All Bets Are Off!

For anyone thinking that markets had already fully priced aggressive Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes, last week’s message from the US May CPI inflation report as well the ECB meeting was crystal clear.  All bets are off!  The US CPI report destroyed any hopes that US inflation had peaked with headline CPI surging 1% on the month and the annual rate hitting a new post-COVID high of 8.6%.  If there was ever any doubt, the data not only seals the case for at least a 50 basis point (1/2 %) hike at this Wednesday’s Fed FOMC meeting but increases the risk of a 75bp move though the latter still seems unlikely.  More likely, the Fed embarks on a series of 50bps hikes. . 

Separately, the ECB shifted away from its long held dovish stance and announced an expected end to its bond purchase plan (APP) at the beginning of July, effectively pre-announced a 25bp policy rate hike in July and 25-50bp hikes in September, with the central bank expecting to maintain a tightening cycle beyond September.  Many other central banks are scrambling to catch up the curve as inflation pressures end up being much higher than many of them previously anticipated.  There are exceptions of course such as Japan (see below), Russia recently cut its policy rate by 150bp and China which may still cut policy rates in the weeks ahead (watch this week’s 1y Medium Term Lending Facility decision, with a small 5-10bp cut possible), but these exceptions are few and far between.

The jump in US inflation will also further support the US dollar, keeping it on the front in the days ahead against most other currencies.  Already at the start of the week, most currencies were hurt in the face of a resurgent US dollar, especially high beta emerging market currencies. Separately, market volatility measures (e.g. MOVE and VIX) are likely to rise while liquidity is likely to remain poor.  Risk assets overall are likely to struggle against this background. Overall, it’s hard to see sentiment turn around quickly.

This week the main focus will be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) but there are also several other central bank decisions of interest including the BCB in Brazil (Wed) where consensus expects the pace of hikes to slow to 50bp.  Additionally, 25bp rate hikes from the Bank of England and CBC in Taiwan (both Thu) are expected while the Bank of Japan (Fri) meeting is likely to be uneventful as BoJ governor Kuroda has doubled down on his aggressive stimulus stance while noting that a weaker Japanese yen benefits the economy.  Key data this week includes likely yet more weak Chinese activity data in May (Wed), jobs data the UK (Tue) and Australia (Thu) and a likely stronger than consensus increase in May  US retail sales (Wed).  

Action Shifting To Currencies as Rates Volatility Eases

US stocks barely closed higher at the end of last week and flirted with bear market territory. US consumer and retail stocks remain under pressure alongside industrials as recession fears intensify.  Indeed while inflation concern remain elevated, recession fears are increasing. US Treasury yields are finally coming off the boil amid such fears, with May seeing a significant pull back in yields; the biggest decline has been in the 3-10 year part of the yield curve over recent weeks.  This has been met with a decline in interest rate volatility unlike equity and implied currency volatility measures, which have pushed higher.   For instance, major currency implied volatility measures have reached their highest since around March 2020. Emerging markets volatility breached its March 2020 high in March 2022 and after a brief fall is moving back higher.  

Action is shifting to currencies and the drop in the US dollar from its highs, with the currency increasingly undermined by lower US yields.  In Asia, the 3 most sensitive currencies to yield differentials (US 10 year yield minus 10 year local currency bond yields) are the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Korean won.  As such, Korean won is likely to rally the most in Asia should US yields fall further.   The Chinese yuan has strengthened amid US dollar weakness though underperformance of the Chinese currency is likely versus its peers as the authorities likely aim to weaken it on a trade weighted (CFETS) basis. 

In China, the surprisingly large 15 basis point cut in 5-year loan prime rate last week will be seen as a boon for China’s property market.  However, while support for the property market has increased there does not seem to be much more stimulus ready to be unleashed despite various pledges.  China’s April data slate was weak highlighting the risks of a contraction in GDP this quarter and providing evidence that the “around 5.5%” official growth target looks increasingly out of reach.  COVID restrictions across the country are easing gradually pointing to some pick up in activity though consumption and the service sector are likely to remain under pressure for months to come as mass testing, quarantines and border controls continue to restrict mobility.  

There was relief for China’s markets today as President Biden highlighted the potential for a reduction/removal of tariffs implemented by President Trump, stating that he will discuss tariffs with Treasury Secretary Yellen when he returns from his Asia trip.  Removing tariffs is by no means a done deal given there will be plenty of pressure to maintain some level of US tariffs on China. A reduction in tariffs would be beneficial for the US in that it would help reduce imported inflation pressures while it would also help to support Chinese exports at a time when they are slowing down and adding pressure on China’s current account position.  However, some of this impact would likely be mitigated by a relatively stronger yuan, which would undoubtedly benefit as tariffs were cut.  

Key data and events highlight this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), South Korea and Turkey (both Thu).  Federal Reserve FOMC meeting minutes will also be released (Wed). Although not expected by the consensus there is a good chance that Indonesia hikes policy rates by 25 basis points. In New Zealand a 50bp hike is likely while a 25bp hike in South Korea is expected.  In contrast despite pressure on the Turkish lira and very elevated inflation no change in monetary policy is expected in Turkey this week.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes will provide further detail on how quickly the Fed wants to get to neutral rates and beyond and on its quantitative tightening policy. 

Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

The Week Ahead

Of course the main focus for markets will continue to be the war in Ukraine. The risk of Nato being dragged into the war has risen after Russian warnings that military conveys to Ukraine will be considered legitimate targets and a military training facility near Poland’s border was attacked.  Russia has reportedly intensified its attacks on key Ukrainian cities while peace talks are reportedly making some progress though nothing concrete has yet been achieved.  The US and China will also gold high-level talks in Rome today while there has been no traction towards a no-fly zone over Ukraine. 

Illiquidity and volatility are likely to continue to characterise market activity in the days ahead while risks of a Russian default grow. Stagflation risks will likely continue to sound louder in the weeks ahead too, leaving central banks in a bind.  As it was, economic growth was slowing and inflation was highly elevated ahead of the crisis in Ukraine.  Now it’s going to look a whole lot worse, implying a still tense environment for risk assets.  The US dollar looks firm going into this week against this background. 

This week’s key central bank events include Bank Indonesia (Tue), Federal Reserve FOMC decision (Wed), Bank of England (Thu), European Central Bank (ECB) Watchers Conference (Thu), CBC in Taiwan, CBRT in Turkey (Thu), BCB in Brazil, Bank of Japan (Fri), and CBR (Fri) in Russia.  Most focus will of course be on the Fed where a 25 basis points hike in interest rates is highly likely.  Any clues to the pace of tightening and details of quantitative tightening will also be in focus.  Similarly, the BoE is likely to hike by 25bp.  The ECB Conference will be watched for discussion on the speed of policy withdrawal. 

Meanwhile, the BoJ is likely to downgrade its growth outlook while no change in policy is expected in Indonesia, Turkey and Russia.  In contrast, Brazil is expected to hike rates by 100bp.  There will also be attention on China’s 1 year medium term lending facility where a cut amid slowing activity, would presage a potential easing in the policy Loan Prime Rate (LPR) next week.  Data in focus will be China activity data (Tue) where a further slowing in both industrial production and retail sales is likely while US February retail sales (Wed) are likely to gain momentum.  Last but not least, Australian jobs data (Thu) are likely to reveal a strong print for February.   

Will The Fed Hike By 50bp? Asia Singing To Its Own Tune

The outsized gain in the US January CPI inflation rate has firmly put a 50 basis points (bp) Federal Reserve rate hike on the table as well as reinforcing expectations of a series of consecutive rate hikes while St Louis Fed President Bullard even raised the prospect of an inter-meeting hike in the wake of the CPI data.  Markets are now pricing close to 7 hikes in 2022 and 80% odds of a 50bp hike in March. 

US CPI inflation jumped to 7.5% y/y, a 40-year high, with prices rising by 0.6% m/m and core CPI rising to 6% y/y, all above consensus.  In the wake of the data Bullard strengthened his hawkish rhetoric by saying that he would like to see 100bp of hikes by July 1 2022.  Markets have quickly ramped up their expectations for Fed tightening, with a growing chorus expecting a series of consecutive hikes.

Markets are reacting badly, with equities under renewed pressure, bond yields moving higher and the US dollar firming.  It’s hard to see such pressure easing anytime soon.  Historically the bulk of market pressure takes place as the market prices in / discounts rate hikes rather than after the Fed actually hikes.  This suggests that markets will remain highly nervous at least until the March Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. 

It is clear that the data is killing off any chance of a more tepid pace of US monetary tightening. The Fed alongside other major central banks are frantically trying to regain credibility in the wake of much stronger inflation readings than they had anticipated by espousing increasingly hawkish rhetoric, which will likely soon be followed with action as policy rates increase and central bank balance sheets start to shrink. 

There is now a growing probability that the Fed will kick off its monetary tightening with a 50bp rate hike followed by consecutive hikes in the months ahead as well as quantitative tightening in the second quarter.  It’s not quite a done deal but another strong US inflation print for February will seal the case for a 50bp hike in March.

In contrast, Asia monetary policy is singing to its own tune.  Unlike in past tightening cycles when Asian central banks were forced to tighten to avoid pressure on their markets, especially to avoid currency weakness, there is limited signs of such pressures at present.  Some in Asia such as the Bank of Korea and Monetary Authority of Singapore have tightened already, but this is largely due to domestic factors rather than the Fed.

The stark difference in stance between Asian central banks and what is being priced in for the Fed has been particularly apparent by the recent dovish policy decisions in India, Indonesia, and Thailand, with all three central banks showing no urgency to tighten.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan acting to defend its yield curve policy by conducting unlimited fixed-rate JGB purchases, was clearly a dovish move.  Last but not least, the PBoC, China’s central bank has already cut its policy Loan Prime Rate and is likely to do so again in the next few months.  

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