Growth/Risk Asset Rally Dichotomy To Continue

Happy New Year!  2020 ended with record highs for US stock markets, capping off a solid year for risk assets amid massive and ongoing central bank liquidity injections.  In contrast the dollar index (DXY) ended the year languishing around its lowest levels since April 2018.  The dichotomy between the sharp deterioration in global growth and risk asset performance has widened dramatically.  Given the acceleration in COVID-19 cases over recent weeks and consequent lockdowns, especially in the US and Europe, this divergence is likely to be sustained and even widen further over the next few months, at least until various vaccines finally manage to stem the damage.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for markets over recent weeks/months have been US fiscal stimulus and Brexit.  Both have now passed with last minute deals, setting the scene for a clearer path in the weeks ahead though political obstacles have not disappeared by any means, with the Georgia Senate run-off elections scheduled for Tuesday.  The outcome will be crucial for control of the US Senate with Democrats needing wins in both races to take over. However, the races are too close to call according to polls. Separately the US Congress will meet on Wednesday to declare the winner of the Presidential election. 

On the data and events front the week begins with an OPEC+ meeting tomorrow, with officials deliberating on whether to expand output by up to 500k barrels.  There are also a series of December Markit manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMI) tomorrow including in various countries in Asia as well as the release of the Caixin manufacturing PMI in China.  US data will take centre stage with the release of the ISM manufacturing survey (Tuesday), Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) and non-farm payrolls (Friday).  Overall, markets are likely to begin the year much as the same way they left 2020, with risk appetite remaining firm. 

One interesting observation as we kick off 2021 is that so many investor and analysts’ views are aligned in the same direction (long Emerging markets, short USD, long value stocks, etc), and positioning is already looking stretched in various asset classes as a result.  While I would caution against catching a falling knife there is a clearly a risk of jumping on the same bandwagon as everybody else in a market that is increasingly positioned in one direction.  Overall, while the risk rally is likely to continue to have legs in the months ahead, investors should be on their toes in the weeks ahead given risks of a positioning squeeze in various asset classes.

Germany Caught in the Contagion

Equity markets came off their lows overnight despite a 236 point drop in the Dow Jones, but sentiment remains extremely fragile and any let up in pressure on risk assets will prove temporary. A weak bond auction in Germany highlights the severity of contagion across Europe. If the core is being hit then there is no safe haven in Europe anymore. On a positive note it might just make German officials finally realise that they need to act quickly to provide solutions to the crisis.

Weak data notably outside the US adds to the malaise, with in particular China’s HSBC November weaker purchasing managers’ indices coming in below the 50 boom/bust level. Europe’s weaker purchasing managers indices highlight the prospects of looming recession while the news in Germany is not only bad on the bond front bad also on the data front. Today’s German November IFO survey will continue in the same vein, with further weakness in this business survey expected.

Bearing in mind the US Thanksgiving holiday today thin liquidity will mean that conditions are ripe for exaggerated market moves. EUR/USD has already sustained a drop below the important 1.3500 level as even the underling strong Asian demand appears to have been pulled back. More downside is expected but technicals suggests that it will be hard trudge lower, with near term support seen around 1.3285 (10 day Bollinger Band). The near term range is likely to be 1.3285-1.3505 although given the US holiday the range may be even tighter.

Aside from the IFO attention today will focus on a meeting between Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Monti. As usual expect a lot of hot air but little action. Also note there is a general strike in Portugal today protesting against austerity measures in the country.

Pandemonium and Panic

Pandemonium and panic has spread through markets as Greek and related sovereign fears have intensified. The fears have turned a localized crisis in a small European country into a European and increasingly a global crisis.  This is reminiscent of past crises that started in one country or sector and spread to encompass a wide swathe of the global economy and financial markets such as the Asian crisis in 1997 and the recent financial crisis emanating from US sub-prime mortgages.  

The global financial crisis has morphed from a credit related catastrophe to a sovereign related crisis. The fact that many G20 countries will have to carry out substantial and unprecedented adjustments in their fiscal positions over the coming years means the risks are enormous as Greece is finding out. The IMF estimate that Japan, UK, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and the US have to adjust their primary balances from between 8.8 in the US to 13.4% in Japan. Such a dramatic adjustment never been achieved in modern history.

Equity markets went through some major gyrations on Thursday in the US, leading to a review of “unusual trading activity” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of hundreds of billions of USDs of share value wiped off in the market decline at one point with the Dow Jones index recording its biggest ever points fall before recouping some of its losses. Safe haven assets including US Treasuries, USD and gold have jumped following the turmoil in markets whilst risk assets including high equities, high beta currencies including most emerging market currencies, have weakened. Playing safe is the way to go for now, which means long USDs, gold and Treasuries.

There is plenty of expectation that the G7 teleconference call will offer some solace to markets but this line of thought is destined for disappointment. Other than some words of comfort and support for Greece’s austerity measures approved by the Greek government yesterday, other forms of support are unlikely, including intervention to prop up the EUR. The ECB also disappointed and did not live up to market talk that the Bank could embark on buying of European debt and it is highly unlikely that the G7 will do so either. Into next week it looks like another case of sell on rallies for the EUR.   Remember the parity trade, well it’s coming back into play. 

Aside from the turmoil in the market there has been plenty of attention on UK elections. At the time of writing it looks as though the Conservatives will win most seats but fall short of a an overall majority. A hung parliament is not good news for GBP and the currency is likely to suffer after an already sharp fall over the last few days. GBP/USD may find itself back towards the 1.40 level over the short-term as concerns about the ability of the UK to cut its fiscal deficit grow. A warnings by Moody’s on Friday that the “UK can’t postpone fiscal adjustments any longer” highlights the risk to the UK’s credit ratings and to GBP.

Recovery efforts pay off in the first half of 2009

At the end of last year it looked distinctly like the global financial system was on the verge of meltdown and that the global economy was about to implode.  The change in market sentiment since has been dramatic.  Various banking sector bailouts, the pledge of as much as $2 trillion to support the US financial system, passage of the $819 billion stimulus plan by the US administration and G20 agreement pledging $1 trillion for the World Economy, were major events over the first half of the year which helped to turn sentiment around. 

More rate cuts by many central banks and expansion of quantitative easing, with the Fed purchasing $300 billion in Treasuries, and the ECB unveiling a EUR 60 billion covered bond purchase plan, provided a further boost to recovery efforts. This was coupled with the passage of US bank stress tests which at least gave some transparency on the state of US banks’ balance sheets. 

These efforts appear to be paying off as confidence has improved, data releases especially in Q2 09 have revealed a much smaller pace of deterioration, whilst some US banks felt confident enough to pay back TARP funds, marking a turning point for the US financial sector. 

Markets reacted to all of this news positively once it became clear that a systemic crisis had been avoided; most US and European indices, with the notable exception of the Dow ended H1 2009 with positive returns.  However, their gains were less impressive when compared to the strong gains in some emerging equity markets, with indices in China and India registering gains above 50% this year as recovery efforts in emerging markets echoed those in the G10, but with the advantage of far less severe banking sector problems.  

Currency markets have also given up the high volatility seen at the start of the year as many currencies have now settled into well worn ranges.  Measures of equity market volatility have also swung sharply over H1 2009, with the VIX index now less than half of its 20 January peak. Other measures of market stress have undergone significant improvement, with much of this taking place in Q2.   For instance, the Libor-OIS spread dropped to its lowest level since the beginning of 2008 and after peaking at close to 450bps in October 2008, the Ted spread has now dropped to a level last seen in late 2007.  The change in market sentiment over H1 was truly dramatic but there is little or no chance that this will continue in H2 2009 as I will explain in my next post.

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