All Bets Are Off!

For anyone thinking that markets had already fully priced aggressive Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes, last week’s message from the US May CPI inflation report as well the ECB meeting was crystal clear.  All bets are off!  The US CPI report destroyed any hopes that US inflation had peaked with headline CPI surging 1% on the month and the annual rate hitting a new post-COVID high of 8.6%.  If there was ever any doubt, the data not only seals the case for at least a 50 basis point (1/2 %) hike at this Wednesday’s Fed FOMC meeting but increases the risk of a 75bp move though the latter still seems unlikely.  More likely, the Fed embarks on a series of 50bps hikes. . 

Separately, the ECB shifted away from its long held dovish stance and announced an expected end to its bond purchase plan (APP) at the beginning of July, effectively pre-announced a 25bp policy rate hike in July and 25-50bp hikes in September, with the central bank expecting to maintain a tightening cycle beyond September.  Many other central banks are scrambling to catch up the curve as inflation pressures end up being much higher than many of them previously anticipated.  There are exceptions of course such as Japan (see below), Russia recently cut its policy rate by 150bp and China which may still cut policy rates in the weeks ahead (watch this week’s 1y Medium Term Lending Facility decision, with a small 5-10bp cut possible), but these exceptions are few and far between.

The jump in US inflation will also further support the US dollar, keeping it on the front in the days ahead against most other currencies.  Already at the start of the week, most currencies were hurt in the face of a resurgent US dollar, especially high beta emerging market currencies. Separately, market volatility measures (e.g. MOVE and VIX) are likely to rise while liquidity is likely to remain poor.  Risk assets overall are likely to struggle against this background. Overall, it’s hard to see sentiment turn around quickly.

This week the main focus will be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) but there are also several other central bank decisions of interest including the BCB in Brazil (Wed) where consensus expects the pace of hikes to slow to 50bp.  Additionally, 25bp rate hikes from the Bank of England and CBC in Taiwan (both Thu) are expected while the Bank of Japan (Fri) meeting is likely to be uneventful as BoJ governor Kuroda has doubled down on his aggressive stimulus stance while noting that a weaker Japanese yen benefits the economy.  Key data this week includes likely yet more weak Chinese activity data in May (Wed), jobs data the UK (Tue) and Australia (Thu) and a likely stronger than consensus increase in May  US retail sales (Wed).  

Action Shifting To Currencies as Rates Volatility Eases

US stocks barely closed higher at the end of last week and flirted with bear market territory. US consumer and retail stocks remain under pressure alongside industrials as recession fears intensify.  Indeed while inflation concern remain elevated, recession fears are increasing. US Treasury yields are finally coming off the boil amid such fears, with May seeing a significant pull back in yields; the biggest decline has been in the 3-10 year part of the yield curve over recent weeks.  This has been met with a decline in interest rate volatility unlike equity and implied currency volatility measures, which have pushed higher.   For instance, major currency implied volatility measures have reached their highest since around March 2020. Emerging markets volatility breached its March 2020 high in March 2022 and after a brief fall is moving back higher.  

Action is shifting to currencies and the drop in the US dollar from its highs, with the currency increasingly undermined by lower US yields.  In Asia, the 3 most sensitive currencies to yield differentials (US 10 year yield minus 10 year local currency bond yields) are the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Korean won.  As such, Korean won is likely to rally the most in Asia should US yields fall further.   The Chinese yuan has strengthened amid US dollar weakness though underperformance of the Chinese currency is likely versus its peers as the authorities likely aim to weaken it on a trade weighted (CFETS) basis. 

In China, the surprisingly large 15 basis point cut in 5-year loan prime rate last week will be seen as a boon for China’s property market.  However, while support for the property market has increased there does not seem to be much more stimulus ready to be unleashed despite various pledges.  China’s April data slate was weak highlighting the risks of a contraction in GDP this quarter and providing evidence that the “around 5.5%” official growth target looks increasingly out of reach.  COVID restrictions across the country are easing gradually pointing to some pick up in activity though consumption and the service sector are likely to remain under pressure for months to come as mass testing, quarantines and border controls continue to restrict mobility.  

There was relief for China’s markets today as President Biden highlighted the potential for a reduction/removal of tariffs implemented by President Trump, stating that he will discuss tariffs with Treasury Secretary Yellen when he returns from his Asia trip.  Removing tariffs is by no means a done deal given there will be plenty of pressure to maintain some level of US tariffs on China. A reduction in tariffs would be beneficial for the US in that it would help reduce imported inflation pressures while it would also help to support Chinese exports at a time when they are slowing down and adding pressure on China’s current account position.  However, some of this impact would likely be mitigated by a relatively stronger yuan, which would undoubtedly benefit as tariffs were cut.  

Key data and events highlight this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), South Korea and Turkey (both Thu).  Federal Reserve FOMC meeting minutes will also be released (Wed). Although not expected by the consensus there is a good chance that Indonesia hikes policy rates by 25 basis points. In New Zealand a 50bp hike is likely while a 25bp hike in South Korea is expected.  In contrast despite pressure on the Turkish lira and very elevated inflation no change in monetary policy is expected in Turkey this week.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes will provide further detail on how quickly the Fed wants to get to neutral rates and beyond and on its quantitative tightening policy. 

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

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%.  

What Could Prompt Higher Volatility?

Equities were buoyed last week in the wake of US President Biden’s infrastructure deal and renewed reflation trade optimism amid mixed post Federal Reserve FOMC messages from Fed officials. This resulted in US stocks recording their biggest weekly gain since February.  The prospects of passing the infrastructure deal has improved in the wake of Biden’s decision not to tie it to a much larger spending package that is being pushed through by Democrats but is not supported by Republicans. 

Given heightened sensitivity over inflation, the slightly weaker than expected US Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data on Friday, which increased 0.5% m/m in May, slightly below the 0.6% consensus, added further support to the reflation trade, helping the US Treasury curve to steepen.  Moreover, the University of Michigan 5-10y inflation expectations series came in lower in June compared to the previous month. Fed officials likely put much more emphasis on this long-term series and will view the 2.8% reading as consistent with their “largely transitory” take on the pickup in inflation.

Cross-asset volatility has continued to decline, which bodes well for carry trades and risk assets.  For example, the VIX “fear gauge” index has dropped to pre-COVID level, something that has been echoed in other market volatility measures.  However, it’s hard to ignore the shift in tone from many central banks globally to a more hawkish one while risk asset momentum will likely wane as the strength of recovery slows, suggesting that low volatility may not persist.  It is notable that changes in global excess liquidity and China’s credit impulse have both weakened, implying a downdraft for risk assets and commodity prices and higher volatility. 

If there is anything that could prompt any increase in volatility this week, its the US June jobs report on Friday.  June likely saw another strong (consensus 700k) increase in nonfarm payrolls while the unemployment rate likely dropped to 5.7% from 5.8% previously.  Despite the likely strong gain in hiring, payrolls would still be close to 7 million lower compared to pre-COVID levels, suggesting a long way to go before the US jobs market normalises. The June US Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index will also come under scrutiny though little change is expected from the May reading, with a 61.0 outcome likely from 61.2 in May. 

Other data and events of importance this week include the 100th year anniversary of China’s Communist Party (Thu), the release of purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally including China’s official NBS PMI (Wed) for which a slight moderation is expected.  Eurozone June CPI inflation (Wed) which is likely to edge lower, Sweden’s Riksbank policy decision (Thu) where an unchanged outcome is likely and Bank of England (BoE) Governor Bailey’s Mansion House Speech (Thu), will be among the other key events in focus this week. 

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