Growth/Risk Asset Rally Dichotomy To Continue

Happy New Year!  2020 ended with record highs for US stock markets, capping off a solid year for risk assets amid massive and ongoing central bank liquidity injections.  In contrast the dollar index (DXY) ended the year languishing around its lowest levels since April 2018.  The dichotomy between the sharp deterioration in global growth and risk asset performance has widened dramatically.  Given the acceleration in COVID-19 cases over recent weeks and consequent lockdowns, especially in the US and Europe, this divergence is likely to be sustained and even widen further over the next few months, at least until various vaccines finally manage to stem the damage.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for markets over recent weeks/months have been US fiscal stimulus and Brexit.  Both have now passed with last minute deals, setting the scene for a clearer path in the weeks ahead though political obstacles have not disappeared by any means, with the Georgia Senate run-off elections scheduled for Tuesday.  The outcome will be crucial for control of the US Senate with Democrats needing wins in both races to take over. However, the races are too close to call according to polls. Separately the US Congress will meet on Wednesday to declare the winner of the Presidential election. 

On the data and events front the week begins with an OPEC+ meeting tomorrow, with officials deliberating on whether to expand output by up to 500k barrels.  There are also a series of December Markit manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMI) tomorrow including in various countries in Asia as well as the release of the Caixin manufacturing PMI in China.  US data will take centre stage with the release of the ISM manufacturing survey (Tuesday), Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) and non-farm payrolls (Friday).  Overall, markets are likely to begin the year much as the same way they left 2020, with risk appetite remaining firm. 

One interesting observation as we kick off 2021 is that so many investor and analysts’ views are aligned in the same direction (long Emerging markets, short USD, long value stocks, etc), and positioning is already looking stretched in various asset classes as a result.  While I would caution against catching a falling knife there is a clearly a risk of jumping on the same bandwagon as everybody else in a market that is increasingly positioned in one direction.  Overall, while the risk rally is likely to continue to have legs in the months ahead, investors should be on their toes in the weeks ahead given risks of a positioning squeeze in various asset classes.

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

A Sour Note

Markets ended last week on a sour note as a few underlying themes continue to afflict investor sentiment.  The latest concern was the decision by US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to pull back the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program despite Fed objections. The timing is clearly not ideal given the worsening in the US economy likely in the next few weeks amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, and lack of fiscal stimulus.  That said, these facilities have hardly been used, due in part to stringent terms on many of these lending facilities.  Also pulling the funds back from the Fed could give Congress room to move towards a fiscal deal.  The decision may also not get in President-elect Biden’s way; if he needs the funds for the Fed to ramp up lending the Treasury can quickly extend funding without Congressional approval when he becomes President.  However, no new credit will be available in these programs during the interim period before he takes office, which could present risks to the economy.

Equity markets will continue to struggle in the near term amid a continued surge in Covid cases.  The latest data revealed that the US registered a one-day record of 192,000 cases.  More and more states are implementing stricter social distancing measures, but its worth noting that restrictions are less severe than in March-April.   There are also growing concerns that the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will result in an even more rapid spread of the virus, with the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommending Americans not travel over this period.  The battle playing on investor sentiment between rising Covid cases and the arrival of several vaccines, is being won by Covid worries at present, a factor that will likely continue to restrain investor sentiment for equities and other risk assets over the short term at a time when major US equity indices are running up against strong technical resistance levels. 

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) for the 5th November meeting.  While there were no new actions at this meeting the minutes may shed light on the Fed’s options to change “parameters” of quantitative easing (QE) and how close the Fed is to lengthening the maturity of its asset purchases.  Separately October US Personal Income and Spending data (Wednesday) will likely show some softening as fiscal stimulus fades.  Elsewhere, Eurozone and UK service purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Monday) will likely reveal continued weakness in contraction territory as lockdown restrictions bite into activity.  Brexit discussions will be under scrutiny, with speculation growing that we could see a deal early in the week.  On the monetary policy front, decisions in Sweden and Korea (both on Thursday) will focus on unconventional policy, with potential for the Riksbank in Sweden to extend its quantitative easing program and Bank of Korea likely to focus on its lending programs and liquidity measures, rather than cut its policy rate.  Finally, expect another strong increase in Chinese industrial profits for October (Friday).

In Asia, official worries about currency appreciation are becoming increasingly vocal.  As the region continues to outperform both on the Covid control and growth recovery front, foreign inflows are increasingly being attracted to Asia.  This is coming at a time when balance of payments positions are strengthening, with the net result of considerable upward pressure on Asian currencies at a time of broad downward USD pressure.  Central banks across the region are sounding the alarm; Bank of Korea highlighted that its “monitoring” the FX market amid Korean won appreciation while Bank of Thailand announced fresh measures to encourage domestic capital outflows, thus attempting to limit Thai baht appreciation.  In India the Reserve Bank appears to be continuing its large-scale USD buying.  In Taiwan the central bank is reportedly making it easier for investors to access life insurance policies denominated in foreign currencies. Such measures are likely to ramp up, but this will slow rather than stem further gains in Asian currencies in the weeks and months ahead in my view.

US Elections Take Yet More Twists & Turns

Amidst mixed messages from the White House about President’s Trump’s health and a growing circle of US administration officials and Senate Republicans infected with Covid-19, markets will kick of this week with many questions about the running of government, prospects for fresh fiscal stimulus and the nomination of the new Supreme Court Justice. President Trump pushed for stimulus in tweet while in hospital but obstacles in the Senate remain, including the fact that the Senate has adjourned until Oct 19, a factor that will also delay the Supreme Court confirmation process. 

In what was already an election fraught with various issues, President Trump’s Covid infection has added another layer of uncertainty.  The fact that several of his campaign aides have tested positive also complicates his ability to campaign to try to close the gap with ex- VP Biden.  There is also the question of whether the President will be well enough to take part in the second Presidential debate scheduled for October 15.  Markets initial sharp negative reaction to the news that Trump had contracted the virus, on Friday was tempered by the end of the session suggesting some calm.  However, every piece of news on Trump’s health will be closely scrutinized in the days ahead.  

The US dollar ended last week firm and this trend is likely to continue given the uncertainty about events in the weeks ahead, which despite the fact that much of this uncertainty is US led, will still likely lead to some safe haven dollar demand. 

A weaker than consensus US September jobs report didn’t help markets at the end of last week, with non-farm payrolls coming at 661k (consensus 859k) while a 0.5% drop in the unemployment rate was due a drop in the participation rate.  US non-farm payrolls are still down 10.7 million from the levels seen in February, highlighting the still significant pressure on the US labour market despite the job gains over recent months. 

Attention this week will focus on Federal Reserve Chair Powell’s speech on Tuesday and Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday, which will be scrutinised for details on how the Fed will implement average inflation targeting.  Also on tap is the US Vice Presidential debate on Wed between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, which hopefully will not be a fractious as the debate between President Trump and ex-Vice President Biden.  

Monetary Policy rate decisions in Australia (consensus 0.25%) on Tuesday and in Poland (consensus 0.1%) on Wednesday as well as the Australian Federal budget on Tuesday will also garner attention this week. 

Lingering Disappointment

Another soft close to US stock markets at the end of last week sets up for a nervous start to the week ahead.  The S&P 500 has now declined for a third straight week, with tech stocks leading the way lower as more froth is blown way from the multi-month run up in these stocks.  Lingering disappointment in the wake of the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting is one factor that has weighed on risk assets.  More details on how the Fed plans to implement its new policy on average inflation targeting will be sought. Markets will also look to see whether the Fed is pondering any changes to its Quantitative Easing program. This week Fed officials will get the opportunity to elaborate on their views, with several Fed speeches in the pipeline including three appearances by Fed Chair Powell. 

Disappointment on monetary policy can be matched with a lack of progress on the fiscal front, with hopes of an agreement on Phase 4 fiscal stimulus ahead of US elections fading rapidly.  A loss of momentum in US economic activity as reflected in the NY Fed’s weekly economic index and declining positive data surprises as reflected in the Citi Economic Surprise Index, are beginning to show that the need for fresh stimulus is growing.  On the political front, the situation has become even more tense ahead of elections; following the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attention this week will focus on President Trump’s pick to replace her, adding another twist to the battle between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the election.    

Another major focal point ahead of elections is US-China tensions, which continue to simmer away. China’s economy and currency continue to outperform even as tensions mount.  August’s slate of Chinese data were upbeat and China’s currency (CNY) is increasingly reflecting positive economic momentum, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index rising to multi week highs.  There is every chance that tensions will only get worse ahead of US elections, likely as the US maintains a tough approach in the weeks ahead but so far Chinese and Asian markets in general are not reacting too much.  This may change if as is likely, tensions worsen further. 

After last week’s heavy slate of central bank meetings, this week is also going to see many central banks deliberate on monetary policy.  The week kicks off with China’s Loan Prime Rate announcement (Mon), followed by policy decisions in Hungary and Sweden (both Tue), New Zealand, Thailand, Norway (all on Wed), and Turkey (Thu).  Markets expect all of the central banks above to keep policy unchanged as was the case with the many central banks announcing policy decisions last week.  The lack of central bank action adds further evidence that 1) growth is starting to improve in many countries and 2) the limits of conventional policy are being reached.  While renewed rounds of virus infections threaten the recovery process much of the onus on policy action is now on the fiscal front. 

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