All Bets Are Off!

For anyone thinking that markets had already fully priced aggressive Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes, last week’s message from the US May CPI inflation report as well the ECB meeting was crystal clear.  All bets are off!  The US CPI report destroyed any hopes that US inflation had peaked with headline CPI surging 1% on the month and the annual rate hitting a new post-COVID high of 8.6%.  If there was ever any doubt, the data not only seals the case for at least a 50 basis point (1/2 %) hike at this Wednesday’s Fed FOMC meeting but increases the risk of a 75bp move though the latter still seems unlikely.  More likely, the Fed embarks on a series of 50bps hikes. . 

Separately, the ECB shifted away from its long held dovish stance and announced an expected end to its bond purchase plan (APP) at the beginning of July, effectively pre-announced a 25bp policy rate hike in July and 25-50bp hikes in September, with the central bank expecting to maintain a tightening cycle beyond September.  Many other central banks are scrambling to catch up the curve as inflation pressures end up being much higher than many of them previously anticipated.  There are exceptions of course such as Japan (see below), Russia recently cut its policy rate by 150bp and China which may still cut policy rates in the weeks ahead (watch this week’s 1y Medium Term Lending Facility decision, with a small 5-10bp cut possible), but these exceptions are few and far between.

The jump in US inflation will also further support the US dollar, keeping it on the front in the days ahead against most other currencies.  Already at the start of the week, most currencies were hurt in the face of a resurgent US dollar, especially high beta emerging market currencies. Separately, market volatility measures (e.g. MOVE and VIX) are likely to rise while liquidity is likely to remain poor.  Risk assets overall are likely to struggle against this background. Overall, it’s hard to see sentiment turn around quickly.

This week the main focus will be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) but there are also several other central bank decisions of interest including the BCB in Brazil (Wed) where consensus expects the pace of hikes to slow to 50bp.  Additionally, 25bp rate hikes from the Bank of England and CBC in Taiwan (both Thu) are expected while the Bank of Japan (Fri) meeting is likely to be uneventful as BoJ governor Kuroda has doubled down on his aggressive stimulus stance while noting that a weaker Japanese yen benefits the economy.  Key data this week includes likely yet more weak Chinese activity data in May (Wed), jobs data the UK (Tue) and Australia (Thu) and a likely stronger than consensus increase in May  US retail sales (Wed).  

Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

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.

Federal Reserve Speakers In Focus

After a major flattening of the US Treasury curve last week in the wake of the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, this week will be important to determine how comfortable the Fed is with the market reaction to its shift in stance, with a number of speakers on tap including Fed Chairman Powell who testifies to Congress today.

In summary, the Fed FOMC was much less dovish than expected and acknowledged that they are formally thinking about thinking about tapering. The most obvious shift was in the Fed FOMC dot plot, with the median Fed official now expecting 50bp of tightening by the end of 2023.  

Notably, St. Louis Fed President Bullard was even more hawkish on Friday, highlighting the prospects of a “late 2022” hike in US policy rates.  Moreover, Fed speakers overnight did not walk back from the FOMC statement, with Presidents Bullard, Kaplan and Williams delivering views.  Kaplan favours tapering “sooner rather than later”, while Bullard highlighted upside risks to inflation. 

Nonetheless despite hawkish comments, markets have calmed somewhat following the sharp post FOMC reaction last week, which reeked of a major positioning squeeze.  Longer end US Treasury yields move higher overnight while equities recouped losses and the USD weakened. Today most attention will fall on Fed Chairman Powell’s testimony before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on “The Federal Reserve’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” 

This week there are also several central bank decisions on hand.  Yesterday, China’s central bank PBoC, left policy on hold for a 14th straight month. China is in no rush to raise its policy rate and will likely focus on liquidity adjustments to fine tune policy. Other central bank policy decisions this week will come from Hungary (today), Thailand (Wed), Czech Republic (Wed), Philippines, UK, and Mexico (all on Thu).  

The NBH in Hungary is expected to hike policy rates, with both the 1 week depo rate and base rate likely to be hiked by 30bps. The Czech National bank is also expected to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates expected by consensus.  All the rest are forecast to leave policy on hold.  The key data releases this week will be the US May PCE report on Friday, which will likely reveal another sharp rise in prices.  

Although the USD weakened overnight it still looks positive technically, with the dollar index (DXY) remaining above its 200-day moving and MACD differential remaining positive. The Asian dollar index (ADXY) marks an interesting level for Asian FX as its is verging on a break below its 200-day moving average around 108.2861.  As such, the USD bounce may have a little more to run in the short term.

The euro (EUR) will be in focus to see if it breaks below 1.19, with the currency looking vulnerable on a technical basis to further downside. Similarly, the Australian dollar (AUD) is trading just below its 200 day moving average any may struggle to appreciate in the short term.

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. 

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