Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

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.

Game Changer

Pfizer and BioNTech’s game changing announcement that its vaccine had been found to be more than 90% effective in a late stage trial added more fuel on a stock market rally that was already underway following President-elect Biden’s election win and likely split Congress.  It was the time for beaten up value/travel/oil stocks to shine while conversely stay at home stocks have come under pressure.  However, that story appeared to reverse overnight, with tech stocks making a comeback, suggesting that it’s not going to be a one way bet for value stocks. 

One obstacle is the rampant increase in virus cases in the US and Europe and risks of more lockdowns. Though the vaccine news is clearly positive its worth highlighting that it could take some time for any vaccine to be rolled out in sufficient numbers to allow for an opening up of economies anytime soon.  In the meantime, we still have to contend with a big wave of virus infections in Europe and US, which implies more economic pain to come.  All of this could put a renewed dampener on risk sentiment and limit the rally in stocks in the near term.  

Technical indicators (Relative Strength Index) suggest resistance in the short term; for example, the US Russell 2000 index (a broad small cap index) is verging on hitting Fibonacci retracement levels around 1746, while its also above its upper Bollinger band.  Not helping tech stocks is the regulatory stance, with Amazon hit by an antitrust charge from regulators in the EU.  The USD’s weakness also looks overdone in the short term. In particular, technical indicators show that Asian currencies and dollar bloc currencies (CAD, AUD, NZD) look stretched. The USD is likely to make further gains in the short term even as its medium term outlook remains more negative.

Meanwhile Republicans are increasingly standing with President Trump in not accepting the outcome of the election, fuelling concerns about the transition process, even as President-elect Biden’s lead in various states has grown. Many are doing so with an eye on 2024 elections. Georgia is auditing the presidential results in its state by hand, but even so, it seems extremely unlikely that Trump can reverse Biden’s 14k lead in the state and even if that does occur it wouldn’t change the outcome. 

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