Fiscal Deadlock/China data

This week kicked off with a heavy China’s Sep data slate and Q3 GDP today.  The data releases were positive, revealing yet more signs of strengthening recovery. Industrial production, retail sales, jobs and property investment all beat expectations while Q3 GDP fell short. The data supports the view that China will be one of the only major economies to record positive growth this year. This bodes well for China’s markets and will likely also filter into improving prospects for the rest of Asia.

In contrast US recovery continues to be at risk, with fiscal stimulus discussions remaining deadlocked; a 75-minute conversation between House Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin yielded no progress at the end of last week.  Pelosi has now given a 48-hour deadline to agree on stimulus while Senate majority leader McConnell has scheduled a Senate vote on a more targeted $500bn bill tomorrow. Talks are scheduled to continue today but there still seems to be little chance of a deal this side of elections. 

On the data front, US Sep retail sales data registered broad-based gains on Friday, with headline sales up 1.9% m/m (consensus 0.8%). In contrast, industrial production fell a sharp 0.6% m/m in Sep (consensus +0.5%).  Lastly, Michigan consumer sentiment rose in the preliminary Oct report to 81.2 from 80.4 in Sep (consensus 80.5).  The lack of a fiscal deal means that the prospects of a loss of momentum in the US economy has grown, something that will become more apparent in the weeks ahead. US data is limited this week and instead focus will remain on progress or lack thereof, on fiscal stimulus as well as the Presidential debate towards the end of the week. 

Another saga that is showing little progress is EU/UK Brexit transition talks.  The stakes have risen, with UK PM Johnson warning UK businesses to prepare for a hard exit while threatening to abandon talks completely.  On a more positive note UK officials are reportedly prepared to rewrite the contentious Internal Market Bill, which may appease the EU.  Credit ratings agencies are running out patience however, with Moody’s downgrading the UK ratings by one notch to Aa3. The pound seems to be taking all of this in it stride, clinging to the 1.30 level against the US dollar, suggesting that FX markets are not yet panicking about the prospects of a no deal transition.

Several emerging markets central banks are in focus this week including in China (Tue), Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), and Russia (Fri).  Of these Turkey is expected to hike by 150 basis points, but the rest are likely to stand pat.  Most central banks are taking a wait and see approach, especially ahead of US elections. Reserve Bank of Australia meeting minutes tomorrow will garner attention too, with clues sought on a potential rate cut next month.  

Rocky Road

Despite the rally in US stocks on Friday, led by the technology sector, US stocks have fallen for four straight weeks.  The jury is still out on whether equities and risk assets in general can rally in the face of a host of uncertainties in the weeks ahead including the potential for a contested US election, fading US economic momentum, lack of progress on “Phase 4” US fiscal stimulus and a resurgence in virus cases globally.  What is clear, is that the road ahead is a rocky one, reflected in the fact that equity volatility (VIX) remains elevated and G10 FX options implied volatility around the time of the US election has spiked. 

One of the main beneficiaries of this uncertainty has been the US dollar lately, much to the detriment of precious metals given their strong inverse correlation.  It wasn’t that long ago that most commentators were writing off the USDs prospects and it’s still not clear that its recovery can persist.  The USD has hit its highest level in 2 months but will likely struggle if equities can eke out further gains in the days ahead.  In contrast, gold is trading around its lowest levels in 2 months.  While these trends may persist in the very short term, technical indicators (eg Relative Strength Index) indicate approaching overbought USD and oversold gold levels. 

This week, the main focus will be on the first US Presidential debate on Tuesday and US September jobs report at the end of the week.  While the US jobs report will likely show a relatively strong (when compared to pre-covid levels) increase in hiring (consensus around 900k), the pace of hiring is likely to slow and employment is still likely to be at least 11 million lower compared to February.  The battle for the new US Supreme Court Justice adds another twist, with President Trump announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and the Senate moving ahead to vote on this nomination this side of the election.  This has changed the dynamics ahead of the election battle, energizing voters on both sides. 

In Asia, China’s September purchasing managers indices (PMIs) and monetary policy decisions in India and Philippines will garner most attention this week.  China’s economy is emerging from the Covid crisis in good shape, helped by resilient exports performance, with medical goods and electronics exports performing particularly well.  This is likely to be reflected in China’s PMIs this week, which are set to remain in expansion territory. Meanwhile US government pressure on Chinese technology companies continues to rise, with the US government reportedly sanctioning China’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC.  This may draw a retaliatory response from China, such as adding US companies to China’s “unreliable entities” list.  

India’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) monetary policy decision is likely to result in an unchanged outcome on Thursday.  While growth has been hit badly due to Covid-19, inflation has also spiked to well above the RBI’s target, leaving the central bank in a difficult position on policy.  Ultimately the RBI will have to ease monetary policy further, but it is unlikely to do so at its meeting on Thursday.  India’s economy is fast heading for a double-digit plunge in growth this year and unfortunately virus cases remain at very high levels.  The rupee has been resilient, however, and is unlikely to weak much further in the short term, even as the economy softens. 

Lingering Disappointment

Another soft close to US stock markets at the end of last week sets up for a nervous start to the week ahead.  The S&P 500 has now declined for a third straight week, with tech stocks leading the way lower as more froth is blown way from the multi-month run up in these stocks.  Lingering disappointment in the wake of the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting is one factor that has weighed on risk assets.  More details on how the Fed plans to implement its new policy on average inflation targeting will be sought. Markets will also look to see whether the Fed is pondering any changes to its Quantitative Easing program. This week Fed officials will get the opportunity to elaborate on their views, with several Fed speeches in the pipeline including three appearances by Fed Chair Powell. 

Disappointment on monetary policy can be matched with a lack of progress on the fiscal front, with hopes of an agreement on Phase 4 fiscal stimulus ahead of US elections fading rapidly.  A loss of momentum in US economic activity as reflected in the NY Fed’s weekly economic index and declining positive data surprises as reflected in the Citi Economic Surprise Index, are beginning to show that the need for fresh stimulus is growing.  On the political front, the situation has become even more tense ahead of elections; following the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attention this week will focus on President Trump’s pick to replace her, adding another twist to the battle between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the election.    

Another major focal point ahead of elections is US-China tensions, which continue to simmer away. China’s economy and currency continue to outperform even as tensions mount.  August’s slate of Chinese data were upbeat and China’s currency (CNY) is increasingly reflecting positive economic momentum, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index rising to multi week highs.  There is every chance that tensions will only get worse ahead of US elections, likely as the US maintains a tough approach in the weeks ahead but so far Chinese and Asian markets in general are not reacting too much.  This may change if as is likely, tensions worsen further. 

After last week’s heavy slate of central bank meetings, this week is also going to see many central banks deliberate on monetary policy.  The week kicks off with China’s Loan Prime Rate announcement (Mon), followed by policy decisions in Hungary and Sweden (both Tue), New Zealand, Thailand, Norway (all on Wed), and Turkey (Thu).  Markets expect all of the central banks above to keep policy unchanged as was the case with the many central banks announcing policy decisions last week.  The lack of central bank action adds further evidence that 1) growth is starting to improve in many countries and 2) the limits of conventional policy are being reached.  While renewed rounds of virus infections threaten the recovery process much of the onus on policy action is now on the fiscal front. 

Will Stability Return?

After a very nervous end to last week, with US tech stocks leading the sell-off in US equity markets amid lofty valuations, heavy positioning and stretched technical indicators, markets will look for signs that stability will return in the days ahead.  However, the November US election is increasing in prominence as a market driver, something that is beginning to manifest itself in equity volatility and will likely play more of a role for FX and rates markets volatility going forward. 

The fact that there has been little progress between Democrats and the US administration on further fiscal stimulus adds to the uncertainty for markets ahead of US elections.  Also after Fed Chair Powell’s Jackson Hole speech in which he unveiled a new average inflation strategy, markets will look for this to be reflected in forward guidance. This could happen as early as this month’s FOMC meeting on September 16 but will more likely take place later.

After a torrid several weeks the US dollar made some recovery last week amid short covering, but underlying sentiment remains weak (latest CFTC IMM data shows speculative USD positioning languishing around multi-year lows).  Whether the USD can make a more sustainable recovery remains doubtful in the weeks ahead of US elections and is more difficult given the Fed’s more dovish shift.  However, in the near term there may be more scope for short covering.

Key highlights this week are China Aug trade data today, US Aug CPI (Fri), Bank of Canada meeting (Wed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank Negara Malaysia (Thu).  Among these the ECB meeting will be interesting; while a policy change is unlikely the ECB will probably highlight its readiness to act further to address downside inflation risks.  The ECB may also be more vocal about the recent strengthening of the euro to a two-year high, but aside from jawboning, there is little the ECB is likely to do about it. 

Emerging markets assets have benefitted from a weaker USD and but with growth remaining under pressure as likely to be revealed in weak Russian and South African GDP data this week while Covid cases in many EM countries continue to rise rapidly, risks remain high.  China’s trade data will give some early direction this week, but with US-China trade tensions only likely to escalate further, the outlook for emerging markets assets is clouded in uncertainty. 

US/China – The Gloves Are Off

The delay in the Phase 1 trade deal review (initially slated for Sat 15 Aug) will come as a disappointment though it was reported that it did not reflect any substantive problem with the trade deal, but rather to give China more time to increase purchases of US goods.  China’s reported desire to include TikToK and WeChat restrictions to the discussions may have also played a part.  The Phase 1 review delay followed by President Trump’s order for ByteDance to divest TikTok’s US operations within 90 days and ending of a waiver allowing US companies to continue selling goods to Huawei, ratchets up tensions another notch.

It is abundantly clear that ahead of US elections in November the gloves have come off.  More is yet come and next steps may involve sanctions against more Chinese companies and eventually even Chinese banks.  China’s reaction continues to be measured, which suggests the broader impact on risk appetite will remain contained for now.  China wants to retain foreign investment and has continued to enact measures to open up to such investment.  Reciprocating sanctions on US companies in China would go against this path and seems unlikely to take place unless tensions worsen further.

However, it is not clear that China’s actions will remain measured. The US administration is set on pushing more sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies in what has become a whole of government approach. This is something that has broad based bipartisan support within the electorate.  The risk of crossing certain red lines, perhaps (though still unlikely as Trump sees this as a key success of his Presidency) by scrapping Phase 1 or perhaps by sanctioning Chinese banks by cutting them out of the USD liquidity and payments system and/or by some sort of military escalation in the South China Sea, could yet lead to a much more significant reaction from China and a more severe impact on global markets.

The likely path however, is that the US administration will try to keep Phase 1 alive even as China is far behind its targets on imports of US goods; according to PIIE through the first 6 months of the year China’s purchases of US goods were 39% (US exports data) or 48% (Chinese imports data) of their year-to-date targets.  Given the gap, in part due to Covid, but also due to initially ambitious targets, the delay in the Phase review should not be a big surprise.  The US may be wiling to give China some room to try to move towards reaching its targets, but the gap will not be easy to bridge.  Regardless, US/China tensions will be an ever present part of the landscape in the months ahead of US elections and markets may not remain as sanguine as they have been so far.

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