Rocky Road

Despite the rally in US stocks on Friday, led by the technology sector, US stocks have fallen for four straight weeks.  The jury is still out on whether equities and risk assets in general can rally in the face of a host of uncertainties in the weeks ahead including the potential for a contested US election, fading US economic momentum, lack of progress on “Phase 4” US fiscal stimulus and a resurgence in virus cases globally.  What is clear, is that the road ahead is a rocky one, reflected in the fact that equity volatility (VIX) remains elevated and G10 FX options implied volatility around the time of the US election has spiked. 

One of the main beneficiaries of this uncertainty has been the US dollar lately, much to the detriment of precious metals given their strong inverse correlation.  It wasn’t that long ago that most commentators were writing off the USDs prospects and it’s still not clear that its recovery can persist.  The USD has hit its highest level in 2 months but will likely struggle if equities can eke out further gains in the days ahead.  In contrast, gold is trading around its lowest levels in 2 months.  While these trends may persist in the very short term, technical indicators (eg Relative Strength Index) indicate approaching overbought USD and oversold gold levels. 

This week, the main focus will be on the first US Presidential debate on Tuesday and US September jobs report at the end of the week.  While the US jobs report will likely show a relatively strong (when compared to pre-covid levels) increase in hiring (consensus around 900k), the pace of hiring is likely to slow and employment is still likely to be at least 11 million lower compared to February.  The battle for the new US Supreme Court Justice adds another twist, with President Trump announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and the Senate moving ahead to vote on this nomination this side of the election.  This has changed the dynamics ahead of the election battle, energizing voters on both sides. 

In Asia, China’s September purchasing managers indices (PMIs) and monetary policy decisions in India and Philippines will garner most attention this week.  China’s economy is emerging from the Covid crisis in good shape, helped by resilient exports performance, with medical goods and electronics exports performing particularly well.  This is likely to be reflected in China’s PMIs this week, which are set to remain in expansion territory. Meanwhile US government pressure on Chinese technology companies continues to rise, with the US government reportedly sanctioning China’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC.  This may draw a retaliatory response from China, such as adding US companies to China’s “unreliable entities” list.  

India’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) monetary policy decision is likely to result in an unchanged outcome on Thursday.  While growth has been hit badly due to Covid-19, inflation has also spiked to well above the RBI’s target, leaving the central bank in a difficult position on policy.  Ultimately the RBI will have to ease monetary policy further, but it is unlikely to do so at its meeting on Thursday.  India’s economy is fast heading for a double-digit plunge in growth this year and unfortunately virus cases remain at very high levels.  The rupee has been resilient, however, and is unlikely to weak much further in the short term, even as the economy softens. 

Dovish Fed Hits The US Dollar

The US Federal Reserve shifted towards a dovish stance yesterday and asset markets applauded.   Against the background of signs of slowing growth, intensifying trade tensions and growing “uncertainties” about the economic outlook, the Fed removed the previous “patient” stance and instead noted that “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion”.   The bottom line is that the Fed is priming the market for easing as early as July, though the market had already primed itself by moving sharply in terms of pricing in rate cuts over recent weeks.   The market is now pricing in three rate cuts this year and at least one next year, which seems reasonable.

Clearly there are a huge number of uncertainties ahead, making the Fed’s job particularly difficult and the picture could look quite different should the upcoming G20 meeting in Japan (28-29 June) deliver some form of trade agreement between the US and China.  This would likely result in less need for Fed easing.  As I have noted previously there are still a huge number of challenges and obstacles to any such agreement, suggesting that market hopes of an agreement stand a good risk of being dashed.   Until then, risk assets will remain upbeat, with equity markets rallying in the wake of the Fed decision even as bond yields moved lower and gold prices reached a 5-year high.

The USD remains under pressure and took another blow in the wake of the FOMC meeting.  The USD has now lost ground against almost all G10 currencies except GBP amid Brexit concerns over the last month.  This has extended today and the currency looks set to remain under pressure in the short term as markets continue to price in Fed rate cuts.  The tension between President Trump and Fed Chairman Powell is not doing the USD any good either.  The USD index (DXY) is now threatening to break below its 200-day moving average (96.710) though this has proven to provide strong support in the past.  A sustained break below this level could see the USD extend losses against major and many emerging market currencies.

US dollar under renewed pressure

After hitting a multi month low at the end of last week the USD (index) failed to extend gains this week dropping overnight to 79.592 overnight in the wake of some slippage in US Treasury yields (10 year treasury yields fell to around 2.73%).

Conversely EUR/USD once again breached the 1.39 level despite attempts by European Central Bank officials to convince the markets that the message from last week’s policy meeting was in fact dovish. Markets have yet to be convinced (as do I), however, given that the ECB has yet to put its words into action in terms of further policy easing.

The key to a more sustainable EUR decline / USD recovery is to shake off the bad weather impact on the US economy. This is likely to take place soon although not quickly enough to be revealed in today’s release of US February US retail sales data, which will reveal that core sales remained pressured, leaving the USD without much support.

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US dollar soft ahead of retail sales

The USD has lost a fair bit of ground in February failing to benefit from a renewed rise in US Treasury yields. A more positive risk environment recently has undermined some of the demand for USDs while some negative data surprises such as the ISM manufacturing survey and non farm payrolls have also weighed on demand for the USD.

The release of January retail sales data today will give another opportunity to gauge the path of consumption at the turn of the year but unfortunately for the USD a relatively flat outcome for sales will provide little rationale to buy the currency. The consensus expectation is for headline retail sales to post a 0% monthly reading, while sales ex autis is likely to rise by a measly 0.1%.

In the near term this implies little potential for a USD rebound but over but over coming weeks I expect the USD to rally in line with higher US yields. USD index (DXY) is likely to flatline around the 80 level in the coming sessions before rallying over coming weeks.

US dollar speculative positioning had increased prior to its sell off

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