A Stellar Month

November has turned into a stellar month for risk assets, with major equity benchmarks globally, especially those that are dominated by value/cyclical stocks, performing particularly well.  Investors have been willing to bypass the escalation in Covid infections in the US and Europe and instead focus on the upside potential presented by new vaccines and a new US administration, with a line up including former Federal Reserve Chair Yellen, that is likely to be more trade friendly.  Ultra-low rates and likely even more moves in a dovish direction from the Fed as well as plenty of central bank liquidity continue to support risk assets.  While challenges lie ahead (weakening growth, Covid intensification, lack of fiscal stimulus, withdrawal of Fed emergency measures) as well as technical barriers to further short-term gains, the medium-term outlook has become rosier.   

China’s economy has led the recovery and provided plenty of support to Asian markets, commodity prices and currencies. This week’s data and events kicks off with China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) (consensus. 51.5) (Mon) which is likely to remain in expansion, providing further support for China linked economies and assets.  However, the impact on oil will also depend on the OPEC+ meeting (Mon and Tue). Despite the sharp 30% rally in oil prices over the month further output increases are likely to be delayed as producers look to solidify gains. That said, a lot of good news appears to have been priced into the oil market already.  In contrast, the US dollar has been a casualty of the improvement in risk appetite and has shown little sign over reversing its losses. Subdued over recent days by year end selling, the USD may show more signs of life this week. 

The other key event this week is the Nov US jobs report (Fri) where a slowing pace of job gains is likely (consensus 500,000, last 638,000), with new COVID restrictions taking a toll on employment. US Nov ISM surveys are also likely to soften (Tue & Thu), albeit remaining firmly in expansion.  In Canada, the federal fiscal update (Mon), Q3 GDP (Tue) and jobs data (Fri) will be in focus.  Australia also releases its Q3 GDP report (Wed) while In Europe the flash Nov HICP inflation reading will garner attention but most attention will be on ongoing Brexit discussions, which seem to be stuck on remaining issues such as fishing rights. Central bank policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Poland (Wed) and India (Fri) are likely to prove uneventful, with no policy changes likely. 

Rocky Road

Despite the rally in US stocks on Friday, led by the technology sector, US stocks have fallen for four straight weeks.  The jury is still out on whether equities and risk assets in general can rally in the face of a host of uncertainties in the weeks ahead including the potential for a contested US election, fading US economic momentum, lack of progress on “Phase 4” US fiscal stimulus and a resurgence in virus cases globally.  What is clear, is that the road ahead is a rocky one, reflected in the fact that equity volatility (VIX) remains elevated and G10 FX options implied volatility around the time of the US election has spiked. 

One of the main beneficiaries of this uncertainty has been the US dollar lately, much to the detriment of precious metals given their strong inverse correlation.  It wasn’t that long ago that most commentators were writing off the USDs prospects and it’s still not clear that its recovery can persist.  The USD has hit its highest level in 2 months but will likely struggle if equities can eke out further gains in the days ahead.  In contrast, gold is trading around its lowest levels in 2 months.  While these trends may persist in the very short term, technical indicators (eg Relative Strength Index) indicate approaching overbought USD and oversold gold levels. 

This week, the main focus will be on the first US Presidential debate on Tuesday and US September jobs report at the end of the week.  While the US jobs report will likely show a relatively strong (when compared to pre-covid levels) increase in hiring (consensus around 900k), the pace of hiring is likely to slow and employment is still likely to be at least 11 million lower compared to February.  The battle for the new US Supreme Court Justice adds another twist, with President Trump announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and the Senate moving ahead to vote on this nomination this side of the election.  This has changed the dynamics ahead of the election battle, energizing voters on both sides. 

In Asia, China’s September purchasing managers indices (PMIs) and monetary policy decisions in India and Philippines will garner most attention this week.  China’s economy is emerging from the Covid crisis in good shape, helped by resilient exports performance, with medical goods and electronics exports performing particularly well.  This is likely to be reflected in China’s PMIs this week, which are set to remain in expansion territory. Meanwhile US government pressure on Chinese technology companies continues to rise, with the US government reportedly sanctioning China’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC.  This may draw a retaliatory response from China, such as adding US companies to China’s “unreliable entities” list.  

India’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) monetary policy decision is likely to result in an unchanged outcome on Thursday.  While growth has been hit badly due to Covid-19, inflation has also spiked to well above the RBI’s target, leaving the central bank in a difficult position on policy.  Ultimately the RBI will have to ease monetary policy further, but it is unlikely to do so at its meeting on Thursday.  India’s economy is fast heading for a double-digit plunge in growth this year and unfortunately virus cases remain at very high levels.  The rupee has been resilient, however, and is unlikely to weak much further in the short term, even as the economy softens. 

Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

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.

Coronavirus – The Hit To China and Asia

Coronavirus fears have become the dominant the driver of markets, threatening Chinese and Asian growth and fueling a rise in market volatility.  Global equities have largely bounced back since the initial shock waves, but vulnerability remains as the virus continues to spread (latest count 40,514 confirmed, 910 deaths) and the number of cases continues to rise.  China helped sentiment by injecting substantial liquidity into its markets (CNY 150bn in liquidity via 7-day and 14-day reverse repos, while cutting the rate on both by 10bp) but the economic impact continues to deepen.

Today is important for China’s industry.  Many companies open up after a prolonged Lunar New Year holiday though many are likely to remain closed.  The Financial Times reports that many are extending further, with for example Alibaba and Meituan extending to Feb 16 at the earliest.  Foxconn is reportedly not going to resume iPhone production in Zhengzhou, while some regions have told employers in hard hit cities to extend by a week or two.  This suggests that the economic hit is going to be harder in Q1 and for the full year.

The extent of economic damage is clearly not easy to gauge at this stage. What we know is that the quarantine measures, travel restrictions and business shutdowns have been extensive and while these may limit the spread of the virus, the immediate economic impact may be significant. While transport and retail sectors have fared badly, output/production is increasingly being affected. This may result in a more severe impact than SARS, at least in the current quarter (potentially dropping to around 4-4.5% y/y or lower, from 6% y/y in Q4 2019).

China’s economy is far larger and more integrated into global supply chains than it was during SARS in 2003, suggesting that the global impact could be deeper this time, especially if the economic damage widens from services to production within China. Worryingly, China’s economy is also in a more fragile state than it was in 2003, with growth already on track to slow this year (as compared to 10% GDP growth in 2003 and acceleration in the years after).

This does not bode well for Asia.  Asia will be impacted via supply chains, tourism and oil prices.   The first will be particularly negative for manufacturers in the region, that are exposed to China’s supply chains, with Korea, Japan and Taiwan relatively more exposed. Weakness in tourism will likely  be more negative  for Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore.  Growth worries have pressured oil prices lower and this may be a silver lining, especially for big oil importers such as India.

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