FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

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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.

Calm after the storm

After yesterday’s carnage, global equity markets have recovered some of their poise. Whether this is a pause before another wave of pressure or something more sustainable is debatable. It appears that US equities are finally succumbing to a plethora of bad news.  Higher US yields have driven the equity risk premium lower.  Also there’s probably a degree of profit taking ahead of the onset of the Q3 US earnings season.

At the same time valuations have become increasingly stretched.  For example, the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is around 6% higher than its 5 year average while almost all emerging market price/earnings ratios are well below their 5 year averages.  While strong US growth prospects may justify some or even all of this differential, the gap with emerging markets has widened significantly.

While US President Trump blames an “out of control” US Federal Reserve, it would have been hard for the Fed to do anything else but raise policy rates at its last meeting.  If the Fed didn’t hike at the end of September, bond yields would like have moved even higher than the 3.26% reached on the 10 year US Treasury yield earlier this week as markets would have believed the Fed is falling behind the curve.   However, as US yields rise and the equity risk premium reacts, the opportunity cost of investing in equities rises too.

In the FX world the US dollar could succumb to more pressure if US equities fall further but as we saw yesterday, USD weakness may mainly be expressed versus other major currencies (EUR etc).  Emerging market currencies continue to face too many headwinds including higher US rates and tightening USD liquidity, as well as trade tariffs.  The fact that emerging market growth indicators are slowing, led by China, also does not bode well for EM assets.  Unfortunately that means that emerging market assets will not benefit for the time being from any rout in US assets despite their valuation differences.

Central banks in focus this week

Several central bank decisions are on tap this week including Japan (BoJ), Switzerland (SNB), Norway (Norges Bank), Brazil (BCB) and Thailand (BoT).  Among these only the Norges Bank looks likely to hike rates.

US data is largely second tier this week, with August housing data due for release.  After a run of weak readings a bounce back in starts and existing home sales is expected.   RBA minutes in Australia and NZ Q2 macro data are also in focus.

Political events will garner most attention, with the delayed announcement on China tariffs ($200bn) possible as early as today after being delayed due to the consideration of revisions raised via public comment.  Another twist in the saga is that China is considering declining the US offer of trade talks given the recent Trump threat of fresh tariffs (WSJ).

Other political events include Japan’s LDP election and US trade negotiations (assuming China participates) at the end of the week.   A few Brexit events this week include the General Affairs Council and Informal EU Summit.

 

China Trade talks, ECB, BoE and CBRT

Today marks the most interesting day of the data calendar this week.  Central banks in the Eurozone (ECB), UK (BoE) and Turkey (CBRT) all announce policy decisions while US CPI (Aug) is released.  The ECB and BoE meetings should be non events.  The ECB is likely to confirm its €15 billion per month taper over Q4 18.  The BoE monetary policy committee is likely have a unanimous vote for a hold.

The big move ought to come from Turkey.  They will need to tighten to convince markets that the central bank it is free from political pressure and that it is ready to react to intensifying inflation pressures.  A hike in the region of 300 basis points will be needed to convince markets.   This would also provide some relief to other emerging markets.

The big news today is the offer of high level trade talks from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to meet with Liu He (China’s top economic official), ahead of the imposition of $200bn tariffs (that were supposedly going to be implemented at end Aug).  This shows that the US administration is finally showing signs of cracking under pressure from businesses ahead of mid-term elections but I would take this with a heavy pinch of salt.

Mnuchin appears to be increasingly isolated in terms of trade policy within the US administration. Other members of the administration including Navarro, Lighthizer, and Bolton all hold a hard line against China.  Last time Mnuchin was involved in such talks with China in May they were derailed by the hawks in the administration.  So the talks could mark a turning point, but more likely they are a false dawn.  That said it will provide some relief for markets today.

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