US/China Tensions Escalate

Risk appetite starts the week in poor form. The shock announcement of 5% tariffs on all Mexican exports (from June 10) to the US and an intensification of tensions with China, have fuelled growing expectations of a worsening in the global growth outlook. Safe haven assets such as JPY and CHF are likely to remain in demand while core bond yields are likely to continue to move lower, with markets continuing to raise bets on Fed rate cuts this year.  Indeed the 10y US Treasury yield has dropped by 1.1% since 8 November last year, with the fall in yields accelerating over recent weeks.

US/China tensions escalated over the weekend, with the deputy head of China’s negotiating team, Wang Shouwen, accusing the US of “resorting to intimidation and coercion”.  This coincides with the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods coming into effect over the weekend as Chinese shipments reached US shores, while earlier on Saturday Chinese tariffs on $60bn of US exports came into effect.  There is also growing speculation that China may curb exports of rare earth exports to the US.

Wang accused the US of abusing export controls and persisting with “exorbitant” demands and insisting on “mandatory requirements that infringe on China’s sovereign affairs”.   Meanwhile China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe, said that China will “fight to the end” on trade if needed.  China is also starting to investigate foreign companies who have violated Chinese law.  Soon after Chinese state media reported that the government was investigating FedEx for allegedly “undermining the legitimate rights and interest” of its Chinese clients.

Attention this week will be on several central bank decisions including the ECB (6th June), RBA (4th June) and RBI (6th June).  The market is fully priced in for an RBA rate cut to 1.25% this week.  The ECB is unlikely to surprise, with no change in policy likely.  Attention will be on terms of the TLTRO III while ECB President Draghi is likely to sound dovish in his press conference.  RBI is set to cut policy rates again, with Friday’s release of weaker than expected Q1 GDP adding to pressure on the Reserve Bank to boost growth amid low inflation.

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Brexit – What next?

The drubbing that the main UK political parties (Conservatives and Labour) received in the European elections highlights the increasing polarisation of UK politics.  Both took a fudged view on how to go about Brexit while the remainers including the Lib Dems and the hard brexiters led by the newly formed Brexit Part, garnered most votes.  The outcome sends a clear signal of public frustration and impatience at the lack of progress in leaving the EU three years after the Brexit referendum.

A new leader of the Conservative party will likely steer towards a harder Brexit, but this may not resolve the impasse, something that has already brought down Prime Minister Theresa May.  In any case it is unlikely that the EU will want to renegotiate the terms of the Brexit deal agreed with May just because there is a new leader.  Divisions within the Conservative party itself continue to remain stark.  In the meantime Labour leader Corbyn is under pressure to make a clearer shift towards remaining in the EU.

Parliament meanwhile, has already voted against allowing a hard Brexit, suggesting that it is going to be extremely difficult to deliver a no deal or hard Brexit without fresh general elections.  However, as the European elections have shown, fresh UK general elections would spell doom for both the Conservatives and Labour unless they moved to harder stances on either side of the spectrum.  The Conservatives may not risk such an outcome.

This leaves a second referendum as an increasingly viable option, one which would put the question of remaining or a hard Brexit back to the public and out of the hands of parliament.  Indeed given the lack of alternatives and inability of parliament to move forward on Brexit, this may turn out to be the most prescient option although this runs risks of its own including fuelling demands for a fresh Scottish referendum.

GBP has continued to slide amid a clear lack of progress among politicians to arrive at a viable Brexit strategy and increasing risks of a hard Brexit.  However, if markets see a growing chance of a fresh referendum, GBPUSD could reverse some of its recent losses as remain hopes are rekindled, possibly breaking back above 1.30 at the least.   It is not by any means clear that remainers would win such a referendum, but at least they would have a chance that did not exist previously and that could be sufficient to give GBP a bounce.

Firm China data boosts sentiment

It is turning into a solid start to the week for global equity markets and risk assets in general.  Growth concerns are easing and central banks globally have shelved plans to tighten policy.  Comments over the weekend that finance chiefs and central bank stand ready to “act promptly” to support growth, may also reassure markets. Meanwhile, it appears that the US and China are closing in on a trade deal, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin stating that enforcement mechanisms could work “in both directions”, potentially easing disagreement on of the contentious issues between the two countries.

In terms of data and events, US Q1 earnings, US March retail sales and industrial production, will be in focus this week alongside more Chinese growth data, elections in Indonesia and the second phase of elections in India.  In Europe, flash purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) for April will give some indication of whether there is any turnaround in growth prospects.  The news will not be particularly good on this front, but the surveys may at least show signs of stabilisation, albeit at weak levels.

China data at the end of last week was particularly supportive, with March aggregate financing, money supply and new yuan loans all beating expectations.  The data add to other evidence of a bounce back in activity in March, with the official manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) moving back into expansion territory.   The data comes off a low base after weakness in January and February, but suggests that Chinese monetary and fiscal stimulus is taking effect, with the economy steering towards a soft landing.

Chinese markets clearly like what they see, with equities maintain their strong year to date rally (The CSI Index is up over 34% year to date) and CNY remaining firm (CNY has been the strongest performing Asian currency versus USD so far this year) though China’s bond market will react less well to signs of growth stabilisation.  Chinese data this week including Q1 GDP, March retail sales and industrial production are set to add further evidence of growth stabilisation, helping to keep the positive market momentum alive.

ECB meeting, Brexit, Fed minutes, China trade, India elections in focus

This week there a number of key events to focus attention on including European Central Bank (ECB) policy meeting, Federal Reserve FOMC March minutes, the commencement of India’s general elections, China data, and further Brexit developments as UK Prime Minister May tries to gain a further short extension to the Brexit deadline, until June 30.

The better than expected US March jobs report, revealing a bigger than expected 196k increase in jobs, with a softer than expected 0.1% monthly increase in hourly earnings, which effectively revealed a firm jobs market, without major wage pressures, helped US markets close off the week on a positive note. The data adds to further evidence that the Fed may not need to hike policy rates further.

The European Central Bank decision is likely to prove uneventful though recent comments by ECB President Draghi have fuelled speculation that the central bank will introduce a tiered deposit system to alleviate the impact of negative rates on banks.   EUR is unlikely to benefit from this.  Separately Fed FOMC minutes will be scrutinised to ascertain how dovish the Fed has become as the markets shift towards pricing in rate cuts, but it is unlikely that the minutes provide further fuel to interest rate doves.

Friday is the deadline to agree on an extension with the EU to prevent a hard Brexit.  Meanwhile PM May is set to restart talks with opposition Labour Party leader Corbyn to thrash out a cross party agreement on Brexit terms ahead of an EU summit on Wednesday that will look at her request for a Brexit extension until June 30.  GBP has lost momentum lately and investors appear to be fatigued with the daily Brexit news gyrations.

Meanwhile, US-China trade talks appear to be edging towards some sort of a deal while Chinese data this week is also likely to be supportive for risk assets.   As China eases financing conditions, evidence of a pick up in the credit impulse will be evident in March aggregate financing, new loans and money supply data this week.   Meanwhile China’s March trade data is likely to look better or at least less negative than over recent months. This suggests that risk assets will likely fare well this week.

India will be in the spotlight as India’s multi stage elections kick off on Thursday.  Prime Minister Modi is in good stead to ahead of elections, boosted by his government’s reaction to recent terrorist attacks on Indian paramilitary in Kashmir.   Concerns that Modi’s ruling BJP would lose a significant amount of seats in the wake of state election losses towards the end of last year have receded.  Nonetheless, election uncertainties may keep the INR on the backfoot this week.

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

Ukraine fallout

So far most of the damage from the escalating crisis in the Ukraine and growing tensions between the West and Russia has been inflicted on Russian markets but global asset markets are also feeling increasing pain from the fallout. The most recent developments highlight that tensions have worsened further.

Equity markets in Europe were next in line for selling pressure, with sharp declines registered while US stock also dropped, but to a lesser degree. Commodity prices have also felt the shock, with European natural gas prices rising sharply and oil also higher. Gold has been a major beneficiary extending gains to around USD 1350.

US Treasury yields settled around 2.6% while the USD bounced as risk aversion spiked. My Risk Aversion Barometer rose over 3% while the VIX “fear gauge” jumped. Asian markets are likely to feel some pressure today although the impact is likely to be much less significant than elsewhere. Nonetheless, the lack of first tier data releases means that most attention will be focussed on developments in Ukraine over today’s trading session.

USD buoyant

After finally returning from a two week trip visiting clients across North America it appears that the USD continues to remain in buoyant mood. I have been highlighting the prospects for a stronger USD against major currencies for some time and this has been borne out by the strong USD performance since early February.

Despite a lackluster performance for US stocks overnight overall sentiment remains largely upbeat as reflected by the fact that my risk barometer has breached its lower threshold and has moved into risk loving territory. Similarly the VIX fear gauge is trading at multi year lows although it did move higher overnight.

The sharp drop in UK industrial production and a warning by the Bundesbank’s Weidmann that the Eurozone crisis was not over added a dose of caution to the market. On a more positive note the Baltic Dry Index is at its highest level so far this year, sending a positive signal for global growth expectations.

While there is still much wrangling in the US over budget proposals, and in Europe, Italian political uncertainty continues, markets remain focused on the positives of improving growth against the background of highly accommodative monetary policies. Nonetheless, the divergence between the US and Europe in terms of growth is set to continue. A likely bigger than forecast increase in US February retail sales in contrast to a bigger than forecast fall in Eurozone industrial production in January will attest to this.

EUR/USD has managed to garner a semblance of stability over recent days, with the currency pair finding it difficult to sustain any decline below the psychologically important 1.3000 level. The drop in EUR/USD over much of February has been more aggressive than implied by the performance of Eurozone peripheral bonds but this is no surprise given that this is not the biggest influence on the currency.

Instead the explanation for the EUR decline is found when viewing the move in US 2 year Treasury yields relative to 2 year bunds. The strong correlation with EUR/USD highlights this relationship, reflecting the impact of lower bund yields and higher Treasury yields. The EUR’s stability over recent days is therefore a function of a slight drop in the US yield advantage.

Given that the trend of firmer US data and weaker Eurozone data is set to continue, this stability is likely to be short lived. Our quantitative model suggests EUR/USD may rally in the short term but we suggest selling into it.

GBP/USD’s decline has continued unabated and there appear to be little to stand in the way of further weakness apart perhaps from the fact that a lot of bad news is priced in. Sentiment for GBP has clearly deteriorated as reflected in the CFTC IMM data revealing four straight weeks of negative positioning. The deviation with the 3 month average positioning has widened significantly, highlighting the pace of the move but also that the drop is beginning to look excessive.

Nonetheless, the bigger than expected drop in January industrial production data revealed yesterday has helped to compound the negativity towards the currency in the wake of deteriorating economic data and in turn heightened expectations of more BoE quantitative easing. Strong technical support around GBP/USD 1.4767 may hold in the short term but momentum indicators are showing no sign of a slowing in GBP selling pressure.

For GBP bulls (if there any left) there may be more value in looking to eventually re-enter long positions against EUR but we would not rush into this trade. .

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