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.

Will Stability Return?

After a very nervous end to last week, with US tech stocks leading the sell-off in US equity markets amid lofty valuations, heavy positioning and stretched technical indicators, markets will look for signs that stability will return in the days ahead.  However, the November US election is increasing in prominence as a market driver, something that is beginning to manifest itself in equity volatility and will likely play more of a role for FX and rates markets volatility going forward. 

The fact that there has been little progress between Democrats and the US administration on further fiscal stimulus adds to the uncertainty for markets ahead of US elections.  Also after Fed Chair Powell’s Jackson Hole speech in which he unveiled a new average inflation strategy, markets will look for this to be reflected in forward guidance. This could happen as early as this month’s FOMC meeting on September 16 but will more likely take place later.

After a torrid several weeks the US dollar made some recovery last week amid short covering, but underlying sentiment remains weak (latest CFTC IMM data shows speculative USD positioning languishing around multi-year lows).  Whether the USD can make a more sustainable recovery remains doubtful in the weeks ahead of US elections and is more difficult given the Fed’s more dovish shift.  However, in the near term there may be more scope for short covering.

Key highlights this week are China Aug trade data today, US Aug CPI (Fri), Bank of Canada meeting (Wed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank Negara Malaysia (Thu).  Among these the ECB meeting will be interesting; while a policy change is unlikely the ECB will probably highlight its readiness to act further to address downside inflation risks.  The ECB may also be more vocal about the recent strengthening of the euro to a two-year high, but aside from jawboning, there is little the ECB is likely to do about it. 

Emerging markets assets have benefitted from a weaker USD and but with growth remaining under pressure as likely to be revealed in weak Russian and South African GDP data this week while Covid cases in many EM countries continue to rise rapidly, risks remain high.  China’s trade data will give some early direction this week, but with US-China trade tensions only likely to escalate further, the outlook for emerging markets assets is clouded in uncertainty. 

Tough Times for the US Dollar

The US dollar had an awful July, with the USD index dropping by around 5% over the month, its worst monthly performance in 10 years. A range of factors can be cited for USD weakness including an asset allocation shift to assets outside of the US, worsening news on US Covid cases over recent weeks, improved risk appetite, US election concerns, lower real yields and fiscal cliff worries, among other factors.  Gold has been a particularly strong beneficiary of the malaise in the USD and declining real yield yields.  The Fed’s pledge to keep on aggressively supporting the economy and likely strengthening of forward guidance in the months ahead suggest that any increase in US interest rates could be years off.

It is still difficult to see the recent weakness in the USD resulting in a deterioration in its dominant reserve currency status though the longer the factors noted above remain in place, the bigger the danger to longer term confidence in the USD. As a reminder of such risks Fitch ratings downgraded US AAA credit rating to a negative outlook.  I do not expect markets and the USD to be impacted by the move, but it does highlight a worsening in US fundamentals.  While other currencies are still a long away from displacing the USD dominance in FX reserves, financial flows, FX trading and trade, the longer term risks to the USD are clear.

That said, the USD caught a bid at the end of last week resulting in a sharp retreat in the euro (EUR) from heavily overbought technical levels.  It is unlikely to be a coincide that this occurred as US Covid cases showed signs of peaking while cases in many parts of Europe began to accelerate, resulting in delays to opening up or renewed tightening of social distancing measures there.  US stocks have also continued to perform well, despite much discussion of a rotation to value stocks.  Solid earnings from US tech heavyweights solidified their position as leaders of the pack.  It is too early to say that this is the beginning of a USD turnaround, but the currency is heavily oversold in terms of positioning and technicals, which point to room for some respite.

Turning to the week ahead attention will be on July global Purchasing Managers Indices (PMI) data beginning with China’s private sector Caixin PMI (consensus 51.1), and the US ISM survey (consensus 53.6) tomorrow.  Central bank decisions include the Reserve Bank of Australia (Tue), Bank of England (Thu), Reserve Bank of India (Thu) and Bank of Thailand (Wed).  No change is likely from the RBA, BoE and BoT, but expect a 25bp cut from RBI.  At the end of the week two pieces of data will take precedence; US July jobs data and China July trade data.  US-China tensions will come under further scrutiny after President Trump vowed to ban TikTok in the US while pouring cold water on a sale to a third party.

 

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