Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

Setting Up For A More Volatile Q4

After a disappointing September for risk assets, markets at least found some relief at the end of last week, with the S&P 500 ending up over a 1% while US Treasury yields fell and the US dollar also lost ground.  However, sentiment in Asia to kick of the week has been poor, with Evergrande concerns coming back to the forefront.

There was positive news on the US data front, with the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index surprising to the upside in September, rising modestly to 61.1 from an already strong level at 59.9 in August (consensus: 59.5) though the details were less positive.  In particular, the rise in supplier delivery times and prices paid reflects a re-emergence of supply chain issues. 

Separately, the infrastructure can was kicked down the road as infighting within the Democratic party on the passage of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and larger $3.5tn package, led to a further delay of up to one more month. It is likely that the eventual size of the proposed $3.5tn spending plan will end up being smaller, but there still seems to be some distance between the progressives in the Democratic party want and what the moderates want. Separately, the debt ceiling issue is likely to go down to the wire too.

China’s Evergrande remains in focus, with the company reportedly suspended from trading in Hong Kong pending “information on a major transaction”. According to China’s Cailian news platform another developer plans to acquire a 51% stake in the property services unit. The sale is likely a further step towards restructuring the entity and preventing a wider contagion to China’s property sector and economy.

Over the rest of the week attention will turn to the US September jobs report, which will as usual likely be closely eyed by Federal Reserve policymakers.   A pickup in hiring relative to the 235,000 rise in August is expected, with the consensus looking for a 470,000 increase. It would likely take a very poor outcome to derail the Federal Reserve’s tapering plans in my view.  

Several central banks including in Australia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), Poland (Wed) and India (Fri) will deliberate on policy.  Among these the most eventful will likely be the RBNZ, with a 25 basis points rate hike likely while the others are all set to remain on hold.  Other data includes the European Central bank (ECB) meeting accounts of the September meeting (Thu), US ISM Sep services index (Tue) and Turkey September CPI (today). 

Overall, going into the fourth quarter investors will have to contend with host of concerns including weakening global activity especially in the US and China, supply chain pressures, persistent inflation risks, Evergrande contagion and related China property developer woes, China’s regulatory crackdown, raising the debt ceiling, difficulties in passing the US infrastructure bills, Fed tapering, and ongoing COVID concerns.  This may set up for a much rockier and more volatile quarter ahead for markets especially amid a growing wave of more hawkish G10 central banks.

Inflation Angst

US equities fell for a fifth straight day on Friday enduring their worst week since June.  Asian markets faced a tough start to the week after US losses and amid further Chinese regulatory measures, with Alipay in focus as regulators are reportedly (FT) looking to break it up while the Biden administration is reported to be looking at starting a new probe into Chinese industrial subsidies.  Worries about the persistent impact of the Delta variant on the services and tourism sector globally are adding to the sense of malaise in markets. 

Data wise, US Aug Producer Price Index (PPI) data dented confidence following a bigger than expected 0.7% m/m, 8.3% y/y increase, with yet more evidence of the impact of supply pressures impacting the data even as the core measure slowed.  It is worth noting that China’s outsized increase in PPI inflation in August released last week sent a similar message.  Such fears may have been attributable to the move in bonds, with US Treasury yields rising on Friday, giving back the gains in the wake of the strong 30- year auction, despite the fall in equities. 

Following the US PPI, there will be a number of other releases this week which could potentially add to nervousness over lingering inflation pressures.  The plethora of inflation data kicks off with India’s August consumer price index (CPI) today for which a 5.6% y/y increase is expected, a level which will likely continue to make India’s central bank (RBI) uncomfortable.  US August CPI scheduled for tomorrow is likely to show another strong rise in food and energy prices though core CPI likely rose at its slowest pace since February.  Canada August CPI (Wed) is likely to drift higher while UK August inflation (Wed) is likely to reveal a jump after a sharp decline last month.  On balance, the inflation releases this week will do little to calm market’s inflation fears.

Other key data this week will likely show weakening activity.  The slate includes US August retail sales (Thu). The data is likely to add to evidence that the boost to goods spending in the US from fiscal stimulus has peaked.  China activity data including August retail sales and industrial production (Wed) will likely show further moderation especially to retail sales which was likely impacted by lockdowns in various provinces.  Australia employment data (Thu) is likely to have revealed a decline while NZ GDP (Thu) is likely to show firmer economic momentum than the RBNZ’s forecast.

US Dollar On Top – All Eyes On Jackson Hole

Although risk assets rallied at the end of last week, weaker than expected US July retail sales data and China’s July data slate including industrial production and retail sales, helped to intensify growth concerns.  As it is, many indicators are showing that we are past peak growth. US economic surprises are becoming increasingly negative as reflected in the Citi US economic surprise index, which has fallen to its lowest level since May 2020.  Combined with intensifying Delta virus concerns, worsening supply chain pressures and sharply rising freight rates as reflected in the spike in the Baltic Dry Index to its highest since June 2008, it has led to a marked worsening in investor risk appetite.  This has been compounded by China’s regulatory crackdown and rising geopolitical risks in Afghanistan

The US dollar has been a key beneficiary while safe haven demand for Treasuries has increased and commodity prices have come under growing pressure.  Equity markets wobbled last week after a prolonged run up though the pull back in the S&P 500 looked like a healthy correction rather than anything more sinister at this stage.  The moves in the USD have been sharp, with the USD index (DXY) rising to its highest since November 2020 and EURUSD on its way to testing the 1.16 low.  Some Asian currency pairs broke key levels on Friday, with USDCNH breaking through 6.50.  Safe haven currencies such as CHF and JPY are holding up much better, highlighting that USD demand against other currencies is largely due to a rise in risk aversion while currencies such as CAD appear to be pressured by weakening commodity prices.  

This week attention will turn to the Jackson Hole Symposium (Fri) where markets will look for clues to the contours of Fed tapering.  Fed chair Powell is likely to repeat the message from the July minutes, with QE tapering likely by year-end if the labour data continue to strengthen.  Markets will be on the lookout for any further clues on the timing and shape of tapering. Separately the US July Core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report is likely to show a high 3.6% y/y increase though this is unlikely to change the Fed’s perspective on transitory inflation pressures.  Monetary policy decisions in Hungary (Tue) and Korea (Thu) will be in focus, with the former likely to hike by 30bps and the latter on hold, albeit in a close decision.  Ongoing US budget talks and European Central Bank minutes (Thu) will also be in focus. Finally, closer to home New Zealand (Tue) and Australia (Fri) retail sales reports are in focus. 

%d bloggers like this: