Markets Facing a Test of Reality vs. Liquidity

Risk assets ended last week under pressure (S&P 500 fell 2.4%) as some US states including Texas and Florida began to reverse opening measures and Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert, warned that some states may have to return to full “shelter in place”.  Banks were among the worst performers even as they came through the Fed’s stress tests in reasonably good shape.  The Fed did however, cap buybacks and dividend payouts for the 33 banks that underwent tests. However, the reality is that banks were hardly likely to increase dividends over the next few months, while the 8th biggest banks had already suspended buybacks.  Perhaps what spooked markets was the news of “additional stress analyses later in the year”.

It feels like equities and risk assets in general are facing a test of reality vs. liquidity. It’s hard to fight the growth in excess liquidity global (G4 central bank balance sheets minus GDP growth) which has risen to its highest rate since Sep 2009, coinciding with a solid run in global equities over that period.  Clearly forward earnings valuations have richened but while absolute valuations appear rich (S&P forward price/earnings ratio has risen to 24.16), relative valuations ie compared to low global rates, are more attractive. This hasn’t stopped the intensification of concerns that after a solid market rally over recent months, the entry of a range of speculative investors is leading to a Minsky Moment.

Investor concerns range from the fact that the rally has been narrowly based, both in terms of the types of investors (retail investors piling in, while institutional have been more restrained) and type of stocks (momentum vs. value), the approach of US Presidential elections in November and in particular whether there could be a reversal of corporate tax cuts, as well as the potential for renewed lockdowns. Add to the mix, geopolitical concerns and a certain degree of market angst is understandable. All of this is having a growing impact on the market’s psyche even as data releases show that recovery is progressing somewhat on track, as reflected for example in the New York Fed’s weekly economic index, which has continued to become less negative and the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which is around its highest on record.

China, which was first in and now looks to be first out is a case in point, with growth data showing ongoing improvement; data today was encouraging, revealing that industrial profits rose 6% y/y in May though profits in the first five months of the year still fell 19.3%, with state-owned enterprises recording the bulk of the decline.  While there are signs that Chinese activity post-Covid is beginning to level off, domestic consumption is gradually improving. This week, market activity is likely to slow ahead of the US July 4th Independence Day holiday but there will be few key data highlights that will garnet attention, including June manufacturing PMIs in China and the US (ISM), and US June non-farm payrolls.

High Hopes

EUR/USD has rallied over recent days from a low around 1.3146 last week. Market hopes of a eurozone solution may fall flat but the pressure on officials has ratcheted higher, and the risks of failure are now too significant to jeopardize with half measures. Weekend promises of banking sector recapitalisation by Germany and France have helped but will not be enough should such promises prove empty. Markets will likely give the benefit of the doubt to eurozone officials ahead of the delayed October 23 EU Summit and the November 3 G20 meeting.

Consequently EUR will find some support over coming days and could extend gains as risk appetite improves; having broken above 1.3600 the next big resistance level for EUR/USD is 1.3800. The fact that EUR speculative positioning is very negative (biggest short position since June 2010 according to IMM data) highlights the potential for short covering.

Possible good news in Greece, with an announcement by the Troika (ECB, EU and IMF) on talks over the next tranche of the bailout will likely provide more EUR support. One stumbling block for the EUR could come from the Slovakian vote on EFSF bailout fund enhancement, which is by no means guaranteed to pass.

The JPY remains firm benefitting from higher risk aversion, registering one of the highest correlations with risk over recent months. However, the reason why the JPY is not even stronger is that bond yield differentials (especially 2-year) with the US have widened out in favour of the USD over recent days. If the recent improvement in risk appetite continues, combined with widening yield differentials it could push USD/JPY to finally move higher and sustain a break above 77.00.

GBP/USD has made an impressive bounce over recent days from a low around 1.5272 last week despite the Bank of England’s announcement of more quantitative easing last week and credit ratings downgrades of several UK banks. This resilience is impressive but it appears that GBP is caching onto the coat tails of a firmer EUR rather than benefitting from a domestically led improvement in sentiment. Nonetheless, there is scope for further gains in GBP given that speculative positioning in the currency moved close to its all time low early last week in anticipation of BoE QE.

Irish bailout leaves EUR unimpressed

As has been the case since the beginning of the global financial crisis policy makers have found themselves under pressure to deliver a solution to a potentially destabilising or even systemic risk before the markets open for a new week in order to prevent wider contagion. Last night was no different and following urgent discussions a EUR 85 billion bailout for Ireland to be drawn down over a period of 7 ½ years was agreed whilst moves towards a permanent crisis mechanism were brought forward. As was evident over a week ago a bailout was inevitable but the terms were the main imponderable.

Importantly the financing rate for the package is lower than feared (speculation centered on a rate of 6.7%) but still relatively high at 5.8%. Moreover, no haircuts are required for holders of senior debt of Irish banks and Germany’s call for bondholders to bear the brunt of losses in future crises was watered down. The package will be composed of EUR 45 bn from European governments, EUR 22.5 bn from the IMF and EUR 17.5 bn from Ireland’s cash reserve and national pension fund.

The impact on the EUR was stark, with the currency swinging in a 120 point range and failing to hold its initial rally following the announcement. A break below the 200-day moving average for EUR/USD around 1.3131 will trigger a drop to around 1.3020 technical support. Officials will hope that the bailout offers the currency some deeper support but this already seems to be wishful thinking. The EUR reaction following the Greek bailout in early May does not offer an encouraging comparison; after an initial rally the EUR lost close to 10% of its value over the following few weeks.

Although it should be noted that the bailout appears more generous than initially expected clearly the lack of follow through in terms of EUR upside will come as a blow. The aid package has bought Ireland some breathing space but this could be short lived if Ireland’s budget on December 7 is not passed. Moreover, the bailout will not quell expectations that Portugal and perhaps even Spain will require assistance. Indeed, Portugal is the next focus and the reaction to an auction of 12-month bills on 1 December will be of particular interest.

Taken together with continued tensions on the Korean peninsular, position closing towards year end ongoing Eurozone concerns will likely see a further withdrawal from risk trades over coming weeks. For Asian currencies this spells more weakness and similarly commodity currencies such as AUD and NZD also are likely to face more pressure. The USD remains a net beneficiary even as the Fed continues to print more USDs in the form of QE2.

Data and events this week have the potential to change the markets perspective, especially the US November jobs report at the end of the week. There is no doubt that payrolls are on an improving trend (145k consensus) in line with the declining trend in jobless claims but unfortunately the unemployment rate is set to remain stubbornly high at 9.6% and this will be the bigger focus for the Fed and markets as it implies not let up in QE. As usual further clues to the payrolls will be garnered from the ADP jobs report and ISM data on Wednesday.

Edging Towards A Bailout

A confluence of factors have come together to sour market sentiment although there appeared to be some relief, with a soft US inflation reading (core CPI now at 0.6% YoY) and plunge in US October housing starts reinforcing the view that the Fed will remain committed to carry out its full QE2 program, if not more.

However any market relief looks tenuous. Commodity prices remain weak, with the CRB commodities index down 7.4% in just over a week whilst the Baltic Dry Index (a pretty good forward indicator of activity and sentiment) continues to drop, down around 21% since its recent high on 27 October. Moreover, oil prices are also sharply lower. Increasingly the drop in risk assets is taking on the form of a rout and many who were looking for the rally to be sustained into year end are getting their fingers burnt.

Worries about eurozone peripheral countries debt problems remains the main cause of market angst, with plenty of attention on whether Ireland accepts a bailout rumoured to be up EUR 100 billion. Unfortunately Ireland’s reluctance to accept assistance has turned into a wider problem across the eurozone with debt in Portugal, Greece and also Spain suffering. An Irish bailout increasingly has the sense of inevitability about it. When it happens it may offer some short term relief to eurozone markets but Ireland will hardly be inspired by the fact that Greece’s bailout has had little sustainable impact on its debt markets.

Ireland remains the primary focus with discussions being enlarged to include the IMF a well as ECB and EU. What appears to be becoming clearer is that any agreement is likely to involve some form of bank restructuring, with the IMF likely to go over bank’s books during its visit. Irish banks have increasingly relied on ECB funding and a bailout would help reduce this reliance. Notably the UK which didn’t contribute to Greece’s aid package has said that it will back support for Ireland, a likely reaction to potential spillover to UK banks should the Irish situation spiral out of control. Any bailout will likely arrive quite quickly once agreed.

Although accepting a bailout may give Ireland some breathing room its and other peripheral county problems will be far from over. Uncertainties about the cost of recapitalising Ireland’s bank will remain whilst there remains no guarantee that the country’s budget on December 7 (or earlier if speculation proves correct) will be passed. Should Ireland agree to a bailout if may provide the EUR will some temporary relief but FX markets are likely to battle between attention on Fed QE2 and renewed concerns about the eurozone periphery, suggesting some volatile price action in the days and weeks ahead.

Reports of food price controls of and other measures to limit hot money inflows into China as well as prospects for further Chinese monetary tightening, are attacking sentiment from another angle. China’s markets have been hit hard over against the background of such worries, with the Shanghai Composite down around 10% over the past week whilst the impact is also being felt in many China sensitive markets across Asia as well as Australia. For instance the Hang Seng index is down around 7% since its 8 November high.

Double Whammy

Markets were dealt a double whammy resulting in a broad global equity and commodities sell off, and a jump in equity and FX volatility. The risk asset selling began following the news that the Conference Board revised its leading economic indicator for China to reveal a 0.3% gain in April compared to 1.7% increase initially reported earlier.

Given that this indicator has not been a market mover in the past it is difficult to see how it had such a big impact on the market but the fact that the release came at a time when the mood was already downbeat gave a further excuse to sell.

The damage to markets was exacerbated by a much steeper drop than forecast in US consumer confidence, with the index falling to 52.9 in June, almost 10 points lower than the consensus expectation. Consumer confidence remains at a relatively low level in the US, another reason to believe that the US economy will grow at a sub-par pace.

Renewed economic and job market worries were attributable for the fall in confidence, with an in increase in those reporting jobs as “hard to get” supporting the view of a below consensus outcome for June non-farm payrolls on Friday. Further clues will be derived from the June ADP jobs report today for which the consensus is looking for a 60k increase.

A run of weaker than forecast US data releases over recent weeks have resulted in a softening in the Fed’s tone as revealed in the last FOMC statement as well as a fears of a double-dip recession. There will not be any good news today either, with the June Chicago PMI index set to have recorded a slight decline in June, albeit from a high level.

There will also be attention on the release of the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) 10-year budget outlook, which will put some focus back on burgeoning US fiscal deficit and relative (to Europe) lack of action to rectify it.

European worries remain a key contributor to the market’s angst, with plenty of nervousness about the repayment of EUR 442 billion in 12-month borrowing to the ECB. Demand for 3-month money today will give clues to the extent of funding issues in European banks given that the 12-month cash will not be rolled over.

Elevated risk aversion will keep most risk currencies under pressure, with the likes of the AUD, NZD and CAD also suffering on the back of lower commodity prices. The AUD has failed to gain much traction from a purported deal being offered to miners including various concessions to the mining industry. Much will depend on the reaction of mining companies, and despite the concessions there is importantly no reduction in the 40% rate of the tax.

Equity markets, especially the performance of Chinese stocks will give direction today but a weak performance for Asian equities points to more risk being taken off the table in the European trading session. EUR/USD will now set its sights on a drop to support around 1.2110 ahead of a likely drop towards 1.2045. Having dropped below support around 88.95 USD/JPY will see support coming in around 87.95.

Asian currencies also remain vulnerable to more selling pressure today, with the highly risk sensitive KRW looking most at risk in the short-term, with markets likely to ignore the upbeat economic data released this morning. USD/KRW looks set to target the 11 June high around 1247.80. Other risk sensitive currencies including MYR and IDR also face pressure in the short-term. TWD will be slightly more resilient in the wake of the China/Taiwan trade deal but much of the good news has been priced in, suggesting the currency will not escape the downturn in risk appetite.

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