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.

Nervousness Creeping Back – US dollar firmer

Last week ended on a sour note as concerns over second round virus cases intensified; Apple’s decision to close some US stores in states where cases are escalating added to such concerns. This overshadowed earlier news that China would maintain its commitment to buying US agricultural goods.  Although on the whole, equity markets had a positive week there is no doubt that nervousness is creeping back into the market psyche.  Indeed it is notable that the VIX equity volatility “fear gauge” ticked back up and is still at levels higher than seen over most of May.

Economic recovery is continuing, as reflected in less negative data globally, but hopes of a “V” shape recovery continue to look unrealistic.  In this respect the battle between fundamentals and liquidity continues to rage.  Economic data has clearly turned around, but the pace of improvement is proving gradual.  For example, last week’s US jobless claims data continued to trend lower, but at a slower pace than hoped for.  A second round of virus cases in several US states including Florida, Arizona and the Carolinas also suggest that while renewed lockdowns are unlikely, a return to normality will be a very slow process, with social distancing measures likely to remain in place.  Geopolitical tensions add another layer of tension for markets.  Whether its tensions between US/China, North/South Korea, India/China or the many other hot spots globally, geopolitical risks to markets are rising.

The USD has benefitted from increased market nervousness, and from US data outperformance, with US data surprises (according to the Citi economic surprise index) at around the highest on record.  JPY has bucked the trend amid higher risk aversion as it has regained some of its safe haven status. GBP was badly beaten last week selling off from technically overbought levels, amid fresh economic concerns and a dawning reality that a Brexit trade deal with the EU may be unreachable by year end.  EUR looks as though it is increasingly joining the club on its way down. Asian currencies with the highest sensitivities to USD gyrations such as KRW are most vulnerable to further USD upside in Asia.

Data highlights this week include the May US PCE Report (Fri) which is likely to reveal a bounce in personal spending, Eurozone flash June purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Tue) which are likely to record broad increases, European Central Bank meeting minutes (Thu), which are likely to reflect a dovish stance, and several central bank decisions including Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), New Zealand (Wed),  Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu).   The room for central banks to ease policy is reducing but Turkey, Philippines and Mexico are likely to cut policy rates this week.

 

 

Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

Revoking Hong Kong’s Special Status – Data/Events This Week.

In a further escalation of US-China tensions, President Trump revoked Hong Kong’s (HK) “Special Status” as revealed in a speech on Friday.  What does this mean? At this stage there is scant detail to go on.  Trump also promised to implement sanctions against individuals in China and HK who he deems responsible for eroding HK’s autonomy, but no names were given. Markets reacted with relief, with US equities closing higher on Friday, perhaps in relief that that the measures outlined by Trump were not more severe, or that the lack of detail meant that there could be various exemptions.

On the face of it, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” would deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s economy and to US companies there, while hurting China’s economy too.  However, while still an important financial centre, Hong Kong’s economy relative to China is far smaller than it was at the time of the handover in 1997, at around 3%.   As such, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” could be less painful on China than it would have been in the past.  This may explain why the US administration is focusing on other measures such as student visa restrictions, sanctioning individuals, restricting investment etc.  Even so, tensions will continue to cast a shadow over markets for some time to come and will likely heat up ahead of US elections in November.

Data wise, the week began with the release of China’s May manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing manager’s indices (PMIs) today.  The data revealed a slight softening in the manufacturing PMI to 50.6 in May from 50.8 in April, indicating that manufacturing activity continues to remain in expansion.  However, the trade related components were weak, suggesting that China’s exports and imports outlook is likely to come under growing pressure, weighing on overall recovery.  China’s currency, the renminbi, has been weakening lately against the US dollar and against its peers, though it rallied against the dollar on Friday.  Further gradual weakness in the renminbi looks likely over coming weeks.

This week there will be attention on various data releases and events including US May jobs data, ISM manufacturing, European Central Bank (ECB) and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy decisions and UK-EU Brexit discussions.  Of course markets will remain tuned into Covid-19 developments as economies around the world continue to open up.   While the US jobs and ISM data will likely remain very weak, the silver lining is that the extent of weakness is likely to lessen in the months ahead.  Consensus forecasts predict a massive 8 million drop in US non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate to increase to close to 20%.  The RBA is likely to leave policy unchanged at 0.25% while the ECB is expected to step up its asset purchases. Meanwhile UK-EU Brexit discussions are likely to continue to be fraught with difficulty.

 

 

 

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.

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