Pause In The Risk Rally?

The rally in risk assets has extended into 2020 amid a stabilization in economic data, the Phase 1 trade deal and a persistent easy monetary policy stance by major central banks.  The sharp decline in volatility in most asset markets has also contributed to the rush to buy such as assets including equities and high yielding debt.  While the market is becoming increasingly susceptible to shocks given the increasing positioning in risks assets, the near term may be a period of consolidation rather than any reversal.

Attention this week will focus on US Q4 2019 earnings.  So far, with around 9% of S&P earnings released, the majority (around 70%) have beaten expectations.  In a 4 day US trading week this week there are a number of earnings releases that will help provide further clues to whether the US equity rally can be sustained in the weeks ahead.  The S&P 500 is already up around 3% this year, extending a 30%+ gain last year. This has echoed gains in most global equity markets.  Investors should be nervous, but there is little to suggest a reversal soon.

There are a number of data and events to focus on this week including central bank meetings in the Eurozone, Canada, Norway, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Unsurprisingly the Bank of Japan left policy unchanged today and the other are unlikely to change their policy settings except perhaps Indonesia, which may cut.  Aside from these central banks a series of manufacturing surveys (Markit PMIs) will garner attention.

In Asia, trading activity may slow as Chinese New Year approaches while impeachment proceedings against US President Trump in the Senate will also likely distract attention for many.  Another issue that has taken on increasing prominence is the outbreak of a virus that appears to have originated in central China.  Concerns have grown that the coronavirus could spread quickly especially as millions of Chinese migrate (estimated at around 3 billion trips) over the Chinese new year holidays.

Overall, nervousness over the virus alongside holidays in the region is likely to lead to consolidation in markets any even profit taking following a strong rally in risk assets over recent weeks and months.  Positioning indicators suggest that USD positioning has fallen sharply, suggesting also a risk of USD short covering in the current environment.  This all point to a pause in the risk rally in the days ahead.

US-China Phase 1, Now What?

Now that the long awaited Phase 1 deal has been signed between the US and China (significantly taking place in the White House) and details finally released (in a 94 page document) it’s worth asking whether much has actually changed.  After all, China still faces (high) tariffs on around two-thirds of its exports to the US while the deal does little to end Chinese state subsidies.  In return the US offers little aside from removing tariff increases.  Intellectual property transfer commitments agreed in the deal are mostly not new as China had already addressed most of these. 

Ironically the magnitude of Chinese purchases, ($77.7bn in manufactured goods, $32bn in agricultural goods, $52.4bn in energy and $37.9bn in services to Dec 2021) means that the Chinese State will have to be even more active in influencing its economy.  The reality is that to achieve this is going to be extremely difficult if not highly unlikely though this may ultimately not matter if China is seen to significantly increase its US purchases.

Looking ahead don’t expect China to be as agreeable on a Phase 2 deal; any such deal would touch on far more sensitive issues.  The likelihood of this being agreed and signed ahead of US elections or maybe at all, is low.  However, in the near term, the deal keeps the risk taps open and avoids any near-term escalation while President Trump walks away with another notch on his belt.  What it doesn’t do is stop any of the US non-tariff barriers, export controls etc, that will still hurt Chinese companies and push China to develop its own technology. Chinese growth will not get much of an uplift from the deal while markets have already largely priced it in.

The commitment from China on the Chinese yuan (CNY) looks vague (achieve market determined FX rate, strengthen underlying fundamentals, refrain from competitive devaluations, avoid large scale, persistent, one-sided intervention), but China will at least avoid any sharp devaluations (of the type experienced in mid-2015, Jan 16), not that they would want to do that again given the negative consequences on its markets/economy.  And as it is China has not been intervening significantly in FX markets for a long while so this should not be difficult either.

Calm After The Storm

The start of 2020 has not come without incident, to say the least.  The US killing of an Iranian general and Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq prompted a flight to safety, with investors piling into gold, Japanese yen while pushing oil prices higher.   However, each time the impact has been short lived, with markets tending to move back towards a calmer tone.  What is underpinning this is the view that both sides do not want a war.  Indeed Iran stated that it has ‘concluded proportionate measures’ and does not ‘see escalation or war’ while President Trump tweeted that ‘All is well’ after the Iranian missile attacks. While the risk of escalation remains high, it does appear that neither side wants to become entangled in a much deeper and prolonged situation.

As such, while markets will remain nervous, and geopolitical risks will remain elevated, the market’s worst fears (all-out war) may not play out.  This leaves the backdrop of an improving economic environment and ongoing policy stimulus in place, which in turn will help provide overall support to risk assets including equities and emerging markets assets.  As my last post highlighted, two major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end were also lifted.  Unless there is a major escalation between the US and Iran this more sanguine tone, albeit with bouts of volatility, is likely to remain in place in the weeks ahead.  This also mean that attention will eventually turn back to data releases and economic fundamentals.

In this respect the news is not so bad.  Although the US ISM manufacturing index weakened further and deeper into contraction territory below 50 other data including the ISM non-manufacturing index which beat expectations coming in at , suggests that the US economy is still on a rosy path.  While the consensus expectations is for US payrolls to soften to a 160k increase in December compared to 266k previously, this will still leave a high average over recent months. The Fed for its part continues to provide monetary support and liquidity via its repo operations (Quantitative easing with another name) and is unlikely to reverse rate cuts.   Elsewhere globally the economic news is also improving, with data showing global economic stabilization into year end.

UK Elections and US-China trade: Removing Risk Factors

Following the euphoria over the decisive UK election result and the US/China “Phase 1” trade deal markets look primed to end the year on a positive footing.  Two of the major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end have at least been lifted.  However, some reality may begin to set in early into 2020, with investors recognizing that there are still major issues to be resolved both between the UK and Europe and between the US and China,

Although full details have yet to be revealed, Chinese officials will likely be relieved that the hike in tariffs scheduled for December 15 will now not go ahead. However, there are still questions on how China will ramp up its purchases of US agricultural goods anywhere near the $40-50bn mark that has been touted.

Also the dollar amount of the roll back in US tariffs is relatively small at around $9bn, which hardly moves the needle in terms of helping China’s growth prospects.  “The United States will be maintaining 25 percent tariffs on approximately $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5 percent tariffs on approximately $120 billion of Chinese imports.”  This still means that a substantial amount of tariffs on Chinese goods remains in place.

According to Trade Rep. Lighthizer, the deal will take effect 30 days after its signing, likely in early January. To sustain any improvement in sentiment around trade prospects there will need to be some concrete progress in removing previous tariffs as well as progress on structural issues (state subsides, technology transfers etc) in any Phase 2 or 3 dealss. The bottom line is that agreement in principle on “Phase 1” will need to be followed by further action soon, otherwise market sentiment will sour.

In the UK Prime Minister Johnson now has the votes to move forward with Brexit on January 31 but that will leave only 11 months to negotiate a deal with the EU. The transition period finishes at the end of 2020 unless of course there is an extension, something that Johnson has ruled out.  In the meantime the immediate focus will turn to the next Bank of England governor replacing Mark Carney.  This decision could take place this week.  Markets will also look to what fiscal steps the government will take in the weeks ahead.

GBP has rallied strongly over recent days and weeks, extending gains in the wake of the Conservative Party election win.  However, further gains will be harder to achieve given the challenges ahead.  UK equities have underperformed this year and are arguably relatively cheap from a valuation perspective, but further gains will also involve removing or at least reducing much of the uncertainty that has kept UK businesses from investing over recent months.  In the near term GBPUSD could struggle to break above 1.35 unless there is progress on the issues noted above.

Cautious Sentiment Towards A Trade Deal

Markets continue to focus on the potential for a “Phase 1” trade deal between the US and China.   The stakes are high. President Trump who stated that tariffs on Chinese goods would be “raised very substantially” if no deal was struck between the two sides.  US officials also poured cold water over comments by Chinese officials at the end of last week that there had been an agreement to reduce tariffs in phases.  Markets will take a cautious tone given such comments but it is still likely that a deal of sorts will agreed upon in the next few weeks.

Both sides want a deal and while Trump has said that China wants one more than he does, the US administration may want to avoid fueling market turmoil as attention increasingly turns to next year’s US elections.  This suggests that a Phase 1 deal is more likely than not, but agreement on later Phases will be much harder given that there are various structural issues that remain unresolved such as technology transfers, intellectual property theft and state subsidies.

For now what is important is that markets believe that there is progress towards a deal and an eventual signing probably sometime in December.  Despite the harder rhetoric from the US side this still looks like the most likely outcome which in turn suggests that equities and other risk assets have room to rally.  In the meantime, the situation in Hong Kong where protests have intensified will weigh not just on Hong Kong’s markets but markets across the region adding another reason for market caution in the short term.

On the data and events front attention will be on US October CPI, retail sales and a crop of Fed speakers including Fed Chair Powell who is unlikely to change the view the Fed is on pause for the time being.  Elsewhere Chinese data has been less than impressive this week, with October aggregate financing and new yuan loans both coming in weaker than expected.   This is likely to be echoed by the retail sales and industrial production data this week too.

On the FX front, the US dollar has made up around of its October losses amid some deterioration in risk appetite.  Further moves will depend on the progress towards a trade deal, with the USD likely to be pressured should it become clearer that a deal is likely to be signed and vice-versa.  US retail sales data will also have some impact in the short term, but with the Fed on pause and US data holding up the USD the will be driven by driven by the gyrations in risk assets.

US-China Trade Talk Hopes Begin To Fade

Attention this week will be very much centered on a few key events, most prominent of which is US-China trade talks scheduled to begin on Thursday in Washington.   A speech by Fed Chair Powell at the annual NABE conference tomorrow and Fed FOMC minutes  will also garner plenty of attention for clues to the Fed FOMC meeting at the end of this month.   In the UK, as the end October deadline approaches attention turns to whether Prime Minister Johnson can seal a deal with European officials.

Starting with US-China trade talks, reports (Bloomberg) today suggest that China is unwilling to agree to a comprehensive trade deal with the Trump administration.   The report states that senior Chinese officials have indicated that the range of topics they are willing to discuss has narrowed considerably.  The implication is that major structural issues such as intellectual property theft, technology transfers, state subsidies, and other issues are off the table, limiting the scope of any agreement emerging from meetings this week.   Markets have unsurprisingly reacted negatively to the reports.

If China is indeed unwilling to enter into a broader trade discussion, prospects for even an interim trade deal look slim especially considering that US officials were last week talking down the prospects of a narrow deal.  Markets have been pinning their hopes on some progress on trade talks and any failure to advance talks this week will cast a heavy shadow over markets in the days ahead.

Separately European leaders appear to have poured cold water on the UK government’s proposals for a deal to end the Brexit impasse.  The main sticking point is the removal of the Irish backstop and proposal to implement a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  If no deal is reached an extension seems likely given the passage of the Benn Act, which requires the PM to ask the EU for a delay if parliamentary approval has not been given to a withdrawal agreement or a no deal exit.  Nonetheless, Johnson continues to warn the EU that he will take the UK out of Europe at the end of October. The uncertainty is unsurprisingly once again hurting the pound.

In  the US the release of US September CPI, speech by Fed Chair Powell and FOMC minutes will provide further clues to the Fed’s thinking ahead of the FOMC meeting this month.  Market pricing for an October rate cut increased in the wake of a recent run of weaker data (especially the September ISM surveys, which weakened) though the September jobs report (non farm payrolls increased by 136k while the unemployment rate fell to a record low of 3.5%) released at the end of last week did not provide further ammunition for those expecting a more aggressive Fed rate cut.  A 25bp cut sees likely at the October meeting.

 

 

Bumpy Ride Ahead

Just as it looked as though there was some hope of stabilisation in global economic conditions, the September US ISM (Institute of Supply Management) Index released on Monday was not only weak but it was a lot worse than expected at 47.8 (below 50 means contraction).  Markets clearly took fright, with the sell off in stocks intensifying yesterday in the wake of the US ADP jobs report for September, which recorded an increase of 135k jobs by private sector employers, its weakest reading in three months.

This all sets up for a nervous wait ahead of tomorrow’s September jobs report in which markets will be on the look out for any slowing in nonfarm payrolls and/or increase in the unemployment rate.  The consensus expectation is for a 148k increase in payrolls in September and for the unemployment rate to remain at 3.7%, but risks of a weaker outcome have grown.  The US dollar has also come under pressure as US economic risks increase.

Rising geopolitical risks are adding to the market malaise, with the impeachment enquiry into President Trump intensifying and risks of a hard Brexit in the UK remaining elevated.  On the latte front UK Prime Minister Johnson published his plans for a Brexit strategy yesterday replacing Theresa May’s “backstop” plan with two new borders for Northern Ireland.

If the proposal isn’t agreed with the EU, there is a strong chance that Johnson will be forced to seek another extension to Article 50 from the end of October, prolonging the three and a half years of uncertainty that the UK has gone through.  GBP didn’t react much to the new plan, and surprisingly did not fall despite the sharp sell off in UK equities yesterday, with the FTSE falling by over 3%.

The fact that the US has now been given the green light to impose tariffs on EU goods after the EU lost a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling adds a further dimension to the trade war engulfing economies globally.  The US administration will now move ahead to impose 25% tariffs on a range of imports from the EU, with the tariffs implementation likely to compound global growth fears.  If the EU wins a similar case early next year, expect to see an onslaught of EU tariffs on EU imports of US goods.

This is taking place just as hopes of progress in trade talks between the US and China in talks scheduled for next week have grown.  But even these talks are unlikely to be smooth given the array of structural issues that remain unresolved including technology transfers, Chinese state subsidies, accusations of IP theft, etc.  Additionally, the fact that the US administration has reportedly discussed adding financial restrictions on Chinese access to US capital suggests another front in the trade way may be about to open up.

The bottom line is that there is a host of factors weighing on markets at present and adding to global uncertainty, none of which are likely to go away soon.  Now that fears about the US economy are also intensifying suggests that there is nowhere to hide in the current malaise, implying that risk assets are in for a bumpy ride in the weeks ahead while market volatility is likely to increase.

 

 

 

 

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