Fed Tapering Concerns/Rising COVID Cases In Europe

Equities struggled at the end of last week amid news of rising COVID cases and hints by Federal Reserve officials of a preference for faster tapering though tech stocks benefitted from a rally in US Treasuries.  Oil prices fell further as markets pondered the potential for releases from China, Japan and US strategic oil reserves. Meanwhile, various countries are registering record daily COVID cases in Europe, resulting in partial lockdowns in a few countries. The outlook doesn’t look good heading into the winter flu season, while protests against mobility restrictions are on the rise. 

The US dollar extended gains at the start of this week helped by hawkish comments from Federal Reserve officials.  Conversely, rising COVID cases across Europe and resultant mobility restrictions, have hurt the euro, with the EURUSD exchange rate falling through 1.13 and showing little sign of any reversal.  Worsening sentiment towards the euro has fuelled a collapse in speculative euro positioning, with the market being net short for 6 out of the last 7 weeks (according to the CFTC IMM net non-commercial futures data).  In contrast, China’s authorities are becoming more concerned with the strength of the Chinese renminbi, which is currently around five year highs in trade weighted terms.  Measures to cap renmimbi strength are likely to be forthcoming.

Risk assets could struggle in the wake of speculation/pressure for more aggressive Fed tapering.  Fed Vice Chair Clarida and Governor Waller sounded relatively hawkish on Friday. Clarida said that the FOMC could discuss the pace of tapering at the December FOMC meeting and separately Waller stated that recent data had pushed him toward “favoring a faster pace of tapering and a more rapid removal of accommodation in 2022.”  This implies that the December Fed FOMC meeting will be a live one and could potentially see the announcement of more rapid tapering than the $15bn per month rate that was announced at the last Fed meeting. 

As such, the Fed FOMC minutes (Wed) will be under scrutiny to provide clues to any hint of support for more aggressive tapering though they will likely reveal that most officials see no rush for rate hikes.  On the same day the US core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) report is likely to have registered a strong increase in October keeping inflation concerns at the fore.  Fed nominations are also likely this week, and markets will be especially focused on whether Fed Chair Powell will be reaffirmed for another term.  The overall composition of the FOMC is likely to become a more dovish one next year. 

Several central bank policy decisions are scheduled this week including in China where the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) unsurprisingly kept its Loan Prime Rate on hold today.  However, in its latest quarterly monetary policy report released on Friday, the PBoC removed some key phrases cited in its previous reports, implying a softer tone to policy ahead. Any such easing would be targeted such as recent support for lenders via a new special relending facility to support the clean use of coal, via loans at special rates.  Additionally, a cut in the reserve ratio (RRR) cannot be ruled out.

Next up will be the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) (Wed), with a 25bp hike likely and risks of an even bigger 50bp hike. The Bank of Korea is also likely to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates likely (Thu) given rising inflation pressures and concerns about financial imbalances. The Riksbank in Sweden (Thu) is likely to keep policy unchanged though an upgrade in their forecasts is expected. 

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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%.  

Market Cross-Currents

There are many cross currents afflicting markets at present.  Equity valuations look high but US earnings have been strong so far, with close to 90% of S&P 500 earnings coming in above expectations. This has helped to buoy equity markets despite concerns over the spreading of the Delta COVID variant and its negative impact on recovery.  Yet the market doesn’t appear entirely convinced on the recovery trade, with small caps continuing to lag mega caps. 

The USD index (DXY) remained supported at the end of last week even as US yields remain capped, but the USD does appear to be losing momentum. Positioning has now turned long according to the CFTC IMM data indicating that the short covering rally is largely exhausted; aggregate net USD positioning vs. major currencies (EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD & CHF as a percent of open interest) turned positive for the first time in over a year. 

Inflation fears have not dissipated especially after recent above consensus consumer price index (CPI) readings, for example in the US and UK.  Reflecting such uncertainty, interest rate market volatility remains high as seen in the ICE BofA MOVE index while inflation gauges such as 5y5y swaps have pushed higher in July.  There was some better news on the inflationary front at the end of last week, with the Markit US July purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealing an easing in both input and selling prices for a second straight month, albeit remaining at an elevated level. 

This week we will get more information on inflation trends, with the June Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report in the US (Fri), Eurozone July CPI (Fri), Australia Q2 CPI (Wed) and Canada June CPI (Wed), on tap this week.  We will also get to see whether the Fed is more concerned about inflation risks at the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meeting (Wed).  The Fed is likely to continue to downplay the surge in inflation, arguing that it is transitory, while the standard of “substantial further progress” remains a “ways off”.   Nonetheless, it may not be long before the Fed is more explicit in announcing that is formally moving towards tapering. 

An emerging markets central bank policy decision in focus this week is the National Bank of Hungary (NBH) where a 15bp hike in the base rate is expected.  Central banks in emerging markets are taking differing stances, with for example Russia hiking interest rates by 100 basis points at the end of the week while China left its Loan Prime Rate unchanged.  The July German IFO business climate survey later today will be in focus too (consensus 102.5).  Overall, amid thinner summer trading conditions market activity is likely to be light this week.

US Jobs Report Provides Comfort For Markets

The US June jobs report released on Friday provided plenty of comfort for US equity markets. Non-farm payrolls rose by an above consensus 850,000 while the unemployment rate ticked higher to 5.9% from 5.8%.  The strong increase in payrolls helped US equities close out another week in positive mood; S&P 500 rose 0.75% and the Nasdaq gained 0.81% as investors continued to pile back into growth stocks. US Treasury bonds were supported, helped by an increase in the unemployment rate, while the US dollar fell.

Despite the jobs gain, payrolls are still around 6.8 million lower than pre-Covid levels, suggesting a long way to go for a full recovery. Federal Reserve officials will likely need to see several more months of jobs market improvement to achieve their “substantial further progress” tapering criterion.  Overall, the data played into the Fed’s narrative that tapering is still some way off and higher US interest rates even further away, leaving little for markets to fret about.

OPEC+ tensions between Saudi Arabia and UAE have increased, delaying OPEC+ talks to today against the background of oil prices pushing higher above $75 per barrel.  Riyadh along with other OPEC+ members appear keen to increase production over coming months while the UAE supports a short term increase, rather than the end of 2022 which other OPEC members are looking for.

Markets activity is likely to be subdued at the start of the due to the US holiday and there seems to be little to break out of the low volatility environment that we are currently in the midst off, though the US dollar will look to extend recent gains against the background of persistent short market positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data.  

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC Minutes of its last meeting (Wed), ISM non-manufacturing survey (Tue), and central bank policy meetings in Australia (Tue) and Poland (Thu) alongside Chinese June inflation (Fri) and credit aggregates data (from Fri). 

Given the sharp market reaction following the less dovish Fed FOMC meeting, markets will look for any further elaboration on the potential timeline for tapering in the Fed Minutes.  While both the RBA in Australia and NBP in Poland are likely to stay on hold, the RBA is likely to strike a dovish tone in its statement and Q&A while the NBP is likely to announce a new set of economic projections.  No shocks are expected from China’s June CPI inflation reading, though producer price inflation, PPI is likely to remain elevated.

Geopolitical Risks Rise

Last week ended on a positive note for risk assets, with equities rallying to record highs. In particular tech stocks are back in lead this quarter. The biggest surprise was the ability of US Treasuries to rally at the same time, particularly in the wake of a strong slate of economic data. The rally may be attributable to strong foreign and pension buying amid short market positioning.  Indeed, CFTC data show that Treasury bearish positions had increased as of April 13th.  The pull back in US Treasury yields points to some relief for emerging market assets. Similarly, commodity positions had also been cut, with gold, copper and oil positioning liquidation taking place. The risk rally and lower US yields have put the US dollar on the back foot, extending its decline over the week.  As such, the USD “exceptionalism” story appears to be fading somewhat.

Last week finished off with another set of firm US data; Housing starts surged 19.4% m/m to 1,739k, well-above the 1,613k consensus, from 1,457k (revised from 1,421k) in February. Similarly, consumer sentiment continued to improve in April, according to the preliminary release of the University of Michigan survey, with the index rising to a new post-COVID high of 86.5.  This week’s highlights include central bank decisions in China (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), Canada (Wed), Euro area (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Russia’s central bank CBR is expected to hike by 25bp while no changes are expected from the other central banks.  Canada’s Federal Budget today and CPI (Wed) will also be in focus.  Data wise, Australia March retail sales (Wed), New Zealand Q1 CPI and Euro area flash purchasing managers indices PMIs (Fri) will garner attention.  

On Friday, the US Treasury released its semi-annual FX report and found that once again Vietnam and Switzerland met all three criteria under the 2015 Act. over 2020.  Taiwan was also found to breach the Treasury criteria.  The outcome means that there will be ‘enhanced analysis’ of these countries.  However, the {US} US Treasury declined to name any of these countries as currency manipulators, citing insufficient evidence under the 1988 Act.  The other interesting development is that the Treasury questioned the foreign exchange activities of Chinese state banks given that it appears that China’s official FX intervention was very limited.  Separately, Ireland and Mexico were added to the US Treasury Monitoring List.

Geopolitical risks are rising once again and could act as a threat to markets in the day and weeks ahead. Last week the US levied sanctions on Russia including targeting Russian government debt. Russia responded with counter sanctions. However, the US administration did hold out an olive branch in the form of a potential joint summit. Focus is also on growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Similarly, US and Japanese leaders voiced concerns over Chinese policies, which were subsequently rejected by China’s foreign ministry. Despite the US criticism of China the US and China appear to be moving ahead with cooperate on climate change. US-China over Taiwan remain elevated however.

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