Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

USD clambering up the fiscal cliff

Following US elections the reality of the task ahead to resolve the looming fiscal cliff has cast a long shadow of markets, leaving risk assets under pressure. Despite comments from the US administration and Congressional leaders of a willingness to compromise, markets remain unconvinced, especially given the unchanged underling stance of both Democrats and Republicans, the former towards taxing the wealthiest and the latter towards no tax hikes.

US data and events will not help risk appetite, with a drop in retail sales, moderate gains in manufacturing surveys and a small gain in October industrial production expected. The main highlight will be the FOMC minutes. Perversely the USD will continue to benefit even though much of the rise in risk aversion and subsequent safe haven demand is US orientated.

News that Greece passed its 2013 budget over the weekend will do little to assuage concerns over the country’s precarious financing position. It will also not guarantee that the Eurogroup meeting will approve Greece’s next loan tranche today given disagreements over the country’s debt sustainability, with a decision only likely by the end of the month.

Greece’s ability to handle a EUR 5 billion debt repayment this week via a treasury bill auction tomorrow will be the immediate focal point for markets given the difficulty for the country to obtain financing. At least economic data in the Eurozone will be slightly less negative, with upside risks to preliminary Q3 GDP and a likely third straight gain in the German ZEW investor confidence index expected in October. None of this will offer much respite for the EUR which looks set to slip further on its way towards its 100 day moving average around 1.2639.

In Japan the release of Q3 GDP data this morning which revealed the first negative reading in 3 quarters and broad based weakness in GDP components adds to the pressure on Japanese officials, in particular the Bank of Japan to intensify its stimulus efforts. The likelihood of another negative reading in Q4 and therefore a technical recession also highlights the need to weaken the JPY in such efforts. However, as we have been warning the move in USD/JPY above the 80 level proved short lived, with the currency pair undermined by a drop in US bond yields and to a lesser extent higher risk aversion. We see little chance of USD/JPY sustaining a break back above 80 in the current environment.

Bernanke and Eurogroup awaited

Two main events will garner most attention this week. These are Fed Chairman Bernanke’s Monetary Policy Report to Congress on Wednesday and the Eurogroup meeting on Friday. Ahead of these events trading is likely to be restrained. While a solid close to US and European equity markets at the end of last week suggest at least a firm start to the week for risk assets the many and varied uncertainties afflicting markets suggest that positive momentum will be very limited. US data should generally outperform compared to Europe this week with June retail sales, July Empire manufacturing, May industrial production and June housing starts are set to post gains. In contrast, the German July ZEW survey is set to decline further.

Wide ranging uncertainties in Europe including the inability to seal the deal on the main elements of the recent EU Summit, downgrade of Italy’s sovereign ratings by Moody’s, uncertainty of Greece’s austerity programme, delay in the German Constitutional Court’s verdict on the ESM bailout fund, the hard line stance of German Chancellor Merkel towards banking supervision, disagreement within France’s majority government on how to ratify the Fiscal Pact as well as objections from the Netherlands and Finland on the use of the rescue funds, highlight just some of the difficulties remaining in turning around confidence in Europe. All of this suggests that the EUR will remain under downward pressure while Eurozone peripheral bond spreads will see limited compression.

Aside from a relatively weak EUR which we expect to push lower initially to support around 1.2151 versus USD and then towards the psychologically important 1.200 other risk / high beta currencies will remain relatively resilient. Asian currencies will likely begin the week in positive mood helped by expectation of more stimulus from China but unless risk appetite improves significantly any upward bias will be limited. Although there may be some disappointment from a lack of progress in Europe on resolving its crisis and also from Bernanke’s testimony in which he is unlikely to indicate a greater bias towards more quantitative easing, risk appetite is unlikely to sour too much, especially given thin summer trading conditions and hopes of more policy stimulus out of China.

Sell into Euro rallies

The USD will have found the news that Fitch Ratings lowered its outlook on the US AAA long term ratings to negative unwelcome. Nonetheless, USD sentiment has been recently as reflected in the jump in CFTC IMM USD positioning to multi week highs. The USD will however, face some headwinds from speculation that the Federal Reserve is about to embark on a fresh round of quantitative easing by purchasing mortgage backed securities.

The firm start to the week in terms of risk appetite helped the EUR to recover some ground but the currency remains vulnerable to event risk. High among the event risk is the Eurogroup and Ecofin meetings today, which will decide whether or not to approve Greece’s next loan tranche as well as EFSF leveraging options. Progress on the latter is likely to be limited leaving the EUR vulnerable to disappointment.

Attention will also focus on Italy’s sale of up to EUR 8 billion of BTPs and the likelihood that the country may have to face a yield above the critical 7% threshold. An increase in funding costs will not bode well for EUR sentiment especially following warnings by Moody’s about potential downgrades to sovereign ratings across the region.

EUR/USD failed to follow through on gains overnight but as reflected in the IMM speculative positioning there may be some scope for further short covering given that the net EUR short position reached its highest since June 2010 last week. Nonetheless, upside potential for EUR/USD is likely to be restricted to resistance around 1.3415.

Relatively dovish comments by Bank of England officials and weak data will keep GBP on the back foot over the short term. BoE governor King highlighted the risk of an inflation undershoot while Fisher noted that the BoE expanded QE by a minimum in October and can do more.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is set to cut UK growth forecasts significantly today. Against this background prospects for more BoE QE remain high. In the short term GBP will likely struggle against both the USD and EUR although we expect weakness versus EUR to be short lived, and would sell into any EUR/GBP rally to around 0.8665 support.

Euro crisis intensifies

The blowout in eurozone non-core debt has intensified and unlike in past months the EUR has been a clear casualty. The lack of a concrete agreement over a solution given divergent views of EU officials, the European Central Bank (ECB) and private sector participants threatens a further ratcheting higher of pressure on markets over coming weeks.

The only real progress overnight as revealed in the Eurogroup statement appeared to be in the renewing the option of buying back Greek debt via the eurozone bailout fund, extending maturities and lowering interest rates on loans. This will be insufficient to stem the pressure on the EUR, with the currency verging on a sharp drop below 1.40.

The USD continues to take advantage of the EUR’s woes and has actually staged a break above its 100-day moving average yesterday after several attempts previously. This sends a bullish signal and the USD is set to remain supported given that there is little in sight of a resolution to the problems festering in the eurozone.

Today’s release of the June 22 Fed FOMC minutes will give some clues to Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony to the House of Representatives tomorrow, but as long as the minutes do not indicate a greater willingness to embark on more asset purchases, the USD is set to remain resilient.

GBP has also benefitted from the EUR’s weakness, and unlike the EUR has only drifted rather than dived versus the USD. However, the UK economy is not without its own problems as revealed in a further drop in retail sales overnight, albeit less negative than feared, with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) like for like sales falling 0.6% in June.

A likely increase in June CPI inflation in data today to a 4.8% annual rate will once again highlight the dichotomy between weak growth and high inflation. In turn, such data will only provoke further divisions within the Bank of England MPC. While further gains against the beleaguered EUR are likely, with a test of EUR/GBP 0.8721 on the cards in the short term, GBP will struggle to sustain any gain above 1.6000 versus USD.

Both AUD and NZD are vulnerable against the background of rising risk aversion and a firmer USD in general. However, both currencies are not particularly sensitive to risk aversion. Interestingly the major currency most sensitive to higher risk aversion in the past 3-months is the CAD and in this respect it may be worth considering playing relative CAD underperformance versus other currencies.

As for the AUD it is more sensitive to general USD strength, suggesting that it will be restrained over coming sessions too and given that market positioning is still very long AUD, there is scope for further downside pressure to around 1.0520 versus USD.

%d bloggers like this: