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.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

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.

China’s economy slows…what to watch this week

The week has started off with attention firmly fixed on Chinese data. In the event, second quarter (Q2) growth domestic product (GDP) came in at 6.2% year-on-year (y/y) following a 6.4% increase in the previous quarter, matching market expectations.  However, higher frequency Chinese data for June released at the same time looked far better, with industrial production up 6.3% y/y (market 5.2% y/y), retail sales up 9.8% y/y (market 8.5%) and fixed assets investment up 5.8% YTD y/y (market 5.5%).

Although growth in China has slowed to its weakest in many years, this was well flagged in advance and the GDP data is backward looking in any case.  The other data released today as well as increases in new loans and aggregate financing data released last week, suggest less urgency for fresh stimulus.  Overall, markets will be relieved by the fact that higher frequency data is holding up, but hopes of more aggressive stimulus in the near term may be dashed.

Attention elsewhere this week will focus on data and central banks.  After last week’s testimonies from Fed Chair Powell, during which he cemented expectations of a quarter percent from the Fed at the end of this month, attention in the US this well will be on June retail sales data where the consensus looks for a weaker 0.1% m/m increase in headline and ex-autos sales.   Further comments from Fed speakers will also garner attention, with Powell and New York Fed President Williams, likely to maintain market expectations of Fed easing.

Emerging Markets central banks will also be in focus, with monetary policy easing expected in South Africa, Indonesia and South Korea as central banks take the cue from the Fed.  Declining inflation pressure, weaker domestic growth, will also add support to further policy easing.  Stronger currencies in South Africa and Indonesia provide further impetus to cut rates.  I expect many emerging market central banks, especially in Asia, to ease policy in the weeks ahead, for similar reasons as above.

Watch me Guest Host on CNBC Asia tomorrow morning from 8-9am Singapore time where I will discuss these and other topics in more detail. 

Fed’s Powell, China trade, Japan-Korea tensions

Markets cheered Fed Chair Powell’s testimony to the US Congress this week, with Powell all but confirming that the Fed will cut interest rates in the US by 25bps later this month.  Powell’s comments yesterday and Wednesday highlighted the risks to the US economy including the threats from persistently low inflation, worsening global trade outlook, weak global growth, and possibility that Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, even as he saw “the economy as being in a good place”.  His comments highlight that any easing this month, would be an insurance cut, but markets are expecting the Fed to ease further in the months ahead, with at least one more priced in by the market this year.

Meanwhile attention remains focused on trade tensions. On this front, president Trump complained overnight that China hasn’t increased its purchases of US farm products, something that he said China had pledged to do at the G20 meeting when he met with China’s President Xi.  Data released yesterday showed that Chinese purchases of US agricultural good have actually slowed.  According to the US department of Agriculture China bought 127,800 metric tons of US soybeans last week and 76 tons of US pork, both sharp reductions compared to previous weeks.  Chinese media for its part says that the country had not committed to increasing purchases, but rather that Trump had hoped China would buy more goods.  Clearly, there is has left plenty of confusion about what was actually agreed upon.

Trade tensions have also risen in Asia, with tensions between South Korea and Japan intensifying.  Japan is implementing restrictions on exports to Korea of chemicals essential for chip making in retaliation over a ruling by Korea’s Supreme court awarding damages against Japanese companies for forced labour during the second world war. Japan says that such claims were settled under a 1965 treaty and is seeking arbitration. Korea evidently disagrees. The trade spat could also have widespread implications given the wide range of products that South Korean chips are used in, impacting supply chains globally.  Meetings between Japanese and Korean officials today will be watched for any rapprochement but any near term solution looks unlikely.

Fed’s Powell & China trade data in focus

US jobs data released at the end of last week will diminish hopes of more aggressive policy rate cuts from the Fed FOMC at its policy meeting at the end of the month. Non-farm payrolls rose by 224,000 last month, beating market forecasts, a sharp improvement from the disappointing 72,000 increase in the previous month.

Despite the stronger than expected reading in June, the Fed is still likely to cut interest rates by 25 basis points amid concerns about a loss of growth momentum, trade tensions against the background of low inflation.  Soft US June CPI releases on Thursday this week will likely confirm the subdued inflationary backdrop.

Markets will be able to garner more clues during Fed Chair Powell’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday and Thursday while Fed FOMC minutes from the last meeting will also provide greater detail on Fed thinking.  Both are likely to help confirm expectations of a 25 basis point cut in rates at the next FOMC meeting.

The USD has recovered some if recent losses, helped at the end of last week but the US jobs report.  Further gains are likely to be limited (with the USD index likely to struggle to break 98.0) though much will depend on Powell’s testimony this week.

Also in focus this week will be China’s June trade data.  This data will be scrutinised in particular, for the trade surplus with the US and whether there are any signs of this surplus beginning to narrow.  The data will also give some indications of the health of China’s economy, with another weak print for imports, likely to show further softening in China’s growth momentum. Similarly weaker exports will highlight the softening in demand from key trading partners such as Korea.

Further evidence on the outlook for China’s economy will be seen in the release of monetary aggregates including new loan growth and aggregate financing. Meanwhile, China’s currency continues to remain stable amid the trade truce with the US.

 

Waiting For US Jobs Data

Ahead of the US jobs report later today and following a lack of leads from US markets after the 4th July Independence Day holiday, markets are likely to tread water, at least until the employment report is released.  However, there are plenty of factors lurking in the background including the ongoing US-China trade war, US-Iran geopolitical tensions, and growing trade spat between Korea and Japan.

Markets continue to be supported by expectations of monetary easing globally.  This week, bond markets have continued to rally, helped by President Trump’s nomination of July Shelton and Christopher Waller for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, both of which are considered dovish.  Separately, markets applauded the backing of Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank after weeks of wrangling by European leaders.

Immediate attention will be on the US June jobs data.  Market expectations are for a 160,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, unemployment rate at 3.6% and average earnings growth of 0.3% compared to the previous month, 3.2% compared to the year earlier.  Anything much worse, for example an outcome below 100k would likely lead to an intensification of expectations that the Fed FOMC will cut by as much as 50 basis points later this month.  An outcome around consensus would likely result in a 25bp easing by the Fed FOMC.

Separately trade tensions between Japan and Korea have intensified. Japan is implementing restrictions on exports to Korea of chemicals essential for chip making. Japan is Korea’s fourth largest export market. The new approval process required by Japanese exporters of three semiconductor industry chemicals will hit Korea’s tech industry at a time when it is already suffering.  The trade spat could also have widespread implications given the wide range of products that South Korean chips are used in, impacting supply chains globally.

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