Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

Absorbing The Fed’s Message

Markets absorbed a high inflation reading in the form of US core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) price index without flinching at the end of last week, further acknowledgement that the Fed’s “transitory” inflation message is belatedly sinking in to the market’s psyche.  Core PCE inflation exceeded expectations for April, surging 0.7% m/m after a 0.4% gain in March (consensus: 0.6%). On a y/y basis, core PCE inflation surged to 3.1%—its highest level in almost three decades. High inflation readings are likely to persist over the near-term, if for no other reason than base effect, but price pressures will likely ease by the end of the year. 

The market’s sanguine reaction has helped US Treasury yields to continue to consolidate.  Also helping to restrain yields is the fact that positive US economic surprises (data releases versus consensus expectations) are close to their lowest level since June 2020 and barely positive (according to the Citi index), in contrast to euro area economic surprises, a factor that is helping to support the euro.

Cross-asset volatility measures remain very low, with the glut of liquidity continuing to depress volatility across equities, interest rates and FX.  Given that markets’ inflation fears has eased, it is difficult to see what will provoke any spike in volatility in the near term.  All of this this does not bode well for the USD.  Sentiment as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM speculative data on net non-commercial futures USD positions, remains downbeat.  This is corroborated in FX options risk reversal skews (3m, 25d) of USD crosses. 

In particular, USDCNY will be closely watched after strong gains in the renminbi lately.  Chinese officials are trying to prevent or at least slow USD weakness vs. CNY. The latest measure came from China’s central bank, the PBoC instructing banks to increase their FX reserve requirements by 2% to 7% ie to hold more foreign currency as a means of reducing demand for the Chinese currency.  Expect official resistance to yuan appreciation pressures to grow.      

Data so far this week has been mixed. China’s May NBS manufacturing purchasing managers index released yesterday slipped marginally to 51.0 from 51.1 previously (consensus 51.1) while the non-manufacturing PMI increased to 55.2 from 54.9 previously. Both remained in expansion, however indicative of continued economic expansion. China’s exports are holding up particularly well and this is expected to continue to fuel manufacturing expansion while manufacturing imports are similarly strong. 

Today’s Reserve Bank of Australia decision on monetary policy delivered no surprises, with policy unchanged and attention shifting to the July meeting when the bond purchase program will be reviewed.  On Friday it’s the turn of the the Indian central bank, Reserve Bank of India (RBI), with an unchanged policy outcome likely despite the growth risks emanating from a 2nd wave COVID infections cross the country and attendant lockdowns.  Last but not least, is the May US jobs report for which consensus expectations are for 650,000 gain in non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate falling to 5.9% from 6.1% previously.

Geopolitical Risks Rise

Last week ended on a positive note for risk assets, with equities rallying to record highs. In particular tech stocks are back in lead this quarter. The biggest surprise was the ability of US Treasuries to rally at the same time, particularly in the wake of a strong slate of economic data. The rally may be attributable to strong foreign and pension buying amid short market positioning.  Indeed, CFTC data show that Treasury bearish positions had increased as of April 13th.  The pull back in US Treasury yields points to some relief for emerging market assets. Similarly, commodity positions had also been cut, with gold, copper and oil positioning liquidation taking place. The risk rally and lower US yields have put the US dollar on the back foot, extending its decline over the week.  As such, the USD “exceptionalism” story appears to be fading somewhat.

Last week finished off with another set of firm US data; Housing starts surged 19.4% m/m to 1,739k, well-above the 1,613k consensus, from 1,457k (revised from 1,421k) in February. Similarly, consumer sentiment continued to improve in April, according to the preliminary release of the University of Michigan survey, with the index rising to a new post-COVID high of 86.5.  This week’s highlights include central bank decisions in China (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), Canada (Wed), Euro area (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Russia’s central bank CBR is expected to hike by 25bp while no changes are expected from the other central banks.  Canada’s Federal Budget today and CPI (Wed) will also be in focus.  Data wise, Australia March retail sales (Wed), New Zealand Q1 CPI and Euro area flash purchasing managers indices PMIs (Fri) will garner attention.  

On Friday, the US Treasury released its semi-annual FX report and found that once again Vietnam and Switzerland met all three criteria under the 2015 Act. over 2020.  Taiwan was also found to breach the Treasury criteria.  The outcome means that there will be ‘enhanced analysis’ of these countries.  However, the {US} US Treasury declined to name any of these countries as currency manipulators, citing insufficient evidence under the 1988 Act.  The other interesting development is that the Treasury questioned the foreign exchange activities of Chinese state banks given that it appears that China’s official FX intervention was very limited.  Separately, Ireland and Mexico were added to the US Treasury Monitoring List.

Geopolitical risks are rising once again and could act as a threat to markets in the day and weeks ahead. Last week the US levied sanctions on Russia including targeting Russian government debt. Russia responded with counter sanctions. However, the US administration did hold out an olive branch in the form of a potential joint summit. Focus is also on growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Similarly, US and Japanese leaders voiced concerns over Chinese policies, which were subsequently rejected by China’s foreign ministry. Despite the US criticism of China the US and China appear to be moving ahead with cooperate on climate change. US-China over Taiwan remain elevated however.

Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

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.

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