Weaker China data and Delta Concerns

The same old discussion continues to afflict equity investors as lofty valuations balance against a wall of liquidity.  So far liquidity is winning out as US equity indices are trading around record highs despite a surprise 13.5% plunge in August US consumer confidence released last Friday, which marked one of the largest declines ever in the University of Michigan series. In fact confidence fell to a level even below the COVID low, likely due to Delta variant concerns. 

The confidence data fuelled a bull flattening in US Treasuries and USD sell off.  As reflected in the confidence data, the Delta variant is increasingly threatening recovery and evidence of sharply rising virus cases even in highly vaccinated countries sends a worrying sign of what to expect going forward. 

Geopolitics will be in focus after the Taliban effectively took over Afghanistan after marching into Kabul yesterday.  This will have major repercussions in South Asia and the rest of the region.  Separately, Canada’s PM Trudeau has called a snap election on Sep 20 while Malaysia’s PM Yassin has resigned today.  Geopolitics, weak US confidence data, China’s regulatory crackdown and ongoing Delta variant concerns, with Philippines and Thailand registering record virus cases in Asia led to a cautious start to the week for Asia. 

Further direction came from China’s July data slate released today.  The data revealed weaker than expected outcomes across the board, with industrial production and retail sales alongside other data revealing further softening.  The releases provided more evidence that Chinese consumer caution has intensified in the wake of targeted lockdown measures in several provinces while industrial activity is being hampered by supply constraints and weakening demand for exports.

The Chinese data will likely provide more support to expectations of further easing in liquidity from the central bank (PBOC) and even policy rate cuts. Separately, China’s regulatory crackdown has extended further, weighing on Chinese and regional assets, but there is little sign that officials are looking to step back.   More broadly, weaker Chinese data will likely contribute to a near term tone of risk aversion afflicting global market sentiment amidst worsening Delta variant concerns, rising growth worries and geopolitical risks.

Over the rest of the week Fed FOMC minutes (Wed), in particular views on the shape of quantitative easing tapering, as well as central bank decisions in New Zealand (Wed), Indonesia (Thu) and Norway (Thu) are in focus.  The RBNZ is likely to be the most eventful among these, with a 25bp hike in its policy rate (OCR) expected amid firming data and rising inflation pressures.  Key data this week includes US July retail sales (Tue), with falls in both the headline and control group readings likely as the boost to spending from stimulus and reopening fades. 

What Could Prompt Higher Volatility?

Equities were buoyed last week in the wake of US President Biden’s infrastructure deal and renewed reflation trade optimism amid mixed post Federal Reserve FOMC messages from Fed officials. This resulted in US stocks recording their biggest weekly gain since February.  The prospects of passing the infrastructure deal has improved in the wake of Biden’s decision not to tie it to a much larger spending package that is being pushed through by Democrats but is not supported by Republicans. 

Given heightened sensitivity over inflation, the slightly weaker than expected US Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data on Friday, which increased 0.5% m/m in May, slightly below the 0.6% consensus, added further support to the reflation trade, helping the US Treasury curve to steepen.  Moreover, the University of Michigan 5-10y inflation expectations series came in lower in June compared to the previous month. Fed officials likely put much more emphasis on this long-term series and will view the 2.8% reading as consistent with their “largely transitory” take on the pickup in inflation.

Cross-asset volatility has continued to decline, which bodes well for carry trades and risk assets.  For example, the VIX “fear gauge” index has dropped to pre-COVID level, something that has been echoed in other market volatility measures.  However, it’s hard to ignore the shift in tone from many central banks globally to a more hawkish one while risk asset momentum will likely wane as the strength of recovery slows, suggesting that low volatility may not persist.  It is notable that changes in global excess liquidity and China’s credit impulse have both weakened, implying a downdraft for risk assets and commodity prices and higher volatility. 

If there is anything that could prompt any increase in volatility this week, its the US June jobs report on Friday.  June likely saw another strong (consensus 700k) increase in nonfarm payrolls while the unemployment rate likely dropped to 5.7% from 5.8% previously.  Despite the likely strong gain in hiring, payrolls would still be close to 7 million lower compared to pre-COVID levels, suggesting a long way to go before the US jobs market normalises. The June US Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index will also come under scrutiny though little change is expected from the May reading, with a 61.0 outcome likely from 61.2 in May. 

Other data and events of importance this week include the 100th year anniversary of China’s Communist Party (Thu), the release of purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally including China’s official NBS PMI (Wed) for which a slight moderation is expected.  Eurozone June CPI inflation (Wed) which is likely to edge lower, Sweden’s Riksbank policy decision (Thu) where an unchanged outcome is likely and Bank of England (BoE) Governor Bailey’s Mansion House Speech (Thu), will be among the other key events in focus this week. 

Lingering Disappointment

Another soft close to US stock markets at the end of last week sets up for a nervous start to the week ahead.  The S&P 500 has now declined for a third straight week, with tech stocks leading the way lower as more froth is blown way from the multi-month run up in these stocks.  Lingering disappointment in the wake of the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting is one factor that has weighed on risk assets.  More details on how the Fed plans to implement its new policy on average inflation targeting will be sought. Markets will also look to see whether the Fed is pondering any changes to its Quantitative Easing program. This week Fed officials will get the opportunity to elaborate on their views, with several Fed speeches in the pipeline including three appearances by Fed Chair Powell. 

Disappointment on monetary policy can be matched with a lack of progress on the fiscal front, with hopes of an agreement on Phase 4 fiscal stimulus ahead of US elections fading rapidly.  A loss of momentum in US economic activity as reflected in the NY Fed’s weekly economic index and declining positive data surprises as reflected in the Citi Economic Surprise Index, are beginning to show that the need for fresh stimulus is growing.  On the political front, the situation has become even more tense ahead of elections; following the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attention this week will focus on President Trump’s pick to replace her, adding another twist to the battle between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the election.    

Another major focal point ahead of elections is US-China tensions, which continue to simmer away. China’s economy and currency continue to outperform even as tensions mount.  August’s slate of Chinese data were upbeat and China’s currency (CNY) is increasingly reflecting positive economic momentum, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index rising to multi week highs.  There is every chance that tensions will only get worse ahead of US elections, likely as the US maintains a tough approach in the weeks ahead but so far Chinese and Asian markets in general are not reacting too much.  This may change if as is likely, tensions worsen further. 

After last week’s heavy slate of central bank meetings, this week is also going to see many central banks deliberate on monetary policy.  The week kicks off with China’s Loan Prime Rate announcement (Mon), followed by policy decisions in Hungary and Sweden (both Tue), New Zealand, Thailand, Norway (all on Wed), and Turkey (Thu).  Markets expect all of the central banks above to keep policy unchanged as was the case with the many central banks announcing policy decisions last week.  The lack of central bank action adds further evidence that 1) growth is starting to improve in many countries and 2) the limits of conventional policy are being reached.  While renewed rounds of virus infections threaten the recovery process much of the onus on policy action is now on the fiscal front. 

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.

US-China Trade War: The Gloves Are Off

The US-China trade war took another step for the worse over the weekend. China announced tariffs on the US of between 5- 10% on $75bn of US imports from September.  Chinese tariffs target 5,078 products including agriculture and small aircraft as well as crude oil. The US responded by increasing its tariffs on $250bn of Chinese imports from 25% to 30% while increasing duties from 10% to 15% on $300bn of Chinese imports to the US from September 1.   President Trump initially said he had “second thoughts” on additional tariffs, but these were clarified to state that “he regrets not raising the tariffs higher”.

The gloves are off on both sides. As indicated by the editorial in China’s People’s Daily states that China will fight the trade war to the end while influential Chinese journalist Hu Xijin said that “we have nothing more to lose, while the US is starting to lose China”, highlights China’s tougher stance.  Meanwhile President Trump is looking at the “Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977” in forcing US companies to quit China.

Asia’s markets have responded in pain, with stocks and currencies falling while safe havens such as US Treasuries have been in demand.  Indeed the 10-year US Treasury yield has fallen to a three-year low.  Markets have priced in even further easing by the Fed FOMC, with almost three rate cuts by the PBoC discounted in by the end of this year.  Equity futures point to a weak opening in US equities today.

One casualty is the Chinese yuan, which took another leg lower today, having fallen by close to 7% since mid-April.  Further pressure on the yuan is likely, but China may not be too concerned as long as the pace of weakness does not get out of hand. China may try to control the pace of the decline to prevent a repeat of the FX reserves drain seen in mid-2015 and Jan 2016. At the least yuan depreciation will act as a buffer for Chinese exporters against increased US tariffs.  However, expect further yuan depreciation to be met with increased criticism and perhaps more US action, with the US already having labeled China a currency manipulator.

%d bloggers like this: