Central Banks and Governments Act To Combat COVID-19. Will It Be Enough?

In just a few weeks the world has changed dramatically.  What was initially seen as a virus localised in Asia has spread throughout the world with frightening speed.  The shocking destruction that COVID-19 has wrought globally in both health and economic terms will not fade quickly.  The virus is destroying complacency in all areas.  Total and complete lock down is becoming key to arrest the virus’ ascent, but many have yet to change their ways, believing that they will be ok.  How naïve is that!

Governments and central banks are finally coming to grips with the economic and health costs, but also the realisation that even in many developed countries, they are woefully unequipped to deal with the health crisis that is unfolding.  Global policy makers and the public at large has gone from a phase of denial, to outright panic and increasingly into fear, which then brings forth the most aggressive responses.

Unfortunately, the lack of global cohesion amongst policy makers has meant that responses have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.  Two of the biggest super powers, the US and China, have despite a now forgotten about Phase 1 trade deal, become increasingly acrimonious in their dealings with each other.  This, at a time when the world is looking for leadership, is proving to be major impediment to dealing with the effects of the virus.

It is not all bad news in term of co-ordination.  Central banks globally appear to be acting in unison, even if accidently, in terms of slashing interest rates, aggressively increasing quantitative easing, flushing the financial system with US dollar liquidity and easing some of the regulatory burden on banks.  This has helped to improve market functioning, which increasingly appeared to be breaking down over recent weeks.  It may not however, prevent further pressure on asset markets given the destruction in economic  activity globally.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.  Governments are now stepping up to the plate.  Massive fiscal stimulus plans are being ramped up around the world.  G7 economies have pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and to co-ordinate actions though much has been un coordinated.  US lawmakers are currently deliberating on a stimulus package worth over a $1tn though this could rise significantly in the weeks ahead, Germany is planning to create a EUR 500bn bailout fund, and the UK has announced an “unprecedented” multi billion pound package of measures.  These are but a few of the various stimulus measures being undertaken globally.

China has yet to announce a major stimulus package, but has instead opted for more incremental measures as its economy begins to recover following a major lockdown.  However, just as China’s supply constraints are easing, demand is weakening sharply as economies globally shut down.  The implication is that China’s recovery will not be a quick one either.  More stimulus is likely.  Recent reports suggest China will step up special bond issuance for infrastructure spending, but more is likely.

Overall, the economic shock is just beginning as the health shock is intensifying.  We will need to brace for more pain in the weeks and months ahead.  We can only hope that the measures announced so far and yet to be announced alongside with strict adherence to health recommendations will be sufficient to prevent deeper and longer lasting damage.  The jury is still out.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

Fed, ECB, UK elections In Focus

An event filled week lies ahead.  Several central bank decisions including the Federal Reserve FOMC (11th Dec), European Central Bank (ECB) (12 Dec) and Swiss National Bank (SNB)  (12 Dec) are on the calendar.  All of these major central banks are likely to leave policy unchanged and the meetings should prove to be uneventful.  Fed Chair Powell is likely to reiterate the Fed’s patient stance, with last Friday’s strong US November job report (payrolls rose 266k) effectively sealing the case for no change in policy at this meeting, even as a Phase 1 trade deal remains elusive.

Similarly recently firmer data in Europe have pushed back expectations of further ECB easing, though President Lagarde is likely to sound cautious highlighting her desire to maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance.  The picture is rather different for emerging market central banks this week, with policy easing likely from Turkey (12 Dec), Russia (13 Dec) and Brazil (12 Dec) while Philippines (12 Dec) is likely to keep policy unchanged.

UK general elections on Thursday will be closely watched, with GBP already having rallied above 1.30 vs USD as polls show a strong lead for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.  The main question is whether Johnson will have gained enough of a share of the vote to gain a majority, allowing him to push ahead with his Brexit plans, with Parliament voting to leave the European Union by Jan 31.

Polls may not be as accurate as assumed in the past given surprises over recent years including the Brexit vote itself, but the wide margin between the two parties highlights the relatively stronger position of the Conservatives going into the election.  Nonetheless, given that a lot is in the price already, the bigger (negative) reaction in GBP could come from a hung parliament or Labour win.

This week is also crunch time for a decision on the threatened December 15 tariffs on China.  As previously noted there is little sign of any deal on any Phase 1 trade deal.  It appears that issues such as the amount of purchases of US goods by China remain unresolved.  Recent comments by President Trump suggest that he is prepared to delay a deal even as far as past the US elections in November 2020.

Whether this is tactic to force China to agree on a deal or a real desire not to rush a deal is difficult to determine, but it seems as though Phase 1 will deal will not be signed this year given the limited time to do so.  December 15 tariffs could be delayed but this is also not guaranteed.  President Trump’s attention will also partly be on the potential for an impeachement vote in the House this week.

Looking At Central Banks For Direction

This week feels as though its one where markets have gone into limbo waiting for developments on the trade war front, and for direction from central bankers.  So far there has been no indication that a date or even location has been set to finalise details of a Phase 1 deal between the US and China.  While officials on both sides suggest that progress is being made, markets are left wondering if a deal will even be signed this side of the new year.  Despite such uncertainty there does not seem to be too much angst in markets yet, and if anything, risk assets including equities look rather resilient.

Central bankers and central bank minutes will garner plenty of attention over coming days.   Overall it looks as though major central banks led by the Fed are moving into a wait and see mode and this means less direction from these central banks to markets over the next few weeks and likely into year end.

Fed FOMC minutes this week will give more information on the Fed’s thinking when it eased policy in October, and markets will be looking for clues as to what will make them ease again.  In his recent Congressional testimony Fed Chair Powell highlighted that he sees little need to ease policy at the December meeting, strongly suggesting no more easing from the Fed this year.

Reserve Bank of Australia minutes overnight highlighted that the Bank will also now wait to assess past monetary easing measures before cutting rates again while still holding the door open to further cuts if necessary.  While the RBA noted that a case could have been made for easing this month, it doesn’t appear that they are in a rush to move again, with easing now becoming more likely next year than in December.

Another central bank in focus is the ECB, with ECB President Lagarde delivering the keynote address at the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt.  This will be an opportunity for markets to see whether her views are in line with previous ECB President Draghi and also to see how she reacts to criticism of the ECB’s decision from outside and within the governing council, to ease policy further at the September meeting, when it cut the deposit rate to -0.5% and restarted asset purchases.

Another central bank in focus over coming days includes the PBoC in China.  The PBoC cuts its 7-day reverse repo rate by 5bps this week, the first decline in this rate since 2015 in an attempt to lower funding cots to banks.  While the move is small the direction of travel is clearly for lower rates and this is likely to be echoed in the release of the new Loan Prime Rate tomorrow, which could also reveal a small 5bps reduction.  China is likely to maintain this path of incremental easing in the weeks ahead.

Oil Surges, Central Banks Galore

Oil prices jumped following drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend.  Oil rose by around 20% to just shy of $72, before halving its gain later.  Even after failing to hold onto initial gains the rise in oil prices still marks one if its biggest one day gains.  Concerns about reduced oil supply have risen as a result of the attacks as they could reduce Saudi oil production for a prolonged period, with around 5% of global oil supply impacted.  Additionally the attacks could raise geopolitical tensions in the region.

As markets digest the impact of the drone attacks, there will also be several central bank decisions globally to focus on this week.  The main event is the Fed FOMC meeting mid-week, where a 25bp cut is largely priced in by the market.  Given that a rate cut is well flagged markets will pay close attention to the Fed’s summary of economic projections, in particular the Fed’s dot plot.  It seems unlikely that Fed Chair Powell is going to sound too dovish, with little to suggest that the Fed is on path for a more aggressive easing path.

Another major central bank meeting this week is the Bank of Japan (BoJ) on Thursday.  While a policy move by the BoJ at is unlikely this week BoJ policy makers have sounded more open to easing.  A consumption tax hike planned for next month together with a strong JPY have increased the pressure for the BoJ to act. Separately easier policy from other major central banks amid slowing global growth are unlikely be ignored.  However, policy is already ultra- easy and the BoJ remains cognisant of the adverse secondary impact of policy on Japanese Banks.

The Bank of England deliberates on policy this week too but it seems highly unlikely that they would adjust policy given all the uncertainties on how Brexit developments will pan out.  Until there is some clarity, the BoE is likely to remain firmly on hold, with the base rate remaining at 0.75%.  GBP has rallied over recent weeks as markets have stepped back from expectations of a hard Brexit, but this does not mean that a deal is any closer than it has been over the past months.  Elsewhere the SNB in Switzerland and Norges Bank in Norway are also expected to keep policy rates on hold this week.

Several emerging markets central banks will also deliberate on policy this week including in Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Taiwan.  The consensus (Bloomberg) expects a 50bp rate cut in Brazil, no change in South Africa and Taiwan and a 25bp rate cut in Indonesia.  Overall many emerging markets continue to ease policy amid slowing growth, lower US policy rates and declining inflation pressures.

 

What To Watch This Week

Market expectations for Fed FOMC interest rate cuts have gyrated back and forth following a recent speech by NY Fed President Williams, one of the key decision makers within the Fed FOMC. He appeared to support a 50bps rate cut at the meeting at the end of the month, but unusually this was clarified later.  If anything, as the clarification may suggest, the bigger probability is that the Fed eases policy by 25bps in an insurance cut.

There will be no Fed speakers in the days ahead but the Fed will assess developments this week in helping to determine the magnitude of easing. Attention will continue to centre on US earnings, with more than a quarter of S&P 500 companies reporting Q2 earnings this week.   On the data front, US Q2 GDP and July durable goods orders will command most attention.  The consensus looks for a slowing in GDP growth to 1.8% q/q in Q1 from 3.1% q/q in Q1 while durable goods orders are expected to increase by 0.7% m/m.

A major central bank in action this week is the European Central Bank on Thursday. While policy easing is unlikely at this meeting, the ECB is likely to set to set the market up for an easing in deposit rates at the September meeting.  ECB President Draghi could do this by strengthening his forward guidance, but as a lot of this is priced in by the market, a dovish sounding Draghi is unlikely to weigh too much on the EUR.

In the UK this week it’s all about politics. Boris Johnson is widely expected to be announced as the new Prime Minister.  GBPUSD has clung onto the 1.25 handle, as worries about a no deal Brexit continue to impact sentiment towards the currency.  Once Johnson is sworn in he and the government could face a no confidence motion, which could gain support should it be seen as an alternative to the UK crashing out of the EU.

National elections in Japan yesterday resulted in a victory according to Japanese press for Shinzo Abe’s coalition, its sixth straight victory, with the governing LDP winning over half the 124 seats. The results were no surprise, and unlikely to have a significant market impact, but notably Abe suffered a setback by not gaining a supermajority. He therefore cannot change the country’s pacifist constitution.

In emerging markets, both Russia and Turkey are likely to cut interest rates this week, with Russia predicted to cut its key rate by 25bp and Turkey to cut by at least 200bps if not more.  Elsewhere geopolitical tensions will remain a major focus for markets, as tensions between the UK and Iran intensify.

China’s economy slows…what to watch this week

The week has started off with attention firmly fixed on Chinese data. In the event, second quarter (Q2) growth domestic product (GDP) came in at 6.2% year-on-year (y/y) following a 6.4% increase in the previous quarter, matching market expectations.  However, higher frequency Chinese data for June released at the same time looked far better, with industrial production up 6.3% y/y (market 5.2% y/y), retail sales up 9.8% y/y (market 8.5%) and fixed assets investment up 5.8% YTD y/y (market 5.5%).

Although growth in China has slowed to its weakest in many years, this was well flagged in advance and the GDP data is backward looking in any case.  The other data released today as well as increases in new loans and aggregate financing data released last week, suggest less urgency for fresh stimulus.  Overall, markets will be relieved by the fact that higher frequency data is holding up, but hopes of more aggressive stimulus in the near term may be dashed.

Attention elsewhere this week will focus on data and central banks.  After last week’s testimonies from Fed Chair Powell, during which he cemented expectations of a quarter percent from the Fed at the end of this month, attention in the US this well will be on June retail sales data where the consensus looks for a weaker 0.1% m/m increase in headline and ex-autos sales.   Further comments from Fed speakers will also garner attention, with Powell and New York Fed President Williams, likely to maintain market expectations of Fed easing.

Emerging Markets central banks will also be in focus, with monetary policy easing expected in South Africa, Indonesia and South Korea as central banks take the cue from the Fed.  Declining inflation pressure, weaker domestic growth, will also add support to further policy easing.  Stronger currencies in South Africa and Indonesia provide further impetus to cut rates.  I expect many emerging market central banks, especially in Asia, to ease policy in the weeks ahead, for similar reasons as above.

Watch me Guest Host on CNBC Asia tomorrow morning from 8-9am Singapore time where I will discuss these and other topics in more detail. 

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