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.

Fed, ECB, UK elections In Focus

An event filled week lies ahead.  Several central bank decisions including the Federal Reserve FOMC (11th Dec), European Central Bank (ECB) (12 Dec) and Swiss National Bank (SNB)  (12 Dec) are on the calendar.  All of these major central banks are likely to leave policy unchanged and the meetings should prove to be uneventful.  Fed Chair Powell is likely to reiterate the Fed’s patient stance, with last Friday’s strong US November job report (payrolls rose 266k) effectively sealing the case for no change in policy at this meeting, even as a Phase 1 trade deal remains elusive.

Similarly recently firmer data in Europe have pushed back expectations of further ECB easing, though President Lagarde is likely to sound cautious highlighting her desire to maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance.  The picture is rather different for emerging market central banks this week, with policy easing likely from Turkey (12 Dec), Russia (13 Dec) and Brazil (12 Dec) while Philippines (12 Dec) is likely to keep policy unchanged.

UK general elections on Thursday will be closely watched, with GBP already having rallied above 1.30 vs USD as polls show a strong lead for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.  The main question is whether Johnson will have gained enough of a share of the vote to gain a majority, allowing him to push ahead with his Brexit plans, with Parliament voting to leave the European Union by Jan 31.

Polls may not be as accurate as assumed in the past given surprises over recent years including the Brexit vote itself, but the wide margin between the two parties highlights the relatively stronger position of the Conservatives going into the election.  Nonetheless, given that a lot is in the price already, the bigger (negative) reaction in GBP could come from a hung parliament or Labour win.

This week is also crunch time for a decision on the threatened December 15 tariffs on China.  As previously noted there is little sign of any deal on any Phase 1 trade deal.  It appears that issues such as the amount of purchases of US goods by China remain unresolved.  Recent comments by President Trump suggest that he is prepared to delay a deal even as far as past the US elections in November 2020.

Whether this is tactic to force China to agree on a deal or a real desire not to rush a deal is difficult to determine, but it seems as though Phase 1 will deal will not be signed this year given the limited time to do so.  December 15 tariffs could be delayed but this is also not guaranteed.  President Trump’s attention will also partly be on the potential for an impeachement vote in the House this week.

Looking At Central Banks For Direction

This week feels as though its one where markets have gone into limbo waiting for developments on the trade war front, and for direction from central bankers.  So far there has been no indication that a date or even location has been set to finalise details of a Phase 1 deal between the US and China.  While officials on both sides suggest that progress is being made, markets are left wondering if a deal will even be signed this side of the new year.  Despite such uncertainty there does not seem to be too much angst in markets yet, and if anything, risk assets including equities look rather resilient.

Central bankers and central bank minutes will garner plenty of attention over coming days.   Overall it looks as though major central banks led by the Fed are moving into a wait and see mode and this means less direction from these central banks to markets over the next few weeks and likely into year end.

Fed FOMC minutes this week will give more information on the Fed’s thinking when it eased policy in October, and markets will be looking for clues as to what will make them ease again.  In his recent Congressional testimony Fed Chair Powell highlighted that he sees little need to ease policy at the December meeting, strongly suggesting no more easing from the Fed this year.

Reserve Bank of Australia minutes overnight highlighted that the Bank will also now wait to assess past monetary easing measures before cutting rates again while still holding the door open to further cuts if necessary.  While the RBA noted that a case could have been made for easing this month, it doesn’t appear that they are in a rush to move again, with easing now becoming more likely next year than in December.

Another central bank in focus is the ECB, with ECB President Lagarde delivering the keynote address at the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt.  This will be an opportunity for markets to see whether her views are in line with previous ECB President Draghi and also to see how she reacts to criticism of the ECB’s decision from outside and within the governing council, to ease policy further at the September meeting, when it cut the deposit rate to -0.5% and restarted asset purchases.

Another central bank in focus over coming days includes the PBoC in China.  The PBoC cuts its 7-day reverse repo rate by 5bps this week, the first decline in this rate since 2015 in an attempt to lower funding cots to banks.  While the move is small the direction of travel is clearly for lower rates and this is likely to be echoed in the release of the new Loan Prime Rate tomorrow, which could also reveal a small 5bps reduction.  China is likely to maintain this path of incremental easing in the weeks ahead.

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.

Brexit Developments Sharply In Focus

Two major market risks have been sidelined, though admittedly not taken off the table.  Firstly the prospects of an intensification of the US-China trade war appears to have diminished and secondly the risks of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal have lessened.  This presents a calmer and less volatile backdrop for markets even as global growth continues to remain under pressure.  Separately markets are hoping and expecting for some icing on the cake in the form of Fed easing later this month. As long as US Q3 earnings are not too bad, this suggests a period of calm ahead.

US-China trade developments are likely to take a back seat in the run up to the APEC meeting on 16-17 November in Chile where a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal may be signed by both US and Chinese leaders.  Talks rumbling in the background appear to progressing well, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Trade Representative Lighthizer scheduled to speak to China’s Vice Premier Liu He this week by phone.  Markets will carefully eye what the prospects are for a delay of the $156bn of US tariffs on China that are due to take effect on December 15.

Brexit developments will move sharply back into focus today, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to make a fresh attempt at passing a ‘meaningful vote’ today or gaining a majority in a vote on legislation implementing the deal tomorrow.  This follows having to jettison a vote on Saturday and being forced to write to the EU requesting a three-month delay to the Article 50 exit process.  The government thinks it has the number of votes necessary to pass the vote and the fact that GBP has only lost a little ground today (at the time of writing) suggests that markets think the chances are high.

Other than this, the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday will garner attention although President Draghi is unlikely to offer any further changes in policy, having come under criticism from hawks in the ECB governing council who opposed the renewed bond buying from the ECB.  Expect Draghi to maintain a dovish stance at this meeting.  Other central banks in focus this week include Norway, Sweden, Turkey and Indonesia.  The former two are likely to leave policy unchanged while both Turkey and Indonesia are likely to ease policy.

 

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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