Confidence Dives, Markets Shattered

COVID-19 fears have proliferated to such a large extent that confidence is being shaken to the core.   Confidence in markets, policy makers and the system itself is being damaged.  Today’s moves in markets have been dramatic, continuing days and weeks of turmoil, as panic liquidation of risk assets and conversely buying of safe assets, is leading to intense asset market volatility.  Economic fears are running rampant, with the failure of OPEC to agree a deal to prop up oil prices over the weekend adding further fuel to the fire.  Consequently, oil prices dropped a massive 30%, leading to a further dumping of stocks.

When does it end?  Confidence needs to return, but this will not be easy.  Policy makers in some countries seems to have got it right, for example Singapore, where containment is still feasible.  In Italy the government has attempted to put around 16 million people in quarantine given the rapid spread of the virus in the country. However, in many countries the main aim has to be effective mitigation rather than containment.  I am by no means an expert, but some experts predict that as much as 70% of the world’s population could be infected.  Washing hands properly, using hand sanitizers, social distancing and avoiding large gathering, appears to the main advice of specialist at least until a cure is found, which could be some months away.

In the meantime, markets look increasingly shattered and expectations of more aggressive central bank and governmental action is growing.  Indeed, there is already significantly further easing priced into expectations for the Federal Reserve and other major central banks.  This week, the European Central Bank is likely to join the fray, with some form of liquidity support/lending measures likely to be implemented.  Similarly, the Bank of England is set to cut interest rates and implement other measures to support lending and help provide some stability.  The UK government meanwhile, is set to announce a budget that will contain several measures to help support the economy as the virus spreads.

It is also likely that the US government announces more measures this week to help shore up confidence, including a temporary expansion of paid sick leave and help for companies facing disruption.  What will also be focused on is whether there will an increase in number of virus tests being done, given the limited number of tests carried out so far.  These steps will likely be undertaken in addition to the $7.8bn emergency spending bill signed into law at the end of last week.

All of this will be welcome, but whether it will be sufficient to combat the panic and fear spreading globally is by no means clear.  Markets are in free fall and investors are looking for guidance.  Until fear and panic lessen whatever governments and central banks do will be insufficient, but they may eventually help to ease the pain.  In the meantime, at a time of heightened volatility investors will need to batten down the hatches and hope that the sell off abates, but at the least should steer clear of catching falling knives.

Bracing for the worst

There was little progress over the weekend during discussions between US politicians attempting to agree on a budget deal and thus avoiding a partial government shutdown by the end of today. The US Senate is now set to reject a House of Representatives plan to delay President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act while renewing funding for the government until December 15, leaving an ongoing stalemate in discussions.

Markets are bracing for the worst, with risk aversion rising, US equities and the USD falling. Meanwhile US Treasury yields remain capped having dropped sharply since early September. Political shenanigans in the US threaten to overshadow the US September jobs report at the end of the week. Nonetheless, the data will provide major clues to the timing of Fed tapering regardless of the budget/debt discussions.

It’s not just in the US where politics is fuelling market tensions. In Italy former Prime Minister Berlusconi withdrew his party’s support from the coalition government, leaving current Prime Minister Letta scrambling to form a new parliamentary majority in order to avoid snap elections. The impact will likely be felt on Italian and peripheral bond yields over coming days.

Meanwhile following elections in Germany last week coalition discussions to form a new government are ongoing although no deal is in sight yet and talks could go on for some time yet. Political uncertainties are unlikely to alter the European Central Bank’s (ECB) course this week, with an unchanged policy decision expected although benign inflation and weak credit growth will reinforce the need for an easing bias and forward guidance. Political issues are set to dominate markets over coming days, leaving risk aversion elevated and risk assets under generalised pressure.

The USD index lurched lower in the wake of the uncertainties in the US, extending its drop from early September. The near term prospects for the currency are bleak, with limited potential for any upside unless a budget deal is reached. Safe haven currencies in particular the JPY will be buoyed in this environment. The EUR will not fully be able to take advantage of USD weakness however, given the political tensions within the Eurozone.

In terms of high beta emerging market currencies including Asian currencies, any positive impact from the fact that US yields are capped, with 10 year treasury yields dropping sharply recently (higher US yields have been negative for EM currencies over past weeks so a drop will be positive for them) will be outweighed by rising risk aversion, leaving most Asian currencies vulnerable.

Dollar undermined by lower yield

Risk assets in general appear to have gained traction on the basis that central banks will maintain or expand highly accommodative monetary policies via further asset purchases and balance sheet expansion. The Federal Reserve and European Central Bank will likely provide more fuel to the fire this week, with the former set to maintain its policy settings including USD 85 billion in asset purchases while the latter is set to cut its policy refi rate by 25bps to 0.50%.

Weaker data into Q2 in the US (and the softer than expected reading for Q1 GDP annualised 2.5% QoQ pace revealed last Friday) effectively seals the case for maintaining ultra easy policy at least until later in the year when the Fed is set to taper off asset purchases. As for the ECB are mere rate cut may not be sufficient with attention on any prospects for non conventional easing and rebuilding the monetary transmission mechanism.

Weekend news in the Eurozone was positive, with Italy finally forming a government following two months of deadlock but the week should begin quietly with holiday in Japan and China. In any case market activity is set to be limited ahead of central bank policy decisions and the US April jobs report at the end of the week where a 150k increase in payrolls.

As the US Q1 GDP report revealed the impact of the Sequester via massive spending cuts is increasingly biting into growth and while expectations of ongoing monetary accommodation is helping to buoy markets, growth recovery will need to strengthen to justify the current optimism built into markets. At least there is some realisation, finally in the Eurozone, that recovery may need to be reinforced with less austerity.

FX market activity will remain hesitant ahead the key events this week but overall it appears the USD will lose further wind out of its sails especially as US bond yields continue to drop. The US 10 year Treasury yield dropped to is lowest level this year, a factor that has particularly undermined the USD against the JPY where a failure to test the 100 level has also contributed to a drop in the currency pair. A test of USD/JPY 100 is off the cards unless and until US yields rise again. Lower US yields are helping EUR/USD to stay above the 1.3000 level although this is being mitigated by the fact that German 10 year bund yields are also declining.

Risk assets pull back as caution prevails

Risk assets faltered especially in Europe in the wake of renewed political tensions in Italy and Spain. Election uncertainty in the former as former Prime Minister Berlusconi gathers growing support and government corruption allegations in the latter hit equity markets and peripheral bonds.

Consequently the EUR gave back some of its recent gains, with the currency not helped by comments by the French finance minister warning about its strength. EUR/USD downside will be limited to support around 1.3461 in the near term.

Weaker Spanish jobs data did little to help sentiment while service sector confidence indices in the Eurozone today will also provoke further concerns revealing both continued contraction for most countries and divergence in the bigger economies, namely Germany and France. Caution will prevail in the near term as markets begin to question the veracity of the rally in risk assets registered over recent weeks.

AUD has had a fairly erratic start to the year rallying to break 1.06 against the USD but failing to hold gains over recent weeks. The currency has looked a little more stable into February but is still showing little sign of rallying despite the recently firmer risk tone, weaker USD index and firmer Chinese data, all of which would have been supportive for AUD in the past.

Technically AUD/USD looks vulnerable according to the relative strength index (RSI). Moreover, speculative positioning is around the 3 month average suggesting little impetus either way.

The RBA decision today to hold the cash rate unchanged but keep open the door to further rate cuts will inflict more short term pain on AUD but given that the market had already priced in a further rate cut in the cycle any decline in AUD will be limited. A break below the 100 day moving average around 1.0415 will result in a test of support around 1.0381.

Although the AUD is faltering its drop pales into insignificance compared to the sharp decline in JPY over recent weeks. Obviously the drop in the JPY has caused some panic across other currencies, especially in Asia (KRW, TWD, MYR), but this has done little to sway JPY bears. I have some hesitancy in calling the JPY much lower especially as a lot appear to be is in the price (in terms of aggressive policy actions) but technical indicators for both USD/JPY and EUR/JPY remain bullish despite the pull back overnight.

The intensifying hunt for yield means that the JPY will remain on the back foot over coming months but in the short term JPY may find some support from a renewed rise in risk aversion as political tensions in Europe heat up as well as some caution that the risk rally looks overdone. However, speculative positioning is unlikely to get in the way of further JPY declines given that positioning is around the 3-month average and still well above the all time lows reached in June 2007.

Highlights this week

Better than expected Chinese data over the weekend, speculation that Greece is close to reaching its debt buyback target and even some signs of progress in reaching a resolution to avert the fiscal cliff set up risk assets for a generally positive start to the week. Talks between the administration and senior Republicans will continue this week but it appears that some senior Republicans are willing to give up their objections to tax hikes on the very wealthy.

The November US jobs report released at the end of last week which revealed a 146k increase in payrolls and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.7% is likely to have little influence at the turn of the week. The report was met with a muted reaction. While on the face of it the data was better than expected, downward revisions to past months and a surprising lack of impact from Hurricane Sandy left markets somewhat perplexed.

However, not everything is rosy. Last week’s sharp downward growth revisions to Eurozone growth by the European Central Bank (ECB), a plunge in US consumer sentiment and comments from Italian Prime Minister Monti that he intends to resign will cast a shadow over markets, restraining any upside.

Although activity will likely continue to thin as holidays approach there is still plenty too chew on this week. In the US the Fed is set to continue purchasing USD 85 billion of longer dated securities following the end of Operation Twist but this should come as little surprise to the market and therefore will yield little reaction. There will be some encouraging news on the consumer as retail sales bounce back in November.

Across the pond the European Council meeting beginning on Thursday will be in focus, with banking union and bank recapitalisation among the topics up for discussion. Given the hint of monetary easing by the ECB markets will scrutinise upcoming data for the timing but a likely increase in the German ZEW investor confidence survey in December and stabilisation in the Eurozone composite purchasing manager’s index will not prove compelling enough to warrant an imminent rate cut.

Elsewhere in Japan the upcoming elections will mark the highlight of the calendar over the weekend although the weaker than expected Q3 GDP reading this morning (-0.9% QoQ) and expected deterioration in the Tankan survey later in the week will maintain the pressure for more aggressive policy action and a weaker JPY.

EUR took a hit from the ECB’s dovish stance last week and will not take too kindly to the news of Monti’s intended resignation after the fiscal 2013 budget in Italy. EUR/USD 1.2880 still marks a solid support level for the currency.

USD/JPY continues to probe higher but extreme short market positioning will likely limit the ability of the currency pair to push higher. On the topside 83.15 will market strong resistance for the currency pair.

AUD and NZD look generally well supported, with Chinese data over the weekend giving further support although for AUD/USD 1.0519 will continue to act a tough technical barrier to crack.

Bullish INR but other Asian currencies held back

Although the European Central Bank (ECB) left policy rates unchanged the post meeting press conference effectively opened the door to a rate cut in Q1 next year following sharp downward revisions to growth projections and well below target inflation projected over the medium term. A major casualty of the shift in ECB tone was the EUR which dropped over one big figure from a high of around 1.3089. Technical support for EUR/USD is now seen around 1.2885.

The Baltic Dry Index has continued to decline over recent days sending an ominous signal for growth ahead. Meanwhile, once again politics cast a shadow over European markets as Italy’s government overcame a confidence motion, with ex Prime Minister Berlusconi’s PDL party threatening to withdraw support and bring down the government.

Trading is likely to remain thin today as markets await the US November jobs report. The report will undoubtedly be soft (consensus is for an 85k increase in November payrolls) but as much of the weakness in jobs growth will be due to Hurricane Sandy the market impact is likely to be muted leaving a likely constructive tone to risk appetite going into next week.

Asian currencies continue to take direction from the CNY, with the lack of upside traction in this currency leaving most Asian currencies within ranges despite the fact that equity flows to Asia have been very strong over recent days, with inflows of over $2 billion registered this week alone. The implication is that central banks in the region have become increasingly active in preventing Asian currency strength.

One currency that has a limited influence from the CNY is the INR and this currency continues to outperform on reform hopes. The passage through India’s lower house of parliament allowing foreign investment into retailers was encouraging and hopes have grown that it will be followed by passage in the upper house. Further gains in the INR are seen over coming sessions, with a short term break below USD/INR 54.00 looming.

Bernanke and Eurogroup awaited

Two main events will garner most attention this week. These are Fed Chairman Bernanke’s Monetary Policy Report to Congress on Wednesday and the Eurogroup meeting on Friday. Ahead of these events trading is likely to be restrained. While a solid close to US and European equity markets at the end of last week suggest at least a firm start to the week for risk assets the many and varied uncertainties afflicting markets suggest that positive momentum will be very limited. US data should generally outperform compared to Europe this week with June retail sales, July Empire manufacturing, May industrial production and June housing starts are set to post gains. In contrast, the German July ZEW survey is set to decline further.

Wide ranging uncertainties in Europe including the inability to seal the deal on the main elements of the recent EU Summit, downgrade of Italy’s sovereign ratings by Moody’s, uncertainty of Greece’s austerity programme, delay in the German Constitutional Court’s verdict on the ESM bailout fund, the hard line stance of German Chancellor Merkel towards banking supervision, disagreement within France’s majority government on how to ratify the Fiscal Pact as well as objections from the Netherlands and Finland on the use of the rescue funds, highlight just some of the difficulties remaining in turning around confidence in Europe. All of this suggests that the EUR will remain under downward pressure while Eurozone peripheral bond spreads will see limited compression.

Aside from a relatively weak EUR which we expect to push lower initially to support around 1.2151 versus USD and then towards the psychologically important 1.200 other risk / high beta currencies will remain relatively resilient. Asian currencies will likely begin the week in positive mood helped by expectation of more stimulus from China but unless risk appetite improves significantly any upward bias will be limited. Although there may be some disappointment from a lack of progress in Europe on resolving its crisis and also from Bernanke’s testimony in which he is unlikely to indicate a greater bias towards more quantitative easing, risk appetite is unlikely to sour too much, especially given thin summer trading conditions and hopes of more policy stimulus out of China.

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