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.

Coronavirus – The Hit To China and Asia

Coronavirus fears have become the dominant the driver of markets, threatening Chinese and Asian growth and fueling a rise in market volatility.  Global equities have largely bounced back since the initial shock waves, but vulnerability remains as the virus continues to spread (latest count 40,514 confirmed, 910 deaths) and the number of cases continues to rise.  China helped sentiment by injecting substantial liquidity into its markets (CNY 150bn in liquidity via 7-day and 14-day reverse repos, while cutting the rate on both by 10bp) but the economic impact continues to deepen.

Today is important for China’s industry.  Many companies open up after a prolonged Lunar New Year holiday though many are likely to remain closed.  The Financial Times reports that many are extending further, with for example Alibaba and Meituan extending to Feb 16 at the earliest.  Foxconn is reportedly not going to resume iPhone production in Zhengzhou, while some regions have told employers in hard hit cities to extend by a week or two.  This suggests that the economic hit is going to be harder in Q1 and for the full year.

The extent of economic damage is clearly not easy to gauge at this stage. What we know is that the quarantine measures, travel restrictions and business shutdowns have been extensive and while these may limit the spread of the virus, the immediate economic impact may be significant. While transport and retail sectors have fared badly, output/production is increasingly being affected. This may result in a more severe impact than SARS, at least in the current quarter (potentially dropping to around 4-4.5% y/y or lower, from 6% y/y in Q4 2019).

China’s economy is far larger and more integrated into global supply chains than it was during SARS in 2003, suggesting that the global impact could be deeper this time, especially if the economic damage widens from services to production within China. Worryingly, China’s economy is also in a more fragile state than it was in 2003, with growth already on track to slow this year (as compared to 10% GDP growth in 2003 and acceleration in the years after).

This does not bode well for Asia.  Asia will be impacted via supply chains, tourism and oil prices.   The first will be particularly negative for manufacturers in the region, that are exposed to China’s supply chains, with Korea, Japan and Taiwan relatively more exposed. Weakness in tourism will likely  be more negative  for Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore.  Growth worries have pressured oil prices lower and this may be a silver lining, especially for big oil importers such as India.

A Host Of Global Risks

Last week was a tumultuous one to say the least.  It’s been a long time since so many risk factors have come together at the same time.  The list is a long one and includes the escalation of the US-China trade war, which last week saw President Trump announce further tariffs on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US that do not already have tariffs levied on them, a break of USDCNY 7.00 and the US officially naming China as a currency manipulator.

The list of risk factors afflicting sentiment also includes intensifying Japan-Korea trade tensions, growing potential for a no-deal Brexit, demonstrations in Hong Kong, risks of a fresh election in Italy, growing fears of another Argentina default, ongoing tensions with Iran and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

All of this is taking place against the background of weakening global growth, with officials globally cutting their growth forecasts and sharply lower yields in G10 bond markets.  The latest country to miss its growth estimates is Singapore, a highly trade driven economy and bellwether of global trade, which today slashed its GDP forecasts.

Central banks are reacting by easing policy.  Last week, the New Zealand’s RBNZ, cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 50 basis points, India cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 35 basis points and Thailand surprisingly cutting by 25 basis points.  More rate cuts/policy easing is in the pipeline globally in the weeks and months ahead, with all eyes on the next moves by the Fed.  Moving into focus in this respect will be the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium on 22/23 August and Fed FOMC minutes on 21 August.

After the abrupt and sharp depreciation in China’s currency CNY, last week and break of USDCNY 7.00 there is evidence that China wants to control/slow the pace of depreciation to avoid a repeat, even as the overall path of the currency remains a weaker one. Firstly, CNY fixings have been generally stronger than expected over recent days and secondly, the spread between CNY and CNH has widened sharply, with the former stronger than the latter by a wider margin than usual.  Thirdly, comments from Chinese officials suggest that they are no keen on sharp pace of depreciation.

Markets will remain on tenterhooks given all the factors above and it finally seems that equity markets are succumbing to pressure, with stocks broadly lower over the last month, even as gains for the year remain relatively healthy.  The US dollar has remained a beneficiary of higher risk aversion though safe havens including Japanese yen and Swiss Franc are the main gainers in line with the move into safe assets globally.  Unfortunately there is little chance of any turnaround anytime soon given the potential for any one or more of the above risk factors to worsen.

JPY selling momentum slows

Markets have few leads to trade off following yesterday’s President’s Day holiday in the US. Nonetheless, caution appears to be settling in ahead of this weekend’s Italian elections, especially in Europe.

European Central Bank President Draghi’s address to the EU parliament did little to stir markets as he didn’t elaborate much on his post ECB press conference in February. The most notable comment was that he urged the G20 to have very “strong verbal discipline” on talking about currency movements.

Despite the Italian election caution most risk measures appear to be well behaved. Equity volatility has continued to drop and gold prices have stabilised following the recent sharp decline. The highlight of the data calendar today is a likely gain in the February German ZEW survey.

Currency markets are rangebound but it is notable that USD/JPY has struggled to sustain gains above the 94.00 level, with upward momentum in the currency pair appearing to fade. Comments by Japan’s Finance Minister Aso that the government was not considering changing the central bank law at present or buying foreign bonds helped to dampen USD/JPY.

Although the G20 meeting effectively gave the green light for further JPY declines, a lot is in the price in terms of policy expectations and any further JPY weakness is likely to be much more gradual. USD/JPY 94.46 will offer strong resistance to further upside.

Asian currencies continue to deliver a mixed performance, with JPY sensitive currencies including SGD, KRW and TWD remaining on the back foot. The SGD is the most highly correlated Asian currency with JPY, with a high and significant correlation between the two. Any further drop in JPY will clearly bode badly for SGD but the inability of the JPY to weaken further may help to moderate pressure on the SGD in the near term.

Although the KRW has rebounded over recent days one risk to the currency is continued outflows of equity portfolio capital. South Korea is one of the only countries in Asia to have recorded outflows (around USD 1.2 billion year to date). However, this month the outflow appears to have reversed, with around USD 500 million in inflows registered month to date. In part the outflows of equity capital from South Korea in January reflected concerns about North Korea. Such concerns have receded but the risks remain of more sabre rattling and/or more nuclear tests from the North.

Sell USD / Asia FX on rallies

The biggest move this year appears to have come from the VIX ‘fear gauge’ which has dropped sharply contributing to an overall improvement in risk appetite. Although the VIX dropped further overnight equity sentiment overall continues to sour as fiscal cliff euphoria faded further and markets brace for the reality of likely protracted negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and avert huge spending cuts.

Caution over a plethora of fourth quarter earnings reports over coming weeks is also limiting upside for risk assets. Economic drivers were thin on the ground overnight but weak German exports data (which likely contributes to an overall decline in GDP in Q4) an increase in Eurozone unemployment and rumours of a French ratings downgrade did not help.

In the US the news was a little better as small business confidence reversed its sharp November drop. A limited data slate today will leave markets focussed on upcoming earnings, with consensus estimates for Q4 at a relatively low 2.9% QoQ.

Asian currencies have registered mixed performances so far this year. Resistance from some Asian central banks, notably Korea, has limited the appreciation of currencies. The incentive to prevent further strength has increased especially as a key competitor the JPY has weakened.

Maintaining its robust performance over 2012 the PHP has been the best Asian FX performer so far in 2013 followed by the THB. Similarly the IDR has maintained its negative performance registered last year. SGD is also likely to underperform further as the currency finds itself being increasingly used as a funding currency for taking long positions in other Asian FX.

We note that risk appetite has a limited correlation with Asian currencies at present but firm capital inflows will continue to provide support, with a sell USD / Asia FX on rallies environment set to persist.

CNY influence on Asian FX continues to grow

Asian currencies remain generally well supported both by a softer tone to the USD in general as well as a stronger Chinese currency, CNY. Since the USD/RMB high of 6.3964 on 25 July the RMB has appreciated by around 2.4% vs. USD. This equates to an annualized pace of appreciation of around 6.2%. The RMB is unlikely to continue to strengthen at such a rapid pace and could even be prone to a softer tone into year end.

Potential renewed weakness in the CNY could presage downside risks to Asian currencies. Also worth noting is the fact that equity portfolio capital inflows to Asian have slackened over recent weeks (Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan registered outflows over October), a factor that could also pose risks to Asian currencies.

The influence of the RMB on Asian FX has continued to grow. Correlations or sensitivities between Asian currencies and the CNY remain are stronger than Asian FX sensitivities to USD movements. The implication is that USD index gyrations are having less influence on Asian currencies.

The most correlated currencies with the CNY are KRW, SGD and TWD although all Asian currencies with the exception of the INR register statistically significant correlations with the movements of USD/CNY. Notably our quantitative models show that the KRW, SGD and TWD are overbought relative to their short term fair value estimates.

While the USD is still influential in driving some Asian currencies several currencies including KRW, CNY and IDR do not possess a statistically significant sensitivity to the USD over the past 3-months. Should the CNY undergo renewed weakness it will mean that the currencies noted above namely KRW, SGD and TWD will be the most vulnerable to weakness given their high sensitivity to CNY.

Asian currencies at multi-year highs

Asian currencies are stronger in the wake of a sharp improvement in risk appetite following the approval of Greece’s austerity measures. The rally in Asian FX is revealed in the ADXY (an index of Asian currencies) index which is approaching a test of its 2nd May high around 119.26 around its highest level since August 1997. Technical indicators have turned more bullish, with the ADXY breaking above its key moving average levels (20, 50 & 100 day) and the 14-day relative strength index also turning higher.

The Asian FX rally has been led by the KRW, the Asian currency that has had the highest correlation with risk over the past few weeks. Given that risk aversion has dropped sharply since mid June it is no surprise that this currency has strengthened the most. USD/KRW is trading around its lowest level since August 2008. Strong equity capital outflows had kept the KRW on the back foot over much of June but there has been a bounce back in flows recently. However, USD/KRW is likely to find it tough to break below 1060 over the short-term, especially given likely resistance from the local authorities.

The THB, the worst performing Asian currency in June, has rapidly reversed some of its losses. The THB looks set to consolidate its gains following a decisive election result which saw the opposition Puea Thai Party gain control of parliament. The biggest relief for markets was the fact that the outcome was relatively clear cut, suggesting a potentially a smooth handover of power. Nonetheless, the currency has already jumped and after having dropped to around 30.40 from a high of around 31.01 USD/THB is likely to trade off gyrations in risk appetite.

The fact that the USD has lost some ground in the wake of firmer risk appetite and better news in Greece has also allowed Asian currencies to strengthen although it’s worth noting that amongst Asian currencies only the MYR has maintained a significant correlation with the USD index over the past 3-months. In other words, although USD weakness has helped to facilitate Asian currency strength, the recent strengthening in Asian FX is more likely to have been due to a rebound in capital inflows to the region.

Further Asian FX gains are likely over the near term especially as China continues to fix the CNY higher versus USD but given the recent rapid gains in some currencies, there is a risk of growing official resistance and intervention to slow or stem Asian FX gains. Moreover, the end of QE2 in the US suggests that the downside risks for the USD in general are not likely to be as prevalent, with a potential recovery in the USD over H2 likely to stand in the way of strong Asian FX gains over coming months.

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