Inflation Debate Rages On

Good morning, last week ended on a solid note for global equity markets, capped by strong gains in US stocks and in particular a surge towards the end of the session on Friday.  The S&P 500 is on track for its best month since November though in the next few days, month and quarter end rebalancing will continue to hold risks, which could result in increased volatility.  Another imponderable is potential follow through from huge equity sale block trades at the end of last week reportedly from Archegos Capital, which hit US media companies and Chinese tech stocks. All of this suggests risks of higher volatility in the days ahead.  

US interest rate markets came under renewed pressure, with yields backing up over the week, while the US dollar (USD) had a firmer week, with the USD index (DXY) ending above its 200-day moving average and technical indicators pointing to further gains this week.  CFTC IMM speculative positioning data (in the week to 23 March) shows that net aggregate USD short positions have been pared back further as USD sentiment continues to improve.  Positioning in most currencies vs. USD fell while Japanese yen (JPY) short positions increased further.  The oil market and container costs could be pressured higher by the continued delay in dislodging the stricken Ever from the Suez Canal, which seems to have made little progress over the weekend.

Attention this week will turn to a few key data and events.  Important among these will be President Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh (Wed) where he will likely give further details on his infrastructure plan and how it will be funded.  Key US data include the March ISM manufacturing survey (Thu) and March non-farm payrolls (Fri).  Solid outcomes for both are expected.  In Asia, focus will be on March purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across the region (Thu) including in China (Wed) where broadly positive readings are likely.  There will also be attention on the going malaise in Turkey’s markets since the sacking of the central bank (CBRT) governor while Europe continues to struggle with fresh virus waves, lockdowns, and vaccine reluctance as well as tensions over vaccine exports to the UK.

As President Biden gives his speech this week the debate about a potentially sharp rise in inflation rages on.  The Fed has tried to calm fears by highlighting that any rise in inflation over the coming months will likely be transitory.  However, with massive stimulus in the pipeline, economic recovery taking shape and the Fed set to keep policy very accommodative for years to come, market fears have risen as well as warnings from the likes of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.  Consumer inflation expectations remain largely subdued but the debate will not end quickly, and bond markets will be on tender hooks.  In the next few months inflation will turn up but this will largely be due to base effects as the collapse in activity in prices in Q1 last year falls out of the equation.  However, the jury is out on whether this will turn to more persistent inflation, something that could have a much more severe impact on markets and force central banks to belatedly tighten policy. 

Will the Fed Calm US Treasury Market Volatility?

The main market action on Friday was once again in US Treasuries, with another sharp sell off as the 10y yield spiked 8.8 basis points despite three large US debt auctions over the week that were received relatively well by the market.  The sell-off helped the US dollar (USD) to strengthen while oil prices slipped. USD sentiment is clearly becoming less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM data (non-commercial speculative market positioning), which shows that USD (DXY) positions (as a % of open interest) are still short, but at their highest since the week of 8 Dec 2020. Tech stocks didn’t take well to higher yields, but the Dow and S&P 500 closed higher. The move in yields may pressure Asian currencies and bond markets after some consolidation/retracement towards the end of last week though equity markets look better placed. 

At the end of last week US University of Michigan consumer sentiment rose to 83.0 in the preliminary release for March from 76.8 in February and exceeded expectations at 78.5 (consensus). This week attention will turn to a plethora of central banks spearheaded by the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed). Markets will be watching for any revisions to US growth forecasts amid a dovish tone, albeit with little sign of any push back on higher yields. US rates markets will also focus on the US 20y auction, which could keep the curve pressured steeper.  Nervousness over the Statutory Liquidity Ratio (SLR) exemption, which is set to expire at the end of the month, will also likely intensify.  A less dovish than hoped for Fed, will likely keep the USD on the front foot. 

Other central bank decisions this week will take place in the UK, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan. None of these are likely change policy settings except Brazil, where the market is looking for a 1/2% hike. Developments to look out for include some push back from the Bank of England on higher yields, a move to bring forward the rate hike path in Norway, a potentially controversial no change decision in Turkey and the Bank of Japan’s announcement of the results of its policy tools and in particular clarification on the tolerated trading range for 10-year JGBs.

Data this week kicks off with Chinese activity data today including February industrial production and retail sales. Seasonal distortions and base effects will make this month’s data look particularly strong.  Other data this week includes US Feb retail sales (tomorrow) where a weak outcome is likely depressed by harsher-than-usual winter weather as well as a fading of the boost from stimulus payments. Australia February employment is also likely to be soft (Thursday).  

Overall, equity volatility has eased, especially in the equity market, suggesting some return of normal trading conditions there, but interest rate volatility remains high driven by the move in US Treasury yields.  The USD gave back some gains towards the end of last week, but will likely benefit from higher US yields and is set to start this week in firm form.  US interest rate gyrations will likely provide further direction for the USD over the rest of the week.   Much of course will depend on the Fed FOMC meeting, which will be the main event this week. 

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

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.

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