the best person to manage the coronavirus, and only 36% responded Joe Biden. The latter has been kept out of the spotlight leading to a recent pitiful poll result that 42% of respondents were either “unaware” or “did not have an opinion” of his proposals for the pandemic.

Will Covid-19 damage Trump’s chances of re-election?

Trump’s approval rating is back to the highs of his Presidency, even as polling over his handling of the crisis remains in net negative “disapprove” territory. The way that voters weigh up their concerns over the health crisis versus the economic crisis will be of critical importance in swing states.

Here the polling looks less positive for Trump. 59% of respondents in Michigan qualified his pandemic response as “too slow”, as did 55% in Florida. As a result, general election polls have given Biden a decisive advantage, with 8-point advantages in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and a slimmer 3-point lead in Florida. This swing-state edge has consequently been reflected in national polls, in which he leads on average by 6 points.

However, these numbers must be read with caution: Biden’s lead is half what Hillary Clinton’s was in 2016 at this point, and his own shaky numbers over the handling of coronavirus will be put under strain once he goes through the scrutiny of an election campaign.

Despite these key swing-state leads, Biden has been unable to build the momentum necessary to make that lead more convincing. A credible sexual assault allegation has gained a lot of attention, and he has thus far failed to fully lock up the progressive left of the party, despite receiving endorsements from Sanders and Warren, which has translated in weak polling numbers with young voters.

Biden presidential bid faces pitfalls over running mate and campaign financing

Biden has the opportunity to boost his campaign by choice of running mate, but even that is laced with potholes. Klobuchar and Harris are too centrist for the Sanders voters and they blame brother Bernie’s woes on Warren staying in the race too long.

Biden already does well with minorities and the Midwest so the impact of Klobuchar/Harris would be minimal among those groups whilst confirming to the left that Biden will run a centrist campaign. In short, the process of selecting the VP will only re-open the deep divisions that exist within the Democratic Party.

Biden faces an uphill struggle given the financial constraints his campaign faces. As of the start of April, the Biden campaign had a cash deficit of $187m on the Trump campaign, which will be even more difficult to make up virtually and in the context of an impending recession.

This hasn’t stopped the Biden campaign from investing heavily in swing states: they have spent more than the Trump campaign in digital advertising in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; despite this, they are being outspent in North Carolina and Arizona. These weaknesses could potentially be major roadblocks should they not be resolved, with virtual eyeballs ever more important now that so many people are just kicking their heels at home.

Will vote-by-mail expansion swing US Presidential Election for Biden?

In addition to the role the economy and Joe Biden’s momentum will play in the election, the conditions of the election itself will be incredibly important. Firstly, Justin Amash’s Libertarian bid for President, amidst questions of how third-parties can collect the signatures necessary to appear on the ballot, will likely play in Biden’s favour, especially in the key state of Michigan, which Amash, a former Republican, represents in Congress.

How voters will be able to vote in the context of the pandemic will play a crucial role too: some blue states have made vote-by-mail universal, while the measure has received resistance from Republicans.

This is likely because recent electoral results have indicated that expanding vote-by-mail favours Democrats, as the easy access to the ballot has increased turnout in their favour. This will be important amidst the many ongoing legal and political (both in statehouses and in Congress) battles over how to secure the vote in November.

Will Trump win over voters with renewed attacks on China?

The coronavirus has also brought new issues to the fore. Now that Trump is unable to run on the strength of the economy, he has pivoted to the issue of China. He is painting Biden as complacent with China, who he has repeatedly blamed for the coronavirus pandemic.

The heightened tensions between China and the USA will likely endanger their relationship, and push Joe Biden to adopt more aggressive rhetoric towards China. The diplomatic consequences could endanger their cooperation in the future, and push them into a neo-Cold War-esque rivalry.

Negative rates: not now Bernard

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.

European markets tumble in catchup trade, Trump bashes China

On the plus side, the UK is sketching out how it plans to end the lockdown. On the minus side, it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal. This, in a nutshell, is the problem facing the global economy and it is one reason why equity markets are not finding a straight line back to where they were pre-crisis.

Indices on mainland Europe are catching up with the losses sustained in London and New York today, having been shut Friday. The DAX retreated 3% on the open to take a look again at 10,500, whilst the FTSE 100 extended losses to trade about 20 points lower. Hong Kong turned sharply lower ahead of its GDP report.

Whilst monetary and fiscal stimulus sustained a strong rally through April – the best monthly gain for Wall Street since 1987 – it’s harder to see how it can continue to spur gains for equity markets. Moreover, US-China tensions are resurfacing as a result of the outbreak, which is weighing on sentiment. Donald Trump spoke of a ‘very conclusive’ report on China – the demand for reparations will grow, and trade will suffer as the easiest policy lever for the White House to pull. This is an election year so I’d expect Trump to beat on the Chinese as hard as he can without actually going to war. Trade Wars 2.0 will be worse than the original.

And as I pointed out in yesterday’s note, equity indices are showing signs of a potential reversal with the gravestone doji formations on the weekly candle charts looking ominous.

Warren Buffet doesn’t see anything worth investing in. Berkshire Hathaway has $137bn in cash but the Oracle of Omaha hasn’t found anything attractive, he said on Sunday’s shareholder meeting. His advice: buy an index fund and stop paying for advice.

In FX, today’s slate is rather bare but there are some European manufacturing PMIs likely to print at the low end. The US dollar is finding bid as risk appetite weakens, favouring further downside for major peers. EURUSD retreated further having bounced off the 100-day SMA just above 1.10 to find support around 1.09250. GBPUSD has further pulled away from 1.25 to 1.2460.

Front month WTI retreated further away from $20. CFTC figures show speculative long trades in WTI jumped 35% – the worry is traders are trying to pick this market and the physical market is still not able to catch up with the speculators. The move in speculative positioning and price action raises concerns about volatility in the front month contract heading into the rest of May.

BT Group shares dropped more than 3% on reports it’s looking to cut its dividend this week. Quite frankly they ought to have cut it months ago. I rehash what I said in January: Newish CEO Philip Jansen should have done a kitchen sink job and cut the dividend from the start. The cost of investment in 5G and fibre is crippling, despite the cutbacks and cost savings. Net debt ballooned to more than £18.2bn – up £7.2bn from March 31st 2019. How can BT justify paying over £1bn in dividends when it needs to sort this debt out, get a grip on the pension deficit and do the kind of capex needed for 5G and mass fibre rollout? Given the current environment, a dividend cut seems assured.

What to watch this week

NFP – Friday’s nonfarm payrolls release is likely to be a history-making event. Last month’s -701k didn’t reflect many days of lockdown, so the coming month’s print will be seismic. However, this is backward looking data – we know that in the last initial jobless claims have totalled around 30m in six weeks – the NFP number could be as high as 22m according to forecasts. The unemployment rate will soar to 16-17%. The main focus remains on exiting lockdown and finding a cure.

BOE – The Bank of England may well choose this meeting to expand its QE programme by another £200bn, but equally it may choose to sit it out and simply say that it stands ready to do more etc. The Bank will update forecasts in the latest Monetary Policy Report, with the main focus likely to be on how bad they think Q2 will be. Estimates vary, but NIESR said Thursday the contraction will be 15-25%.

RBA – The Australian dollar is our best risk proxy right now. The collapse in AUDJPY on Thursday back to 68.5 after it failed to break 70 was a proxy for equity market sentiment. We will wait to see whether the Reserve Bank of Australia meeting on Tuesday gives any fresh direction to AUD, however there is not going to be a change in policy.

FTSE 100 completes 400pt round trip this week

Stocks turned broadly weaker yesterday as investors reacted to some stinky data from Europe and the US. Overnight Asian data has also had the whiff of soft cheese that’s been left out too long. Stocks are softer once more, though most of Europe is on holiday so the focus is on London until New York opens.

The S&P 500 eased back almost 1% to relinquish the 61.8% retracement at 2934 but closing at 2912 it finished well off the lows. Both the Dow and the S&P 500 recorded their best months since 1987 as equity markets rebounded on central bank largesse, government bailouts and the outperformance of US tech over just about anything else. The tech-heavy Nasdaq was up 19% for the month and is nearly flat for the year. It’s shame we don’t really have any tech firms left, as nothing else is growing.

The FTSE 100 endured a terrible session, finishing 3.5% weaker as Shell tumbled, just holding onto 5900 and the 38.2% retracement of the drawdown. At Friday’s open the index shipped another 2% to break under 5800 and move back to where it opened on Monday at 5,752, completing a 400-pt round trip this week. This will be a level bulls will seek to defend. RBS shares rallied 3%, whilst Lloyds fell 4%. RBS said profits fell 59% to £288m as it set aside £800 for loan losses. But revenues were down just 1.6% at £3.2bn – Lloyds reported an 11% decline in revenues. Something doesn’t look right.

South Korean exports declined 24.3%, the worst slump in 11 years. Japanese factory activity fell to its lowest since 2009. The AIG Australian PMI dropped by 17.9 points to 35.8 in April, its largest month-to-month fall in the 28 years since it began. New Zealand consumer confidence fell 21 points in April to 84.8, where it troughed in 2008. Today’s main event will be the US ISM manufacturing PMI, which is seen declining to 36.7 from 49.1 a month ago.

Donald Trump is threatening new tariffs on China in retaliation for the coronavirus – trade tensions back on the agenda won’t be terribly positive for risk appetite but for now remains something on the margins. But the US and Europe will demand China steps up – if we talk about what permanent changes are taking place or what trends have accelerated sharply, then deglobalisation has to be at the forefront.

Apple shares declined in extended trading after it reported a slowdown in revenue growth and declined to offer guidance for the June quarter. It will however continue to buy back stock and increased its share repurchase programme by $50bn. Revenues from iPhones declined 7% to $29bn, but Services revenues rose 16% to $13.3bn. Overall revenue growth was down to +0.5% vs 9% in the previous quarter.

Amazon shares also dipped after hours as it warned massive costs incurred because of Covid-19 could lead it to a first quarterly loss in 5 years. Amazon always spends big when required and is prepared to make the investment at the expense of short-term earnings per share metrics.

Despite these results, both Apple and Amazon are in the camp where you think they will be thriving under the new world order. More smartphone time – yes, more home delivery – yes, more cloud servers required – yes.

Crude oil continues to find bid with front month WTI running to $20 before dropping back to $19. Crude prices are stabilising as OPEC+ cuts begin to take effect this month, potentially easing the supply-demand imbalance. Markets are also more confident about US states reopening for business, which will fuel demand for crude products like gasoline. Texas oil regulators don’t seem prepared to mandate production cuts, with chairman Wayne Christian against plans for 1m bpd reduction.

In FX, yesterday saw a pretty aggressive 4pm fix as we approached the month end. GBPUSD made a big-figure move and rallied through 1.25 and beyond 1.26 but turned back as it approached the Apr 14th swing high at 1.2650 and the 200-day SMA. It looked an easy fade but the euro also spiked but has held its gains, with EURUSD trading at 1.0960, having briefly dipped to 1.0830 after the ECB decision.

Charts

GBPUSD fades after hitting near-term resistance

EURUSD – clears 50-day SMA, looking to scale Apr 14th high

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