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).

Busy Week Ahead For Central Banks

US equities came under more pressure at the end of last week, with the S&P 500 falling to its lowest in four weeks, down around 2% month to data.  The drop will test the buy on dips mentality as the S&P is once again resting just above its pivotal 55-day moving average, a level that has seen strong buying interest in the past. 

Economic data gave little help to market sentiment, with the University of Michigan confidence index improving a little to 71.0 in early September but falling slightly below consensus expectations at 72.0.  Separately, the inflation expectations measures were broadly unchanged, with the most relevant series for Fed officials (the 5-10y) remaining steady at 2.9%, which is still consistent with the Fed’s 2% goal.

This week is all about central bank meetings, with an array of policy meetings including in Indonesia (Tue), Sweden (Tue), Hungary (Tue), China (Wed), Japan (Wed), US (Wed), Brazil (Thu), Philippines (Thu), UK (Thu), Norway (Thu), Switzerland (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and Taiwan (Fri), all on tap. 

Most focus will obviously be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting, during which officials will likely signal that they are almost ready to taper. A formal announcement is likely in December or possibly November.  Most other central banks are likely to stay on hold except a likely 25bp hike in Norway, 25bp in Hungary, and 100bp in Brazil.

Politics will also be in focus, with Canada’s Federal election and the results of Russia’s parliamentary elections today.  Polls suggest the incumbent Liberals ahead though the most likely outcome is a minority government in Canada while in Russia the ruling pro Kremlin United Russia party is likely to renew its supermajority. 

Other issues in focus this week are frictions over the US debt ceiling, with the House voting soon on raising the ceiling.  US Treasury Secretary Yellen renewed her calls for Congress to raise of suspend the debt ceiling stating in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that failing to do so “would produce widespread economic catastrophe”. 

In China, Evergrande’s travails will be in the spotlight on Thursday when interest payments on two of its notes come due amid growing default risks.  Indeed, China related stocks slid on Monday morning as Evergrande concerns spread through the market.  Property developer stocks are under most pressure and whether there is wider contagion will depend on events on Thursday.

The US dollar has continued to strengthen, edging towards its 20 Aug high around 92.729 (DXY) and looks likely to remain firm heading into the Fed FOMC meeting especially as it will hard for Fed Chair Powell to sound too dovish and given risks of a hawkish shift in the dot plot.  Positioning data is showing increasingly positive sentiment towards the dollar, with speculative positioning (CFTC IMM net non-commercial futures) data showing the highest net long DXY position since May 2020. 

Conversely, speculative positioning in Australian dollar has hit a record low likely undermined by weaker iron ore prices.  Similarly, positioning in Canadian dollar is at its lowest since Dec 2020 while Swiss franc positioning is at its lowest since Dec 2019. Asian currencies have been hit, with the ADXY sliding over recent days.  The Chinese currency, CNY has been undermined by weaker data and concerns over Evergrande while high virus cases in some countries are hurting the likes of Thai baht. 

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%.  

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. 

India’s Covid Worsening, Central Banks and US Data

A number of holidays this week points to quieter week for markets.  However, as I note below, there are still a number of risk events on the horizon. 

A growing focus is the divergent trend in the path of Covid in emerging markets and in developed economies, with the former especially in some parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, seeing a significant worsening, which will likely result in delayed recoveries and lead to some EM asset market underperformance. 

India’s Covid situation worsens dramatically

As all the headlines show, India’s Covid situation has become particularly dire though a lack of large-scale lockdowns has led to only a limited mark down in growth forecasts there even as risks intensify.  Already there has been a political cost, with Indian PM Modi’s BJP party losing a key state election in West Bengal and losing ground in other state elections.  Virus cases are still on the rise and sadly the picture will worsen before there are any signs of improvement.  

Covid cases in India have been trending higher since February and hit record highs this weekend, above 400,000. The number of cases is approaching 20 million, with over 215k deaths, while the country has administered 157.2 million vaccine doses.  However, at the current rate of vaccination of 2.26 million per day, it will take 2.2 years to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine. 

US dollar consolidating

After losing ground in April (the USD index DXY fell close to 3% over the month) the US dollar (USD) looks likely to consolidate this month.  USD positioning has already improved over recent months, suggesting limited scope for short covering.  Seasonal factors are unlikely to be particularly influential this month.  However, I am cognizant that cross asset market volatility has eased significantly, while risk assets are already priced for a lot of good news.  Nonetheless, risk factors are increasingly rising, especially increasing Covid cases in many emerging markets as noted above.  This leaves the market prone to bouts of risk aversion, which could result in some bouts of USD strength amid an overall backdrop of consolidation.

Key data and events

This week is an important one for both data and events.  There are several central bank decisions including in Australia (Tue), Thailand and Poland (Wed), Malaysia, UK, Turkey, and Brazil (Thu).  None of the central banks are expected to change policy settings except Brazil, with the consensus looking for a 75bp hike there.  In the UK, there is uncertainty over the future path of QE and whether the Bank of England extends asset purchases or takes the first steps to bringing asset purchases to an end echoing the Bank of Canada by announcing tapering. 

On the data front, the main highlights include the US ISM surveys (today and Wed), US April jobs report (Fri) and China trade data.  Both the US ISM surveys and payrolls are likely to reveal robust readings.  Fiscal stimulus and easing Covid likely helped to boost US jobs growth in April while the unemployment rate likely fell.  Meanwhile the ISM surveys will likely remain around historical highs for similar reasons.  Overall, the data will continue to paint a picture of strengthening US economic recovery. Meanwhile China trade data is likely to reveal strong exports and imports growth, though much of this will likely be due to base effects.

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