All Bets Are Off!

For anyone thinking that markets had already fully priced aggressive Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes, last week’s message from the US May CPI inflation report as well the ECB meeting was crystal clear.  All bets are off!  The US CPI report destroyed any hopes that US inflation had peaked with headline CPI surging 1% on the month and the annual rate hitting a new post-COVID high of 8.6%.  If there was ever any doubt, the data not only seals the case for at least a 50 basis point (1/2 %) hike at this Wednesday’s Fed FOMC meeting but increases the risk of a 75bp move though the latter still seems unlikely.  More likely, the Fed embarks on a series of 50bps hikes. . 

Separately, the ECB shifted away from its long held dovish stance and announced an expected end to its bond purchase plan (APP) at the beginning of July, effectively pre-announced a 25bp policy rate hike in July and 25-50bp hikes in September, with the central bank expecting to maintain a tightening cycle beyond September.  Many other central banks are scrambling to catch up the curve as inflation pressures end up being much higher than many of them previously anticipated.  There are exceptions of course such as Japan (see below), Russia recently cut its policy rate by 150bp and China which may still cut policy rates in the weeks ahead (watch this week’s 1y Medium Term Lending Facility decision, with a small 5-10bp cut possible), but these exceptions are few and far between.

The jump in US inflation will also further support the US dollar, keeping it on the front in the days ahead against most other currencies.  Already at the start of the week, most currencies were hurt in the face of a resurgent US dollar, especially high beta emerging market currencies. Separately, market volatility measures (e.g. MOVE and VIX) are likely to rise while liquidity is likely to remain poor.  Risk assets overall are likely to struggle against this background. Overall, it’s hard to see sentiment turn around quickly.

This week the main focus will be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) but there are also several other central bank decisions of interest including the BCB in Brazil (Wed) where consensus expects the pace of hikes to slow to 50bp.  Additionally, 25bp rate hikes from the Bank of England and CBC in Taiwan (both Thu) are expected while the Bank of Japan (Fri) meeting is likely to be uneventful as BoJ governor Kuroda has doubled down on his aggressive stimulus stance while noting that a weaker Japanese yen benefits the economy.  Key data this week includes likely yet more weak Chinese activity data in May (Wed), jobs data the UK (Tue) and Australia (Thu) and a likely stronger than consensus increase in May  US retail sales (Wed).  

Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

State Of Shock

Equity markets are in a state of shock.  After a stellar year last year equities have started the year in terrible shape. The rout extended further at the end of last week, capping off the worst week in over a year for US stocks.  Tech continued to lead losses, with the Nasdaq down 7.6% over the week.  Notably global equities were impacted less than the US, reflecting the fact that most equity markets outside of the US are less tech orientated.  Anything with leverage and consisting of highly speculative investment such as Crypto are bearing the brunt of the pressure.  Volumes of equity put options on the S&P 500 have also risen sharply as investors try to hedge further losses on US stocks. 

The main cause of market pressure remains the build-up of expectations of Fed tightening, with Fed officials sounding increasingly hawkish and speculation growing of a 50 basis point Fed rate hike in March as well as several more hikes over the course of this year, with four hikes already priced in for this year.   It’s hard to see such pressure abating soon. Indeed, technical indicators on the S&P 500 look poor, with the index having closed below its 200 day moving average level.  However, with market pricing for US rate hikes already so aggressive, a lot of the pain may already have been inflicted unless the Fed really does hike at every meeting this year.  

Wednesday’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting will give further clues US interest rate policy, with the Fed likely to give signals that a March rate hike is in the offing.  However, this should not be surprising given that Fed officials have over recent weeks already strongly hinted at a March rate hike.  What will be scrutinised is any clues on Fed balance sheet reduction (quantitative tightening) as well as the path of the funds rate after March.  It’s unlikely that the Fed provides any firm indications, but nonetheless the press conference could prove more interesting.

Other policy meetings this week include the Bank of Canada meeting (Wednesday). It’s a close call but strong domestic data points to a 25-basis points policy rate hike, kicking off a likely cycle of hikes in the months ahead.  Separately, rate hikes in Hungary (tomorrow) and South Africa (Thursday) are also likely.   Following unchanged outcomes from Malaysia and Indonesia and a policy cut in China last week, there is little on the data and events front in Asia this week.  

Political and geopolitical developments will garner plenty of attention this week.  In the UK the Sue Gray report on “Partygate” will be released.  In Italy, the path for Draghi to be elected President appears to have become easier, with Berlusconi pulling out of the running though it is by no means a clear cut process.  Meanwhile, the situation with regard to Ukraine is on tenterhooks, with Russia reportedly continuing to build up troops on the border, and risks of “significant military action” rising.

Currency markets have been largely spared the carnage seen in equity markets. Speculative positioning data suggests the market remains heavily long the dollar index (DXY). Higher US real rates and continued tightening of Fed rate expectations suggests any pull back in the USD will be limited and the currency remains a buy on dips. Notably, GBP positioning has remained firm, ignoring the potential for a no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Asian currencies also remain relatively resilient, with the Chinese currency likely to continue outperforming.

Market Cross-Currents

There are many cross currents afflicting markets at present.  Equity valuations look high but US earnings have been strong so far, with close to 90% of S&P 500 earnings coming in above expectations. This has helped to buoy equity markets despite concerns over the spreading of the Delta COVID variant and its negative impact on recovery.  Yet the market doesn’t appear entirely convinced on the recovery trade, with small caps continuing to lag mega caps. 

The USD index (DXY) remained supported at the end of last week even as US yields remain capped, but the USD does appear to be losing momentum. Positioning has now turned long according to the CFTC IMM data indicating that the short covering rally is largely exhausted; aggregate net USD positioning vs. major currencies (EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD & CHF as a percent of open interest) turned positive for the first time in over a year. 

Inflation fears have not dissipated especially after recent above consensus consumer price index (CPI) readings, for example in the US and UK.  Reflecting such uncertainty, interest rate market volatility remains high as seen in the ICE BofA MOVE index while inflation gauges such as 5y5y swaps have pushed higher in July.  There was some better news on the inflationary front at the end of last week, with the Markit US July purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealing an easing in both input and selling prices for a second straight month, albeit remaining at an elevated level. 

This week we will get more information on inflation trends, with the June Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report in the US (Fri), Eurozone July CPI (Fri), Australia Q2 CPI (Wed) and Canada June CPI (Wed), on tap this week.  We will also get to see whether the Fed is more concerned about inflation risks at the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meeting (Wed).  The Fed is likely to continue to downplay the surge in inflation, arguing that it is transitory, while the standard of “substantial further progress” remains a “ways off”.   Nonetheless, it may not be long before the Fed is more explicit in announcing that is formally moving towards tapering. 

An emerging markets central bank policy decision in focus this week is the National Bank of Hungary (NBH) where a 15bp hike in the base rate is expected.  Central banks in emerging markets are taking differing stances, with for example Russia hiking interest rates by 100 basis points at the end of the week while China left its Loan Prime Rate unchanged.  The July German IFO business climate survey later today will be in focus too (consensus 102.5).  Overall, amid thinner summer trading conditions market activity is likely to be light this week.

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.

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