US Elections – The Proof Is In The Pudding

The week ahead is a huge for data and events.  First and foremost is the US Presidential election on Tuesday.  Polls show Democratic contender Biden well in the lead over President Trump, with around an 8.8% gap in polling between the two contenders.  However, Biden has lost some ground over recent weeks in polls including in key toss-up races though betting odds actually show a late shift back in favour of Biden.  Polls predict that Democrats will also take the Senate from the Republicans and add to their majority in the House. 

While the polls indicate a Blue Wave for the Democrats there is still a healthy degree of cynicism given how badly they predicted the outcome of the 2016 election, when most pollsters predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.  In recognition pollsters say they have changed their methodologies to correct for past errors.  The proof is in the pudding and until elections are over, investors will be holding their breath.  Even after election day itself, it is not clear that we will see an outcome quickly.  A jump in early voting may complicate things as well as the large amount of mail in voting, which could in some states take days to count. 

The problem may be more acute if the election is a close call, which polls are admittedly not suggesting, but nonetheless, the potential for multiple legal challenges and even civil unrest should not be discounted.  Note that States technically have until December 14 to certify election results.  Some states that will be key to either side will be Florida and Pennsylvania as well as Michigan,  North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin.  Florida in particular, could be essential, and could be one of the first states to be called on election night.  The winner in Florida has gone on to the win the Presidency in 13 of the 14 last elections. It is also one of the closest races this time around.

All of this is taking place at a time when Covid-19 cases are accelerating, potential a bad omen for Trump given that polls have shown widespread disapproval over his handling of the virus.  Indeed, Covid inflections in the US increased by 97,000 on Friday, the largest one day increase since the outbreak of the virus. The jump in cases were led by Midwestern states, some of which are major battleground states in the elections.  Admittedly, some of the increase in cases can be ascribed to higher testing rates, but hospitalisations have also risen sharply. 

All of this doesn’t bode well for the economy.  While the third quarter registered an above consensus increase in US GDP of 33.1% on annualised basis, the outlook for Q4 looks much softer and without a new fiscal stimulus package, momentum will slow sharply.  The labour market in particular is weak and while this week’s US October employment report will likely show a strong increase in non-farm payrolls (consensus 610,000), there will still likely be around 10 million fewer jobs since February.  The Federal Reserve FOMC meeting this week is unlikely to deliver any further support, with the onus squarely on more fiscal stimulus.

Equity markets have clearly become increasingly nervous heading into the election, with US stocks registering their worst week since March amid election nervousness and spike in Covid infections.   Tech stocks were hit despite mostly beating earnings expectations.  The US dollar in contrast, made some headway, but didn’t really fully capitalise on the sell off in stocks and rise in risk aversion, that would usually be expected to propel the currency higher.   If polls are correct and there is a strong outcome for Democrats in the election, stocks will likely find their feet again, while the US dollar will resume weakness. 

India braced for a new era under Modi

Dear readers, it’s been a long while since I wrote a blog post and I must apologize for their absence. I have left my job at Credit Agricole CIB and will be moving from Hong Kong to Singapore to work for another bank. I am currently on gardening leave and am therefore not following market developments anywhere near as closely as I was until I start my new job at the end of June. Nonetheless, given the major events in India over recent days, with the victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections, I felt compelled to write something.

Firstly the fact that the BJP won a landslide victory with 282 seats out of a total of 543 ensures that for the first time in decades the government in India does not have to be encumbered by a wide range of political beliefs and views. The consequent inaction a wide ranging coalition would have entailed would lead to renewed policy paralysis. As it is the BJP can form a majority government, with Modi able to emulate the successful reform policies he implemented in his home state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister there. Being a Gujarati I can’t help but be caught up in the euphoria of what this could mean for India.

In contrast the Congress party and its leaders from the Nehru/Ghandi dynasty suffered a massive defeat, not only throwing them into opposition but shoving them to the margins in terms of political strength. Admittedly there has been a lot of money that has poured into Indian stocks and bonds over recent months but this does not necessarily mean that a BJP majority was priced in. On my last visit to India many of the clients I met actually thought that Modi may have been ousted while it was not felt that he and the BJP would be able to gain an outright majority. In the event he proved doubters wrong. In other words there is still plenty of scope for upside for the rupee and Indian stocks and bonds.

Now before we all get too excited a dose of reality needs to be brought into the mix. The “Gujarat model” was one of rapid improvements in infrastructure, reduction in bureaucracy and red tape and an encouragement of foreign investment. Clearly nothing in India is going to change overnight and adapting the model implemented in Gujarat, a state of 60 million people, to a country of over 1 billion people will not be easy. There will also be risks in terms of social tensions given the more right wing views of Modi and his party. Nonetheless, the strong mandate given to Modi by the electorate was for tough reform and this is what Modi and his style of government is best at.

There is little to time for a Modi honeymoon. The country’s bloated fiscal deficit, persistent current account deficits, elevated inflation, high indebtedness in some sectors, job market rigidities, inconsistent tax policy and masses of red tape and corruption, are only a few of the issues to contend with in a country with a wide spectrum of socio economic standing and religious views. Modi may also have to show some new secular credentials to ensure that his policies do not fuel sectarian tensions, something that may not come easy.

The hope among Indians and foreign investors is that Modi can once again push the economy back onto its fight and move to growth rates closer to 8-9% rather than 4-5% that the country under Congress rule has settled into. The selection of officials especially the Finance Minister will give important policy clues while ensuring that the well regarded central bank governor Rajan retains his post will help solidify confidence. Having been disappointed so many times in the past it is tough not to be skeptical but it may finally be time to throw caution to the wind and give Modi the benefit of the doubt. If anyone is up to the job it appears that Modi has the right credentials for it.

Risk rally losing steam

The rally in risk assets is losing its momentum, with US stock markets failing to extend gains following a four day rally while US Treasury yields continued their ascent in the wake of Fed Chairman Yellen’s testimony highlighting no deviation from tapering. Her testimony to the Senate will be delayed today while US data in the form of retail sales is likely to register a soft outcome. Sentiment was boosted overnight by strong Chinese trade data in January and the approval by the US Congress allowing a suspension of the debt limit, a far cry from the major saga that took place last time the debt ceiling was about to be breached.

Additionally Eurozone markets will find some support from comments by European Central Bank board member Coeure who noted that the central banks is “very seriously” considering negative deposit rates. His view may be supported by the release of the ECB monthly bulletin today and Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF). Coeure’s comments undermined the EUR however, while in contrast sharp upward revisions to growth forecasts by the Bank of England in its Quarterly Inflation Report boosted GBP. Suffice to say, EUR/GBP dropped like a stone and looks set to remain under downward pressure.

Risk appetite remains fragile

Fortunately for the USD the situation in the eurozone has become so severe that the problems in the US are all but being ignored. Even in the US, attention on the nomination of the Republican presidential candidate has over shadowed the looming deadline for an agreement on medium term deficit reduction measures.

The Joint Select Committee on deficit reduction is due to submit a report to Congress by November 23 and a final package would be voted on by December 23. A lack of agreement would trigger automatic deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion, a proportion of which would take place in 2012. If this is the case it could potentially tip the economy into recession, necessitating QE3 and consequently a weaker USD.

Reports that the eurozone could fall apart at the seams as countries exit have shaken confidence, yet the EUR has managed to hold above the psychologically important 1.35 level. The strong reluctance of the European Central Bank (ECB) to embark on unsterilized bond purchases and to act as lender of the last resort, suggests that the crisis could continue to brew for a long while to come.

Nonetheless, the EUR found a semblance of support from news that former ECB vice-president Papademos was named new Prime Minister of Greece, the ECB was reported to be a strong buyer of peripheral debt, Italy’s debt auction was not as bad as feared, affirmation of the EFSF’s AAA rating by Moody’s and France’s AAA rating by S&P (following an erroneous report earlier). EUR/USD remains a sell on ralliesup to resistance around 1.3871, with initial resistance around the 1.3665 level.

The underlying pressure over the near term is for further JPY strength in the face of rising risk aversion and a narrowing in the US yield advantage over Japan. Given that the situation in the eurozone remains highly fluid as well as tense, with little sign of resolution on the horizon, risk aversion is set to remain elevated. Moreover, yield differentials have narrowed sharply and the US 2-year yield advantage over Japan is less than 10bps at present.

Against this background it is not surprising that the Japanese authorities are reluctant to intervene aggressively although there are reports that Japan has been conducting secret interventions over recent weeks. However, given that speculative and margin trading net JPY positioning have dropped significantly the impact of further JPY intervention may be less potent. In the meantime USD/JPY will likely edge towards a break below 77.00.

Swiss officials have continued to jawbone against CHF strength, with the country’s Economy Minister stating that the currency remains massively overvalued especially when valued against purchasing power parity. Such comments should be taken at face value but the CHF is unlikely to embark on a weaker trend any time soon.

Although the EUR/CHF floor at 1.20 has held up well while the CHF has lost some its appeal as a safe haven the deterioration in the situation in the eurozone suggests that the CHF will not weaken quickly.

Ratings rampage hits Euro

Both the data flow and market liquidity will be thin over the last couple of weeks of the year. After a bashing over much of H2 2010 it looks as though the USD will end the year in strong form having risen by over 6% since its early November low. In contrast the EUR is struggling having found no support from the meeting of European Union officials at the end of last week in which they agreed to a permanent sovereign debt resolution after 2013 but failed to agree on expanding the size of the bailout fund (EFSF). Similarly there was no traction towards a common euro bond. EUR/USD is now verging on its 200-day moving average around 1.3102, a break of which could see a drop to around 1.2960.

The failure to enlarge the size of the EFSF was disappointing given worries that it is perceived to be insufficient to cope with the bailout of larger eurozone countries if needed. It also highlight that the burden on the European Central Bank (ECB) to prop up eurozone bond markets until confidence improves. The increase in the size of ECB capital from EUR 5.8 billion to EUR 10.8 billion will help in this respect. Such support was clearly needed last week following the rampage across Europe by ratings agencies culminating in Moody’s five notch downgrade of Ireland’s credit ratings, surprising because of its severity rather than the downgrade itself. Ireland’s ratings are now just two notches above junk status and the negative outlook could mean more to come.

It was not just Ireland’s ratings that came under scrutiny. Ireland’s multi notch downgrade followed Moody’s decision to place Greece and Spain on review for a possible downgrade whilst S&P revised Belgium’s outlook to negative. Unsurprisingly peripheral debt markets came under renewed pressure as a result outweighing positive news in the form of strong flash eurozone PMI readings and firm German IFO business confidence survey. EUR did not escape and sentiment for the currency remains weak, with CFTC IMM speculative positioning data revealing a fourth straight week of net EUR short positioning in the week to 14th December.

In contrast, sentiment for the US economy continues to improve. Congress’ swift passage of President Obama’s fiscal plan will help to shore up confidence in US recovery. Data this week will be broadly positive too. On Wednesday, US Q3 GDP data is likely to be upwardly revised to a 2.8% QoQ annualized rate. Durable goods orders excluding transportation are set to increase by a healthy 2.0% (Thu) whilst both existing (Wed) and new (Thu) home sales will reveal rebounds in November following a drop in the previous month.

In the UK the main highlight is the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes. Another three way split is expected but this should not cause more than a ripple in FX markets. GBP/USD has slipped over recent days but there appears to be little other than general USD strength responsible for this. The currency pair looks vulnerable to a drop below 1.5500, with 1.5405 seen as the next support level. On balance, the USD will be in good form this week although the drop in US bond yields at the end of last week may take some of the wind out of its sails.

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