Confidence Dives, Markets Shattered

COVID-19 fears have proliferated to such a large extent that confidence is being shaken to the core.   Confidence in markets, policy makers and the system itself is being damaged.  Today’s moves in markets have been dramatic, continuing days and weeks of turmoil, as panic liquidation of risk assets and conversely buying of safe assets, is leading to intense asset market volatility.  Economic fears are running rampant, with the failure of OPEC to agree a deal to prop up oil prices over the weekend adding further fuel to the fire.  Consequently, oil prices dropped a massive 30%, leading to a further dumping of stocks.

When does it end?  Confidence needs to return, but this will not be easy.  Policy makers in some countries seems to have got it right, for example Singapore, where containment is still feasible.  In Italy the government has attempted to put around 16 million people in quarantine given the rapid spread of the virus in the country. However, in many countries the main aim has to be effective mitigation rather than containment.  I am by no means an expert, but some experts predict that as much as 70% of the world’s population could be infected.  Washing hands properly, using hand sanitizers, social distancing and avoiding large gathering, appears to the main advice of specialist at least until a cure is found, which could be some months away.

In the meantime, markets look increasingly shattered and expectations of more aggressive central bank and governmental action is growing.  Indeed, there is already significantly further easing priced into expectations for the Federal Reserve and other major central banks.  This week, the European Central Bank is likely to join the fray, with some form of liquidity support/lending measures likely to be implemented.  Similarly, the Bank of England is set to cut interest rates and implement other measures to support lending and help provide some stability.  The UK government meanwhile, is set to announce a budget that will contain several measures to help support the economy as the virus spreads.

It is also likely that the US government announces more measures this week to help shore up confidence, including a temporary expansion of paid sick leave and help for companies facing disruption.  What will also be focused on is whether there will an increase in number of virus tests being done, given the limited number of tests carried out so far.  These steps will likely be undertaken in addition to the $7.8bn emergency spending bill signed into law at the end of last week.

All of this will be welcome, but whether it will be sufficient to combat the panic and fear spreading globally is by no means clear.  Markets are in free fall and investors are looking for guidance.  Until fear and panic lessen whatever governments and central banks do will be insufficient, but they may eventually help to ease the pain.  In the meantime, at a time of heightened volatility investors will need to batten down the hatches and hope that the sell off abates, but at the least should steer clear of catching falling knives.

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.

Bonds Under Pressure, UK Parliament Rejects Election Again

Market sentiment remains positive as hopes of a US-China trade deal continue to provide a floor under risk sentiment amid hopes that the escalation in tariffs can be reversed.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend has largely been ignored and instead markets have focused on further stimulus unleashed by China in the wake of the cut in its banks’ reserve ratios, which freed up around USD 126bn in liquidity to help shore up growth.  Expectations that the European Central Bank (ECB) will this week provide another monetary boost by lowering its deposit rates and embarking on a fresh wave of quantitative easing, are also helping to support risk sentiment though a lot is already in the price in terms of ECB expectations.

One of the casualties of the turn in sentiment has been bonds, with yields rising in G10 bond markets.  For example US 10 year yields have risen by around 18 basis points since their low a week ago.   The US dollar has also come under pressure, losing ground in particular to emerging market currencies over the past week.  Safe haven currencies such as the Japanese yen (JPY) and Swiss franc (CHF) have fared even worse.   As I noted last week I think the bounce in risk appetite will be short-lived, but how long is short?  Clearly markets anticipate positive developments in US-China trade talks, and it seems unlikely that risk appetite will deteriorate ahead of talks, at least until there is some clarity on the discussions.  Of course a tweet here or there could derail markets, but that is hard to predict.

Sterling (GBP) has been another currency that has benefited from USD weakness, but also from growing expectations that the UK will not crash out of the EU without a deal.  Developments overnight have done little to provide much clarity, however.  UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed in his bid for an early election on October 15, with MPs voting 293 in favour of an election against 46 opposed;  Johnson required two-thirds or 434 MPs to support the motion.  Johnson is now effectively a hostage in his own government unable to hold an election and legally unable to leave without a deal.  Parliament has been suspended until October 14, with Johnson stating that he will not delay Brexit any further, reiterating that he is prepared to leave the EU without an agreement if necessary.

This would effectively ignore legislation passed into law earlier blocking a no-deal Brexit forcing the PM to seek a delay until 31 Jan 2020. Separately parliament passed a motion by 311 to 302 to compel Downing Street to release various documents related to no-deal Brexit planning, but officials are so far resisting their release.  A lack of progress in talks with Irish PM Varadkar in Dublin on Monday highlights the challenges ahead.  GBP has rallied following firmer than expected Gross Domestic Product data (GDP) yesterday and growing hopes that the UK will be prevented from crashing out of the EU at the end of October, but could the currency could be derailed if there is still no progress towards a deal as the deadline approaches.

 

Will The Risk Rally Endure?

There has been a definitive turnaround in risk sentiment this week, with equities rallying and bonds falling.  Whether it can be sustained is another question. I think it will be short-lived.

Markets are pinning their hopes on trade talks which have been agreed be US and Chinese officials to take place in October.  These would be the first official talks since July and follow an intensification of tariffs over recent weeks.  However, talks previously broke up due to a lack of progress on various structural issues and there is no guarantee that anything would be different this time around.  Nonetheless, such hopes may be sufficient to keep market sentiment buoyed in the short term.

Data overnight was bullish for risk sentiment, with the US August ADP employment report revealing private sector gains of +195k, which was higher than expected.  The US ISM non-manufacturing index was also stronger than expected, rising to 56.4 in August from 53.7 previously.  This contrasted with the slide in the manufacturing PMI, which slipped in contraction below 50, reported earlier this week.  The data sets up for a positive outcome for the US August jobs report to be released later today, where the consensus (Bloomberg) is for a 160k increase in payrolls and for the unemployment rate to remain at 3.7%.

As risk appetite has improved the US dollar has come under pressure, falling from its recent highs.  Nonetheless, the dollar remains at over two year highs despite speculation that the US authorities are on the verge of embarking on intervention to weaken the currency.  While I think such intervention is still very unlikely given that it would do little to change the factors driving the dollar higher, chatter about potential intervention may still keep dollar bulls wary.  While intervention is a risk, I don’t think this stop the USD from moving even higher in the weeks ahead.

Conversely China’s currency, the renminbi has reversed some of its recent losses, but this looks like a temporary retracement rather than a change in trend.  China’s economy continues to weaken as reflected in a series of weaker data releases and a weaker currency is still an effective way to alleviate some of the pressure on Chinese exporters. As long as the pace of decline is not too rapid and does incite a sharp increase in capital outflows, I expect the renminbi to continue to weaken.

Combating Recession Risks

Following a volatile last week market attention will remain on trade tensions, measures to combat the risks of recession and will turn to the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium at the end of the week. The inversion of the US yield curve has led to growing expectations that the US is heading into recession and has spurred inflows into bonds. As a result US Treasury yields continue to fall and the stockpile of negative yielding debt has risen to well over $16 trillion. While economic data in the US remains relatively firm, the picture in the rest of the world has deteriorated sharply as reflected in weakening German and Chinese trade, against the background of a weak trade backdrop.

There have been some mixed headlines on trade over the weekend – Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council under President Trump, said yesterday that recent phone calls between US and Chinese trade negotiators had been “positive”, with more teleconference meetings planned over the next 10 days.  Separately US media reported that the US commerce department was preparing to extend a temporary license for companies to do business with Huawei for 90 days. However, Trump poured cold water on this by stating that “Huawei is a company that we may not do business with at all”.  A decision will be made today.

In the wake of growing expectations of recession, attention is turning on what will be done by governments and central banks to combat such risks.  The Jackson Hole meeting on Thursday will be particularly important to gauge what major central bankers are thinking and in particular whether and to what degree Federal Reserve Chairman Powell is planning on cutting US rates further.  We will be able to garner further evidence of Fed deliberations, with the release of the Fed FOMC July meeting minutes on Wednesday.

While central bankers look at potential monetary policy steps governments are likely to look at ways of providing further fiscal stimulus.  Kudlow stated that the US administration was “looking at” the prospects of tax cuts, while pressure on the German government to loosen is purse strings has also grown.  Even in the UK where a hard Brexit looms, the government is reportedly readying itself with a fiscal package to support growth in the aftermath.   Such news will come as a relief to markets, but recession worries are not likely to dissipate quickly, which will likely keep volatility elevated, and maintain the bias towards safe haven assets in the weeks ahead.

Waiting For US Jobs Data

Ahead of the US jobs report later today and following a lack of leads from US markets after the 4th July Independence Day holiday, markets are likely to tread water, at least until the employment report is released.  However, there are plenty of factors lurking in the background including the ongoing US-China trade war, US-Iran geopolitical tensions, and growing trade spat between Korea and Japan.

Markets continue to be supported by expectations of monetary easing globally.  This week, bond markets have continued to rally, helped by President Trump’s nomination of July Shelton and Christopher Waller for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, both of which are considered dovish.  Separately, markets applauded the backing of Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank after weeks of wrangling by European leaders.

Immediate attention will be on the US June jobs data.  Market expectations are for a 160,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, unemployment rate at 3.6% and average earnings growth of 0.3% compared to the previous month, 3.2% compared to the year earlier.  Anything much worse, for example an outcome below 100k would likely lead to an intensification of expectations that the Fed FOMC will cut by as much as 50 basis points later this month.  An outcome around consensus would likely result in a 25bp easing by the Fed FOMC.

Separately trade tensions between Japan and Korea have intensified. Japan is implementing restrictions on exports to Korea of chemicals essential for chip making. Japan is Korea’s fourth largest export market. The new approval process required by Japanese exporters of three semiconductor industry chemicals will hit Korea’s tech industry at a time when it is already suffering.  The trade spat could also have widespread implications given the wide range of products that South Korean chips are used in, impacting supply chains globally.

US/China Tensions Escalate

Risk appetite starts the week in poor form. The shock announcement of 5% tariffs on all Mexican exports (from June 10) to the US and an intensification of tensions with China, have fuelled growing expectations of a worsening in the global growth outlook. Safe haven assets such as JPY and CHF are likely to remain in demand while core bond yields are likely to continue to move lower, with markets continuing to raise bets on Fed rate cuts this year.  Indeed the 10y US Treasury yield has dropped by 1.1% since 8 November last year, with the fall in yields accelerating over recent weeks.

US/China tensions escalated over the weekend, with the deputy head of China’s negotiating team, Wang Shouwen, accusing the US of “resorting to intimidation and coercion”.  This coincides with the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods coming into effect over the weekend as Chinese shipments reached US shores, while earlier on Saturday Chinese tariffs on $60bn of US exports came into effect.  There is also growing speculation that China may curb exports of rare earth exports to the US.

Wang accused the US of abusing export controls and persisting with “exorbitant” demands and insisting on “mandatory requirements that infringe on China’s sovereign affairs”.   Meanwhile China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe, said that China will “fight to the end” on trade if needed.  China is also starting to investigate foreign companies who have violated Chinese law.  Soon after Chinese state media reported that the government was investigating FedEx for allegedly “undermining the legitimate rights and interest” of its Chinese clients.

Attention this week will be on several central bank decisions including the ECB (6th June), RBA (4th June) and RBI (6th June).  The market is fully priced in for an RBA rate cut to 1.25% this week.  The ECB is unlikely to surprise, with no change in policy likely.  Attention will be on terms of the TLTRO III while ECB President Draghi is likely to sound dovish in his press conference.  RBI is set to cut policy rates again, with Friday’s release of weaker than expected Q1 GDP adding to pressure on the Reserve Bank to boost growth amid low inflation.

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