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.

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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.

Sour end to the week

It’s a sour end to the week for markets. Just as emerging markets (EM) were beginning to see some signs of stability, a surge in US Treasury bond yields (hitting a high of 3.23%) acted to fuel another round of pressure, pushing bond yields higher globally while denting equity market sentiment.   As a result EM equities took another beating and EM currencies fell against a resurgent USD.

The surge in US yields followed a run of strong US data including a gauge of service sector sentiment (ISM non-manufacturing index hit a new expansion high) and strong private sector jobs data (ADP jobs report).  Constructive comments from Fed Chairman Powell on the economy, supporting expectations that US interest rates will be hiked again in December, added to the upbeat mood on the economy.   At the time of writing attention is focused on the US September jobs report which is unlikely to detract from the upbeat US growth story.

US-China tensions are another factor weighing on sentiment.  While there has been no sign of any progress on trade talks even as the US agreed trade deals with Canada and Mexico, criticism by US Vice President Mike Pence on Chinese policy, has weighed on Asian markets.  There appears to be no sign of any appeasement between the two countries, suggesting that tensions will not easy anytime soon.

Any hope of a recovery in risk assets especially in emerging markets as we go into the final quarter of the year are beginning tofade.   After losing ground over much of September the USD has bounced back with a vengeance, while US assets continue to outperform much of the rest of the world, attracting even more capital.  While heavy long USD positioning and increasingly stretched US equity valuations hold risks against further gains in both, markets are not yet willing to run from US assets.

Progress at last in Europe

As last week progressed markets had been increasingly poised for disappointment at the EU Summit at the end of the week. Given such low expectations it was probably not so difficult to exceed them. In the event there was progress towards breaking the vicious cycle between banks and sovereigns. The immediate reaction to the announcements from the EU President was clearly positive, with risk assets rallying sharply. EUR/USD had rallied by over 2 big figures from a low just above 1.24 as a massive short squeeze helped propel it higher.

With their backs against the wall EU leaders finally agreed upon short term stabilisation measures as well as long term measures towards closer European integration. Under pressure from other leaders including French President Hollande, German leader Merkel obviously softened her stance to agree on some of these measures. The deal goes to show that leaders in Europe can act when needed or at least when desperate which is how they were after 13 hours of talks and the reality that bond yields in Spain and Portugal were at unsustainable levels.

Short term measures in particular utilising the EFSF / ESM bailout fund to recapitalize banks directly and the creation of a European banking supervisory body was a shot in the arm for Italian and Spanish bonds and the EUR. The dropping of the condition that EU governments be given preferred creditor status for loans to Spanish banks bodes well for peripheral Eurozone sovereign debt markets as it means that private investors will not be put at the back of the que in any debt restructuring.

While the measures mark an important step in the direction of providing clear resolutions to the Eurozone crisis there is a very long way to go. Admitedly the use of the bailout funds is positive but at some point markets will ponder the fact that while they could handle a bailout of Spain the funds are clearly insufficient to cope with a bailout of Italy should it be needed. If the steps announced at the EU summit lead to a sustained drop in peripheral country bond yields then the prospects of more bailouts will be limited but this is by no means guaranteed.

Whether the risk rally is sustained into next week depends in part on whether the European Central Bank responds with actions of its own by cutting interest rates or by indicating the use of other measures such as restarting its securities markets purchases program. The risk remains that the rally will likely fade as skepticism sets in again once again and more details are sought.

IMF Hopes For Italy

Following a week in which risk aversion increased further and equity markets fell sharply the start of this week looks a little steadier. Reports in the Italian press that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is readying a EUR 600 billion loan for Italy in the event of a worsening in the debt crisis may help to support markets as the week kicks off.

Moreover a report in the German press that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are preparing a fast track “Stability Pact” for euro countries similar to the Schengen agreement, that may be announced this week, will also help to steady market nerves. However, neither report has been confirmed suggesting that as usual the scope for disappointment is high. The sell on risk on rallies environment is likely to persist for a while longer despite such reports.

Liquidity is likely to thin further this week and scope for volatility is high given that there are plenty of events and data on tap. Included among these are debt auctions in Belgium and Italy today and France and Spain later in the week against the background where Germany’s failed bond auction last week has fuelled even more nervousness in bond markets. A European Finance Ministers meeting beginning tomorrow will also come under scrutiny, especially given the lack of progress so far on many issues including the issue of Eurobonds.

The key data of the week will arrive from the US, with the November jobs report, ISM manufacturing survey, Beige Book and consumer confidence reports scheduled for release. Following what appears to be strong Thanksgiving holiday weekend spending the US data will continue to show improvement although this may not be enough to stem speculation that the Fed is verging on buying of mortgage backed securities in a third round of quantitative easing.

Risk currencies have commenced the week in strong firm, with the EUR and AUD rallying. Any gain in the EUR will prove limited and unsustainable unless the weekend press reports are confirmed. EUR/USD will find upside resistance around the 1.3412 level, while the risk of a downside test of support around its October 4 low at 1.3146 remains high over coming days.

Extreme Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty enveloping global markets has reached an extreme level. Who would have thought that close to 13 years after its introduction at a time when it has become the second largest reserve currency globally (26.7% of global reserves) as well as the second most traded currency in the world, European leaders would be openly talking about allowing countries to exit the EUR? No less an issue for currency markets is the sustainability of the USD’s role as the foremost reserve currency (60.2% of global reserves). The US debt ceiling debacle and the dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet have led to many official reserve holders to question their use of the USD. Perhaps unsurprisingly the JPY has been the main beneficiary of such concerns especially as global risk aversion has increased but to the Japanese much of this attention is unwanted and unwelcome.

The immediate focus is the travails of the eurozone periphery. Against the background of severe debt tensions and political uncertainties it is perhaps surprising that the EUR has held up reasonably well. However, this resilience is related more to concerns about the long term viability of the USD rather than a positive view of the EUR, as many official investors continue to diversify away from the USD. I question whether the EUR’s resilience can be sustained given that it may be a long while before the situation in the eurozone stabilises. Moreover, given the now not insignificant risk of one or more countries leaving the eurozone the long term viability of the EUR may also come into question. I believe a break up of the eurozone remains unlikely but such speculation will not be quelled until markets are satisfied that a safety net / firewall for the eurozone periphery is safely in place.

In this environment fundamentals count for little and risk counts for all. If anything, market tensions have intensified and worries about the eurozone have increased since last month. Politics remain at the forefront of market turmoil, and arguably this has led to the worsening in the crisis as lack of agreement between eurozone leaders has led to watered down solutions. Recent changes in leadership in Italy and Greece follow on from government changes in Portugal and Ireland while Spain is widely expected to emerge with a new government following elections. Meanwhile Chancellor Merkel has had to tread a fine line given opposition from within her own coalition in Germany while in France President Sarkozy is expected to have a tough time in elections in April next year. The likelihood of persistent political tensions for months ahead suggests that the EUR and risk currencies will suffer for a while longer.

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