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.

 

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.

US-China tensions – Risks of a body blow to markets

Tensions between the US and China are once again escalating, resulting in growing nervousness in markets and raising concerns of a further deterioration in global trade at a time when the world is increasingly reeling from the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.   As many countries open up their economies hopes that activity can finally begin to resume, has strengthened.  However, the economic cost is still mounting and as revealed in awful economic data globally over recent weeks the picture is a horrible one.

It will be a fine balancing act for the US administration between imposing more trade tariffs and in turn hurting US importers on the one hand and punishing China for accusations of concealing information about spreading Covid-19 on the other.  President Trump recently threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China, which threatens the “Phase 1” trade deal reached at the beginning of this year.   Recent moves by the US administration include instructing a federal pensions fund to shift some investments in Chinese stocks and tightening export controls on Chinese telecoms company Huawei and its suppliers, which the US administrations says are contrary to US national security.

However, the White House may want to keep trade separate from other measures including tighter export controls and investment restrictions.  Indeed recent talks between senior US and Chinese officials on implementing the Phase 1 deal appeared to be cordial and constructive while Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council said on Friday that the trade deal is continuing.  This is logical.  Renewed tariffs on imports from China would hurt the US consumer, while likely retaliation from China would mean any chance of China increasing its purchases of US goods as part of the Phase 1 deal would disappear, inflicting more pain on the US economy.

One other major consequence of a new round of US tariffs on China would likely be a weaker Chinese currency.  So far China has avoided weakening the yuan, which could also provoke increased capital outflows from China (as it did in Jan 2015 and mid 2016) and a drain on FX reserves at a time when Chinese growth is slowing sharply.  However, China may yet opt for a sharp depreciation/devaluation of the yuan to retaliate against fresh tariffs and to support its exporters as it did when the US first imposed tariffs on the country.  Although this comes with risks for China as noted above, if it was sold as a one off move and was well controlled, it need not fuel an increase in capital outflows from China. This is something that the US will wish to avoid.

Although the US may want to avoid trade as the primary target of any pressure on China, this does not mean that tensions will not increase.  In fact it is highly likely that the relationship between the US and China will worsen ahead of US elections in November, especially as it is one issue which garners broad support among the US electorate. As such, US measures will likely skirt trade restrictions but will most probably involve a whole host of other measures including tightening export controls, student visa restrictions, investment restrictions, and other such measures.  Markets hardly need a reason to be nervous, but after a multi week rally, this is an issue that could prove to be a major body blow to risk assets.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

Coronavirus – The Hit To China and Asia

Coronavirus fears have become the dominant the driver of markets, threatening Chinese and Asian growth and fueling a rise in market volatility.  Global equities have largely bounced back since the initial shock waves, but vulnerability remains as the virus continues to spread (latest count 40,514 confirmed, 910 deaths) and the number of cases continues to rise.  China helped sentiment by injecting substantial liquidity into its markets (CNY 150bn in liquidity via 7-day and 14-day reverse repos, while cutting the rate on both by 10bp) but the economic impact continues to deepen.

Today is important for China’s industry.  Many companies open up after a prolonged Lunar New Year holiday though many are likely to remain closed.  The Financial Times reports that many are extending further, with for example Alibaba and Meituan extending to Feb 16 at the earliest.  Foxconn is reportedly not going to resume iPhone production in Zhengzhou, while some regions have told employers in hard hit cities to extend by a week or two.  This suggests that the economic hit is going to be harder in Q1 and for the full year.

The extent of economic damage is clearly not easy to gauge at this stage. What we know is that the quarantine measures, travel restrictions and business shutdowns have been extensive and while these may limit the spread of the virus, the immediate economic impact may be significant. While transport and retail sectors have fared badly, output/production is increasingly being affected. This may result in a more severe impact than SARS, at least in the current quarter (potentially dropping to around 4-4.5% y/y or lower, from 6% y/y in Q4 2019).

China’s economy is far larger and more integrated into global supply chains than it was during SARS in 2003, suggesting that the global impact could be deeper this time, especially if the economic damage widens from services to production within China. Worryingly, China’s economy is also in a more fragile state than it was in 2003, with growth already on track to slow this year (as compared to 10% GDP growth in 2003 and acceleration in the years after).

This does not bode well for Asia.  Asia will be impacted via supply chains, tourism and oil prices.   The first will be particularly negative for manufacturers in the region, that are exposed to China’s supply chains, with Korea, Japan and Taiwan relatively more exposed. Weakness in tourism will likely  be more negative  for Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore.  Growth worries have pressured oil prices lower and this may be a silver lining, especially for big oil importers such as India.

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