Markets Facing a Test of Reality vs. Liquidity

Risk assets ended last week under pressure (S&P 500 fell 2.4%) as some US states including Texas and Florida began to reverse opening measures and Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert, warned that some states may have to return to full “shelter in place”.  Banks were among the worst performers even as they came through the Fed’s stress tests in reasonably good shape.  The Fed did however, cap buybacks and dividend payouts for the 33 banks that underwent tests. However, the reality is that banks were hardly likely to increase dividends over the next few months, while the 8th biggest banks had already suspended buybacks.  Perhaps what spooked markets was the news of “additional stress analyses later in the year”.

It feels like equities and risk assets in general are facing a test of reality vs. liquidity. It’s hard to fight the growth in excess liquidity global (G4 central bank balance sheets minus GDP growth) which has risen to its highest rate since Sep 2009, coinciding with a solid run in global equities over that period.  Clearly forward earnings valuations have richened but while absolute valuations appear rich (S&P forward price/earnings ratio has risen to 24.16), relative valuations ie compared to low global rates, are more attractive. This hasn’t stopped the intensification of concerns that after a solid market rally over recent months, the entry of a range of speculative investors is leading to a Minsky Moment.

Investor concerns range from the fact that the rally has been narrowly based, both in terms of the types of investors (retail investors piling in, while institutional have been more restrained) and type of stocks (momentum vs. value), the approach of US Presidential elections in November and in particular whether there could be a reversal of corporate tax cuts, as well as the potential for renewed lockdowns. Add to the mix, geopolitical concerns and a certain degree of market angst is understandable. All of this is having a growing impact on the market’s psyche even as data releases show that recovery is progressing somewhat on track, as reflected for example in the New York Fed’s weekly economic index, which has continued to become less negative and the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which is around its highest on record.

China, which was first in and now looks to be first out is a case in point, with growth data showing ongoing improvement; data today was encouraging, revealing that industrial profits rose 6% y/y in May though profits in the first five months of the year still fell 19.3%, with state-owned enterprises recording the bulk of the decline.  While there are signs that Chinese activity post-Covid is beginning to level off, domestic consumption is gradually improving. This week, market activity is likely to slow ahead of the US July 4th Independence Day holiday but there will be few key data highlights that will garnet attention, including June manufacturing PMIs in China and the US (ISM), and US June non-farm payrolls.

Pause In The Risk Rally?

The rally in risk assets has extended into 2020 amid a stabilization in economic data, the Phase 1 trade deal and a persistent easy monetary policy stance by major central banks.  The sharp decline in volatility in most asset markets has also contributed to the rush to buy such as assets including equities and high yielding debt.  While the market is becoming increasingly susceptible to shocks given the increasing positioning in risks assets, the near term may be a period of consolidation rather than any reversal.

Attention this week will focus on US Q4 2019 earnings.  So far, with around 9% of S&P earnings released, the majority (around 70%) have beaten expectations.  In a 4 day US trading week this week there are a number of earnings releases that will help provide further clues to whether the US equity rally can be sustained in the weeks ahead.  The S&P 500 is already up around 3% this year, extending a 30%+ gain last year. This has echoed gains in most global equity markets.  Investors should be nervous, but there is little to suggest a reversal soon.

There are a number of data and events to focus on this week including central bank meetings in the Eurozone, Canada, Norway, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Unsurprisingly the Bank of Japan left policy unchanged today and the other are unlikely to change their policy settings except perhaps Indonesia, which may cut.  Aside from these central banks a series of manufacturing surveys (Markit PMIs) will garner attention.

In Asia, trading activity may slow as Chinese New Year approaches while impeachment proceedings against US President Trump in the Senate will also likely distract attention for many.  Another issue that has taken on increasing prominence is the outbreak of a virus that appears to have originated in central China.  Concerns have grown that the coronavirus could spread quickly especially as millions of Chinese migrate (estimated at around 3 billion trips) over the Chinese new year holidays.

Overall, nervousness over the virus alongside holidays in the region is likely to lead to consolidation in markets any even profit taking following a strong rally in risk assets over recent weeks and months.  Positioning indicators suggest that USD positioning has fallen sharply, suggesting also a risk of USD short covering in the current environment.  This all point to a pause in the risk rally in the days ahead.

Resilient Markets

Risk assets have registered a good start to the year despite ongoing tensions in the Eurozone. US stocks rose overnight, with the S&P 500 extending its rally to 4% year to date. Evidence that markets are becoming increasingly resilient to bad news emerged from the muted reaction to sharp downgrades in growth forecasts by the World Bank, with the world economy expected to grow by 2.5% this year compared to a June forecast of 3.6%.

US markets also reacted positively to news that the US NAHB Homebuilders index rose to its highest level in more than 4 years and while industrial output expanded, albeit less than expected. Markets will continue to keep one eye on earnings to ascertain whether the equity rally can be sustained, with at least 48 S&P 500 companies reporting earnings this week including Morgan Stanley Bank of America, Intel and Google today. So far, relatively more companies have fallen short of expectations than have beaten expectations.

Even in the Eurozone the news has been slightly more encouraging than of late, with reports that a deal between Greece and private creditors on the extent of debt writedowns could be reached by the end of this week. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is reported to be raising $500 billion in new funds for bail out funds, another factor that has helped to shore up market sentiment. The net result has been to see peripheral bond yields ease further and the EUR to strengthen, helped by the fact that the market is extremely short.

There is still plenty of event risk on the horizon, however, including debt auctions in Spain and France today although these ought to pass relatively smoothly. US data are likely to be mixed today, with benign inflation keeping the door open to more Fed quantitative easing (QE) while a gain in the Philly Fed manufacturing survey will continue to reveal signs of economic recovery. In the short term risk assets look supported but given the risks ahead any bounce still looks to be short-lived.

Plenty of event risk

This week is heavy with event risk, with a lot expected from EU leaders. So far the risk on tone to markets has held up, with for example the VIX fear gauge resting below the key 30.0. The G20 meeting over the weekend set the deadline for action for concrete solutions to the eurozone debt crisis for the October 23 EU Summit.

However, there will be little detail on issues such as banking sector recapitalisation, private sector involvement in any debt restructuring or ‘leveraging’ the EFSF bailout fund until the report on Wednesday night by the Troika on Greece. The reward to EU leaders would be the potential for more aid from the IMF but even now it seems that a German government official has poured cold water of a plan being announced at the EU Summit which will disappoint markets.

There are also plenty of data releases for markets to digest over coming days including inflation releases, manufacturing surveys and industrial production data in the US while in Europe the German IFO and ZEW surveys are scheduled for release. The data will follow on from the better than expected September US retail sales releases at the end of last week continuing to dampen expectations that the global economy is falling in recession though there will be a marked deceleration in European data.

Meanwhile the US Q3 earnings season rolls. The risk on tone will likely continue to weigh on the USD and weigh on bonds but unlike a few weeks ago when a lot of bad news was priced in, the scope for disappointment is becoming increasingly high.

Many currencies remain highly correlated with gyrations in risk and in this respect the improvement in risk appetite is good news for high beta / commodity. AUD, NZD, CAD and JPY are amongst the most sensitive currencies and therefore prone to a bigger reaction as risk improves, with the former three strengthening and the JPY weakening. Asian currencies poised to benefit from firmer risk appetite include INR and KRW, both with relatively high correlations with risk.

EUR/USD has made a solid recovery over recent days from its lows around 1.3146 spurred by hopes of action by European officials. Such hopes may yet be dashed but the EUR looks supported over coming days ahead of the EU summit Speculative positioning also reflects a slight improvement in EUR sentiment as IMM short positions have declined in the last week but its worth noting that this week’s European data are unlikely to be supportive for the EUR.

Strengthening risk appetite hitting the dollar

Strengthening risk appetite is taking its toll on the USD, with the USD index now down around 3.5% from its 4 October peak. Although equity markets probably liked the news the USD was dealt another blow from the FOMC minutes which revealed that some Fed officials were keen on embarking on further large-scale asset purchases after recognizing that the impact of Operation Twist will not be so potent.

Earnings will have some impact on risk and in turn the USD, with Q3 earnings from JP Morgan and Google on tap today. However, risk appetite looks well supported and in a market that became long USDs very quickly, this suggests some scope for squaring long positions in the short term.

What comes next for the EUR? The currency has bounced from its lows and has made considerable ground against the USD over recent sessions. Markets quickly got over Slovakia’s initial rejection of the EFSF’s enhancement as agreement was reached by officials in the country to approve the mechanism in a second vote. However, there is not much news on the progress on issues such as European banking sector recapitalisation, ‘leveraging’ the EFSF or the any change in creditor participation in any Greek debt restructuring.

Although European Commission President Barroso gave some broad outlines of what should be done to recapitalise banks disagreement among officials meant that there was little detail. Perhaps no news is good news and in any case markets will have to wait for the delayed EU Summit for further news, but the longer the wait the greater the scepticism and attendant downside risks to EUR.

The Swiss National Bank must be content with their stance on the CHF. Since the imposition of a ceiling for CHF versus EUR at 1.2000, and after an initial sharp jump higher the currency pair has continued to edge upwards. Meanwhile, speculation that the SNB may even raise the ceiling to 1.30 has grown as domestic complaints such as those from the country’s largest telecoms operator yesterday about the ongoing strength in the currency, continue.

The SNB has not indicated that it favors such a move and may be content with a gradual decline in the CHF as is taking place now, but should the fragile market calm at present disintegrate the SNB may have another battle on their hands as appetite for the currency strengthens anew. On the top side resistance is seen around 1.2469 for EUR/CHF.

Like many other high beta currencies AUD is being influenced less by domestic factors and more by risk aversion. Even more influential to the direction of AUD/USD is the movement in commodity prices and like risk aversion this had a negative influence on AUD as commodity prices dropped sharply over September.

Due to a bounce in both risk and commodities AUD has bounced sharply from its recent lows back above parity with the USD. AUD will have found further support from the firm September jobs report today. It is difficult to go against rising risk appetite at present but there is still a significant risk that hopes of a solution to the eurozone’s woes do not materialise while growth expectations are pared back further. Against this background the AUD will remain susceptible to sharp

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