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.

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

Since my last post there has been an even bigger onslaught of fiscal and monetary stimulus measures globally in an attempt to combat the devasting health and economic impact of COVID-19.  Fiscal stimulus in the US will amount to over 10% of GDP while the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is set to grow further from an already large $6+ trillion at present as the Fed throws everything but the kitchen sink to combat the impact of the virus. There is already preparations underway for another phase of fiscal stimulus in the US.

Europe meanwhile, has struggled to agree upon a package given divisions between the North and South of the region, but eventually agreed upon EUR 500bn worth of fiscal stimulus while the ECB is undertaking renewed asset purchases in a new quantitative easing programme.  Many other countries have stepped up their efforts too.  All of this will provide an invaluable cushion, but will not prevent a massive economic downturn, nor will it stop the virus from spreading.

Markets have attempted to look past the growing economic risks, spurred by data showing that in many countries the rate of growth of coronavirus cases has slowed, including in those with a substantial number of deaths such as Italy and Spain.  Even in New York, which has been the epicentre of COVID-19 infections in the US, there are positive signs though it is an ominous sign that the US has now recorded the most deaths globally.

This move towards flattening of the curve has fuelled hopes that many countries will soon be able to emerge from lock downs.  In China, which was first in, most of the manufacturing sector has opened up, while there has even been some relaxation of measures to constrain movement of people.  The net result of all of the above last week, was the biggest weekly rally in US stocks since 1974.

While the 25%+ rally in US equities since their lows is reflecting this optimism, there is a major risk that this is a bear market rally given the risks ahead.  Economic growth estimates continue to be revised lower and the IMF’s revised forecasts scheduled to be published this week are likely to show a global economy on the rails, with growth likely to be at its worst since the Great Depression according to the IMF’s Managing Director.  Emerging markets, which do not have anywhere near the firepower or health systems of developed economies are particularly at risk.

At the same time earnings expectations have yet to reflect the massively negative impact on corporate profits likely in the months ahead; Q1 earnings to be released in the days ahead will be closely watched.  Not only are earnings expectations likely to be revised substantially lower, but many companies will simply not survive and many of those that do could end up in state hands if they are important enough.  Separately there is a risk that shutdowns last longer than expected or once economies begin to open up there another wave of infections.  These risk have not yet been fully appreciated by markets unfortunately.

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.

 

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