Action Shifting To Currencies as Rates Volatility Eases

US stocks barely closed higher at the end of last week and flirted with bear market territory. US consumer and retail stocks remain under pressure alongside industrials as recession fears intensify.  Indeed while inflation concern remain elevated, recession fears are increasing. US Treasury yields are finally coming off the boil amid such fears, with May seeing a significant pull back in yields; the biggest decline has been in the 3-10 year part of the yield curve over recent weeks.  This has been met with a decline in interest rate volatility unlike equity and implied currency volatility measures, which have pushed higher.   For instance, major currency implied volatility measures have reached their highest since around March 2020. Emerging markets volatility breached its March 2020 high in March 2022 and after a brief fall is moving back higher.  

Action is shifting to currencies and the drop in the US dollar from its highs, with the currency increasingly undermined by lower US yields.  In Asia, the 3 most sensitive currencies to yield differentials (US 10 year yield minus 10 year local currency bond yields) are the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Korean won.  As such, Korean won is likely to rally the most in Asia should US yields fall further.   The Chinese yuan has strengthened amid US dollar weakness though underperformance of the Chinese currency is likely versus its peers as the authorities likely aim to weaken it on a trade weighted (CFETS) basis. 

In China, the surprisingly large 15 basis point cut in 5-year loan prime rate last week will be seen as a boon for China’s property market.  However, while support for the property market has increased there does not seem to be much more stimulus ready to be unleashed despite various pledges.  China’s April data slate was weak highlighting the risks of a contraction in GDP this quarter and providing evidence that the “around 5.5%” official growth target looks increasingly out of reach.  COVID restrictions across the country are easing gradually pointing to some pick up in activity though consumption and the service sector are likely to remain under pressure for months to come as mass testing, quarantines and border controls continue to restrict mobility.  

There was relief for China’s markets today as President Biden highlighted the potential for a reduction/removal of tariffs implemented by President Trump, stating that he will discuss tariffs with Treasury Secretary Yellen when he returns from his Asia trip.  Removing tariffs is by no means a done deal given there will be plenty of pressure to maintain some level of US tariffs on China. A reduction in tariffs would be beneficial for the US in that it would help reduce imported inflation pressures while it would also help to support Chinese exports at a time when they are slowing down and adding pressure on China’s current account position.  However, some of this impact would likely be mitigated by a relatively stronger yuan, which would undoubtedly benefit as tariffs were cut.  

Key data and events highlight this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), South Korea and Turkey (both Thu).  Federal Reserve FOMC meeting minutes will also be released (Wed). Although not expected by the consensus there is a good chance that Indonesia hikes policy rates by 25 basis points. In New Zealand a 50bp hike is likely while a 25bp hike in South Korea is expected.  In contrast despite pressure on the Turkish lira and very elevated inflation no change in monetary policy is expected in Turkey this week.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes will provide further detail on how quickly the Fed wants to get to neutral rates and beyond and on its quantitative tightening policy. 

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

What Could Prompt Higher Volatility?

Equities were buoyed last week in the wake of US President Biden’s infrastructure deal and renewed reflation trade optimism amid mixed post Federal Reserve FOMC messages from Fed officials. This resulted in US stocks recording their biggest weekly gain since February.  The prospects of passing the infrastructure deal has improved in the wake of Biden’s decision not to tie it to a much larger spending package that is being pushed through by Democrats but is not supported by Republicans. 

Given heightened sensitivity over inflation, the slightly weaker than expected US Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data on Friday, which increased 0.5% m/m in May, slightly below the 0.6% consensus, added further support to the reflation trade, helping the US Treasury curve to steepen.  Moreover, the University of Michigan 5-10y inflation expectations series came in lower in June compared to the previous month. Fed officials likely put much more emphasis on this long-term series and will view the 2.8% reading as consistent with their “largely transitory” take on the pickup in inflation.

Cross-asset volatility has continued to decline, which bodes well for carry trades and risk assets.  For example, the VIX “fear gauge” index has dropped to pre-COVID level, something that has been echoed in other market volatility measures.  However, it’s hard to ignore the shift in tone from many central banks globally to a more hawkish one while risk asset momentum will likely wane as the strength of recovery slows, suggesting that low volatility may not persist.  It is notable that changes in global excess liquidity and China’s credit impulse have both weakened, implying a downdraft for risk assets and commodity prices and higher volatility. 

If there is anything that could prompt any increase in volatility this week, its the US June jobs report on Friday.  June likely saw another strong (consensus 700k) increase in nonfarm payrolls while the unemployment rate likely dropped to 5.7% from 5.8% previously.  Despite the likely strong gain in hiring, payrolls would still be close to 7 million lower compared to pre-COVID levels, suggesting a long way to go before the US jobs market normalises. The June US Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index will also come under scrutiny though little change is expected from the May reading, with a 61.0 outcome likely from 61.2 in May. 

Other data and events of importance this week include the 100th year anniversary of China’s Communist Party (Thu), the release of purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally including China’s official NBS PMI (Wed) for which a slight moderation is expected.  Eurozone June CPI inflation (Wed) which is likely to edge lower, Sweden’s Riksbank policy decision (Thu) where an unchanged outcome is likely and Bank of England (BoE) Governor Bailey’s Mansion House Speech (Thu), will be among the other key events in focus this week. 

When Bad Means Good

Bad meant good on Friday as weaker than expected US April jobs data helped to dampen concerns over inflation risks and higher rates. At a time when markets were becoming increasingly fearful of rising inflation risks the softer US jobs data will act as a balm on such fears. It also complicates matters ahead of bipartisan talks between President Biden and congressional leaders this week. Democrats will likely use the data to outline their case for more stimulus to boost growth, while Republicans will highlight that excessive unemployment benefits are holding back hiring.  

US Payrolls increased by 266,000 in April, well below the 1 million consensus and the unemployment rate rose to 6.1% from 6.0%, above the 5.8% consensus.  The data supports the view of most Fed officials that progress has not been “substantial” enough for them to start signaling tapering.  Unsurprisingly Markets pushed back the pricing of the first rate hike from early-2023 to May 2023 in the wake of the weaker US jobs data. The US dollar (USD) took a hit and looks likely to kick off the week on the back foot.  High yielding currencies will likely benefit the most.  

This week inflation releases will come under scrutiny, with CPI data in the US (Wed), China (Tue) and India (Wed) in focus, albeit for different reasons.  In the US, base effects will likely push inflation higher, with a sharp pick up in core CPI in particular likely.  A similar story is expected in China, but base effects will likely act in the opposite direction in India.  Other highlights this week include a likely modest decline in US retail sales (Fri), further easing in China’s credit aggregates (9-15 May) and a material improvement expected to be revealed in Australia’s Federal Budget (Tue).  Last but not least, central banks in Mexico and Philippines (both Thu) are expected to leave policy unchanged.

Separately, markets will digest the outcome of UK local elections, especially those in Scotland, which revealed that pro-independence parties (SNP and Scottish Greens) gained a majority in the Scottish parliament. A constitutional battle with the Conservative UK government looms though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is showing no signs of acceding to demands for a new Scottish referendum.  There will also be focus on the aftermath of the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the US, which has already pushed energy prices higher.  And finally, the much anticipated (among Krypto traders) appearance of Elon Musk on SNL hit Dodgecoin, after he called it “a hustle”. 

India Risks, Highlights For The Week Ahead

It was a strong end to last week for US markets, with S&P 500 up over 1%, helped by stronger than expected new home sales and April US Markit purchasing managers indices (PMI) data. As risk assets rallied the US dollar and US Treasuries sold off.  There are plenty of event risks this week. Also, there will be deluge of US earnings releases this week including most tech heavyweights while markets will likely remain nervous over President Biden’s tax plans.  Geopolitical risks will also remain on the forefront. 

Even as the progress on the vaccination front continues the renewed increases in virus cases in many countries, particularly in India, where the situation has deteriorated markedly, threatens to delay recovery. The acceleration in virus cases has been dramatic, with Prime Minister Modi noting how it has “shaken the nation”. Virus cases hit 349,000 on Saturday and show no sign of receding. The toll on the health system in India has been massive, but the variants also holds risks to the rest of the world while it will also lead to a major disruption in India’s vaccine exports, threatening vaccination programs in several countries.  

Friday’s economic data round was broadly firm. Alongside the US releases noted above, Euro area April PMIs were generally better than expected, with G10 manufacturing PMIs pointing to strengthening momentum overall.  Separately, Russia’s central bank, the CBR surprised with a bigger than expected 50bp rate hike.  Today’s data releases include the April German IFO business confidence survey; consensus expectations forecast an increase to 97.8 from 96.6 previously. In the US, durable goods orders are forecast to rise in March by 2.5% m/m following a weather-related 1.2% m/m drop in February.

The focus over the rest of the week will turn to central bank decisions in Japan, Sweden and Hungary (all on Tue) and the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed).  Although the Bank of Canada’s shift last week will prompt a little more nervousness about G10 central bank tapering the policy meetings are likely to be largely uneventful, this week. Nonetheless, the Fed tone is likely to be more positive than in March, while in contrast the Bank of Japan may sound more cautious amid a third state of emergency in Tokyo. 

A key event this week will be President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress.  After the hit to markets in the wake of the news of a proposal to hike taxes, markets will look for any further details.  Key data releases this week include Australia Q1 CPI inflation (Wed), US Q1 advance GDP (Thu), China’s April purchasing managers indices data (Fri) and Euro area Q1 GDP (Fri).  

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