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.

High Hopes

EUR/USD has rallied over recent days from a low around 1.3146 last week. Market hopes of a eurozone solution may fall flat but the pressure on officials has ratcheted higher, and the risks of failure are now too significant to jeopardize with half measures. Weekend promises of banking sector recapitalisation by Germany and France have helped but will not be enough should such promises prove empty. Markets will likely give the benefit of the doubt to eurozone officials ahead of the delayed October 23 EU Summit and the November 3 G20 meeting.

Consequently EUR will find some support over coming days and could extend gains as risk appetite improves; having broken above 1.3600 the next big resistance level for EUR/USD is 1.3800. The fact that EUR speculative positioning is very negative (biggest short position since June 2010 according to IMM data) highlights the potential for short covering.

Possible good news in Greece, with an announcement by the Troika (ECB, EU and IMF) on talks over the next tranche of the bailout will likely provide more EUR support. One stumbling block for the EUR could come from the Slovakian vote on EFSF bailout fund enhancement, which is by no means guaranteed to pass.

The JPY remains firm benefitting from higher risk aversion, registering one of the highest correlations with risk over recent months. However, the reason why the JPY is not even stronger is that bond yield differentials (especially 2-year) with the US have widened out in favour of the USD over recent days. If the recent improvement in risk appetite continues, combined with widening yield differentials it could push USD/JPY to finally move higher and sustain a break above 77.00.

GBP/USD has made an impressive bounce over recent days from a low around 1.5272 last week despite the Bank of England’s announcement of more quantitative easing last week and credit ratings downgrades of several UK banks. This resilience is impressive but it appears that GBP is caching onto the coat tails of a firmer EUR rather than benefitting from a domestically led improvement in sentiment. Nonetheless, there is scope for further gains in GBP given that speculative positioning in the currency moved close to its all time low early last week in anticipation of BoE QE.

Euro’s Teflon Coating Wearing Thin

EUR has suffered a setback in the wake some disappointment from the European Union summit at the end of last week and the major defeat of German Chancellor Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in yesterday’s election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The EUR had been fairly resistant to negative news over recent weeks but its Teflon like coating may be starting to wear thin.

The setbacks noted above + others (see previous post) follow credit rating downgrades for Portugal by both S&P and Fitch ratings and growing speculation that the country is an imminent candidate for an EU bailout following the failure of the Portuguese government to pass its austerity measures last week and subsequent resignation of Portugal’s Prime Minister Socrates.

For its part Portugal has stated that it does not need a bailout but looming bond redemptions of around EUR 9 billion on April 15 and June 15 against the background of record high funding costs mean that the pressure for a rescue is intense. Complicating matters is the fact that fresh elections cannot be held earlier than 55 days after being announced, meaning that policy will effectively be in limbo until then. A June vote now appears likely.

After what was perceived to be a positive result of the informal EU leaders summit a couple of weeks ago, the outcome of the final summit last week failed to deliver much anticipated further details whilst more negatively the EU bailout fund’s paid-in capital was scaled back to EUR 16 billion (versus EUR 40 billion agreed on March 21) due to concerns expressed by Germany.

Ireland is also in focus ahead of European bank stress tests results on March 31. Ireland is pushing for increased sharing of bank losses with senior bondholders as part of a “final solution” for financial sector. Meanwhile the new government remains unwilling to increase the country’s relatively low corporation tax in exchange for a renegotiation of terms for the country’s bailout. This point of friction also threatens to undermine the EUR.

The bottom line is that the bad news is building up and the ability of the EUR to shake it off is lessening. Considering the fact that the market long EUR, with positioning well above the three-month average the EUR is vulnerable to position adjustment. After slipping over recent days EUR/USD looks supported above 1.3980 but its upside is looking increasingly restricted against the background of various pieces of bad news.

Edging Towards A Bailout

A confluence of factors have come together to sour market sentiment although there appeared to be some relief, with a soft US inflation reading (core CPI now at 0.6% YoY) and plunge in US October housing starts reinforcing the view that the Fed will remain committed to carry out its full QE2 program, if not more.

However any market relief looks tenuous. Commodity prices remain weak, with the CRB commodities index down 7.4% in just over a week whilst the Baltic Dry Index (a pretty good forward indicator of activity and sentiment) continues to drop, down around 21% since its recent high on 27 October. Moreover, oil prices are also sharply lower. Increasingly the drop in risk assets is taking on the form of a rout and many who were looking for the rally to be sustained into year end are getting their fingers burnt.

Worries about eurozone peripheral countries debt problems remains the main cause of market angst, with plenty of attention on whether Ireland accepts a bailout rumoured to be up EUR 100 billion. Unfortunately Ireland’s reluctance to accept assistance has turned into a wider problem across the eurozone with debt in Portugal, Greece and also Spain suffering. An Irish bailout increasingly has the sense of inevitability about it. When it happens it may offer some short term relief to eurozone markets but Ireland will hardly be inspired by the fact that Greece’s bailout has had little sustainable impact on its debt markets.

Ireland remains the primary focus with discussions being enlarged to include the IMF a well as ECB and EU. What appears to be becoming clearer is that any agreement is likely to involve some form of bank restructuring, with the IMF likely to go over bank’s books during its visit. Irish banks have increasingly relied on ECB funding and a bailout would help reduce this reliance. Notably the UK which didn’t contribute to Greece’s aid package has said that it will back support for Ireland, a likely reaction to potential spillover to UK banks should the Irish situation spiral out of control. Any bailout will likely arrive quite quickly once agreed.

Although accepting a bailout may give Ireland some breathing room its and other peripheral county problems will be far from over. Uncertainties about the cost of recapitalising Ireland’s bank will remain whilst there remains no guarantee that the country’s budget on December 7 (or earlier if speculation proves correct) will be passed. Should Ireland agree to a bailout if may provide the EUR will some temporary relief but FX markets are likely to battle between attention on Fed QE2 and renewed concerns about the eurozone periphery, suggesting some volatile price action in the days and weeks ahead.

Reports of food price controls of and other measures to limit hot money inflows into China as well as prospects for further Chinese monetary tightening, are attacking sentiment from another angle. China’s markets have been hit hard over against the background of such worries, with the Shanghai Composite down around 10% over the past week whilst the impact is also being felt in many China sensitive markets across Asia as well as Australia. For instance the Hang Seng index is down around 7% since its 8 November high.

Exhausted

No the title is not meant to describe how I felt this morning when I woke up but how I feel the market is looking at present in terms of risk trades. Firmer than feared economic data in the US and China and the agreement in Basel on new bank capital ratios boosted risk appetite but the moves are already beginning to fade. It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon but after the sharp gains registered over recent days I would suggest taking a cautious stance on jumping into risk trades at present.

The EUR has played a degree of catch up to risk currencies, rallying sharply against the USD, helped in part by the European Commission which raised its forecasts for the eurozone economy from 0.9% for 2010 to 1.7%. Although the change in forecasts should come as little surprise give that it is now in line with the European Central Bank’s (ECB) expectations the news bolstered the view of economic resilience in the eurozone. Unfortunately as the ECB noted following its last meeting there are plenty of downside risks to growth next year and upcoming data releases will be viewed to determine how sharply growth momentum will slow into next year.

One currency that strengthened was the JPY and this was mainly due the view that Prime Minister Kan will win the contest for leadership of the governing DPJ party in Japan. The race remains very close, with Prime Minister Kan having a slight lead according to Japanese press. The FX market will pay particular attention to the result given that the other contender Ichiro Ozawa has stated his willingness to drive the JPY lower as well as increase fiscal spending. The results of the election will be known shortly and should Ozawa win USD/JPY will likely find support although the bigger influence is likely to be a shift in relative US/Japan bond yields which due to the sell off in US Treasuries over recent days has become more supportive of a higher USD/JPY.

GBP has lagged the move in many risk currencies, failing to take advantage of the weaker USD. There was some relief overnight from an increase in consumer confidence in August according to the Nationwide index, which rose 5 points to 61, from a 14-month low in July. However, any boost to GBP sentiment will have been outweighed by a fall in UK house prices according to RICS, which revealed the sharpest one-month fall in August since June 2004. The data supports the view that the rally in UK house prices could soon be over. Weaker housing activity will also likely limit any further improvement in consumer confidence. Some of this is already priced into GBP however, and over the short-term EUR/GBP may struggle to breach the 0.8400 level.

Another underperformer overnight was the NZD which was hit by disappointing retail sales data for July, which fell 0.4%. Although the drop followed a strong gain in the previous month the data supports the view that the consumer remains cautious in New Zealand, a factor that will likely play into the view that New Zealand’s central bank, the RBNZ will keep policy on hold when they meet tomorrow. NZD slipped off its highs around 0.7347 overnight and also managed to dampen the upside momentum for AUD/USD which will likely struggle to sustain a break through resistance around 0.9350.

Today’s data will provide further direction for the days ahead, with the September German ZEW survey of investor confidence likely to be closely scrutinized. A drop in the economic sentiment gauge to around 10 is expected from 14 in August, highlighting that eurozone growth momentum is beginning to wane. Hard data in the form of eurozone industrial production will also record a weaker performance, likely to drop 0.3% in July. The data will likely cap the EUR today.

In the US the main release is the August retail sales report for which a 0.3% gain in both headline and ex-autos sales is expected. Sales will have been helped by back to school spending although major discounting will have weighed on retailers’ profits. Nonetheless, any gain even if modest will be a welcome development for Q3 growth in the US.

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