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. 

Chinese Data Softens

It was a tough week for risk assets last week as stocks dropped, volatility increased and the battle between retail investors and hedge funds intensified, with the latter on the losing side. The end of the week saw US and European stocks drop.  Whether the decline in stocks is due to over extended valuations, vaccine variants, vaccine supply pressures, weak activity data or more likely a combination of all of these, asset markets go into this week on a more unstable footing, with risks skewed towards pull back extending further.  It’s hard to blame day traders for the drop given that most of activity from retail traders is buying of stocks, and now silver, with heavy short position, but they are likely contributing to the rise in volatility.  The US dollar (USD) could be a key beneficiary given the massive extent of short positioning in the currency.

Data in China is showing some softening in momentum.  China’s Jan official purchasing managers index (PMI) kicked off this week’s data and event schedule yesterday, with both the manufacturing and service sector PMIs disappointing expectations; the manufacturing PMI fell to 51.3 in Jan (consensus 51.6, last month 51.9) and services to 52.4 in Jan from 55.7 previously.  China’s softer PMI once again contrasted with a series of Asia manufacturing PMIs, released this morning. Later today the US Jan ISM manufacturing index is likely to register a modest decline (consensus: 60.0 from 60.7 previously). Also in focus today is India’s budget announcement, with the Fiscal Year 2021 budget deficit likely to be around 6-7% of GDP, much higher than the original 3.5% estimate.  

Over the rest of the week there are interest rate decisions in Australia (Tuesday), Thailand, Poland (both on Wednesday), UK (Thursday) and India (Friday).  Among these the Reserve Bank of India has the most potential for a surprise relative to market expectations, with a rate cut likely.  The highlight of the week is likely to be the US January jobs report at the end of this week (consensus 55k).  Deliberations on US fiscal stimulus will also be in focus, with a group of 10 Republican Senators writing to President Biden with a $600 billion stimulus proposal, well below the $1.9 trillion put forward by the administration.  Democrats have hinted that they may push through stimulus via reconciliation, which not require Republican support in the Senate, but such a move would likely sour any mood of cooperation in the Senate. 

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.

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.

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