Inflation Debate Rages On

Good morning, last week ended on a solid note for global equity markets, capped by strong gains in US stocks and in particular a surge towards the end of the session on Friday.  The S&P 500 is on track for its best month since November though in the next few days, month and quarter end rebalancing will continue to hold risks, which could result in increased volatility.  Another imponderable is potential follow through from huge equity sale block trades at the end of last week reportedly from Archegos Capital, which hit US media companies and Chinese tech stocks. All of this suggests risks of higher volatility in the days ahead.  

US interest rate markets came under renewed pressure, with yields backing up over the week, while the US dollar (USD) had a firmer week, with the USD index (DXY) ending above its 200-day moving average and technical indicators pointing to further gains this week.  CFTC IMM speculative positioning data (in the week to 23 March) shows that net aggregate USD short positions have been pared back further as USD sentiment continues to improve.  Positioning in most currencies vs. USD fell while Japanese yen (JPY) short positions increased further.  The oil market and container costs could be pressured higher by the continued delay in dislodging the stricken Ever from the Suez Canal, which seems to have made little progress over the weekend.

Attention this week will turn to a few key data and events.  Important among these will be President Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh (Wed) where he will likely give further details on his infrastructure plan and how it will be funded.  Key US data include the March ISM manufacturing survey (Thu) and March non-farm payrolls (Fri).  Solid outcomes for both are expected.  In Asia, focus will be on March purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across the region (Thu) including in China (Wed) where broadly positive readings are likely.  There will also be attention on the going malaise in Turkey’s markets since the sacking of the central bank (CBRT) governor while Europe continues to struggle with fresh virus waves, lockdowns, and vaccine reluctance as well as tensions over vaccine exports to the UK.

As President Biden gives his speech this week the debate about a potentially sharp rise in inflation rages on.  The Fed has tried to calm fears by highlighting that any rise in inflation over the coming months will likely be transitory.  However, with massive stimulus in the pipeline, economic recovery taking shape and the Fed set to keep policy very accommodative for years to come, market fears have risen as well as warnings from the likes of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.  Consumer inflation expectations remain largely subdued but the debate will not end quickly, and bond markets will be on tender hooks.  In the next few months inflation will turn up but this will largely be due to base effects as the collapse in activity in prices in Q1 last year falls out of the equation.  However, the jury is out on whether this will turn to more persistent inflation, something that could have a much more severe impact on markets and force central banks to belatedly tighten policy. 

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. 

Market Volatility Continues To Compress

The US Independence Day holiday kept trading, market activity and volatility subdued for much of last week.  In any case equity markets and risk assets have been struggling on the topside and appear to be losing momentum.  Markets are being buffeted by conflicting forces; economic news has beaten expectations. For example, the US June jobs report was better than expected though total job gains of 7.5 million in recent months are still only around a third of total jobs lost.  In contrast, worsening news on Covid 19 infections, with the WHO reporting a one day record high in global infections, threatens to put a dampener on sentiment.  Consolidation is likely, with Summer trading conditions increasingly creeping in over the weeks ahead. As such volatility is likely to continue to be suppressed, aided by central banks’ liquidity injections.

Over recent weeks geopolitical risks have admittedly not had a major impact on markets but this doesn’t mean that this will remain the case given the plethora of growing risks.  China’s installation of new security legislation into Hong Kong’s basic law and the first arrests utilizing this law were in focus last week.  A US administration official has reportedly said that the president is considering two or three actions against China, and markets will be on the lookout for any such actions this week, which could include further sanctions against individuals are more details of what the removal of HK’s special trading status will entail.  Meanwhile the US has sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea reportedly to send a message against China’s military build up in the area, with China’s PLA conducting a five-day drill around the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.

Data releases and events this week are unlikely to lead to a change in this dynamic.  At the beginning of the week attention will focus on further discussions between the UK and EU over the post Brexit landscape while in the US the June non-manufacturing ISM survey will garner attention.  So far talks on a trade deal between the UK and EU have stalled though there were hints of progress last week, even as officials admitted that “serious divergencies remain”.  The US ISM non-manufacturing survey is likely to move back to expansion (above 50) but is increasingly being threatened by the increase in Covid infections, which could yet again dampen service sector activity. On the policy front there will be fiscal updates from the UK and Canada on Wednesday against the backdrop of ramped up spending, and monetary policy decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and BNM in Malaysia on Tuesday.  The RBA is widely expected to keep policy unchanged while BNM may cut rates by 25 basis points.

 

Fed, ECB, BoJ In Focus This Week

Three major central banks meet to decide on monetary policy this week, but after massive and unprecedented actions over past weeks, there is likely to be little new in terms of additional policy measures announced by the US Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BoJ) in the days ahead.  Key data this week include US Q1 GDP, the April US ISM manufacturing survey and China’s April purchasing manager’s index (PMI).

The Fed has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Covid-19 to combat the severe economic and market impact emanating from the virus.  This included aggressive rate cuts, unlimited asset purchases (Treasuries, MBS), purchases of commercial paper, loans to small businesses, easing rules for banks and provision of US dollar swap lines with other central banks to help ease global USD demand pressures.  Aside from some fine tuning, there may not be much else the Fed will do at its meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile the US ISM survey (Fri) is likely to post a sharp decline (consensus 37.0).

Markets have reacted well to the measures announced and implemented so far, but as noted there is a growing disconnect between the rally in equity markets over recent weeks and rapidly worsening economic data.  US Q1 GDP data (Wed) this week will likely reveal some of the damage, with a 4% q/q annualised fall in GDP forecast by the consensus. Q2 GDP will be even weaker however, as most of the weakness in activity will have taken place in April and will have likely continued into May and June.

The ECB continues to face pressure to do more as Eurozone activity continues to plunge.  So far the main thrust of the ECB’s measures are EUR 750bn of bond purchases and loosening of restrictions on such purchases.  However, sovereign spreads, especially in the periphery (especially Italy) are under pressure and the ECB may need to act again soon though perhaps not as early as the meeting this Thursday.  The ECB will also likely shift the onus of further easing to fiscal, especially the proposed “recovery fund”, which continues to fuel major divisions between European countries.

Last but not least the BoJ meeting on Monday will probably be the most active in terms of new measures, but on balance they will probably do little to move markets.   At the last meeting the BoJ significantly increased the amount of ETFs they would purchase, which to some extent has helped the Nikkei 225 rally over recent weeks.  At this meeting the BoJ is unlikely to alter its negative interest rate policy, but is likely to remove its JPY 80 trillion cap on JGB purchases and announce an increase in corporate bond purchases along with other measures to ease credit.

On the data front China’s official manufacturing PMI is likely to remain around or just above the expansionary threshold of 50 as much of China’s supply side of the economy opens up.  However, the ability to retain expansion at a time when global demand and therefore China’s export markets are collapsing, will prove difficult.  China’s authorities appear to be increasingly realising this and have stepped up support both on the fiscal (via special bond issuance) and monetary side (targeted cuts in various rates), but so far the scale of easing has been limited and Q1 growth was especially weak.

Calm After The Storm

The start of 2020 has not come without incident, to say the least.  The US killing of an Iranian general and Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq prompted a flight to safety, with investors piling into gold, Japanese yen while pushing oil prices higher.   However, each time the impact has been short lived, with markets tending to move back towards a calmer tone.  What is underpinning this is the view that both sides do not want a war.  Indeed Iran stated that it has ‘concluded proportionate measures’ and does not ‘see escalation or war’ while President Trump tweeted that ‘All is well’ after the Iranian missile attacks. While the risk of escalation remains high, it does appear that neither side wants to become entangled in a much deeper and prolonged situation.

As such, while markets will remain nervous, and geopolitical risks will remain elevated, the market’s worst fears (all-out war) may not play out.  This leaves the backdrop of an improving economic environment and ongoing policy stimulus in place, which in turn will help provide overall support to risk assets including equities and emerging markets assets.  As my last post highlighted, two major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end were also lifted.  Unless there is a major escalation between the US and Iran this more sanguine tone, albeit with bouts of volatility, is likely to remain in place in the weeks ahead.  This also mean that attention will eventually turn back to data releases and economic fundamentals.

In this respect the news is not so bad.  Although the US ISM manufacturing index weakened further and deeper into contraction territory below 50 other data including the ISM non-manufacturing index which beat expectations coming in at , suggests that the US economy is still on a rosy path.  While the consensus expectations is for US payrolls to soften to a 160k increase in December compared to 266k previously, this will still leave a high average over recent months. The Fed for its part continues to provide monetary support and liquidity via its repo operations (Quantitative easing with another name) and is unlikely to reverse rate cuts.   Elsewhere globally the economic news is also improving, with data showing global economic stabilization into year end.

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