Action Shifting To Currencies as Rates Volatility Eases

US stocks barely closed higher at the end of last week and flirted with bear market territory. US consumer and retail stocks remain under pressure alongside industrials as recession fears intensify.  Indeed while inflation concern remain elevated, recession fears are increasing. US Treasury yields are finally coming off the boil amid such fears, with May seeing a significant pull back in yields; the biggest decline has been in the 3-10 year part of the yield curve over recent weeks.  This has been met with a decline in interest rate volatility unlike equity and implied currency volatility measures, which have pushed higher.   For instance, major currency implied volatility measures have reached their highest since around March 2020. Emerging markets volatility breached its March 2020 high in March 2022 and after a brief fall is moving back higher.  

Action is shifting to currencies and the drop in the US dollar from its highs, with the currency increasingly undermined by lower US yields.  In Asia, the 3 most sensitive currencies to yield differentials (US 10 year yield minus 10 year local currency bond yields) are the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Korean won.  As such, Korean won is likely to rally the most in Asia should US yields fall further.   The Chinese yuan has strengthened amid US dollar weakness though underperformance of the Chinese currency is likely versus its peers as the authorities likely aim to weaken it on a trade weighted (CFETS) basis. 

In China, the surprisingly large 15 basis point cut in 5-year loan prime rate last week will be seen as a boon for China’s property market.  However, while support for the property market has increased there does not seem to be much more stimulus ready to be unleashed despite various pledges.  China’s April data slate was weak highlighting the risks of a contraction in GDP this quarter and providing evidence that the “around 5.5%” official growth target looks increasingly out of reach.  COVID restrictions across the country are easing gradually pointing to some pick up in activity though consumption and the service sector are likely to remain under pressure for months to come as mass testing, quarantines and border controls continue to restrict mobility.  

There was relief for China’s markets today as President Biden highlighted the potential for a reduction/removal of tariffs implemented by President Trump, stating that he will discuss tariffs with Treasury Secretary Yellen when he returns from his Asia trip.  Removing tariffs is by no means a done deal given there will be plenty of pressure to maintain some level of US tariffs on China. A reduction in tariffs would be beneficial for the US in that it would help reduce imported inflation pressures while it would also help to support Chinese exports at a time when they are slowing down and adding pressure on China’s current account position.  However, some of this impact would likely be mitigated by a relatively stronger yuan, which would undoubtedly benefit as tariffs were cut.  

Key data and events highlight this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), South Korea and Turkey (both Thu).  Federal Reserve FOMC meeting minutes will also be released (Wed). Although not expected by the consensus there is a good chance that Indonesia hikes policy rates by 25 basis points. In New Zealand a 50bp hike is likely while a 25bp hike in South Korea is expected.  In contrast despite pressure on the Turkish lira and very elevated inflation no change in monetary policy is expected in Turkey this week.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes will provide further detail on how quickly the Fed wants to get to neutral rates and beyond and on its quantitative tightening policy. 

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

Weaker China data and Delta Concerns

The same old discussion continues to afflict equity investors as lofty valuations balance against a wall of liquidity.  So far liquidity is winning out as US equity indices are trading around record highs despite a surprise 13.5% plunge in August US consumer confidence released last Friday, which marked one of the largest declines ever in the University of Michigan series. In fact confidence fell to a level even below the COVID low, likely due to Delta variant concerns. 

The confidence data fuelled a bull flattening in US Treasuries and USD sell off.  As reflected in the confidence data, the Delta variant is increasingly threatening recovery and evidence of sharply rising virus cases even in highly vaccinated countries sends a worrying sign of what to expect going forward. 

Geopolitics will be in focus after the Taliban effectively took over Afghanistan after marching into Kabul yesterday.  This will have major repercussions in South Asia and the rest of the region.  Separately, Canada’s PM Trudeau has called a snap election on Sep 20 while Malaysia’s PM Yassin has resigned today.  Geopolitics, weak US confidence data, China’s regulatory crackdown and ongoing Delta variant concerns, with Philippines and Thailand registering record virus cases in Asia led to a cautious start to the week for Asia. 

Further direction came from China’s July data slate released today.  The data revealed weaker than expected outcomes across the board, with industrial production and retail sales alongside other data revealing further softening.  The releases provided more evidence that Chinese consumer caution has intensified in the wake of targeted lockdown measures in several provinces while industrial activity is being hampered by supply constraints and weakening demand for exports.

The Chinese data will likely provide more support to expectations of further easing in liquidity from the central bank (PBOC) and even policy rate cuts. Separately, China’s regulatory crackdown has extended further, weighing on Chinese and regional assets, but there is little sign that officials are looking to step back.   More broadly, weaker Chinese data will likely contribute to a near term tone of risk aversion afflicting global market sentiment amidst worsening Delta variant concerns, rising growth worries and geopolitical risks.

Over the rest of the week Fed FOMC minutes (Wed), in particular views on the shape of quantitative easing tapering, as well as central bank decisions in New Zealand (Wed), Indonesia (Thu) and Norway (Thu) are in focus.  The RBNZ is likely to be the most eventful among these, with a 25bp hike in its policy rate (OCR) expected amid firming data and rising inflation pressures.  Key data this week includes US July retail sales (Tue), with falls in both the headline and control group readings likely as the boost to spending from stimulus and reopening fades. 

Lots Of Buyers On Dips

Last week’s bout of risk-aversion proved short-lived though more volatility likes lies ahead. The reflation trade looked like it was falling apart last week as reflected in the sharp decline in US Treasury bond yields and the shift out of value into big tech/growth stocks.  The markets appeared to have increasingly absorbed the Fed’s message that inflation increases will be transitory while a reversal of crowded market positioning in reflation trades exacerbated the moves.  The malaise in markets coincided with several indicators revealing peak growth has passed and the rapid spread of the Delta variant globally.

However, clearly that didn’t appear to be the case by the end of last week as equities rallied strongly and the US Treasury curve shifted higher.  The US dollar gave up some of its gains while oil and gold rallied.  While there are still concerns about peak growth passing and the rapid spread of the Delta variant, there are obviously still plenty of buyers willing to jump in on dips. 

China’s central bank, PBoC went ahead with a much anticipated reserve requirement ratio cut sooner than expected on Friday though this targeted liquidity easing is unlikely to change the fact that growth is losing momentum amid a weakening credit impulse.  This week, key events include China’s June trade data (Tue) for which outsized gains in exports and imports is likely.  China’s monetary and credit aggregates will also be out sometime over the week as well as Q2 GDP and the June data dump, with some further moderation likely to be revealed. 

Top US data includes June CPI inflation (Tue) and retail sales (Fri).  CPI is likely to record another sizeable 4.9% y/y increase though the Fed’s repeated message of transitory inflation, will limit any market concerns over inflation pressures.  Also given the gyrations in markets last week, there will be even more focus on Federal Reserve Chair Powell’s semi-annual testimony to Congress (Wed & Thu).  The start of the Q2 earnings season will also come under scrutiny, with expectations of a 63% surge forecast according to FactSet data.   

Monetary policy rate decisions in New Zealand, Canada, Turkey (all on Wed), Korea (Thu) and Japan (Fri) are on tap, with the former two likely to reveal upbeat views while the CBRT in Turkey will have limited room to ease given the recent spike in inflation.  BoK in Korea may dial back a little of its hawkish rhetoric giving increasing virus cases in the country, while BoJ in Japan is likely to revise higher its inflation forecasts but leave its economic outlook unchanged.  Australian and UK jobs data (Thu) will also garner attention. 

What Could Prompt Higher Volatility?

Equities were buoyed last week in the wake of US President Biden’s infrastructure deal and renewed reflation trade optimism amid mixed post Federal Reserve FOMC messages from Fed officials. This resulted in US stocks recording their biggest weekly gain since February.  The prospects of passing the infrastructure deal has improved in the wake of Biden’s decision not to tie it to a much larger spending package that is being pushed through by Democrats but is not supported by Republicans. 

Given heightened sensitivity over inflation, the slightly weaker than expected US Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data on Friday, which increased 0.5% m/m in May, slightly below the 0.6% consensus, added further support to the reflation trade, helping the US Treasury curve to steepen.  Moreover, the University of Michigan 5-10y inflation expectations series came in lower in June compared to the previous month. Fed officials likely put much more emphasis on this long-term series and will view the 2.8% reading as consistent with their “largely transitory” take on the pickup in inflation.

Cross-asset volatility has continued to decline, which bodes well for carry trades and risk assets.  For example, the VIX “fear gauge” index has dropped to pre-COVID level, something that has been echoed in other market volatility measures.  However, it’s hard to ignore the shift in tone from many central banks globally to a more hawkish one while risk asset momentum will likely wane as the strength of recovery slows, suggesting that low volatility may not persist.  It is notable that changes in global excess liquidity and China’s credit impulse have both weakened, implying a downdraft for risk assets and commodity prices and higher volatility. 

If there is anything that could prompt any increase in volatility this week, its the US June jobs report on Friday.  June likely saw another strong (consensus 700k) increase in nonfarm payrolls while the unemployment rate likely dropped to 5.7% from 5.8% previously.  Despite the likely strong gain in hiring, payrolls would still be close to 7 million lower compared to pre-COVID levels, suggesting a long way to go before the US jobs market normalises. The June US Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index will also come under scrutiny though little change is expected from the May reading, with a 61.0 outcome likely from 61.2 in May. 

Other data and events of importance this week include the 100th year anniversary of China’s Communist Party (Thu), the release of purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally including China’s official NBS PMI (Wed) for which a slight moderation is expected.  Eurozone June CPI inflation (Wed) which is likely to edge lower, Sweden’s Riksbank policy decision (Thu) where an unchanged outcome is likely and Bank of England (BoE) Governor Bailey’s Mansion House Speech (Thu), will be among the other key events in focus this week. 

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