Markets Walk Dangerous Tightrope Before U.S. Stimulus Ends
The Charging Bull statue stands near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Markets Walk Dangerous Tightrope Before U.S. Stimulus Ends

The remarkable rebound in U.S. equities from the depths of the Covid-19 crisis in March faces a fresh test in coming weeks, with the American economy set for a withdrawal of a key stimulus support.

The average unemployment benefit for Americans put out of work will tumble by more than 60% at the end of July, hobbling the incomes of millions of laid off workers -- many of whom may not be able to return to their jobs given the renewed shutdowns now affecting swaths of the economy from California to Florida.

Stocks have proven resilient to plenty of bumps lately, from the surge in numbers of Americans infected with the coronavirus to a sharp escalation in U.S.-China tensions. The more risk-sensitive bond market has seen bouts of anxiety that have repeatedly pushed Treasury yields to record lows.

Now both contend with an impending fiscal cliff, with the political wrangling between Republicans and Democrats on a package expected to exceed $1 trillion just beginning.

Markets Walk Dangerous Tightrope Before U.S. Stimulus Ends

“We’re getting into a second phase of people being laid off now that are going to be permanent or long term at the same time that benefits are set to go away,” said Thomas Graff, a portfolio manager in Baltimore at Brown Advisory, which oversees $80 billion. “That’s a major risk to the markets and nascent economic recovery.”

The legislative package is arguably nowhere near so critical to markets as the $700 billion financial bailout that was initially rejected by Congress in the depths of the Great Recession in September 2008 -- an error that saw the S&P 500 Index crash almost 9% in a day. But the assumption of the eventual passage of another stimulus bill has helped investors bear through another rough earnings season, and the rally could prove vulnerable if the bet proves wrong.

Second Half

With the S&P 500 up about 44% from its March 23 low, there’s plenty hanging on a second-half economic rebound in the U.S. that could be endangered by a political impasse over the stimulus.

Uncertainty can already be seen in the bond market, where the yield curve has flattened, with the spread of longer-dated notes over shorter-term ones shrinking in the past month.

Complete failure to renew the added unemployment benefits would pose a 3 to 5 percentage-point hit to growth in the third quarter, according to Deutsche Bank AG. Also critical for renewed growth will be aid for state and local governments, whose spending accounted for more than a tenth of the economy last year and whose revenues have been decimated by the current recession.

On both counts, Republicans are pushing back against House Democrats who passed a $3.5 trillion bill back in May that was ignored by the Senate. The White House and some congressional Republicans argue the extra payments for people getting unemployment benefits serves as a disincentive to returning to work. Republicans have also raised objections about state aid, which some argue could be used for spending unrelated to the Covid-19 crisis.

Deal Prospects

The slow legislative pace makes it unlikely a deal is reached by month-end, something market participants have at least partly discounted. Senate Republicans plan to start discussing a draft bill in the middle of next week, just days before the unemployment benefits run out, with votes in subsequent weeks. But with unemployment above 10% and jobless claims climbing by more than 1 million a week, many households will be forced to curb spending as they await help.

In the end, economists at banks including Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have predicted a partial extension of the extra unemployment payouts.

“The market is essentially trading on the idea that it will get done,” said John Velis, a strategist at Bank of New York Mellon. “Volatility will certainly creep back” if Washington fails to act expeditiously, he said.

Failure to make progress by the time of a scheduled Aug. 10 break could trigger a response not only in asset prices but also concerns at the central bank. The Federal Reserve has proved the ultimate backstop for markets this year, with its credit and liquidity programs helping prevent a deeper economic collapse, along with the biggest-ever 50-day rally in American equities.

“How this plays out when Congress returns from the July recess will have significant bearing on the Fed’s strategy,” said Brett Ryan, a senior economist at Deutsche Bank in New York.

Senate lawmakers return to work July 20.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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