State Of Shock

Equity markets are in a state of shock.  After a stellar year last year equities have started the year in terrible shape. The rout extended further at the end of last week, capping off the worst week in over a year for US stocks.  Tech continued to lead losses, with the Nasdaq down 7.6% over the week.  Notably global equities were impacted less than the US, reflecting the fact that most equity markets outside of the US are less tech orientated.  Anything with leverage and consisting of highly speculative investment such as Crypto are bearing the brunt of the pressure.  Volumes of equity put options on the S&P 500 have also risen sharply as investors try to hedge further losses on US stocks. 

The main cause of market pressure remains the build-up of expectations of Fed tightening, with Fed officials sounding increasingly hawkish and speculation growing of a 50 basis point Fed rate hike in March as well as several more hikes over the course of this year, with four hikes already priced in for this year.   It’s hard to see such pressure abating soon. Indeed, technical indicators on the S&P 500 look poor, with the index having closed below its 200 day moving average level.  However, with market pricing for US rate hikes already so aggressive, a lot of the pain may already have been inflicted unless the Fed really does hike at every meeting this year.  

Wednesday’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting will give further clues US interest rate policy, with the Fed likely to give signals that a March rate hike is in the offing.  However, this should not be surprising given that Fed officials have over recent weeks already strongly hinted at a March rate hike.  What will be scrutinised is any clues on Fed balance sheet reduction (quantitative tightening) as well as the path of the funds rate after March.  It’s unlikely that the Fed provides any firm indications, but nonetheless the press conference could prove more interesting.

Other policy meetings this week include the Bank of Canada meeting (Wednesday). It’s a close call but strong domestic data points to a 25-basis points policy rate hike, kicking off a likely cycle of hikes in the months ahead.  Separately, rate hikes in Hungary (tomorrow) and South Africa (Thursday) are also likely.   Following unchanged outcomes from Malaysia and Indonesia and a policy cut in China last week, there is little on the data and events front in Asia this week.  

Political and geopolitical developments will garner plenty of attention this week.  In the UK the Sue Gray report on “Partygate” will be released.  In Italy, the path for Draghi to be elected President appears to have become easier, with Berlusconi pulling out of the running though it is by no means a clear cut process.  Meanwhile, the situation with regard to Ukraine is on tenterhooks, with Russia reportedly continuing to build up troops on the border, and risks of “significant military action” rising.

Currency markets have been largely spared the carnage seen in equity markets. Speculative positioning data suggests the market remains heavily long the dollar index (DXY). Higher US real rates and continued tightening of Fed rate expectations suggests any pull back in the USD will be limited and the currency remains a buy on dips. Notably, GBP positioning has remained firm, ignoring the potential for a no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Asian currencies also remain relatively resilient, with the Chinese currency likely to continue outperforming.

Crypto Volatility

It was a calmer end for stock markets in a volatile week but crypto was not so fortunate after China’s State Council repeated its warning about Bitcoin mining and trading as central banks appear to be increasing their scrutiny of crypto at a time when many of them are introducing their own digital currencies.  Concerns over increased regulations, especially in China where the bulk of Crypto mining takes place, taken together with ESG issues as focus turns to the environmental costs of mining crypto, threaten to do more damage.  Volatility continued over the weekend, with Bitcoin and other crypto undergoing sharp moves.  Crypto volatility threatens to find its way into other markets, with for example, US equities positively correlated to moves in crypto while the US dollar (USD) could benefit.

There was at least a little relief for markets in terms of inflation angst, with market inflation measures (breakevens) falling while commodities, another factor fueling inflation fears, continued to come off the boil. It seems that the Federal Reserve’s dovish message may finally be sinking in even as the Fed FOMC minutes noted that they are planning on discussing tapering at some point, rather than previously not even thinking about thinking of tapering. US Treasury yields have been capped amid the cooling in inflation fears while rate sensitive equities, especially Tech are likely to find some solace.  The USD has struggled over recent weeks but the recent rise in real yields will likely offer some support. 

There was yet more evidence that the US economy is powering ahead, with measures of manufacturing and services sentiment as reflected in Markit purchasing managers indices (PMIs), rising to record highs as fiscal support and an improving COVID-19 outlook continue to boost optimism. While US economic data has been strengthening, markets have become accustomed to positive US releases and therefore any reaction is likely to be more muted.  Indeed, the Citi Economic Surprise Index, a measure of US data relative to expectations, is near its lowest since June 2020. 

This week is relatively light on the data front.  The key US data release is the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report, something that the Federal Reserve looks at closely, on Friday; consensus expectations are for a 2.3% quarter on quarter (q/q) increase in core PCE in Q1.  A number of Fed speakers will also be on the wires and their comments will be scrutinized on any further elaboration on “discussing a plan” on tapering.  There will also be a few central bank decisions including in Hungary (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), and Korea (Thu).  No changes are likely from any of these central banks.

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