Are Recession Risks Rising?

It is incredible that just a few months ago most analysts were expecting at least two if not three interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.  How quickly things change.  Markets are pricing in at least a couple of rate cuts by the FOMC while US Treasury yields have fallen sharply as growth concerns have intensified, even as the hard economic has not yet turned that bad.  Recession risks are once again being actively talked about as trade fears intensify, with President Trump threatening increased tariffs on both Mexico and China.  As I noted earlier this week, trade tensions have escalated.

Reflecting this, core bond markets have rallied sharply, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 60bps so far this year, while bund yields are negative out to 10 years.  Historically such a plunge would be associated with a sharp weakening in growth expectations and onset of recession.  However, equity markets are holding up better; the US S&P 500 has dropped around 6.8% from its highs but is still up close to 10% for the year.  Even Chinese equities are up close to 20% this year despite falling close to 13% from their highs.  Equities could be the last shoe to fall.

In currency markets the US dollar has come under pressure recently but is still stronger versus most currencies this year except notably Japanese and Canadian dollar among major currencies and the likes of Russian rouble and Thai baht among emerging market currencies.  On the other end of the spectrum Turkish lira and Argentine peso have fallen most, but their weakness has largely been idiosyncratic.  In a weaker growth environment, and one in which global trade is hit hard, it would be particularly negative for trade orientated EM economies and currencies.

The US dollar has a natural advantage compared to most major currencies at present in that it has a relatively higher yield. Anyone wishing to sell or go short would need to pay away this yield.  However, if the market is increasingly pricing in rate cuts, the USD looks like a much less attractive proposition and this is what appears to be happening now as investors offload long USD positions build up over past months.  Further USD weakness is likely at least in the short term, but it always hard to write the USDs resilience off.

Going forward much will of course depend on tariffs.  If President Trump implements tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese exports to the US as he has threatened this would hurt global growth as would tariffs on Mexico.  Neither is guaranteed and could still be averted.  Even if these tariffs are implemented fears of recession still appear to be overdone.  Growth will certainly slow in the months ahead as indicated by forward looking indicators such manufacturing purchasing managers’ indices, but there is little in terms of data yet to suggest that recession is on the cards.

 

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Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

For A Few Dollars More…

…or should I say a few EUR more.   This is what the Greek authorities must be wondering.  Once again Greek worries weighed on equities and risk appetite as a whole.  Although the saga is turning into one big yawn, markets have not had their fill with the bad news coming from this small eurozone economy.  Talks between Greek officials, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union (EU) began yesterday but are expected to go on for several days or weeks until a joint text is issued on May 15, just days ahead of a EUR 8.5 billion bond redemption by Greece. 

The talks have done nothing to prevent Greece’s bond yields moving higher, with the yield on 10-year bonds pushing well over 8% whilst the spread with Germany debt also blew out to over 500bps.  The main fear in the market is that Greece will ultimately end up restructuring its debt.  Moreover, contagion fears have dealt a blow to southern European sovereign CDS especially Portugal.  It wasn’t plain sailing for German bonds either, with yesterday’s auction of EUR 3 billion of 30-year Bunds failing to sell the full amount. 

Another casualty of ongoing Greece concerns is the EUR, with the currency under performing other majors and still on its path towards EUR/USD 1.3300 in the near term and onto 1.3150 after.   EUR also looks vulnerable on the crosses and EUR/GBP in particular is one to watch, with the 28 January low around 0.86029 likely to be targeted over the near term.  UK employment data gave some relief to GBP yesterday, with further direction coming from retail sales data today and the next televised leaders’ debate.  

At some point the market will become fatigued with consensus beating earnings and the positive impact on equities will become less marked.  This point is approaching but we’re not quite there yet.  Apple, Morgan Stanley and Boeing did not disappoint, with earnings easily beating forecasts.  Boeing’s earnings in particular helped industrials to be the best performing sector on the S&P 500 although the overall index closed marginally lower.

Earnings today include Amazon.com, American Express, Credit Suisse, Microsoft, Nokia, and PepsiCo.  It is becoming plainly obvious that market expectations for earnings are too pessimistic but as noted above the positive market impact of good earnings is likely to wane. 

On the data front, highlights include March existing home sales, jobless claims and Producer Price Index (PPI).   There will be less focus on PPI given that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the month has already been released whilst claims are likely to resume a path lower following the jump over the past couple of weeks.   Existing home sales are likely to post an impressive gain as indicated by firm pending home sales data.   

Overall, it appears that risk appetite is creeping back into the market psyche but the ongoing battle between positive earnings/data versus European/Greek woes suggests that there will be no clear direction for markets.  Improving risk appetite will ultimately win but current conditions will leave currencies trading within well worn ranges, with the exception of the underperforming EUR. In contrast the USD index is likely to remain supported, taking solace from positive data releases.

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