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.

Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

Watching US Yields

Risk assets struggled to make headway last week, with technology stocks stumbling in particular.  Nonetheless, inflows into equities remain strong as more and more retail money is drawn in (perhaps signs of a near term peak).  Asian stocks started the week in positive mood despite last week’s nervousness, but equity investors will continue to keep one eye on the move in US yields.

US Treasuries continued to remain under pressure and the curve continued to bear steepen.  A combination of US fiscal stimulus hopes/expectations, vaccine progress and reduction in COVID cases, appear to be pressuring bonds. President Biden is likely to pass his $1.9 tn stimulus package in the weeks ahead, with a House vote likely this week, while the Fed continues to dampen down of any tapering talk, helping to push inflation expectations as reflected in break-evens, higher.  Indeed, this will likely be the message from a number of Fed speeches this week including Chair Powell testifying before Congress (Tue and Wed). 

Despite higher US nominal and real yields and visibly more nervous equities, the US dollar (USD) continues to struggle, failing to find a trigger to much covering of the massive short USD position still present.  We note that non-commercial FX futures positioning data (CFTC IMM) revealed only a limited reduction in aggregate USD short positions (as a % of open interest) in the latest week. Antipodean currencies led the way at the end of last week, but pound sterling (GBP) speculative positions have seen the biggest bounce over the last couple of weeks. 

Despite the USDs reluctance to rally lately, the short-term bias could shift to a firmer USD sooner rather than later, including against Asian emerging market currencies.  Indeed, several Asian currencies lost ground last week, with the Philippines peso (PHP) and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) leading the way lower.  The Asia USD index (ADXY) appears to have peaked and looks vulnerable to more short-term downside.

US economic data at the end of last week revealed that the flash estimates for the February purchasing managers indices (PMIs) stayed at fairly strong levels for both the manufacturing and services sectors.  Separately, US existing home sales posted stronger-than-expected numbers for January.

Attention this week will be on progress of passage on US fiscal stimulus as well as a number of central bank decisions beginning with China (today), New Zealand (Wed,) Hungary (Wed), and South Korea (Fri).  No policy changes from these central banks are likely.  Also of interest will be the UK’s announcement on exit plans from the current lockdown (today) and Germany’s Feb IFO survey, which is forecast to edge higher. 

Reflation Trade Is Back

A much softer than expected US January jobs report didn’t prevent US equities from closing higher at the end of last week as the reflation trade kicked back in.  One of the biggest driving forces for markets was the growing prospects that much of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plan will be passed, albeit via a process of reconciliation, which allows Democrats to circumvent the need to gain the support of at least 10 republicans. This contrasts with prior expectations that the final stimulus was going to be less than $1 trillion. 

Pushing stimulus through this way highlights Biden’s urgency to inject more spending into the economy but could come at the cost of hurting bipartisan policy efforts. The impact of expectations of increased fiscal stimulus is particularly apparent in the US rates market, with US Treasuries selling off and bear steepening of the curve.  Although higher US Treasury yields failed to give support to the US dollar (USD) there is still scope for a short covering rally, which could still help give the USD relief.     

At the beginning of the year the US jobs market took a hit from renewed lockdowns and surge in COVID cases; US January non-farm payrolls increased 49k, and December was revised to -227k from -140k while more positively the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7% though this was flattered by a drop in the participation rate as less people were looking for work.  According to the payrolls report there are still 9.9 million more unemployed compared to pre-COVID levels.  As such, the weak jobs data added more support to Biden’s fiscal stimulus proposals.   

This week focus will likely turn more to President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate than economic data.  Key data/events this week include China’s credit and monetary aggregates (9-15 Feb), central bank decisions in Sweden (Wed), Philippines, Mexico (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Among these the consensus is for only Mexico to cut its policy rate. Also in focus are inflation readings in China (Wed), US (Wed) and India (Fri).  UK GDP (Fri) and US Michigan sentiment (Fri) will also garner attention. 

The return of the reflation trade, rally in risk assets and decline in cross-asset volatility bodes well for emerging markets (EM) assets.  However, there are definitely various cross currents impacting asset markets at present especially with US Treasury yields rising, which could potentially support the USD and pressure EM local bond rates markets.  EM assets were clearly favoured towards the end of last year, and while the positive story has not dissipated, EM assets may take a pause for breath before pushing higher again.  

In Asia, the Chinese-new-year holidays this week may dampen activity while China’s PBoC also appears to be limiting liquidity injections around the holidays, which could limit some of the gains in Chinese and impact China linked assets.  Chinese authorities have re-focussed attention on preventing an excessive build-up of leverage and credit metrics have peaked as a result.  As such, they may be less keen to inject a lot of liquidity into markets at present. 

Sell On Fact

It was a case of buy on rumour, sell on fact at the end of last week, with US equities falling the most in over a week on Friday in the wake of the much anticipated but largely priced in announcement of President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal plan.  While the amount of stimulus is significant the reality is that it will be difficult to pass through Congress even though Democrats will have control of Congress and the Presidency. Something in the region of $1 trillion fiscal stimulus could end up being the price tag that is eventually passed in Congress given Republican opposition to some of the measures in the stimulus plan.  This would likely be followed by a possible $2trn+ plan for infrastrucutre/green spending.

Note that a 60-vote supermajority will be required to pass the fiscal legislation in the Senate, meaning that several Republicans will need to support the bill given the 50/50 Senate split.  Hence, a likely lower than $1.9trn eventual stimulus bill will be what is eventually passed. However, Democrats can pass the spending bill via “reconciliation”, but they would have to remove unrelated measures such as the proposed increase in the minimum wage, which they will unlikely want to do. 

Treasuries and the US dollar (USD) benefited from a worsening in risk sentiment at the end of last week.  USD positioning is at extremely low level, suggesting scope for some short covering. The VIX equity volatility index ticked higher and continues to remain well above its pre-COVID lows.  Given that many key equity gauges were in overbought territory according to their relative strength index (RSIs) some pullback/consolidation could be on the cards though the glut of global liquidity suggests that there is still plenty of money ready to buy on dips.  Yesterday US markets were closed due to the Martin Luther King Holiday, but Canadian and European stocks ended higher and futures point to gains today. 

US data isn’t helping sentiment, with yet more evidence that the economy was under pressure at the end of 2020.  Retail sales fell for a third consecutive month, the New York Empire manufacturing index fell for a fourth consecutive month in January. Lastly, University of Michigan consumer sentiment fell modestly early January.  Market direction today will likely come from the release of China’s December data dump as well as Q4 GDP.  In contrast to weakening US data Chinese data yesterday highlighted that solid recovery was sustained into year end, with GDP beating expectations, rising by 6.5% y/y in Q4 2020.  

The rest of this week is a heavy one for central bank decisions, with China, Malaysia, Canada (Wed), Indonesia, Eurozone, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil (Thu) and Japan (Fri) on tap.  In terms of policy action Malaysia is likely to cut, Turkey will likely tighten but the rest will likely be on hold.   The main event of the week is Joe Biden’s inauguration as 46th President of the US on Wednesday, and attendant risks of renewed unrest.  US Q4 earnings releases will also be in focus in the days ahead, with earnings releases ramping up over coming days.

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