A Host Of Global Risks

Last week was a tumultuous one to say the least.  It’s been a long time since so many risk factors have come together at the same time.  The list is a long one and includes the escalation of the US-China trade war, which last week saw President Trump announce further tariffs on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US that do not already have tariffs levied on them, a break of USDCNY 7.00 and the US officially naming China as a currency manipulator.

The list of risk factors afflicting sentiment also includes intensifying Japan-Korea trade tensions, growing potential for a no-deal Brexit, demonstrations in Hong Kong, risks of a fresh election in Italy, growing fears of another Argentina default, ongoing tensions with Iran and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

All of this is taking place against the background of weakening global growth, with officials globally cutting their growth forecasts and sharply lower yields in G10 bond markets.  The latest country to miss its growth estimates is Singapore, a highly trade driven economy and bellwether of global trade, which today slashed its GDP forecasts.

Central banks are reacting by easing policy.  Last week, the New Zealand’s RBNZ, cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 50 basis points, India cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 35 basis points and Thailand surprisingly cutting by 25 basis points.  More rate cuts/policy easing is in the pipeline globally in the weeks and months ahead, with all eyes on the next moves by the Fed.  Moving into focus in this respect will be the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium on 22/23 August and Fed FOMC minutes on 21 August.

After the abrupt and sharp depreciation in China’s currency CNY, last week and break of USDCNY 7.00 there is evidence that China wants to control/slow the pace of depreciation to avoid a repeat, even as the overall path of the currency remains a weaker one. Firstly, CNY fixings have been generally stronger than expected over recent days and secondly, the spread between CNY and CNH has widened sharply, with the former stronger than the latter by a wider margin than usual.  Thirdly, comments from Chinese officials suggest that they are no keen on sharp pace of depreciation.

Markets will remain on tenterhooks given all the factors above and it finally seems that equity markets are succumbing to pressure, with stocks broadly lower over the last month, even as gains for the year remain relatively healthy.  The US dollar has remained a beneficiary of higher risk aversion though safe havens including Japanese yen and Swiss Franc are the main gainers in line with the move into safe assets globally.  Unfortunately there is little chance of any turnaround anytime soon given the potential for any one or more of the above risk factors to worsen.

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US/China Tensions Escalate

Risk appetite starts the week in poor form. The shock announcement of 5% tariffs on all Mexican exports (from June 10) to the US and an intensification of tensions with China, have fuelled growing expectations of a worsening in the global growth outlook. Safe haven assets such as JPY and CHF are likely to remain in demand while core bond yields are likely to continue to move lower, with markets continuing to raise bets on Fed rate cuts this year.  Indeed the 10y US Treasury yield has dropped by 1.1% since 8 November last year, with the fall in yields accelerating over recent weeks.

US/China tensions escalated over the weekend, with the deputy head of China’s negotiating team, Wang Shouwen, accusing the US of “resorting to intimidation and coercion”.  This coincides with the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods coming into effect over the weekend as Chinese shipments reached US shores, while earlier on Saturday Chinese tariffs on $60bn of US exports came into effect.  There is also growing speculation that China may curb exports of rare earth exports to the US.

Wang accused the US of abusing export controls and persisting with “exorbitant” demands and insisting on “mandatory requirements that infringe on China’s sovereign affairs”.   Meanwhile China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe, said that China will “fight to the end” on trade if needed.  China is also starting to investigate foreign companies who have violated Chinese law.  Soon after Chinese state media reported that the government was investigating FedEx for allegedly “undermining the legitimate rights and interest” of its Chinese clients.

Attention this week will be on several central bank decisions including the ECB (6th June), RBA (4th June) and RBI (6th June).  The market is fully priced in for an RBA rate cut to 1.25% this week.  The ECB is unlikely to surprise, with no change in policy likely.  Attention will be on terms of the TLTRO III while ECB President Draghi is likely to sound dovish in his press conference.  RBI is set to cut policy rates again, with Friday’s release of weaker than expected Q1 GDP adding to pressure on the Reserve Bank to boost growth amid low inflation.

CHF under pressure

In sharp contrast to AUD but for the same rationale (improving risk appetite and low volatility) the CHF has succumbed to pressure. Comments this week by Swiss National Bank officials highlighting their resolve to enforce the CHF cap, their belief that the currency is still overvalued, and are prepared to take further steps, highlight that the Swiss authorities wish for a much deeper correction lower in the currency. This is unsurprising as the CHF real effective exchange rate has been on a strengthening path over recent months, much to the likely chagrin of the SNB.

The fact that Swiss CPI inflation dropped back into negative territory on a YoY basis in February reinforces the need to further weaken the currency. Steps such as negative deposit rates and/or FX intervention cannot be ruled out. In the meantime, USD/CHF looks set to test resistance around 0.8930 (26 Feb high).

EUR and GBP losing ground

Safe haven currencies including JPY and CHF will be the main FX beneficiaries of the current bout of risk aversion although the USD has also edged higher in part due to some slippage in the EUR and GBP. I had noted at the beggining of this week that EUR/USD will remain a buy on dips on any decline to 1.3775. However, after hitting a high around EUR/USD 1.3916 following the European Central Bank’s inaction at its policy meeting last week the currency pair distinctly looks like it has topped out this week. Technical and positioning indicators are also looking less positive for the currency, with the RSI (Relative Strength Index) at a stretched level and speculative positioning above its three month average.

Comments by ECB Vice President Constancio that the markets had not fully taken on the message from the ECB last week that policy will remain accommodative also helped to dampen sentiment for the EUR. Further slippage to technical support around 1.3778 looks likely in the near term.

GBP has lost ground overnight too. Softer data including yesterday’s January industrial production data as well as comments from the Bank of England have weighed on the currency. As noted last week GBP/USD was looking vulnerable above 1.6700 and will face some further short term pressure, with a test of support around 1.6538 looming.

CHF pressures

USD/CHF and EUR/CHF enjoyed a bounce as risk aversion eased but continued uncertainty over the situation in the Ukraine suggests that any upward momentum will be limited. The fact that the largest economic impact from any worsening in tensions with Russia will be felt in the Eurozone highlights that life may become difficult once again for the Swiss National Bank as renewed safe haven inflows move into the country. Indeed the EUR/CHF floor at 1.20 may be tested over coming weeks. Data tomorrow will likely give further reason for the SNB to oppose CHF strength, with the annual rate of CPI inflation set to remain very low.

US dollar restrained further

The USD will continue to be restrained by poor weather conditions and lower US Treasury yields (around 2.6%), especially against the JPY which has also been supported by higher risk aversion and consequent safe haven demand. The USD index is at threat from dropping to its October 2013 lows around 78.998 (currently 79.828)

A similar story applies to the CHF, with USD/CHF hitting its lowest level since late 2011 around 0.8783. This pattern will not change in the short term, especially given the potential escalation in tensions in the Ukraine, keeping the CHF under upward pressure as safe haven inflows increase. EUR/CHF has dropped sharply as a result, with the resolve of the Swiss National Bank to support its line in the sand at 1.20 set to be tested shortly.

Risk currencies in contrast will likely come under growing short term pressure including AUD, NZD and many emerging market currencies. AUD/USD will likely trade with a heavy tone even though the RBA is unlikely to cut policy rates at its meeting tomorrow.

EUR benefitted from the upside surprise for Eurozone inflation but has run into resistance around 1.3800 versus USD. Speculative EUR positioning has continued to rise but the fact that CFTC IMM positioning has risen to above its 3 month average suggests that further EUR gains will be more limited.

Indeed although the USD continues to be restrained by weaker data and lower US yields, the potential for a dovish surprise from the ECB will limit the ability of the EUR to capitalise on USD weakness this week. Strong technical resistance for EUR/USD will be found around 1.3894 (2013 high).

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Low volatility unsustainable

There seems to be a real disconnection between the problems / tensions in China, Ukraine, Turkey, Thailand etc and market sentiment.

Even in the US the market has happily swallowed Yellen’s speech that data weakness is all related to bad weather (US equities rose to record highs overnight while the VIX index has edged lower). Well once the weather improves the data had better improve too otherwise that theory will be shot to pieces and markets will be hit.

In particular there really does appear to be a surprisingly degree of complacency towards events in Ukraine (see earlier comments). On that note even if the Ukraine avoids default via money from US/Europe/IMF tensions with Russia remain a major issue.

In terms of FX reaction JPY and CHF could face more upward pressure while the EUR is looking increasingly exposed. High beta FX EM FX will look increasingly vulnerable against this background.

What is surprising is that both major FX and EM FX implied volatility indices (1m, 3m) are tracking below their historical vol indices. The low level of volatility in both FX and equity markets looks unsustainable.

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