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.

All Eyes on Greece

The USD is in a lose-lose situation courtesy of the Federal Reserve’s ultra easy stance. Positive economic data releases have been met with USD selling pressure as the data helps to fuel a rally in risk appetite. Although the USD benefited from the better than expected US January jobs report gains will prove fleeting as it is does not change expectations of more Fed quantitative easing (note the drop in the participation rate).

Following the jobs report, there is little on the data front over coming days (only December trade data for which a widening is likely and February Michigan confidence where a gain is expected) to shift USD direction. At best the USD will consolidate giving USD bulls some time to nurse their bruises.

A disaster in the Eurozone (e.g. Greek disorderly debt default) could help the USD but it appears that markets have become resilient to bad news giving officials in the region the benefit of the doubt. In particular, the ECB’s 3-year LTRO has calmed nerves somewhat.

The lack of a final deal on Greek debt restructuring has failed to dent the EUR although notably EUR/USD failed to extend gains above 1.32 and has drifted lower. EUR/USD will remain on tenterhooks ahead of a midday deadline today set by Greek PM Papademos for party leaders to accept strong terms to qualify for a second bail out.

In the absence of agreement prospects of a disorderly debt default will loom large especially given that there is a EUR 14.5 billion bond repayment on March 20. Such an outcome will undoubtedly derail the EUR. Moreover, a meeting of Eurozone Finance ministers this week will give some direction to the EUR while the ECB’s likely status quo on Thursday suggests that there will limited EUR reaction following the meeting.

The risk of JPY intervention has increased significantly as USD/JPY brushes the psychologically important 76.0 level. However, the feeling on the ground is that USD/JPY will need to broach 75.0 before intervention is actually seen. Jawboning by Japanese officials has intensified suggesting increased official concern.

However, in the short term the ability of the authorities to engineer a sustained drop in the JPY is limited given the compression in US – Japan bond yields. This appears to be outweighing even the drop in risk aversion, which in theory should be playing for a weaker JPY. USD/JPY will struggle to make any headway, with strong multi day resistance seen around 77.49.

US dollar remains under pressure

Hopes of progress on the Eurozone debt crisis and encouraging data in the US have helped boost market confidence. However, the slightly disappointing US Q4 GDP report (2.8% Qoq annualised growth) revealed the markets continued vulnerability while Fitch’s downgrade of six Eurozone countries’ sovereign ratings brought a dose of reality back to the region.

Nonetheless, the Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) unlimited 3-year loans to banks and Fed hints at quantitative easing (QE3) have provided markets with a fillip and will help underpin risk assets over coming weeks. If Greek debt talks are wrapped up this week markets will take further solace but the European Union (EU) Summit beginning today will need to deliver on rubber stamping recent agreements for positive sentiment to be maintained.

This is a big week for US data releases and in turn the USD. Heavy weight data including January non-farm payrolls, ISM manufacturing confidence and consumer confidence readings are on tap over coming days. Although payrolls will not be as strong as in December the trend of data releases will continue to be one of improvement as likely to be revealed in the forward looking confidence surveys this week.

The USD may not benefit as much as it would otherwise have done given that the Fed has committed to easy monetary policy for a long while to come to end 2014. It is becoming increasingly clear that firmer activity data may still not prevent a further round of quantitative easing and attendant USD downside risks. Against this background a cautious stance on the USD over coming days is warranted, with the USD index likely to remain under near term pressure.

More Bad News In Europe

Several pieces of bad news soured sentiment at the end of last week undoing much of the good news since the beginning of the year and dashing hopes of a relatively swift resolution to Eurozone’s ills. S&P ratings agency downgraded nine Eurozone countries’ credit ratings leaving 14 on negative outlook. In particular France and Austria, which lost their triple AAA status while not particularly surprising, comes as a major blow to efforts to resolve the crisis. The downgrade puts at risk the EUR 180 billion in credit guarantees underpinning the EUR 440 EFSF bailout fund.

Separately the breakdown of talks on Greek debt restructuring and criticism by the Euuropean Central Bank (ECB) on a new draft of a treaty to ensure fiscal discipline added to the malaise, with the ECB noting that proposed revisions amount to a “a substantial watering down”. Such criticism will likely be an obstacle to the ECB stepping up its peripheral debt buying potentially threatening any decline in bond yields. It is difficult to see sentiment improving this week, with risk aversion set to remain elevated as Eurozone leaders attempt to restore confidence. In contrast, US data continues to support evidence of economic recovery, albeit gradual and this week’s releases including industrial production and manufacturing surveys will likely add to this.

The EUR slid further at the end of last week reversing earlier gains, as the bad news mounted in the Eurozone. Ratings downgrades, breakdown of Greek debt talks and ECB criticism over watered down fiscal rules, combined to make a dangerous concoction of negative headlines. The news put an end to the EUR’s short covering rally, leaving the currency vulnerable too further declines this week. Speculative sentiment according to IMM data reached another all time low last week (-155k net positions), suggesting that any good news could lead to a strong bounce as short positions are covered.

However, it is difficult to see where such news will come from and even a small expected bounce in the German January ZEW investor confidence survey this week will do little to detract from the negative news on the policy front. A meeting between Merkel, Monti and Sarkozy will be eyed closely as they prepare for a meeting of European Union (EU) Finance Ministers and markets will be looking for aggressive action to turn confidence around. Debt sales in In the meantime EUR/USD will continue to languish but strong technical support is seen around 1.2588.

Renewed Eurozone Tensions

The USD has so far failed to build on the strong momentum seen at the end of last year. Its early days yet however, and given the ongoing tensions in the Eurozone the USD is hardly likely to lose much ground in the weeks ahead. US data continues to impress relative to elsewhere as revealed in the December ISM manufacturing survey data and overnight news that sales at auto makers and retailers were firmer in December. This economic outperformance may however, feed into a tone of improved risk appetite which could play negatively for the USD.

The USD will face a test from the release of the December payrolls data tomorrow, with forecasts currently looking for the gradual improvement in job market conditions to continue. As usual the December ADP private sector jobs released today will be instrumental in finalising the forecasts for payrolls. Overall, the USD will continue to benefit from the travails in the Eurozone, keeping the USD index well supported around 80.00.

EUR/USD has failed to sustain gains above 1.3000 so far this week and has continued to come under pressure on the crosses. While the potential for short covering may limit its losses sentiment continues to be downbeat. Better than forecast December service sector PMI data have helped to allay the worse fears about the Eurozone economy but this will be of little help to the EUR as further deterioration is likely in the months ahead.

Meanwhile yield differentials continue to have some bearing on EUR/USD. The fact that German 2-year yields have dropped further below US 2-year yields therefore ought to spell bad news for the EUR and will likely act as a cap to any rally in the currency. The news flow in the Eurozone will continue to weigh on the EUR too, with speculation that Spain will need an European Union (EU) / International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan intensifying and press reports that Spain will need to increase its provisions for bad property assets by up to EUR 50 billion. Attention today will turn to a EUR 8 billion bond auction in France.

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