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. 

Regulatory Crackdown

How much can global markets withstand the combined US and Chinese regulatory onslaught on Chinese tech stocks and Chinese companies listed in the US? Notably Chinese regulators have called for talks with the US Securities and Exchange Commission over the decision to halt US IPOs of Chinese companies. Given that regulators on both sides do not seem to be letting up, the risks are skewed towards increased contagion though Chinese stocks have already fallen sharply over recent weeks, with the CSI 300 down around 15% since its high in February.

Unfortunately Chinese stocks and investors in these stocks are the casualties of a regulatory crackdown on consumer internet stocks and more recently Chinese private education companies. While the idea is not to provoke market volatility, regulators in China are unlikely to back off quickly even as the tone of the crackdown is likely to be less aggressive in the weeks ahead.

Stocks ended last week and began this week softer amid such concerns while the softer than expected US Q2 GDP print last week didn’t help matters.  More evidence that peak US growth has passed was delivered yesterday, with the US ISM manufacturing index surprising to the downside in July, declining to 59.5 — its lowest level since January but still at a relatively high level. US economic surprises (according to the Citi index) are negative and at their lowest in over a year.

The below consensus outcome for China’s manufacturing purchasing manager’s index which slipped closer towards contraction is unlikely to be helpful for markets either as the data adds to signs of moderating economic growth in China.  China’s softer July PMI releases have left a sour taste for Asian markets given more evidence of moderation in activity while the spread of the Delta variant amid low vaccination rates, still points to underperformance of regional markets. 

US dollar sentiment has continued to improve as reflected in speculative futures data (CFTC IMM data on non-commercial futures) which shows that the market holds the biggest net aggregate USD long position since March 2020.  Nonetheless, it still seems difficult to see dollar upside momentum increase given very low US real yields.  Moreover, the fact that the market is now long USD according to the IMM data, means scope for any short covering rally has dissipated.

Key data and events this week include the Bank of England (Thu) and Reserve Bank of India (Fri) policy decisions and US jobs July report (Fri).  No rate changes are likely from any of these as was the case with today’s decision by the Reserve Bank of Australia. As for US payrolls, the consensus expectation looks for a strong 900,000 increase in July and for the unemployment rate to fall to 5.7%.  

Market Cross-Currents

There are many cross currents afflicting markets at present.  Equity valuations look high but US earnings have been strong so far, with close to 90% of S&P 500 earnings coming in above expectations. This has helped to buoy equity markets despite concerns over the spreading of the Delta COVID variant and its negative impact on recovery.  Yet the market doesn’t appear entirely convinced on the recovery trade, with small caps continuing to lag mega caps. 

The USD index (DXY) remained supported at the end of last week even as US yields remain capped, but the USD does appear to be losing momentum. Positioning has now turned long according to the CFTC IMM data indicating that the short covering rally is largely exhausted; aggregate net USD positioning vs. major currencies (EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD & CHF as a percent of open interest) turned positive for the first time in over a year. 

Inflation fears have not dissipated especially after recent above consensus consumer price index (CPI) readings, for example in the US and UK.  Reflecting such uncertainty, interest rate market volatility remains high as seen in the ICE BofA MOVE index while inflation gauges such as 5y5y swaps have pushed higher in July.  There was some better news on the inflationary front at the end of last week, with the Markit US July purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealing an easing in both input and selling prices for a second straight month, albeit remaining at an elevated level. 

This week we will get more information on inflation trends, with the June Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report in the US (Fri), Eurozone July CPI (Fri), Australia Q2 CPI (Wed) and Canada June CPI (Wed), on tap this week.  We will also get to see whether the Fed is more concerned about inflation risks at the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meeting (Wed).  The Fed is likely to continue to downplay the surge in inflation, arguing that it is transitory, while the standard of “substantial further progress” remains a “ways off”.   Nonetheless, it may not be long before the Fed is more explicit in announcing that is formally moving towards tapering. 

An emerging markets central bank policy decision in focus this week is the National Bank of Hungary (NBH) where a 15bp hike in the base rate is expected.  Central banks in emerging markets are taking differing stances, with for example Russia hiking interest rates by 100 basis points at the end of the week while China left its Loan Prime Rate unchanged.  The July German IFO business climate survey later today will be in focus too (consensus 102.5).  Overall, amid thinner summer trading conditions market activity is likely to be light this week.

Two Speed Recovery

The spread of the COVID Delta variant globally holds key risks for markets in the weeks ahead.  However, as long as hospitalisation rates remain relatively low, it should be less detrimental to the path of re-opening in countries with higher vaccination rates.  As a stark example, the UK will shed almost all of its COVID restrictions today despite spiking COVID cases amid relatively low hospitalisation rates.  

This is particularly difficult for many emerging markets including much of Asia given low vaccination rates.  As such, a two-speed recovery between developed and emerging economies is occurring, with the former registering much higher vaccination rates compared to the latter.  Unlike the move to re-open in developed markets, re-opening in many emerging markets is far more difficult given sharply increasing hospitalisation rates among unvaccinated people as the Delta variant runs rampant. 

As such, the risks of renewed restrictions in many countries could put the global recovery process in jeopardy at a time when we are already past peak growth.  Maybe this is helping to dampen US bond yields or yields are being supressed by the fact that the market has a lot of faith in the Fed even as inflation has surprised on the upside in many countries.  Whatever the cause, US 10y bond yields have slipped below 1.3% back to levels not seen since mid-February and continue to edge lower.    

Event highlights this week include several central bank policy decisions including in China (Tue), Eurozone, Indonesia, South Africa (all Wed) and Russia (Fri).  No changes are expected for China’s Loan Prime Rate (LPR) though the risk of easing has increased marginally following the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) reserve requirements (RRR) cut last week. The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) is expected to hike by 75bp, with risks of a bigger move.  Bank Indonesia is likely to remain on hold despite growing economic pressure.  South Africa’s Reserve Bank (SARB) is expected to remain on hold and remain dovish while a change in forward guidance from the European Central Bank (ECB) is expected this week. 

Oil will be in focus today after OPEC+ agreed on a deal to expand output, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia putting away differences to agree upon a 400k barrels a day increase in output from August.  The US dollar (USD) is trading firmer, but overall looks like it is close to topping out.  For example, EURUSD looks oversold relative to real rate differentials.  Interest rates markets will eye US fiscal developments, with Democrats crafting the budget resolution needed for a reconciliation bill, which may see additional progress this week.

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. 

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