Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

The Week Ahead

Of course the main focus for markets will continue to be the war in Ukraine. The risk of Nato being dragged into the war has risen after Russian warnings that military conveys to Ukraine will be considered legitimate targets and a military training facility near Poland’s border was attacked.  Russia has reportedly intensified its attacks on key Ukrainian cities while peace talks are reportedly making some progress though nothing concrete has yet been achieved.  The US and China will also gold high-level talks in Rome today while there has been no traction towards a no-fly zone over Ukraine. 

Illiquidity and volatility are likely to continue to characterise market activity in the days ahead while risks of a Russian default grow. Stagflation risks will likely continue to sound louder in the weeks ahead too, leaving central banks in a bind.  As it was, economic growth was slowing and inflation was highly elevated ahead of the crisis in Ukraine.  Now it’s going to look a whole lot worse, implying a still tense environment for risk assets.  The US dollar looks firm going into this week against this background. 

This week’s key central bank events include Bank Indonesia (Tue), Federal Reserve FOMC decision (Wed), Bank of England (Thu), European Central Bank (ECB) Watchers Conference (Thu), CBC in Taiwan, CBRT in Turkey (Thu), BCB in Brazil, Bank of Japan (Fri), and CBR (Fri) in Russia.  Most focus will of course be on the Fed where a 25 basis points hike in interest rates is highly likely.  Any clues to the pace of tightening and details of quantitative tightening will also be in focus.  Similarly, the BoE is likely to hike by 25bp.  The ECB Conference will be watched for discussion on the speed of policy withdrawal. 

Meanwhile, the BoJ is likely to downgrade its growth outlook while no change in policy is expected in Indonesia, Turkey and Russia.  In contrast, Brazil is expected to hike rates by 100bp.  There will also be attention on China’s 1 year medium term lending facility where a cut amid slowing activity, would presage a potential easing in the policy Loan Prime Rate (LPR) next week.  Data in focus will be China activity data (Tue) where a further slowing in both industrial production and retail sales is likely while US February retail sales (Wed) are likely to gain momentum.  Last but not least, Australian jobs data (Thu) are likely to reveal a strong print for February.   

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