A Sour Note

Markets ended last week on a sour note as a few underlying themes continue to afflict investor sentiment.  The latest concern was the decision by US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to pull back the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program despite Fed objections. The timing is clearly not ideal given the worsening in the US economy likely in the next few weeks amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, and lack of fiscal stimulus.  That said, these facilities have hardly been used, due in part to stringent terms on many of these lending facilities.  Also pulling the funds back from the Fed could give Congress room to move towards a fiscal deal.  The decision may also not get in President-elect Biden’s way; if he needs the funds for the Fed to ramp up lending the Treasury can quickly extend funding without Congressional approval when he becomes President.  However, no new credit will be available in these programs during the interim period before he takes office, which could present risks to the economy.

Equity markets will continue to struggle in the near term amid a continued surge in Covid cases.  The latest data revealed that the US registered a one-day record of 192,000 cases.  More and more states are implementing stricter social distancing measures, but its worth noting that restrictions are less severe than in March-April.   There are also growing concerns that the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will result in an even more rapid spread of the virus, with the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommending Americans not travel over this period.  The battle playing on investor sentiment between rising Covid cases and the arrival of several vaccines, is being won by Covid worries at present, a factor that will likely continue to restrain investor sentiment for equities and other risk assets over the short term at a time when major US equity indices are running up against strong technical resistance levels. 

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) for the 5th November meeting.  While there were no new actions at this meeting the minutes may shed light on the Fed’s options to change “parameters” of quantitative easing (QE) and how close the Fed is to lengthening the maturity of its asset purchases.  Separately October US Personal Income and Spending data (Wednesday) will likely show some softening as fiscal stimulus fades.  Elsewhere, Eurozone and UK service purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Monday) will likely reveal continued weakness in contraction territory as lockdown restrictions bite into activity.  Brexit discussions will be under scrutiny, with speculation growing that we could see a deal early in the week.  On the monetary policy front, decisions in Sweden and Korea (both on Thursday) will focus on unconventional policy, with potential for the Riksbank in Sweden to extend its quantitative easing program and Bank of Korea likely to focus on its lending programs and liquidity measures, rather than cut its policy rate.  Finally, expect another strong increase in Chinese industrial profits for October (Friday).

In Asia, official worries about currency appreciation are becoming increasingly vocal.  As the region continues to outperform both on the Covid control and growth recovery front, foreign inflows are increasingly being attracted to Asia.  This is coming at a time when balance of payments positions are strengthening, with the net result of considerable upward pressure on Asian currencies at a time of broad downward USD pressure.  Central banks across the region are sounding the alarm; Bank of Korea highlighted that its “monitoring” the FX market amid Korean won appreciation while Bank of Thailand announced fresh measures to encourage domestic capital outflows, thus attempting to limit Thai baht appreciation.  In India the Reserve Bank appears to be continuing its large-scale USD buying.  In Taiwan the central bank is reportedly making it easier for investors to access life insurance policies denominated in foreign currencies. Such measures are likely to ramp up, but this will slow rather than stem further gains in Asian currencies in the weeks and months ahead in my view.

Asia In Demand

Equity markets managed to shake off Covid concerns at the end of last week despite virus cases in the US reaching a record high and Europe battling a full-blown second wave; S&P 500 and Russell 2000 hit record highs.  Asian equities started the week building on this positive momentum.  Helping markets was the news that advisors to President-elect Joe Biden have said they oppose a nationwide US lockdown despite the sharp rise in virus cases.  This will help allay fears that the US economy will weaken sharply over the next few months amid severe lockdowns and before a vaccine can be distributed.

Vaccine enthusiasm will likely play against Covid escalation in the days and weeks ahead. In the near-term slim chances of a sizeable US fiscal stimulus taken together with a more rapid increase in global Covid infections highlight clear risks to risk assets, and this may be enough to put roadblocks in place at a time when various equity indices are reaching key technical levels.  Conversely, it is too early to write the US dollar off in the short term even if the medium-term trend is likely to be downwards. 

Asia remains favoured within emerging markets, as the virus has come under control across most of the region.  News of the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal by 15 countries in the region after 8 years of negotiations, but without the US and India, provides another boost to regional economic and market prospects.  The deal is less extensive than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as it removes around 90% of tariffs rather than 100% under TPP.  Nonetheless, it is estimated that the deal could boost the global economy by close to $200bn by 2030.  Although the deal still has to be ratified by a number of countries it is a step closer to a unified trade block like the EU.   

Additionally, Chinese data today ought to be supportive for regional assets even amid the threat of further sanctions by President Trump’s administration in the weeks ahead. China’s October activity data including industrial production fixed assets investment, property investment and the jobless rate were on balance positive, showing that China’s economic recovery is gathering steam.  The data will likely provide further support to China’s markets including China’s currency, though it effectively seals the case for no further easing by China’s central bank, PBoC, while giving the rest of Asia more fuel to rally. 

Over the rest of the week emerging markets central banks will garner most attention, with a plethora of policy rate decisions on tap.  Hungary (Tue), Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and China (Fri) are set to keep policy rates on hold while Indonesia (Thu) is likely to cut by 25bps and Turkey is expected to hike its policy rate by 475bp hike (Thu).   Turkey in particular will be a focus in this respect given the replacement of central bank governor and the more than 10% rally in the Turkish lira last week.

Game Changer

Pfizer and BioNTech’s game changing announcement that its vaccine had been found to be more than 90% effective in a late stage trial added more fuel on a stock market rally that was already underway following President-elect Biden’s election win and likely split Congress.  It was the time for beaten up value/travel/oil stocks to shine while conversely stay at home stocks have come under pressure.  However, that story appeared to reverse overnight, with tech stocks making a comeback, suggesting that it’s not going to be a one way bet for value stocks. 

One obstacle is the rampant increase in virus cases in the US and Europe and risks of more lockdowns. Though the vaccine news is clearly positive its worth highlighting that it could take some time for any vaccine to be rolled out in sufficient numbers to allow for an opening up of economies anytime soon.  In the meantime, we still have to contend with a big wave of virus infections in Europe and US, which implies more economic pain to come.  All of this could put a renewed dampener on risk sentiment and limit the rally in stocks in the near term.  

Technical indicators (Relative Strength Index) suggest resistance in the short term; for example, the US Russell 2000 index (a broad small cap index) is verging on hitting Fibonacci retracement levels around 1746, while its also above its upper Bollinger band.  Not helping tech stocks is the regulatory stance, with Amazon hit by an antitrust charge from regulators in the EU.  The USD’s weakness also looks overdone in the short term. In particular, technical indicators show that Asian currencies and dollar bloc currencies (CAD, AUD, NZD) look stretched. The USD is likely to make further gains in the short term even as its medium term outlook remains more negative.

Meanwhile Republicans are increasingly standing with President Trump in not accepting the outcome of the election, fuelling concerns about the transition process, even as President-elect Biden’s lead in various states has grown. Many are doing so with an eye on 2024 elections. Georgia is auditing the presidential results in its state by hand, but even so, it seems extremely unlikely that Trump can reverse Biden’s 14k lead in the state and even if that does occur it wouldn’t change the outcome. 

Finally, Back To The Economy

The election of President Elect Biden marks a new dawn for the US and the world.  The world had held its breath since Tuesday’s US election, wondering whether there would be four more years of the same or change.  A new Democratic President elect together with a split Congress, is arguably one of the best outcomes that markets could have hoped for, notwithstanding the fact that President Trump refuses to accept defeat. 

While the Senate is still up for grabs it seems more likely than not to stay in Republican hands; the Georgia run offs on 5 January could result in 50-50 in the Senate and effective Democrat control via Vice President elect Harris, but the probability of this is small.  As such, there seems little prospect that a Republican led Senate -– will be pliable to President elect Biden’s biding. 

Why is this good for markets?  It means that policies and members of Biden’s cabinet will likely veer towards more centrist as opposed to leftish aims.  It will for example, be difficult for Biden to hike taxes, which will take out some of the sting from a likely smaller fiscal package than Democrats had hoped for. And limited fiscal spending may keep the onus on the Fed to provide liquidity, underpinning markets further.  

Now that the Presidency has been decided, attention will turn at least in part, back to Covid and the economy.  Neither look encouraging.  Covid cases in the US have reached record levels.  US October jobs data released at the end of last week revealed an above consensus 638,000 increase in non- farm payrolls though the level of payrolls is still down a sizable 10.1mn from the level in February and the fading CARES Act spending alongside surge in Covid cases indicates risks to any further improvement going forward.

Top tier data is limited this week in the US, with inflation (CPI) as the main release on tap (Thurday).  Nonetheless, risk assets/equities are likely to continue to take on a positive tone in the wake of the election outcome. The USD is likely to remain under pressure as risk assets rally. 

A Biden presidency, split Congress bodes well for Asia.  The US stance on China would likely be more nuanced and US stance on trade would likely be more supportive.  As revealed in China’s October trade data over the weekend, exports are holding up particularly well even ahead of a Biden presidency; exports rose by a very healthy 11.4% y/y in October.  

The USD is likely to depreciate in the months ahead in the wake of a Biden win/split Congress, while US rates are likely to remain suppressed, which all point to Asian FX strength.  Fundamentals also point positively for Asia. Much of the region is recovering well from Covid related weakness, led by China, which now appears to be firing on all cylinders.

US Elections – The Proof Is In The Pudding

The week ahead is a huge for data and events.  First and foremost is the US Presidential election on Tuesday.  Polls show Democratic contender Biden well in the lead over President Trump, with around an 8.8% gap in polling between the two contenders.  However, Biden has lost some ground over recent weeks in polls including in key toss-up races though betting odds actually show a late shift back in favour of Biden.  Polls predict that Democrats will also take the Senate from the Republicans and add to their majority in the House. 

While the polls indicate a Blue Wave for the Democrats there is still a healthy degree of cynicism given how badly they predicted the outcome of the 2016 election, when most pollsters predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.  In recognition pollsters say they have changed their methodologies to correct for past errors.  The proof is in the pudding and until elections are over, investors will be holding their breath.  Even after election day itself, it is not clear that we will see an outcome quickly.  A jump in early voting may complicate things as well as the large amount of mail in voting, which could in some states take days to count. 

The problem may be more acute if the election is a close call, which polls are admittedly not suggesting, but nonetheless, the potential for multiple legal challenges and even civil unrest should not be discounted.  Note that States technically have until December 14 to certify election results.  Some states that will be key to either side will be Florida and Pennsylvania as well as Michigan,  North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin.  Florida in particular, could be essential, and could be one of the first states to be called on election night.  The winner in Florida has gone on to the win the Presidency in 13 of the 14 last elections. It is also one of the closest races this time around.

All of this is taking place at a time when Covid-19 cases are accelerating, potential a bad omen for Trump given that polls have shown widespread disapproval over his handling of the virus.  Indeed, Covid inflections in the US increased by 97,000 on Friday, the largest one day increase since the outbreak of the virus. The jump in cases were led by Midwestern states, some of which are major battleground states in the elections.  Admittedly, some of the increase in cases can be ascribed to higher testing rates, but hospitalisations have also risen sharply. 

All of this doesn’t bode well for the economy.  While the third quarter registered an above consensus increase in US GDP of 33.1% on annualised basis, the outlook for Q4 looks much softer and without a new fiscal stimulus package, momentum will slow sharply.  The labour market in particular is weak and while this week’s US October employment report will likely show a strong increase in non-farm payrolls (consensus 610,000), there will still likely be around 10 million fewer jobs since February.  The Federal Reserve FOMC meeting this week is unlikely to deliver any further support, with the onus squarely on more fiscal stimulus.

Equity markets have clearly become increasingly nervous heading into the election, with US stocks registering their worst week since March amid election nervousness and spike in Covid infections.   Tech stocks were hit despite mostly beating earnings expectations.  The US dollar in contrast, made some headway, but didn’t really fully capitalise on the sell off in stocks and rise in risk aversion, that would usually be expected to propel the currency higher.   If polls are correct and there is a strong outcome for Democrats in the election, stocks will likely find their feet again, while the US dollar will resume weakness. 

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