Market Volatility Continues To Compress

The US Independence Day holiday kept trading, market activity and volatility subdued for much of last week.  In any case equity markets and risk assets have been struggling on the topside and appear to be losing momentum.  Markets are being buffeted by conflicting forces; economic news has beaten expectations. For example, the US June jobs report was better than expected though total job gains of 7.5 million in recent months are still only around a third of total jobs lost.  In contrast, worsening news on Covid 19 infections, with the WHO reporting a one day record high in global infections, threatens to put a dampener on sentiment.  Consolidation is likely, with Summer trading conditions increasingly creeping in over the weeks ahead. As such volatility is likely to continue to be suppressed, aided by central banks’ liquidity injections.

Over recent weeks geopolitical risks have admittedly not had a major impact on markets but this doesn’t mean that this will remain the case given the plethora of growing risks.  China’s installation of new security legislation into Hong Kong’s basic law and the first arrests utilizing this law were in focus last week.  A US administration official has reportedly said that the president is considering two or three actions against China, and markets will be on the lookout for any such actions this week, which could include further sanctions against individuals are more details of what the removal of HK’s special trading status will entail.  Meanwhile the US has sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea reportedly to send a message against China’s military build up in the area, with China’s PLA conducting a five-day drill around the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.

Data releases and events this week are unlikely to lead to a change in this dynamic.  At the beginning of the week attention will focus on further discussions between the UK and EU over the post Brexit landscape while in the US the June non-manufacturing ISM survey will garner attention.  So far talks on a trade deal between the UK and EU have stalled though there were hints of progress last week, even as officials admitted that “serious divergencies remain”.  The US ISM non-manufacturing survey is likely to move back to expansion (above 50) but is increasingly being threatened by the increase in Covid infections, which could yet again dampen service sector activity. On the policy front there will be fiscal updates from the UK and Canada on Wednesday against the backdrop of ramped up spending, and monetary policy decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and BNM in Malaysia on Tuesday.  The RBA is widely expected to keep policy unchanged while BNM may cut rates by 25 basis points.

 

Markets Facing a Test of Reality vs. Liquidity

Risk assets ended last week under pressure (S&P 500 fell 2.4%) as some US states including Texas and Florida began to reverse opening measures and Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert, warned that some states may have to return to full “shelter in place”.  Banks were among the worst performers even as they came through the Fed’s stress tests in reasonably good shape.  The Fed did however, cap buybacks and dividend payouts for the 33 banks that underwent tests. However, the reality is that banks were hardly likely to increase dividends over the next few months, while the 8th biggest banks had already suspended buybacks.  Perhaps what spooked markets was the news of “additional stress analyses later in the year”.

It feels like equities and risk assets in general are facing a test of reality vs. liquidity. It’s hard to fight the growth in excess liquidity global (G4 central bank balance sheets minus GDP growth) which has risen to its highest rate since Sep 2009, coinciding with a solid run in global equities over that period.  Clearly forward earnings valuations have richened but while absolute valuations appear rich (S&P forward price/earnings ratio has risen to 24.16), relative valuations ie compared to low global rates, are more attractive. This hasn’t stopped the intensification of concerns that after a solid market rally over recent months, the entry of a range of speculative investors is leading to a Minsky Moment.

Investor concerns range from the fact that the rally has been narrowly based, both in terms of the types of investors (retail investors piling in, while institutional have been more restrained) and type of stocks (momentum vs. value), the approach of US Presidential elections in November and in particular whether there could be a reversal of corporate tax cuts, as well as the potential for renewed lockdowns. Add to the mix, geopolitical concerns and a certain degree of market angst is understandable. All of this is having a growing impact on the market’s psyche even as data releases show that recovery is progressing somewhat on track, as reflected for example in the New York Fed’s weekly economic index, which has continued to become less negative and the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which is around its highest on record.

China, which was first in and now looks to be first out is a case in point, with growth data showing ongoing improvement; data today was encouraging, revealing that industrial profits rose 6% y/y in May though profits in the first five months of the year still fell 19.3%, with state-owned enterprises recording the bulk of the decline.  While there are signs that Chinese activity post-Covid is beginning to level off, domestic consumption is gradually improving. This week, market activity is likely to slow ahead of the US July 4th Independence Day holiday but there will be few key data highlights that will garnet attention, including June manufacturing PMIs in China and the US (ISM), and US June non-farm payrolls.

Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

Revoking Hong Kong’s Special Status – Data/Events This Week.

In a further escalation of US-China tensions, President Trump revoked Hong Kong’s (HK) “Special Status” as revealed in a speech on Friday.  What does this mean? At this stage there is scant detail to go on.  Trump also promised to implement sanctions against individuals in China and HK who he deems responsible for eroding HK’s autonomy, but no names were given. Markets reacted with relief, with US equities closing higher on Friday, perhaps in relief that that the measures outlined by Trump were not more severe, or that the lack of detail meant that there could be various exemptions.

On the face of it, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” would deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s economy and to US companies there, while hurting China’s economy too.  However, while still an important financial centre, Hong Kong’s economy relative to China is far smaller than it was at the time of the handover in 1997, at around 3%.   As such, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” could be less painful on China than it would have been in the past.  This may explain why the US administration is focusing on other measures such as student visa restrictions, sanctioning individuals, restricting investment etc.  Even so, tensions will continue to cast a shadow over markets for some time to come and will likely heat up ahead of US elections in November.

Data wise, the week began with the release of China’s May manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing manager’s indices (PMIs) today.  The data revealed a slight softening in the manufacturing PMI to 50.6 in May from 50.8 in April, indicating that manufacturing activity continues to remain in expansion.  However, the trade related components were weak, suggesting that China’s exports and imports outlook is likely to come under growing pressure, weighing on overall recovery.  China’s currency, the renminbi, has been weakening lately against the US dollar and against its peers, though it rallied against the dollar on Friday.  Further gradual weakness in the renminbi looks likely over coming weeks.

This week there will be attention on various data releases and events including US May jobs data, ISM manufacturing, European Central Bank (ECB) and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy decisions and UK-EU Brexit discussions.  Of course markets will remain tuned into Covid-19 developments as economies around the world continue to open up.   While the US jobs and ISM data will likely remain very weak, the silver lining is that the extent of weakness is likely to lessen in the months ahead.  Consensus forecasts predict a massive 8 million drop in US non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate to increase to close to 20%.  The RBA is likely to leave policy unchanged at 0.25% while the ECB is expected to step up its asset purchases. Meanwhile UK-EU Brexit discussions are likely to continue to be fraught with difficulty.

 

 

 

Tensions Take A Turn For The Worse

As highlighted in my post last week markets face “Risks of a body blow” amid an intensification of tensions between the US and China.  Such tensions have worsened over recent days in the wake of the decision announced at the start of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to draft national security legislation for Hong Kong, which would reportedly bypass the territory’s Legislative Council.

The news prompted a slide in Hong Kong equities, demonstrations in Hong Kong and a strong reaction from the US Secretary of State. Attention will also turn to whether China’s decision will push the US administration into imposing sanctions based on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year by Congress as well as remove the special trading status that Hong Kong enjoys with the US.

Unrelated to the above, but in line with the strengthening in non tariff measures being applied to China, the US Senate passed a bill that would effectively result in a de-listing any companies from the US stock exchange if they did not comply with US regulatory audits. In particular, Chinese company listings will be at risk given that many Chinese companies would fall into this category.  This follows hot on the heels of tougher restrictions on the sale of US technology, and the ordering of the main US federal government pension fund not to invest in Chinese equities.

Markets are right to be nervous, with tensions only likely to intensify ahead of elections, but as noted in my previous post, it seems highly unlikely that the US administration would want to tear up the “Phase 1” trade deal at this stage given the impact on domestic producers and consumers.  Instead expect more non trade measures, export controls, visa restrictions, etc, to move into place.  If the US economy/asset markets rebound more strongly, the risk of a breakdown in the trade deal will likely grow as the administration may have more confidence at that point.   Either way, the November 2020 presidential election will have a large bearing on policy towards China.

China can also not risk a major flare up in tensions at this stage given the pressure on its economy even as it has largely opened up post the Covid-19 lockdown measures.  The magnitude of the growth shock was on show last Friday, with the NPC dropping its growth target from its work report for the first time.  This was a prudent move given that growth this year is subject to much more uncertainty than usual in the wake of the Covid-19 shock, but it also suggests that Chinese authorities do not want to commit to the type of stimulus enacted in 2008, which resulted in a sharp build up in leverage in the economy.  GDP growth fell by 6.8% y/y in Q1 and is likely to come in at best around half of last year’s 6.1 rate.

As such, the risks to markets has moved from the virus (though second round infections remains a key risk to markets) to geopolitical.   Nor have economic risks have dissipated.  A cursory glance at data globally makes this obvious.  Markets have tried to look past the data, but risks remain high that growth recovery will be far more prolonged than is being currently priced in.  At some point, maybe soon, it will be hard to keep looking past the data, when what is in view is not pleasant at all.

 

 

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