Looking For The Silver Lining

As the end of the year approaches it would take a minor miracle of sorts to turn around a dismal performance for equity markets in December.   The S&P 500 has fallen by just over 12% year to date, but this performance is somewhat better than that of equity markets elsewhere around the world.  Meanwhile 10 year US Treasury yields have dropped by over 53 basis points from their high in early November.

A host of factors are weighing on markets including the US government shutdown, President Trump’s criticism of Fed policy, ongoing trade concerns, worries about a loss of US growth momentum, slowing Chinese growth, higher US rates, etc, etc.   The fact that the Fed maintained its stance towards hiking rates and balance sheet contraction at the last FOMC meeting has also weighed on markets.

A statement from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin attempting to reassure markets about liquidity conditions among US banks didn’t help matters, especially as liquidity concerns were among the least of market concerns.  Drawing attention to liquidity may have only moved it higher up the list of focal points for markets.

The other major mover is oil prices, which have dropped even more sharply than other asset classes.  Brent crude has dropped by over 40% since its high on 3 October 2018.   This has helped to dampen inflationary expectations as well as helping large oil importers such as India.  However, while part of the reason for its drop has been still robust supply, worries about global growth are also weighing on the outlook for oil.

But its not all bad news and markets should look at the silver lining on the dark clouds overhanging markets.  The Fed has become somewhat more dovish in its rhetoric and its forecasts for further rate hikes.  US growth data is not weak and there is still sufficient stimulus in the pipeline to keep the economy on a reasonably firm growth path in the next few months.  Separately lower oil is a positive for global growth.

There are also constructive signs on the trade front, with both US and China appearing to show more willingness to arrive at a deal.  In particular, China appears to be backing down on its technology advancement that as core to its “Made In China 2025” policy. This is something that it at the core of US administration hawks’ demands and any sign of appeasement on this front could bode well for an eventual deal.

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Turkey hikes, ECB and BoE don’t. Trump dampens trade hopes

Despite comments from Turkish President Erdogan railing against prospects for a rate hike, Turkey’s central bank, CBRT hiked the repo rate to 24%, a much bigger than expected 625bp increase.  This may not be sufficient to turn things round sustainably but will at least prevent a return of the extreme volatility seen over past weeks.  The decision saw USDTRY drop by about 6% before reversing some of the move.  Undoubtedly the decision will provide support to EM assets globally including in Asia today.

Elsewhere the European Central Bank (ECB) delivered few punches by leaving policy unchanged and reaffirming that its quantitative easing will reduce to EUR 15bn per month (from EUR 30bn) from October while anticipating an end after December 2018.   The ECB also downgraded its growth outlook but kept the risks broadly balanced.  The outcome will likely to help put a floor under the EUR.  Unsurprisingly the Bank of England (BoE) left its policy on hold voting unanimously to do so, leaving little inspiration to GBP.

President Trump poured cold water on US-China trade talks by denying a Wall Street Journal article that he faces rising political pressure to agree a deal with China.  Trump tweeted, “They are under pressure to make a deal with us. If we meet, we meet?” . Meanwhile US CPI missed expectations at 0.2% m/m, 2.7% y/y in August, an outcome consistent with gradual rate hikes ahead.   The data will also help to undermine the USD in the short term.

Data and central banks in focus

Risk sentiment remains positive although there will be a test of the market’s optimism this week, with a heavy slate of data releases and central bank policy meetings on tap. A Japanese holiday today may start the week off on a quieter note but central bank decisions by the European Central Bank (Thu), Bank of England (Thu), RBA (Tue) and speeches by various Fed speakers will help stir things up.

While none of the central banks are expected to alter policy settings this week there will be plenty of attention on the ECB to see whether they open the door to further policy easing in the wake of softer data including CPI inflation last week. The rout in the EUR over recent days has reflected the expectation of a shift in ECB stance, with the currency likely to continue to edge lower as the meeting approaches.

On the data front, US numbers have looked somewhat perkier, including the ISM manufacturing survey at the end of last week which beat expectations, helping US 10 year Treasury yields to edge back above 2.6%. This in turn has boosted the USD and will likely help to keep the currency supported in the short term.

However, there will be some caution ahead of Friday’s October employment report, which is likely to look decidedly weaker. The expect the impact of the government shutdown to manifest itself in particular in the unemployment rate, which is set to increase to move higher. Aside from the jobs data, US Q3 GDP and October Michigan confidence are on tap.

In Europe, the European Commission will release its Autumn economic forecasts, with deficit forecasts for peripheral countries a particular focus.

In Australia a slate of releases including retail sales, which revealed a much stronger than expected 0.8% monthly increase in September are on tap. The sales data provides more support to the view that the RBA will be disinclined to ease policy further although the relative strength of the AUD will still give the central bank some cause for concern. September trade data and October jobs data are also scheduled for release this week. AUD will find some support from the sales data this morning but will face headwinds from a generally firmer USD.

Central banks fail to impress

Three central banks acted within a short time of each other to provide yet more monetary stimulus. However, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) 25 bps cut in its refi rate and deposit rate, China’s central bank, PBoC’s cut in interest rates and an additional GBP 50 billion of asset purchases by the Bank of England have failed to stimulate markets. This is a worrying development for policy makers especially as the drug of monetary stimulus has been a major factor spurring equity markets and risk assets since the global financial crisis began in 2008.

The lack of positive momentum emanating from the policy easing by central banks yesterday reflects the reality that the efficacy of further easing has now become very limited. Will a quarter percent rate cut from the ECB or yet another round of asset purchases from the BoE really make a difference at a time when core bond yields are already at extremely low levels and the demand for credit globally is very weak? Moreover, are policy makers really addressing the underlying problems in the Eurozone or elsewhere? I think the answers are obvious.

The same argument applies to the Fed if it was to embark on a third round of quantitative easing. Admittedly more Fed QE could weaken the USD and boost equities but would it really have a lasting impact? In any case I don’t think the Fed is on the verge of more QE following the recent extension of ‘Operation Twist’ which itself will do little more than have a psychological impact on markets. Today’s release of the June jobs report could give some further impetus to QE expectations if it comes in weak but I doubt this will occur.

One casualty of the cut in ECB rates was the EUR which dropped sharply, having not only given up its post EU Summit gains over recent days but extending its losses even further. This is perhaps an odd reaction considering that a rate cut was widely expected. ECB President Draghi’s warnings about the path ahead will have played negatively on the currency as well expectations of more stronger easing in the months ahead perhaps involving ECB QE.

I still stick to the view that European policy makers have at least put a short term floor under the EUR in the wake of the decisions at the EU Summit suggesting that further downside will be limited, with the 2012 low around 1.2288 likely to act as a short term floor for EUR/USD. Nonetheless, with many details of the plans announced in the Summit yet to be ironed out and implementation risks running very high a degree of market caution should be expected.

Still waiting for Greece

The USD has taken a steady path of recent days, with little move in either direction, reflecting the general malaise in currency markets waiting for an outcome to the Greek debt talks. However, hopes that an agreement will be announced shortly saw the USD lurch lower overnight. The conflicting forces of firming US economic data on the one hand and uncertainties in Greece on the other have left market participants in a bind.

The USD has at least purchased some solace from reduced expectations of quantitative easing but as we noted earlier in the week the Fed may still carry out QE despite of better data. The USD could also suffer from the fact that US bond yields remain relatively low compared to some other major countries.

Indeed, the Fed’s commitment to maintain accommodative monetary policy until the end of 2014 suggests that the USD’s use as a funding currency could continue for a while longer. We look for the USD index to consolidate around the 78.50-79.00 level over the short term.

GBP’s recovery from its lows around 1.5233 on 13 January has been impressive. GBP’s gains are not as strong as that of commodity and Scandinavian currencies but it has outperformed the EUR. We expect this to continue.

Like other currencies GBP has benefited from a widening yield gap between the UK and the US. This has little to do with UK policy expectations given that the Bank of England is expected to initiate more quantitative easing this week. The move in relative US–UK yield differentials has more to do with the rally in US interest rate futures since the start of the year, supported by the recent dovish FOMC statement, which has put the USD under a degree of pressure.

GBP gains will be limited ahead of the BoE meeting tomorrow, with technical resistance seen around 1.5931 vs USD. Against the EUR much will depend on Greek debt talks but eventually we look for a retest of the EUR/GBP January lows around 0.82213.

Fed weighs on the dollar

The USD was already losing ground over the last couple of weeks against the background of firming risk appetite but the currency was dealt another blow from the Fed when it announced in the FOMC statement new guidance for monetary policy, stating that interest rates would remain “exceptionally low until at least late 2014” while keeping the door open to further quantitative easing. The statement helped to counter the pressure on the EUR from rising Portuguese bond yields, with EUR/USD breaking above 1.3100.

The prospect of prolonged low US interest rates means that the USD could remain a funding a currency for longer than anticipated. My forecasts of only a gradual appreciation of the USD over coming months take this into account to a large extent. I remain positive on the prospects for the USD against the EUR, JPY and CHF but predict further weakness against high beta commodity currencies and emerging market currencies over coming months. However, should US bond yields continue to remain suppressed even expectations of USD gains against the EUR, JPY and CHF may be dashed.

Although the Fed downgraded its growth expectations over coming quarters US data releases are looking more encouraging and in this respect the US is beginning to outperform other major economies. In contrast Europe’s growth outlook looks even gloomier while there is a long way to go before the problems in the region are resolved. Portugal has moved increasingly into the spotlight as markets increasingly anticipate some form of debt restructuring while in Greece debt talks have so far failed to reach any agreement on the extent of debt writedowns.

As the end of the week approaches risk is definitely on the front foot and the EUR has confounded many expectations by strengthening against all odds. I have highlighted the fact that the market was extremely short EUR over recent weeks as well as the EUR’s increasing resilience to bad news. I also noted that the Eurozone external position is still very healthy providing underling support for the currency. While I still look for the EUR to weaken over coming months expectations of a one way will not be fulfilled. EUR/USD will face strong resistance around 1.3201 (the 21 December high and 61.8% retracement from its 1.3553 high).

The Devil is in the details

The “partial solution” delivered by European Union (EU) leaders last week has failed to match the high hopes ahead of the EU Summit. Nonetheless, the deliverance of a “fiscal compact”, acceleration of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to July 2012 , no forced private sector participation in debt restructuring (outside Greece), and possible boost to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of up to EUR 200 billion, are steps in the right direction. The fact that UK Prime Minister Cameron threw a spanner in the works to veto a joint proposal to revise the EU Treaty should not detract from the progress made.

Nonetheless, the measures may not be sufficient to allay market concerns, with disappointment at the lack of European Central Bank (ECB) action in terms of stepping up to the plate as lender of the last resort still weighing on sentiment. Data will add to the disappointment this week as “flash” Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI) drop further in December.

This week events in the US will garner more attention, including the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting, November inflation and retail sales data plus manufacturing confidence gauges as well as November industrial production on tap. The Fed will not shift its policy stance at this meeting but may sound a little more upbeat on the economy following recent firmer data. Inflation will likely remain subdued while the other data will continue to show gradual recovery.

Overall, the market is likely to thin further as the week progresses and holidays approach, with ranges likely to dominate against the background of little directional impetus. Our call to sell risk assets on rallies remains in place, however. The EUR will likely struggle to make much headway in the current environment, especially given that many details of the EU agreement still need to be ironed out and once again the risk to market confidence lies in implementation or lack of it. A range of EUR/USD 1.3260-1.3550 is likely to hold over the short term.

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