Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

Reflation Trade Is Back

A much softer than expected US January jobs report didn’t prevent US equities from closing higher at the end of last week as the reflation trade kicked back in.  One of the biggest driving forces for markets was the growing prospects that much of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plan will be passed, albeit via a process of reconciliation, which allows Democrats to circumvent the need to gain the support of at least 10 republicans. This contrasts with prior expectations that the final stimulus was going to be less than $1 trillion. 

Pushing stimulus through this way highlights Biden’s urgency to inject more spending into the economy but could come at the cost of hurting bipartisan policy efforts. The impact of expectations of increased fiscal stimulus is particularly apparent in the US rates market, with US Treasuries selling off and bear steepening of the curve.  Although higher US Treasury yields failed to give support to the US dollar (USD) there is still scope for a short covering rally, which could still help give the USD relief.     

At the beginning of the year the US jobs market took a hit from renewed lockdowns and surge in COVID cases; US January non-farm payrolls increased 49k, and December was revised to -227k from -140k while more positively the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7% though this was flattered by a drop in the participation rate as less people were looking for work.  According to the payrolls report there are still 9.9 million more unemployed compared to pre-COVID levels.  As such, the weak jobs data added more support to Biden’s fiscal stimulus proposals.   

This week focus will likely turn more to President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate than economic data.  Key data/events this week include China’s credit and monetary aggregates (9-15 Feb), central bank decisions in Sweden (Wed), Philippines, Mexico (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Among these the consensus is for only Mexico to cut its policy rate. Also in focus are inflation readings in China (Wed), US (Wed) and India (Fri).  UK GDP (Fri) and US Michigan sentiment (Fri) will also garner attention. 

The return of the reflation trade, rally in risk assets and decline in cross-asset volatility bodes well for emerging markets (EM) assets.  However, there are definitely various cross currents impacting asset markets at present especially with US Treasury yields rising, which could potentially support the USD and pressure EM local bond rates markets.  EM assets were clearly favoured towards the end of last year, and while the positive story has not dissipated, EM assets may take a pause for breath before pushing higher again.  

In Asia, the Chinese-new-year holidays this week may dampen activity while China’s PBoC also appears to be limiting liquidity injections around the holidays, which could limit some of the gains in Chinese and impact China linked assets.  Chinese authorities have re-focussed attention on preventing an excessive build-up of leverage and credit metrics have peaked as a result.  As such, they may be less keen to inject a lot of liquidity into markets at present. 

The Week Ahead

This week the difficulty of trying to pass President Biden’s $1.8tn stimulus package through Congress is likely to become increasingly apparent.  Many Senate republicans are already balking at the price tag and contents, adding more weight to the view of an eventual passage of a sub $1tn package of measures (see my explanation of why Republican support is needed). One of the most contentious issues is likely to be a federally mandated $15 minimum wage. 

At least, the Senate won’t be juggling the impeachment of Donald Trump, at the same time as debating administration nominations and President Biden’s fiscal proposal, with the impeachment trial now scheduled for the week of February 8.

The contrast between US and European data at the end of last week was clear in the release of Markit purchasing managers indices (PMI) data.  US PMI’s registered strong flash readings for January, with both the manufacturing and services indices rising while in contrast the Eurozone composite PMI fell in January, sliding further into contraction.  A disappointing UK retail sales report highlighted the pressure on the UK high street too. 

The reality is that many developed economies are struggling into the new year, with a sharp increase in virus cases including new variants, slower than hoped for rollout of vaccines, and vaccine production shortages, all pointing to a later than expected recovery phase. 

This week, the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) will garner most attention in markets. A few Fed officials mentioned tapering recently, clearly rattling markets, as memories of the 2013 “taper tantrum” came back to the surface.  After tamping down on any taper talk Fed Chair Powell is likely remain dovish even as he expresses some optimism on growth.  Growth in Q4 will have looked weak and US Q4 GDP (Thu) will be in focus, with most components likely to have slowed.  A plethora of earnings releases will continue this week including key releases from the likes of Microsoft, AMD, Tesla, Apple and Facebook. 

A dovish FOMC will do no favours for the US dollar (USD), which came under renewed pressure last week.  However, risk assets appear to be struggling a little and should risk appetite worsen it could boost the USD, especially given extreme short positioning in the currency. Emerging Market currencies will be particularly vulnerable if any rally in the USD is associated with higher US real yields. 

Sell On Fact

It was a case of buy on rumour, sell on fact at the end of last week, with US equities falling the most in over a week on Friday in the wake of the much anticipated but largely priced in announcement of President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal plan.  While the amount of stimulus is significant the reality is that it will be difficult to pass through Congress even though Democrats will have control of Congress and the Presidency. Something in the region of $1 trillion fiscal stimulus could end up being the price tag that is eventually passed in Congress given Republican opposition to some of the measures in the stimulus plan.  This would likely be followed by a possible $2trn+ plan for infrastrucutre/green spending.

Note that a 60-vote supermajority will be required to pass the fiscal legislation in the Senate, meaning that several Republicans will need to support the bill given the 50/50 Senate split.  Hence, a likely lower than $1.9trn eventual stimulus bill will be what is eventually passed. However, Democrats can pass the spending bill via “reconciliation”, but they would have to remove unrelated measures such as the proposed increase in the minimum wage, which they will unlikely want to do. 

Treasuries and the US dollar (USD) benefited from a worsening in risk sentiment at the end of last week.  USD positioning is at extremely low level, suggesting scope for some short covering. The VIX equity volatility index ticked higher and continues to remain well above its pre-COVID lows.  Given that many key equity gauges were in overbought territory according to their relative strength index (RSIs) some pullback/consolidation could be on the cards though the glut of global liquidity suggests that there is still plenty of money ready to buy on dips.  Yesterday US markets were closed due to the Martin Luther King Holiday, but Canadian and European stocks ended higher and futures point to gains today. 

US data isn’t helping sentiment, with yet more evidence that the economy was under pressure at the end of 2020.  Retail sales fell for a third consecutive month, the New York Empire manufacturing index fell for a fourth consecutive month in January. Lastly, University of Michigan consumer sentiment fell modestly early January.  Market direction today will likely come from the release of China’s December data dump as well as Q4 GDP.  In contrast to weakening US data Chinese data yesterday highlighted that solid recovery was sustained into year end, with GDP beating expectations, rising by 6.5% y/y in Q4 2020.  

The rest of this week is a heavy one for central bank decisions, with China, Malaysia, Canada (Wed), Indonesia, Eurozone, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil (Thu) and Japan (Fri) on tap.  In terms of policy action Malaysia is likely to cut, Turkey will likely tighten but the rest will likely be on hold.   The main event of the week is Joe Biden’s inauguration as 46th President of the US on Wednesday, and attendant risks of renewed unrest.  US Q4 earnings releases will also be in focus in the days ahead, with earnings releases ramping up over coming days.

Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

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