India’s Covid Worsening, Central Banks and US Data

A number of holidays this week points to quieter week for markets.  However, as I note below, there are still a number of risk events on the horizon. 

A growing focus is the divergent trend in the path of Covid in emerging markets and in developed economies, with the former especially in some parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, seeing a significant worsening, which will likely result in delayed recoveries and lead to some EM asset market underperformance. 

India’s Covid situation worsens dramatically

As all the headlines show, India’s Covid situation has become particularly dire though a lack of large-scale lockdowns has led to only a limited mark down in growth forecasts there even as risks intensify.  Already there has been a political cost, with Indian PM Modi’s BJP party losing a key state election in West Bengal and losing ground in other state elections.  Virus cases are still on the rise and sadly the picture will worsen before there are any signs of improvement.  

Covid cases in India have been trending higher since February and hit record highs this weekend, above 400,000. The number of cases is approaching 20 million, with over 215k deaths, while the country has administered 157.2 million vaccine doses.  However, at the current rate of vaccination of 2.26 million per day, it will take 2.2 years to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine. 

US dollar consolidating

After losing ground in April (the USD index DXY fell close to 3% over the month) the US dollar (USD) looks likely to consolidate this month.  USD positioning has already improved over recent months, suggesting limited scope for short covering.  Seasonal factors are unlikely to be particularly influential this month.  However, I am cognizant that cross asset market volatility has eased significantly, while risk assets are already priced for a lot of good news.  Nonetheless, risk factors are increasingly rising, especially increasing Covid cases in many emerging markets as noted above.  This leaves the market prone to bouts of risk aversion, which could result in some bouts of USD strength amid an overall backdrop of consolidation.

Key data and events

This week is an important one for both data and events.  There are several central bank decisions including in Australia (Tue), Thailand and Poland (Wed), Malaysia, UK, Turkey, and Brazil (Thu).  None of the central banks are expected to change policy settings except Brazil, with the consensus looking for a 75bp hike there.  In the UK, there is uncertainty over the future path of QE and whether the Bank of England extends asset purchases or takes the first steps to bringing asset purchases to an end echoing the Bank of Canada by announcing tapering. 

On the data front, the main highlights include the US ISM surveys (today and Wed), US April jobs report (Fri) and China trade data.  Both the US ISM surveys and payrolls are likely to reveal robust readings.  Fiscal stimulus and easing Covid likely helped to boost US jobs growth in April while the unemployment rate likely fell.  Meanwhile the ISM surveys will likely remain around historical highs for similar reasons.  Overall, the data will continue to paint a picture of strengthening US economic recovery. Meanwhile China trade data is likely to reveal strong exports and imports growth, though much of this will likely be due to base effects.

Sell On Fact

It was a case of buy on rumour, sell on fact at the end of last week, with US equities falling the most in over a week on Friday in the wake of the much anticipated but largely priced in announcement of President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal plan.  While the amount of stimulus is significant the reality is that it will be difficult to pass through Congress even though Democrats will have control of Congress and the Presidency. Something in the region of $1 trillion fiscal stimulus could end up being the price tag that is eventually passed in Congress given Republican opposition to some of the measures in the stimulus plan.  This would likely be followed by a possible $2trn+ plan for infrastrucutre/green spending.

Note that a 60-vote supermajority will be required to pass the fiscal legislation in the Senate, meaning that several Republicans will need to support the bill given the 50/50 Senate split.  Hence, a likely lower than $1.9trn eventual stimulus bill will be what is eventually passed. However, Democrats can pass the spending bill via “reconciliation”, but they would have to remove unrelated measures such as the proposed increase in the minimum wage, which they will unlikely want to do. 

Treasuries and the US dollar (USD) benefited from a worsening in risk sentiment at the end of last week.  USD positioning is at extremely low level, suggesting scope for some short covering. The VIX equity volatility index ticked higher and continues to remain well above its pre-COVID lows.  Given that many key equity gauges were in overbought territory according to their relative strength index (RSIs) some pullback/consolidation could be on the cards though the glut of global liquidity suggests that there is still plenty of money ready to buy on dips.  Yesterday US markets were closed due to the Martin Luther King Holiday, but Canadian and European stocks ended higher and futures point to gains today. 

US data isn’t helping sentiment, with yet more evidence that the economy was under pressure at the end of 2020.  Retail sales fell for a third consecutive month, the New York Empire manufacturing index fell for a fourth consecutive month in January. Lastly, University of Michigan consumer sentiment fell modestly early January.  Market direction today will likely come from the release of China’s December data dump as well as Q4 GDP.  In contrast to weakening US data Chinese data yesterday highlighted that solid recovery was sustained into year end, with GDP beating expectations, rising by 6.5% y/y in Q4 2020.  

The rest of this week is a heavy one for central bank decisions, with China, Malaysia, Canada (Wed), Indonesia, Eurozone, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil (Thu) and Japan (Fri) on tap.  In terms of policy action Malaysia is likely to cut, Turkey will likely tighten but the rest will likely be on hold.   The main event of the week is Joe Biden’s inauguration as 46th President of the US on Wednesday, and attendant risks of renewed unrest.  US Q4 earnings releases will also be in focus in the days ahead, with earnings releases ramping up over coming days.

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.

RBI Governor Patel’s resignation hits India’s markets

Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Patel resigned yesterday in a surprise move.  Patel cited “personal reasons” but it is likely to have much to do with tensions between the government and RBI.  Although it had appeared they had reached a compromise, it appears that Patel didn’t feel that the RBI came out of it well. Patel’s resignation came just ahead of a RBI board meeting on Friday, and has hit India’s markets.

The timing is not good.  Patel’s resignation comes just ahead of the release of five state election results today, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, all having gone to the polls. Exit polls have suggested a weaker showing for PM Modi’s BJP, with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan likely to deliver blows to the BJP.  The outcome of the elections will be scrutinised for clued ahead of next year’s general elections.

Issues such as dealing with non-bank financial companies (NBFCs), implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code and even interest rate setting, have all been under scrutiny over recent months. How to deal with tightening liquidity has been a source of contention, with the government wanting the RBI to do more to ease liquidity and lending conditions. The RBI pushed back against the government’s request for a
higher payout from central bank reserves.

Although the government has not yet announced a replacement to Patel it will clearly be important that whoever it is, will be seen as independent of the government. The RBI under Patel has been seen to be overly hawkish by some and in this respect the government may be able to install someone who is more open to easing both monetary policy and lending constraints.The next steps will be important.

If the government nominates someone to replace Patel who is seen as more susceptible to political influence it could have much further and deeper negative consequences for India’s markets.  If however, the government is seen to nominate someone who can maintain the independence of the RBI it will bode well for confidence in Indian assets.

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