Looking For The Silver Lining

As the end of the year approaches it would take a minor miracle of sorts to turn around a dismal performance for equity markets in December.   The S&P 500 has fallen by just over 12% year to date, but this performance is somewhat better than that of equity markets elsewhere around the world.  Meanwhile 10 year US Treasury yields have dropped by over 53 basis points from their high in early November.

A host of factors are weighing on markets including the US government shutdown, President Trump’s criticism of Fed policy, ongoing trade concerns, worries about a loss of US growth momentum, slowing Chinese growth, higher US rates, etc, etc.   The fact that the Fed maintained its stance towards hiking rates and balance sheet contraction at the last FOMC meeting has also weighed on markets.

A statement from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin attempting to reassure markets about liquidity conditions among US banks didn’t help matters, especially as liquidity concerns were among the least of market concerns.  Drawing attention to liquidity may have only moved it higher up the list of focal points for markets.

The other major mover is oil prices, which have dropped even more sharply than other asset classes.  Brent crude has dropped by over 40% since its high on 3 October 2018.   This has helped to dampen inflationary expectations as well as helping large oil importers such as India.  However, while part of the reason for its drop has been still robust supply, worries about global growth are also weighing on the outlook for oil.

But its not all bad news and markets should look at the silver lining on the dark clouds overhanging markets.  The Fed has become somewhat more dovish in its rhetoric and its forecasts for further rate hikes.  US growth data is not weak and there is still sufficient stimulus in the pipeline to keep the economy on a reasonably firm growth path in the next few months.  Separately lower oil is a positive for global growth.

There are also constructive signs on the trade front, with both US and China appearing to show more willingness to arrive at a deal.  In particular, China appears to be backing down on its technology advancement that as core to its “Made In China 2025” policy. This is something that it at the core of US administration hawks’ demands and any sign of appeasement on this front could bode well for an eventual deal.

Central Banks Galore

Although markets are quietening down and liquidity is thinning ahead of the holidays there are still a few important and potentially market moving events this week.   These include several central bank meetings, with the Fed FOMC at the top of the pile on Wednesday.  The Fed is widely expected to hike by 25bp to between 2.25% and 2.50% and remove any remaining forward guidance.

A few weeks ago there was little doubt that the Fed would hike rates this month, but since then it has looked like less of a done deal.  Dovish comments from Fed officials suggest that there will be a lot of attention on Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, especially following his recent comments that interest rates are “just below neutral”.   Although the Fed is likely to hike, it is likely to be seen as a dovish hike, which ought to leave the USD without much support.

In Asia there are three central bank meetings in focus.  On Wednesday the Bank of Thailand (BoT) is likely to hike its benchmark by 25bps to 1.75%, largely due to financial imbalances (household debt and bad loans) rather than inflation concerns.  On Thursday Taiwan’s central bank meeting (CBC) is likely to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1.375%, with low and declining inflation, suggesting the long held status quo will be maintained.

Also on Thursday I expect no change in policy by Bank Indonesia. Inflation is clearly non-threatening from BI’s perspective and unless the IDR weakens anew, BI will increasingly be in a position to keep its powder dry. Elsewhere in Asia, the Bank of Japan will be in focus.  No change in policy is widely expected on Thursday, with the central bank still well away from any tightening in policy given still low inflation.

RBI Governor Patel’s resignation hits India’s markets

Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Patel resigned yesterday in a surprise move.  Patel cited “personal reasons” but it is likely to have much to do with tensions between the government and RBI.  Although it had appeared they had reached a compromise, it appears that Patel didn’t feel that the RBI came out of it well. Patel’s resignation came just ahead of a RBI board meeting on Friday, and has hit India’s markets.

The timing is not good.  Patel’s resignation comes just ahead of the release of five state election results today, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, all having gone to the polls. Exit polls have suggested a weaker showing for PM Modi’s BJP, with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan likely to deliver blows to the BJP.  The outcome of the elections will be scrutinised for clued ahead of next year’s general elections.

Issues such as dealing with non-bank financial companies (NBFCs), implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code and even interest rate setting, have all been under scrutiny over recent months. How to deal with tightening liquidity has been a source of contention, with the government wanting the RBI to do more to ease liquidity and lending conditions. The RBI pushed back against the government’s request for a
higher payout from central bank reserves.

Although the government has not yet announced a replacement to Patel it will clearly be important that whoever it is, will be seen as independent of the government. The RBI under Patel has been seen to be overly hawkish by some and in this respect the government may be able to install someone who is more open to easing both monetary policy and lending constraints.The next steps will be important.

If the government nominates someone to replace Patel who is seen as more susceptible to political influence it could have much further and deeper negative consequences for India’s markets.  If however, the government is seen to nominate someone who can maintain the independence of the RBI it will bode well for confidence in Indian assets.

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

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