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.

Sour end to the week

It’s a sour end to the week for markets. Just as emerging markets (EM) were beginning to see some signs of stability, a surge in US Treasury bond yields (hitting a high of 3.23%) acted to fuel another round of pressure, pushing bond yields higher globally while denting equity market sentiment.   As a result EM equities took another beating and EM currencies fell against a resurgent USD.

The surge in US yields followed a run of strong US data including a gauge of service sector sentiment (ISM non-manufacturing index hit a new expansion high) and strong private sector jobs data (ADP jobs report).  Constructive comments from Fed Chairman Powell on the economy, supporting expectations that US interest rates will be hiked again in December, added to the upbeat mood on the economy.   At the time of writing attention is focused on the US September jobs report which is unlikely to detract from the upbeat US growth story.

US-China tensions are another factor weighing on sentiment.  While there has been no sign of any progress on trade talks even as the US agreed trade deals with Canada and Mexico, criticism by US Vice President Mike Pence on Chinese policy, has weighed on Asian markets.  There appears to be no sign of any appeasement between the two countries, suggesting that tensions will not easy anytime soon.

Any hope of a recovery in risk assets especially in emerging markets as we go into the final quarter of the year are beginning tofade.   After losing ground over much of September the USD has bounced back with a vengeance, while US assets continue to outperform much of the rest of the world, attracting even more capital.  While heavy long USD positioning and increasingly stretched US equity valuations hold risks against further gains in both, markets are not yet willing to run from US assets.

Fed does the Twist, markets do the Shake

Although it was widely expected the Federal Reserve’s decision to implement a fresh version of Operation Twist together with a downbeat assessment of the economy came as a disappointment to equities and risk assets in general. The only surprise was the larger size of the operation at $400 billion.

Moody’s downgrade of three US banks added to the malaise as US equities dropped sharply, commodities slid, longer term Treasuries rallied whilst shorter term bonds dropped. The USD registered broad gains both on the back of the fact that no more quantitative easing was announced and due to a shift away from risk assets. At least there was no more negative news out of the eurozone as talks between the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) and Greek officials continue on the next tranche of the bailout.

Markets will continue to digest the Fed’s outcome today and the negative tone will likely filter through markets today. There is little on the data front to result in a shift in this tone. In the US data includes weekly jobless claims while in Europe attention will be on manufacturing and service sector confidence measures.

While the potential for a positive outcome to talks in Greece may provide a short term boost to sentiment the overwhelming tone is likely to remain negative especially as Operation Twist is unlikely to change the dynamic of a weak growth trajectory for the US and developed economies over the coming months. Against this background, selling risk assets on rallies remains the preferred option.

The USD will continue to look firmest against high beta emerging market currencies in the current environment. Currencies in this group are those that have the highest correlations with risk (as m measured by my in house risk barometer) over the past 3 months including CAD, ZAR, TRY, INR, MXN, ARS & RUB. In contrast currencies that also have high correlations but actually strengthen as risk aversion increases are CNY and JPY.

Split personality

Markets are exhibiting a Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with a clear case of split personality. Intensifying risk aversion initially provoked USD and JPY strength, with most crosses against these currencies under pressure. Both USD/JPY and EUR/JPY breezed through psychological and technical barriers, with the latter hitting a nine-year low. However, this reversed abruptly in the wake of extremely poor US existing home sales, which plunged 27.2% in July, alongside downward revisions to prior months, a much bigger drop than forecast.

Obviously double-dip fears have increased but how realistic are such fears? Whilst much of the drop in home sales can be attributed to the expiry of tax credits, investors can be forgiven for thinking that renewed housing market weakness may lead the way in fuelling a more generalized US economic downdraft. The slow pace of jobs market improvement highlights that the risks to the consumer are still significant, whilst tight credit and weaker equities, suggests that wealth and income effects remain unsupportive.

FX markets will need to determine whether to buy USDs on higher risk aversion or sell USDs on signs of weaker growth and potential quantitative easing. I suspect the former, with the USD likely to remain firm against most risk currencies. The only positive thing to note in relation to the rise in risk aversion is that it is taking place in an orderly manner, with markets not panicking (yet).

European data in the form of June industrial new orders delivered a pleasant surprise, up 2.5%, but sentiment for European markets was delivered a blow from the downgrade of Ireland’s credit rating to AA- from AA which took place after the close. The data suggests that the momentum of European growth in Q3 may not be as soft as initially feared following the robust Q2 GDP outcome.

Japan has rather more to worry about on the growth front, especially given the weaker starting point as revealed in recently soft Q2 GDP data. Japan revealed a wider than expected trade surplus in July but this was caused by a bigger drop in exports than imports, adding to signs of softening domestic activity. The strength of the JPY is clearly making the job of officials harder but so far there has been no sign of imminent official FX action.

Japan’s finance minister Noda highlighted that recent FX moves have been “one sided” and that “appropriate action will be taken when necessary”. The sharp move in JPY crosses resulted in a jump in JPY volatility, a factor that will result in a greater probability of actual FX intervention but the prospects of intervention are likely to remain limited unless the move in the JPY accelerates. USD/JPY hit a low of 83.60 overnight but has recovered some lost ground, with 83.50 seen as the next key support level. JPY crosses may see some support from market wariness on possible BoJ JPY action, but the overall bias remains downwards versus JPY.

Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

Stressing About European Stress Tests

Equities and risk appetite were bolstered by the relative success of the Spanish bond auction on Thursday. The results of the auction in which Spain sold EUR 3 billion in 10 year notes helped to stem some of the pressure on eurozone bond spreads, which despite the generalized improvement in market sentiment over recent days, had been continuing to widen.

Another key indicator that has been suggested that all is not well moving in the opposite direction to the improvement in many risk indicators is the Baltic Dry Index which has dropped by around a third since 26th May 2010.

Perhaps more significant in terms of providing sustainable support for markets was the news that the European Union agreed to publish the results of bank stress tests, slated for the second half of July. This could turn out to be a key stepping stone towards increasing the transparency of the eurozone banking sector.

However, doubts will remain until there is some clarity on the terms of the tests such as whether they include details of sovereign debt exposure. Also, if the stress tests reveal shortcomings in the banks in question it is unclear if government funding will be provided for them. Although the publishing of stress test results is a step in the right direction until these and other questions are answered it is difficult to see markets getting too excited.

It’s not all plain sailing for equity markets despite the relatively positive news in Europe as disappointing US data in the form of a surprise jump in weekly jobless claims and a bigger than expected drop in the June Philly Fed survey weighed in on the side of those expecting both a slow and jobless recovery in the US.

The CHF has been a key mover following the Swiss National Bank policy decision. The decision to leave interest rates unchanged was no surprise, but the change in rhetoric towards a less aggressive stance towards CHF strength opens up the floodgates for CHF buyers. will look to test its all time low around 1.3720.

Another central bank that has shown concern about a strengthening currency is the Bank of Japan but unlike the SNB Japan’s central bank has not intervened for several years. The BoJ in the minutes of its May meeting noted that it will “watch if Europe’s crisis strengthens JPY”, indicating some concern about JPY strength.

This sentiment that was echoed by the Japanese government in the release of Economic Growth Strategy aimed at avoiding an excessive rise in the JPY via fiscal and monetary steps to beat deflation. The JPY barely reacted to both the minutes and the growth strategy, with market players likely sceptical until concrete measures are actually implemented.

It still look like an environment of sell on rallies for the EUR and other risk currencies, with their gains likely to run out of steam over coming days. The next key technical level for EUR/USD is around 1.2454, a level that will prove a tough nut to crack.

What To Watch This Week

A “crisis over” mode is being adopted across markets as worries about Greece wane and economic data provides support to recovery hopes, whilst importantly allaying fears of a “double-dip”. Equities, bonds and currencies are reacting accordingly; equities are close to year highs, bond yields have risen and spreads have narrowed, whilst the USD and JPY are weaker, and conversely risk currencies are stronger. Even EUR/USD pushed higher on its way to 1.3800 as a number of stops were cleared and shorts were squeezed.

The coming weeks will be important to determine whether there is any staying power in the upward move in risk assets. A lot of the February data in the US will likely be obscured by bad weather however, including industrial production figures this week, leaving markets with little to go on. In Europe, the key release is the March German ZEW investor confidence survey, and better news in Greece, will likely prevent a sharper decline in confidence.

After both the Swish National Bank (SNB) and Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) unsurprisingly left policy unchanged last week this week sees the turn of the US Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan (BoJ). Neither central bank is likely to shift policy but the Fed statement will be looked upon for guidance on the timing of rate hikes. The comment in the FOMC statement that the Fed Funds rate is expected to remain low for an “extended period” is set to be retained, even if some FOMC members are itching to remove it soon.

The BoJ meeting will be particularly interesting. I have just returned from a week long trip in Japan and on the ground there is plenty of speculation that the BoJ will take extra action to combat deflation and weaken the JPY. Additionally comments by Japan’s Prime Minister and Deputy PM have highlighted the potential for action to weaken the JPY although the usual market hesitation to sell JPY into fiscal year end and repatriation talk may mean a weaker JPY path is not straightforward.

Greece will not move too far from the spotlight, with EU officials likely to give the official stamp of approval on Greece’s deficit cutting measures and plenty of discussion at the Eurogroup Finance Minister’s meeting and Ecofin meeting early in the week. Moreover, weekend press reports suggest that a bailout up to EUR 25 billion is close to being agreed. Other topics of conversation will include the possible formation of a European Monetary Fund, though this looks like it will be a non-starter given the many objections to it.

Overall, risk appetite is set to continue its upward trajectory, likely keeping the USD on the back foot. Some deterioration in USD sentiment was reflected in the fact that net long aggregate USD speculation positioning has turned negative again according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) report. Much in terms of FX direction will depend on what the FOMC says rather than does tomorrow.

EUR/USD may take a crack at resistance around 1.3840 on improving Greek news but it is difficult to see much upside from current levels. The one to watch will be the JPY, especially if the BoJ embarks on aggressive actions at this week’s meeting, leaving USD/JPY plenty of scope to test resistance around 92.16.

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