Will The Fed Hike By 50bp? Asia Singing To Its Own Tune

The outsized gain in the US January CPI inflation rate has firmly put a 50 basis points (bp) Federal Reserve rate hike on the table as well as reinforcing expectations of a series of consecutive rate hikes while St Louis Fed President Bullard even raised the prospect of an inter-meeting hike in the wake of the CPI data.  Markets are now pricing close to 7 hikes in 2022 and 80% odds of a 50bp hike in March. 

US CPI inflation jumped to 7.5% y/y, a 40-year high, with prices rising by 0.6% m/m and core CPI rising to 6% y/y, all above consensus.  In the wake of the data Bullard strengthened his hawkish rhetoric by saying that he would like to see 100bp of hikes by July 1 2022.  Markets have quickly ramped up their expectations for Fed tightening, with a growing chorus expecting a series of consecutive hikes.

Markets are reacting badly, with equities under renewed pressure, bond yields moving higher and the US dollar firming.  It’s hard to see such pressure easing anytime soon.  Historically the bulk of market pressure takes place as the market prices in / discounts rate hikes rather than after the Fed actually hikes.  This suggests that markets will remain highly nervous at least until the March Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. 

It is clear that the data is killing off any chance of a more tepid pace of US monetary tightening. The Fed alongside other major central banks are frantically trying to regain credibility in the wake of much stronger inflation readings than they had anticipated by espousing increasingly hawkish rhetoric, which will likely soon be followed with action as policy rates increase and central bank balance sheets start to shrink. 

There is now a growing probability that the Fed will kick off its monetary tightening with a 50bp rate hike followed by consecutive hikes in the months ahead as well as quantitative tightening in the second quarter.  It’s not quite a done deal but another strong US inflation print for February will seal the case for a 50bp hike in March.

In contrast, Asia monetary policy is singing to its own tune.  Unlike in past tightening cycles when Asian central banks were forced to tighten to avoid pressure on their markets, especially to avoid currency weakness, there is limited signs of such pressures at present.  Some in Asia such as the Bank of Korea and Monetary Authority of Singapore have tightened already, but this is largely due to domestic factors rather than the Fed.

The stark difference in stance between Asian central banks and what is being priced in for the Fed has been particularly apparent by the recent dovish policy decisions in India, Indonesia, and Thailand, with all three central banks showing no urgency to tighten.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan acting to defend its yield curve policy by conducting unlimited fixed-rate JGB purchases, was clearly a dovish move.  Last but not least, the PBoC, China’s central bank has already cut its policy Loan Prime Rate and is likely to do so again in the next few months.  

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).

Federal Reserve Speakers In Focus

After a major flattening of the US Treasury curve last week in the wake of the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, this week will be important to determine how comfortable the Fed is with the market reaction to its shift in stance, with a number of speakers on tap including Fed Chairman Powell who testifies to Congress today.

In summary, the Fed FOMC was much less dovish than expected and acknowledged that they are formally thinking about thinking about tapering. The most obvious shift was in the Fed FOMC dot plot, with the median Fed official now expecting 50bp of tightening by the end of 2023.  

Notably, St. Louis Fed President Bullard was even more hawkish on Friday, highlighting the prospects of a “late 2022” hike in US policy rates.  Moreover, Fed speakers overnight did not walk back from the FOMC statement, with Presidents Bullard, Kaplan and Williams delivering views.  Kaplan favours tapering “sooner rather than later”, while Bullard highlighted upside risks to inflation. 

Nonetheless despite hawkish comments, markets have calmed somewhat following the sharp post FOMC reaction last week, which reeked of a major positioning squeeze.  Longer end US Treasury yields move higher overnight while equities recouped losses and the USD weakened. Today most attention will fall on Fed Chairman Powell’s testimony before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on “The Federal Reserve’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” 

This week there are also several central bank decisions on hand.  Yesterday, China’s central bank PBoC, left policy on hold for a 14th straight month. China is in no rush to raise its policy rate and will likely focus on liquidity adjustments to fine tune policy. Other central bank policy decisions this week will come from Hungary (today), Thailand (Wed), Czech Republic (Wed), Philippines, UK, and Mexico (all on Thu).  

The NBH in Hungary is expected to hike policy rates, with both the 1 week depo rate and base rate likely to be hiked by 30bps. The Czech National bank is also expected to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates expected by consensus.  All the rest are forecast to leave policy on hold.  The key data releases this week will be the US May PCE report on Friday, which will likely reveal another sharp rise in prices.  

Although the USD weakened overnight it still looks positive technically, with the dollar index (DXY) remaining above its 200-day moving and MACD differential remaining positive. The Asian dollar index (ADXY) marks an interesting level for Asian FX as its is verging on a break below its 200-day moving average around 108.2861.  As such, the USD bounce may have a little more to run in the short term.

The euro (EUR) will be in focus to see if it breaks below 1.19, with the currency looking vulnerable on a technical basis to further downside. Similarly, the Australian dollar (AUD) is trading just below its 200 day moving average any may struggle to appreciate in the short term.

German election results help the euro

St Louis Fed President Bullard put a dampener on the market’s euphoria in the wake of the Fed’s postponed ‘tapering’ announcement. He noted that the Fed’s decision was “borderline”, implying that the Fed was not far from pulling the trigger to the commencement of tapering. Going forward, the timing of tapering will be highly data dependent and obviously recent weaker data releases and possibly the political complications surrounding extending the debt ceiling and agreeing on a budget, played heavily on the Fed’s conscience. However, there are now plenty of questions about the Fed’s communication strategy. There will plenty of Fed speeches over coming days to provide more clarity although Janet Yellen, front runner to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman, appears to be keeping conspicuously quiet.

A bounce in China’s September manufacturing confidence revealed this morning as well as a strong outcome in the German elections for Chancellor Merkel (see below) will nonetheless, help to settle some market nerves as the week commences. Merkel’s CDU/CSU party is set to win close to 42% of the vote, which amounts to a very strong mandate. Nonetheless, she will still fall short of an absolute majority while Merkel’s coalition partner the FDP failed to gain enough votes to pass the 5% threshold to win any parliamentary seats means that a new coalition government will need to be formed. The EUR has reacted well to the result, remaining above 1.3500 versus the USD and looks to set consolidate gains over the short term.

Aside from various Fed speakers there will be several data releases to digest over the week. In the US there will be September consumer confidence, August durable goods orders, new home sales, personal income and spending, and revised Q2 GDP data on tap. Overall US data will be reasonably good, with in particular GDP set to be revised higher. In Europe, aside from digesting the German election result there will be a host of business and manufacturing surveys including the German IFO business confidence survey. Consolidation or moderate improvement is expected to be revealed in these surveys, likely giving sufficient support for the EUR to maintain recent gains.

Data releases in focus

For a change the markets may actually concentrate on data releases today rather than political events in the eurozone. The October US retail sales report and November Empire manufacturing survey are likely to paint a less negative economic picture of the US. The data will help to dampen expectations of more quantitative easing in the US but we will be able to hear more on the subject from the Fed’s Bullard and Williams in speeches today.

Overnight the Fed’s Fisher poured more cold water on the prospects of further QE by highlighting that the economy is “poised for growth”. While speculative data in the form of the CTFC IMM data shows a drop in USD sentiment to its lowest in several weeks we do not expect this to persist. The USD will likely benefit from the data today and we see the currency retaining a firmer tone over the short term especially as eurozone concerns creep back in.

The vote by German Chancellor Merkel’s party to approve a measure for a troubled country to leave the EUR opens up a can of worms and will hit EUR sentiment. But rather than politics there are several data releases on tap today that will provide some short term influence on the EUR, including Q3 GDP and the November German ZEW survey. FX markets will likely ignore a positive reading for GDP given that the outlook for Q4 is going to be much worse. The forward looking ZEW survey will record a further drop highlighting the risks to Europe’s biggest economy.

T-bill auctions in Spain and Greece may garner even more attention. Following on from yesterday’s Italian debt sale in which the yield on 5-year bond came in higher than the previous auction but with a stronger bid/cover ratio, markets will look for some encouragement from today’s auctions. Even if the auctions go well, on balance, relatively downbeat data releases will play negatively for the EUR.

When viewing the EUR against what is implied by interest rate differentials it is very evident that the currency is much stronger than it should be at least on this measure. Both short term (interest rate futures) and long term (2 year bond) yield differentials between the eurozone and the US reveal that EUR/USD is destined for a fall.

Europe’s yield advantage has narrowed sharply over recent months yet the EUR has not weakened. Some of this has been due to underlying demand for European portfolio assets and official buying of EUR from central banks but the reality is that the EUR is looking increasingly susceptible to a fall. EUR/USD is poised for a drop below the psychologically important level of 1.35, with support seen around 1.3484 (10 November low).

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