US Jobs Report Provides Comfort For Markets

The US June jobs report released on Friday provided plenty of comfort for US equity markets. Non-farm payrolls rose by an above consensus 850,000 while the unemployment rate ticked higher to 5.9% from 5.8%.  The strong increase in payrolls helped US equities close out another week in positive mood; S&P 500 rose 0.75% and the Nasdaq gained 0.81% as investors continued to pile back into growth stocks. US Treasury bonds were supported, helped by an increase in the unemployment rate, while the US dollar fell.

Despite the jobs gain, payrolls are still around 6.8 million lower than pre-Covid levels, suggesting a long way to go for a full recovery. Federal Reserve officials will likely need to see several more months of jobs market improvement to achieve their “substantial further progress” tapering criterion.  Overall, the data played into the Fed’s narrative that tapering is still some way off and higher US interest rates even further away, leaving little for markets to fret about.

OPEC+ tensions between Saudi Arabia and UAE have increased, delaying OPEC+ talks to today against the background of oil prices pushing higher above $75 per barrel.  Riyadh along with other OPEC+ members appear keen to increase production over coming months while the UAE supports a short term increase, rather than the end of 2022 which other OPEC members are looking for.

Markets activity is likely to be subdued at the start of the due to the US holiday and there seems to be little to break out of the low volatility environment that we are currently in the midst off, though the US dollar will look to extend recent gains against the background of persistent short market positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data.  

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC Minutes of its last meeting (Wed), ISM non-manufacturing survey (Tue), and central bank policy meetings in Australia (Tue) and Poland (Thu) alongside Chinese June inflation (Fri) and credit aggregates data (from Fri). 

Given the sharp market reaction following the less dovish Fed FOMC meeting, markets will look for any further elaboration on the potential timeline for tapering in the Fed Minutes.  While both the RBA in Australia and NBP in Poland are likely to stay on hold, the RBA is likely to strike a dovish tone in its statement and Q&A while the NBP is likely to announce a new set of economic projections.  No shocks are expected from China’s June CPI inflation reading, though producer price inflation, PPI is likely to remain elevated.

Calm After The Storm

The start of 2020 has not come without incident, to say the least.  The US killing of an Iranian general and Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq prompted a flight to safety, with investors piling into gold, Japanese yen while pushing oil prices higher.   However, each time the impact has been short lived, with markets tending to move back towards a calmer tone.  What is underpinning this is the view that both sides do not want a war.  Indeed Iran stated that it has ‘concluded proportionate measures’ and does not ‘see escalation or war’ while President Trump tweeted that ‘All is well’ after the Iranian missile attacks. While the risk of escalation remains high, it does appear that neither side wants to become entangled in a much deeper and prolonged situation.

As such, while markets will remain nervous, and geopolitical risks will remain elevated, the market’s worst fears (all-out war) may not play out.  This leaves the backdrop of an improving economic environment and ongoing policy stimulus in place, which in turn will help provide overall support to risk assets including equities and emerging markets assets.  As my last post highlighted, two major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end were also lifted.  Unless there is a major escalation between the US and Iran this more sanguine tone, albeit with bouts of volatility, is likely to remain in place in the weeks ahead.  This also mean that attention will eventually turn back to data releases and economic fundamentals.

In this respect the news is not so bad.  Although the US ISM manufacturing index weakened further and deeper into contraction territory below 50 other data including the ISM non-manufacturing index which beat expectations coming in at , suggests that the US economy is still on a rosy path.  While the consensus expectations is for US payrolls to soften to a 160k increase in December compared to 266k previously, this will still leave a high average over recent months. The Fed for its part continues to provide monetary support and liquidity via its repo operations (Quantitative easing with another name) and is unlikely to reverse rate cuts.   Elsewhere globally the economic news is also improving, with data showing global economic stabilization into year end.

Euro resilient but for how long?

The resilience of the EUR to bad news has been impressive but is unlikely to persist. The recent negatives include 1) the rejection of the Portuguese government’s austerity plan and the increased likelihood of a bailout, 2) a likely delay in the decision on increasing the size and scope of the EFSF EU bailout fund, 3) a drop in Eurozone purchasing managers indices in March, 4) downgrades to Portugal’ sovereign credit ratings by Fitch last night and S&P and 5) Moodys downgrades of 30 Spanish banks. Despite all of this, and after hitting a low of around EUR/USD 1.4054, EUR has bounced back close to the 1.4200 level.

Further direction will come from the outcome of the EU leaders’ summit today and the March German IFO business confidence survey. For the former there is unlikely to be a decisive result, with the optimism following the informal March 11 leaders’ summit likely to give way to delay due to wrangling over details. For the latter, a slight moderation in the IFO is expected following February’s upside surprise. However, there is a bigger risk of a downside surprise following the softer than forecast March German manufacturing PMI released. Against this background, EUR/USD is likely to struggle to break resistance around 1.249.

In general FX markets look somewhat more stable and even the pressure on the USD appears to have abated slightly despite a much weaker than expected outcome for US February durable goods orders yesterday, which revealed a drop in both headline and ex-transportation orders. My composite FX volatility measure has dropped sharply over recent days, led by short term implied JPY volatility which has dropped close to pre-crisis levels. Lower volatility has also likely reduced the prospects of further FX intervention although USD/JPY 80 will continue to be well defended.

Lower volatility as also reflected in the sharp drop in the VIX index has corresponded with a general easing in risk aversion as both Middle East and Japan tensions have eased slightly. US data today are unlikely to offer much direction, with a slight upward revision to US Q4 GDP and an unchanged outcome for the final reading of Michigan consumer confidence expected.

Japan’s Earthquake Aftermath

The aftermath of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami in Japan will largely drive markets this week outweighing the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Having been in Tokyo as the earthquake struck I can testify to the severity and shock impact of the earthquake. Aside from the terrible human cost the economic cost will be severe at least for the next few months before reconstruction efforts boost growth. An early estimate suggests around a 1% negative impact on GDP this year.

The government is expected to announce a spending package over coming weeks to help fund relief efforts but this will likely put additional strain on Japan’s precarious debt situation at a time when worries about the country’s fiscal health were already high. Nonetheless, there is around JPY 550 billion available from the Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2011 budgets even before a supplementary budget is needed.

The initial negative JPY impact of the natural disaster gave way to strength in anticipation of expected repatriation flows by Japanese life insurance companies and other institutions as they liquidate assets abroad in order to pay for insurance payments in Japan. The bias to the JPY will likely continue to be upwards but trading will be choppy.

Many of the margin traders holding extreme long USD/JPY positions will likely reduce these positions in the weeks following the earthquake in order to fulfil JPY demand. This may be countered by some foreign selling of Japanese assets especially given that foreigners have accelerated Japanese asset purchases over recent weeks. Therefore, it’s not a straight forward bet to look for JPY strength.

If however, the JPY strengthens rapidly and threatens to drop well below the psychologically important level of 80 the spectre of FX intervention will loom large. Indeed, following the Kobe earthquake in 1995 the JPY strengthened sharply by around 18% but the USD was already in decline prior to the earthquake and USD/JPY was also being pressured lower by Barings Bank related liquidation.

Therefore, comparisons to 1995 should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, Japanese authorities will be on guard for further upward JPY pressure. The immediate market focus will be on the Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting today, with the BoJ announcing the addition of JPY 7 trillion in emergency liquidity support to help stabilise markets.

Eurozone peripheral tensions

The USD index remains under pressure but will likely continue to consolidate. The USD continues to be undermined by adverse interest rate differentials and is gaining little support from rising risk aversion. One factor that will help dictate USD direction over coming months is the prospects for further quantitative easing once QE2 ends.

Fed officials offered varied views on the subject. Dallas Fed President Fisher hinted he would support cutting short asset purchases before the end of June, whilst Atlanta Fed President Lockhart noted he was “very cautious” about further asset purchases. Meanwhile Chicago Fed President Evans noted that he believes the hurdle for altering the asset purchase plan is “pretty high”.

Although there is a lack of first tier data releases in the eurozone this week there is certainly plenty for markets to chew on in terms of peripheral country issues, which may just prevent the EUR from extending its gains. Eurozone peripheral debt spreads have undergone a renewed widening over recent weeks as debt fears have increased and worries that Portugal may follow Ireland and Greece in needing a bailout have risen.

Meanwhile news that Ireland’s incoming government will introduce legislation allowing the restructuring of some senior bank bonds, will add to tensions. Meanwhile, the downgrading of Greece’s government bond ratings to B1 from Ba1 dealt another blow sentiment following hot on the heels of Fitch’s downgrade of Spain’s outlook to negative although the EUR proved resilient to the news. EUR/USD continues to look as though it will consolidate around the 1.4000 level, but worsening sentiment towards the periphery may open up downside as the EUR’s resilience fades.

Upward revisions to eurozone growth and inflation forecasts and of course a hawkish shift in eurozone interest rate expectations may have justified the EUR move higher over recent weeks. However, there does not seem to be much that will provide the stimulus for further gains from current levels.

The market has already priced in an interest hike as early as next month’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and further tightening thereafter. The risk now appears asymmetric skewed to the downside especially if tensions between the eurozone core and peripheral countries deepen. How long the EUR can ignore such tensions?

It’s not only the eurozone periphery that should worry about ratings. Japan’s ratings agency R&I has warned that it may be forced to cut Japan’s sovereign ratings before April’s local elections due to current political problems. R&I’s concern revolve around the potential for political problems to delay fiscal reforms. As usual the JPY remains unmoved by political issues and is moving to the stronger side of its recent range against the background of elevated risk aversion.

Although the JPY has not been particularly sensitive to risk over recent months shorter-term correlations shows that its sensitivity has increased. Given that Middle-East tensions do not appear to be easing the JPY will remain well supported. Indeed, speculative positioning data reveals the highest JPY net long position since November 2010. As risk appetite improves JPY positioning will be pared back but this is unlikely to be imminent, with USD/JPY set to remain close to support around 81.10.

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