Recession vs. Inflation Battle Rages On

The recession vs. inflation battle is increasingly shifting towards the former as reflected in the recent paring back in US Federal Reserve tightening expectations and growing market pricing of rate cuts beginning as soon as early next year.  The weakness in the US July Services purchasing managers index (PMI) added more weight to this argument.  This week’s second quarter US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data is likely to confirm two quarters of negative growth, which should mean technical recession though in the case of the US, recession is defined by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months”.  Either way, the US economy is on a softer path.

This week is a big one for events and data. The Fed is widely expected to hike US policy rates by 75 basis points tomorrow. Expectations of a bigger 100bps move have been pared back. If the Fed does hike by 75bp it will likely result in interest rates reaching a neutral rate (the theoretical federal funds rate at which the stance of Federal Reserve monetary policy is neither accommodative nor restrictive). At this meeting there will be a lot of focus on the Fed’s forward guidance but in reality the magnitude of hikes at the next FOMC meeting in September will be contingent on key inflation releases and other data, with two inflation reports (10 August and 13 September) to be published ahead of the next Fed meeting.

In Europe there was yet more disappointing economic news this week, with the German July IFO business sentiment survey falling sharply. The data gave a similar message to last week’s weak PMIs, provides yet more evidence that the German economy is falling into recession.   News that Russia has cut gas deliveries to Europe through Nord Stream 1 will only add to such concerns.  After surprising with a 50bp rate hike last week, the ECB arguably faces a bigger problem than the Fed.  At least in the US, the consumer is still quite resilient, with demand holding up well, while in contrast, demand is weak in Europe and the economy is sliding into recession at a time when inflation is around four times higher than target. 

Emerging markets have found some respite from the pull back in the US dollar over recent days, but it is questionable how far the dollar will sustain any pull back.  Increased worries about the US economy and a paring back of Fed tightening expectations could damage the dollar further, but let’s not forget that the Fed is still tightening more rapidly than many other major central banks, which ought to limit any US dollar weakness.  Even so, even if it’s a short-term phenomenon, emerging market currencies and bonds will find some relief from a softer dollar tone for now.  That said, many frontier economies such as in North Africa and South Asia are likely to struggle from higher food and energy prices for some months to come. If the dollar does resume its ascent it will only add to their pain. 

Central Banks Deliver Hawkish Surprises – What Will The Fed Do?

Following a series of more hawkish central bank action recently, 50 basis points (bp) hikes have become the new 25bp.  Several central banks surprised last week including a 100bp hike in Canada, 75bp hike in the Philippines and an inter-meeting tightening in Singapore. 

Meanwhile, while the upward surprise in US June CPI inflation (1.3% m/m) increased the chance of a 100bp hike from the Fed this month the University of Michigan sentiment survey revealed a decline in inflation expectations, with consumer sentiment languishing near all-time lows, dampening expectations of a larger move. 

While a 100bp hike at the 26/27 July FOMC meeting is quite possible after the Fed raised rates by 75bp last month, some Fed officials have dampened expectations of such a large move.  Officials such as Atlanta Fed President Bostic and Kansas City President George, have highlighted the risks that more aggressive rate increases would hurt the economy at a time when recessions risks have intensified. 

As we go into the Fed blackout period, with no Fed speakers ahead of the FOMC meeting and with the key June CPI print out of the way, there will be limited new news for markets to chew on.  Markets have fully priced in a little more than 75bp of Fed tightening this month, which seems reasonable, with a 75bp hike the most likely outcome.

This week has kicked off with another outsize increase in CPI inflation, this time in New Zealand where the Q2 CPI reading came in at 7.3% y/y (consensus. 7.1%, last 6.9%) reinforcing expectations of a 50bp hike by the RBNZ at its August meeting. 

There are several central bank decisions on tap in the euro area, Japan, China, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, and Russia.  The outcomes will differ.  The European Central Bank is primed to hike by a tepid 25bp, with focus on the likely announcement of an anti-fragmentation tool.  Not surprises are expected in Japan (Thu), China (Wed), Indonesia (Thu) and Russia (Fri), with policy likely on hold in all four cases. 

In contrast a 50bp rate hike from the SARB in South Africa (Thu) is likely while Russia is expected to cut policy rates by as much 100bp.   Aside from central bank decisions earnings releases gain momentum this week while Italian politics will remain in focus.  

The US dollar has kicked off this week on a weak footing after ending last week on a softer note. USD positioning remains heavily long though its notable that speculative positioning in the USD index (DXY) has slipped over recent weeks (according to the CFTC IMM data). 

Still stretched positioning and lower yields as markets pull back from aggressive Fed tightening expectations will likely cap the USD in the short term.   However, it’s hard to see the currency losing much ground, with EURUSD parity continuing to act as a magnet.  

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).  

Hawkish Central Banks

It was a soft end to the week for global equities, while the US dollar (USD) rallied further as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  Neither the move in Treasuries or the USD shows any sign of slowing, and if anything, US inflation data will keep the upward pressure on yields and USD intact this week.  Clearly, most currencies, expect notably the Russian rouble are suffering at the hands of a strong USD though Asian currencies have been less pressured of late compared to other currencies. 

The surge in US Treasury yields has been particularly stark and fuelled pressure across many other markets.  The USD (DXY) has been a key beneficiary of the rise in US yields, with the currency propelled to its highest level since May 2020.  USDJPY remains one of the most highly correlated currency pairs to yield differentials and with Japan persisting in its defence of Yield Curve Control (YCC) it looks like USDJPY will continue to move higher, with 130 moving into sight. 

There’s plenty of central bank action this week and much of it likely in a hawkish direction, including in New Zealand (Wed), Canada (Wed), Singapore, Korea, Euro area, and Turkey (all Thu).  Tightening is expected from several of these central banks.  The consensus is expecting a 25-basis point (bp) hike in policy rates in New Zealand, but a significant minority is looking for a 50bp hike

In Korea, the consensus is split between no change and a 25bp hike, with the risks skewed towards the latter amid strong inflation pressures and high household debt, even though the new central bank governor may not be installed at this meeting. Similarly, a hawkish outturn from the Monetary Authority of Singapore is likely, with a steepening, re-centering and possible widening of the Singapore dollar nominal effective exchange rate band expected.  Note that Singapore’s monetary policy is carried out via its exchange rate.

In Canada, a 50bp hike in policy rates is likely, while the Bank may announce balance-sheet run off in a likely hawkish statement in the wake of stronger readings both on the growth and inflation front. Last but not least, the European Central Bank (ECB) may announce an early end to its quantitative easing and prepare markets for rate hikes, possibly as early as June.  In contrast, Turkey is likely to continue to maintain its monetary policy on hold amid some stability in its currency. 

On the data front, US March CPI inflation data will be among the key releases this week.  Another high reading is likely, with the consensus expectation at 8.4% year-on-year, from 7.9% previously.  The data will not make for pleasant reading, with headlines likely to highlight that US inflation is back at over 40- year highs.  While the data will likely keep up the pressure on interest rate markets, I would caution that a lot is in the price.       

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.   

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