Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

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.

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