Growth/Risk Asset Rally Dichotomy To Continue

Happy New Year!  2020 ended with record highs for US stock markets, capping off a solid year for risk assets amid massive and ongoing central bank liquidity injections.  In contrast the dollar index (DXY) ended the year languishing around its lowest levels since April 2018.  The dichotomy between the sharp deterioration in global growth and risk asset performance has widened dramatically.  Given the acceleration in COVID-19 cases over recent weeks and consequent lockdowns, especially in the US and Europe, this divergence is likely to be sustained and even widen further over the next few months, at least until various vaccines finally manage to stem the damage.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for markets over recent weeks/months have been US fiscal stimulus and Brexit.  Both have now passed with last minute deals, setting the scene for a clearer path in the weeks ahead though political obstacles have not disappeared by any means, with the Georgia Senate run-off elections scheduled for Tuesday.  The outcome will be crucial for control of the US Senate with Democrats needing wins in both races to take over. However, the races are too close to call according to polls. Separately the US Congress will meet on Wednesday to declare the winner of the Presidential election. 

On the data and events front the week begins with an OPEC+ meeting tomorrow, with officials deliberating on whether to expand output by up to 500k barrels.  There are also a series of December Markit manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMI) tomorrow including in various countries in Asia as well as the release of the Caixin manufacturing PMI in China.  US data will take centre stage with the release of the ISM manufacturing survey (Tuesday), Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) and non-farm payrolls (Friday).  Overall, markets are likely to begin the year much as the same way they left 2020, with risk appetite remaining firm. 

One interesting observation as we kick off 2021 is that so many investor and analysts’ views are aligned in the same direction (long Emerging markets, short USD, long value stocks, etc), and positioning is already looking stretched in various asset classes as a result.  While I would caution against catching a falling knife there is a clearly a risk of jumping on the same bandwagon as everybody else in a market that is increasingly positioned in one direction.  Overall, while the risk rally is likely to continue to have legs in the months ahead, investors should be on their toes in the weeks ahead given risks of a positioning squeeze in various asset classes.

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

A Stellar Month

November has turned into a stellar month for risk assets, with major equity benchmarks globally, especially those that are dominated by value/cyclical stocks, performing particularly well.  Investors have been willing to bypass the escalation in Covid infections in the US and Europe and instead focus on the upside potential presented by new vaccines and a new US administration, with a line up including former Federal Reserve Chair Yellen, that is likely to be more trade friendly.  Ultra-low rates and likely even more moves in a dovish direction from the Fed as well as plenty of central bank liquidity continue to support risk assets.  While challenges lie ahead (weakening growth, Covid intensification, lack of fiscal stimulus, withdrawal of Fed emergency measures) as well as technical barriers to further short-term gains, the medium-term outlook has become rosier.   

China’s economy has led the recovery and provided plenty of support to Asian markets, commodity prices and currencies. This week’s data and events kicks off with China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) (consensus. 51.5) (Mon) which is likely to remain in expansion, providing further support for China linked economies and assets.  However, the impact on oil will also depend on the OPEC+ meeting (Mon and Tue). Despite the sharp 30% rally in oil prices over the month further output increases are likely to be delayed as producers look to solidify gains. That said, a lot of good news appears to have been priced into the oil market already.  In contrast, the US dollar has been a casualty of the improvement in risk appetite and has shown little sign over reversing its losses. Subdued over recent days by year end selling, the USD may show more signs of life this week. 

The other key event this week is the Nov US jobs report (Fri) where a slowing pace of job gains is likely (consensus 500,000, last 638,000), with new COVID restrictions taking a toll on employment. US Nov ISM surveys are also likely to soften (Tue & Thu), albeit remaining firmly in expansion.  In Canada, the federal fiscal update (Mon), Q3 GDP (Tue) and jobs data (Fri) will be in focus.  Australia also releases its Q3 GDP report (Wed) while In Europe the flash Nov HICP inflation reading will garner attention but most attention will be on ongoing Brexit discussions, which seem to be stuck on remaining issues such as fishing rights. Central bank policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Poland (Wed) and India (Fri) are likely to prove uneventful, with no policy changes likely. 

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.

Fiscal Deadlock/China data

This week kicked off with a heavy China’s Sep data slate and Q3 GDP today.  The data releases were positive, revealing yet more signs of strengthening recovery. Industrial production, retail sales, jobs and property investment all beat expectations while Q3 GDP fell short. The data supports the view that China will be one of the only major economies to record positive growth this year. This bodes well for China’s markets and will likely also filter into improving prospects for the rest of Asia.

In contrast US recovery continues to be at risk, with fiscal stimulus discussions remaining deadlocked; a 75-minute conversation between House Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin yielded no progress at the end of last week.  Pelosi has now given a 48-hour deadline to agree on stimulus while Senate majority leader McConnell has scheduled a Senate vote on a more targeted $500bn bill tomorrow. Talks are scheduled to continue today but there still seems to be little chance of a deal this side of elections. 

On the data front, US Sep retail sales data registered broad-based gains on Friday, with headline sales up 1.9% m/m (consensus 0.8%). In contrast, industrial production fell a sharp 0.6% m/m in Sep (consensus +0.5%).  Lastly, Michigan consumer sentiment rose in the preliminary Oct report to 81.2 from 80.4 in Sep (consensus 80.5).  The lack of a fiscal deal means that the prospects of a loss of momentum in the US economy has grown, something that will become more apparent in the weeks ahead. US data is limited this week and instead focus will remain on progress or lack thereof, on fiscal stimulus as well as the Presidential debate towards the end of the week. 

Another saga that is showing little progress is EU/UK Brexit transition talks.  The stakes have risen, with UK PM Johnson warning UK businesses to prepare for a hard exit while threatening to abandon talks completely.  On a more positive note UK officials are reportedly prepared to rewrite the contentious Internal Market Bill, which may appease the EU.  Credit ratings agencies are running out patience however, with Moody’s downgrading the UK ratings by one notch to Aa3. The pound seems to be taking all of this in it stride, clinging to the 1.30 level against the US dollar, suggesting that FX markets are not yet panicking about the prospects of a no deal transition.

Several emerging markets central banks are in focus this week including in China (Tue), Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), and Russia (Fri).  Of these Turkey is expected to hike by 150 basis points, but the rest are likely to stand pat.  Most central banks are taking a wait and see approach, especially ahead of US elections. Reserve Bank of Australia meeting minutes tomorrow will garner attention too, with clues sought on a potential rate cut next month.  

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