Geopolitical Risks Rise

Last week ended on a positive note for risk assets, with equities rallying to record highs. In particular tech stocks are back in lead this quarter. The biggest surprise was the ability of US Treasuries to rally at the same time, particularly in the wake of a strong slate of economic data. The rally may be attributable to strong foreign and pension buying amid short market positioning.  Indeed, CFTC data show that Treasury bearish positions had increased as of April 13th.  The pull back in US Treasury yields points to some relief for emerging market assets. Similarly, commodity positions had also been cut, with gold, copper and oil positioning liquidation taking place. The risk rally and lower US yields have put the US dollar on the back foot, extending its decline over the week.  As such, the USD “exceptionalism” story appears to be fading somewhat.

Last week finished off with another set of firm US data; Housing starts surged 19.4% m/m to 1,739k, well-above the 1,613k consensus, from 1,457k (revised from 1,421k) in February. Similarly, consumer sentiment continued to improve in April, according to the preliminary release of the University of Michigan survey, with the index rising to a new post-COVID high of 86.5.  This week’s highlights include central bank decisions in China (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), Canada (Wed), Euro area (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Russia’s central bank CBR is expected to hike by 25bp while no changes are expected from the other central banks.  Canada’s Federal Budget today and CPI (Wed) will also be in focus.  Data wise, Australia March retail sales (Wed), New Zealand Q1 CPI and Euro area flash purchasing managers indices PMIs (Fri) will garner attention.  

On Friday, the US Treasury released its semi-annual FX report and found that once again Vietnam and Switzerland met all three criteria under the 2015 Act. over 2020.  Taiwan was also found to breach the Treasury criteria.  The outcome means that there will be ‘enhanced analysis’ of these countries.  However, the {US} US Treasury declined to name any of these countries as currency manipulators, citing insufficient evidence under the 1988 Act.  The other interesting development is that the Treasury questioned the foreign exchange activities of Chinese state banks given that it appears that China’s official FX intervention was very limited.  Separately, Ireland and Mexico were added to the US Treasury Monitoring List.

Geopolitical risks are rising once again and could act as a threat to markets in the day and weeks ahead. Last week the US levied sanctions on Russia including targeting Russian government debt. Russia responded with counter sanctions. However, the US administration did hold out an olive branch in the form of a potential joint summit. Focus is also on growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Similarly, US and Japanese leaders voiced concerns over Chinese policies, which were subsequently rejected by China’s foreign ministry. Despite the US criticism of China the US and China appear to be moving ahead with cooperate on climate change. US-China over Taiwan remain elevated however.

Will the Fed Calm US Treasury Market Volatility?

The main market action on Friday was once again in US Treasuries, with another sharp sell off as the 10y yield spiked 8.8 basis points despite three large US debt auctions over the week that were received relatively well by the market.  The sell-off helped the US dollar (USD) to strengthen while oil prices slipped. USD sentiment is clearly becoming less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM data (non-commercial speculative market positioning), which shows that USD (DXY) positions (as a % of open interest) are still short, but at their highest since the week of 8 Dec 2020. Tech stocks didn’t take well to higher yields, but the Dow and S&P 500 closed higher. The move in yields may pressure Asian currencies and bond markets after some consolidation/retracement towards the end of last week though equity markets look better placed. 

At the end of last week US University of Michigan consumer sentiment rose to 83.0 in the preliminary release for March from 76.8 in February and exceeded expectations at 78.5 (consensus). This week attention will turn to a plethora of central banks spearheaded by the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed). Markets will be watching for any revisions to US growth forecasts amid a dovish tone, albeit with little sign of any push back on higher yields. US rates markets will also focus on the US 20y auction, which could keep the curve pressured steeper.  Nervousness over the Statutory Liquidity Ratio (SLR) exemption, which is set to expire at the end of the month, will also likely intensify.  A less dovish than hoped for Fed, will likely keep the USD on the front foot. 

Other central bank decisions this week will take place in the UK, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan. None of these are likely change policy settings except Brazil, where the market is looking for a 1/2% hike. Developments to look out for include some push back from the Bank of England on higher yields, a move to bring forward the rate hike path in Norway, a potentially controversial no change decision in Turkey and the Bank of Japan’s announcement of the results of its policy tools and in particular clarification on the tolerated trading range for 10-year JGBs.

Data this week kicks off with Chinese activity data today including February industrial production and retail sales. Seasonal distortions and base effects will make this month’s data look particularly strong.  Other data this week includes US Feb retail sales (tomorrow) where a weak outcome is likely depressed by harsher-than-usual winter weather as well as a fading of the boost from stimulus payments. Australia February employment is also likely to be soft (Thursday).  

Overall, equity volatility has eased, especially in the equity market, suggesting some return of normal trading conditions there, but interest rate volatility remains high driven by the move in US Treasury yields.  The USD gave back some gains towards the end of last week, but will likely benefit from higher US yields and is set to start this week in firm form.  US interest rate gyrations will likely provide further direction for the USD over the rest of the week.   Much of course will depend on the Fed FOMC meeting, which will be the main event this week. 

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.

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

Host Of Central Banks In Focus

Well, last week, tech stocks had their worst week since March, with stability far from returning.  While the jury is still out, most still view the pull back in tech stocks as a healthy correction following a prolonged period of gains, blaming increased options activity over recent months for the magnitude of the decline. The buy on dip mentality is likely to continue to prevail, though tech stocks have not yet show any sign of wanting to make a convincing pull back.   

Signs of nervousness are clear; equity volatility remains elevated, but many investors are still sitting on healthy gains over recent months.  Given the low cost of funding, low returns in government bonds, alongside continued strong demand for stay at home electronics and a vaccine that could still take months to arrive, it is hard to see the tech sector falling too far.   

The fall in the pound sterling has been quite dramatic over recent weeks, both against the US dollar and euro.  Fears over a collapse in trade talks with the European Union have intensified.  The sudden waking up of the market to these risks has been provoked by the prospects that the withdrawal agreement with the EU will be torn up, prompting threats of legal action by the EU.

Time is running out to get a deal on the table before the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year, but UK Prime Minister Johnson has said that the internal market bill is necessary to prevent “a foreign of international body from having the power to break up our country.” The new legislation is already facing a rebellion in parliament. Against this background its hard to see GBP rally, with the currency likely to be particularly volatile over the coming weeks.

Attention this week will turn to several central bank decisions, with monetary policy makers in Poland (Tue), US (Wed), Brazil (Wed), Japan (Thu), Indonesia (Thu), Taiwan (Thu), South Africa, (Thu), UK (Thu) and Russia (Fri) all scheduled to announce their decisions.  After months of policy easing globally, this week will look rather boring, with none of the above likely to ease further.   

The Fed FOMC meeting will likely capture most attention, but there is potential for disappointment if the Fed does not provide further details on its shift to average inflation targeting in its forward guidance, even as the accompanying statement and Chair Powell’s press conference are likely to sound dovish. The US dollar has continued to stabilize, aided by the drop in GBP, but a dovish Fed could limit further upside in the short term. 

Aside from central bank decisions attention will be on US election polls, which take on more importance as the election creeps closer.  US fiscal stimulus talks have hit a wall, with little chance of progress this week, while US pressure on China and Chinese companies is likely to continue to be unrelenting as elections approach.  On the political front the race to take over Japan’s prime minister following the resignation of Shinzo Abe will conclude this week (Wed).   

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