All Eyes On Jackson Hole

Following four weeks of gains, US equities lost ground last week while equity volatility (VIX) moved higher.  Equities look likely to struggle in the days ahead.  While investor participation in the rally has been limited amid thin summer liquidity, it has contributed to easing financial conditions, likely to the chagrin of the Fed.  However, nervousness ahead of the Jackson Hole symposium (25-27 Aug) has grown with many thinking Fed Chair Powell will sound hawkish. This has given risk assets pause for thought, helping US yields back up and the US dollar to reverse recent losses.  Indeed, the USD index (DXY) now has the 14 July high around 109.29 in its sights. 

Equities could struggle to push higher in the short term.  The 200-day moving average level around 4320 for the S&P 500 looks like it will provide resistance on the top side, while the relative strength indicator (RSI) suggests that the S&P 500 is close to overbought levels.   The narrative of a bear market rally remains in place and as economic conditions worsen, the outlook for earnings will also be less positive, potentially acting as a further drag on equity market sentiment.  A stronger dollar also acts as a headwind to US stocks. 

A plethora of Federal Reserve speakers has pushed back against more dovish market expectation, yet markets are still pricing in some Fed easing in the second half of 2023. At Jackson Hole, Fed Chair Powell is likely to reinforce the view that the Fed may still have to hike policy rates several more times in the months ahead and cut less quickly than markets expect next year.  As such, last week’s move ie. US dollar rally, US Treasury yields moving higher, and equities weakening, may extend further in the days ahead. 

Emerging market currencies in particular, had a poor week, with soft China data not helping.  Indeed, China’s July activity data were uniformly weak, highlighting that the economy is likely to fall well short of the official “around 5.5%” growth target for this year.  A heatwave in China is not helping.  Today’s small 5 basis points cut in banks 1 year loan prime rates and 15 basis points cut in the 5-year rate will do little to stimulate activity especially in the property market.  CNH has been impacted and is likely to fall further. A hawkish Powell may help to keep the pressure on emerging markets in the short term and limited policy action in China will do little to mitigate such pressures. 

Aside from Jackson Hole, key data and events this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia and Korea. Indonesia (Tue) is likely to keep its policy rate on hold while Korea (Thu) is likely to hike its policy rate by 25bp.  On the data front, US core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) will likely reveal a sharper slowing in July compared to core CPI due to shelters weights (Fri) while purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally will likely soften as growth pressures intensify, reflecting the slide towards or into recession in several economies including the US and Euro area. 

Combating Recession Risks

Following a volatile last week market attention will remain on trade tensions, measures to combat the risks of recession and will turn to the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium at the end of the week. The inversion of the US yield curve has led to growing expectations that the US is heading into recession and has spurred inflows into bonds. As a result US Treasury yields continue to fall and the stockpile of negative yielding debt has risen to well over $16 trillion. While economic data in the US remains relatively firm, the picture in the rest of the world has deteriorated sharply as reflected in weakening German and Chinese trade, against the background of a weak trade backdrop.

There have been some mixed headlines on trade over the weekend – Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council under President Trump, said yesterday that recent phone calls between US and Chinese trade negotiators had been “positive”, with more teleconference meetings planned over the next 10 days.  Separately US media reported that the US commerce department was preparing to extend a temporary license for companies to do business with Huawei for 90 days. However, Trump poured cold water on this by stating that “Huawei is a company that we may not do business with at all”.  A decision will be made today.

In the wake of growing expectations of recession, attention is turning on what will be done by governments and central banks to combat such risks.  The Jackson Hole meeting on Thursday will be particularly important to gauge what major central bankers are thinking and in particular whether and to what degree Federal Reserve Chairman Powell is planning on cutting US rates further.  We will be able to garner further evidence of Fed deliberations, with the release of the Fed FOMC July meeting minutes on Wednesday.

While central bankers look at potential monetary policy steps governments are likely to look at ways of providing further fiscal stimulus.  Kudlow stated that the US administration was “looking at” the prospects of tax cuts, while pressure on the German government to loosen is purse strings has also grown.  Even in the UK where a hard Brexit looms, the government is reportedly readying itself with a fiscal package to support growth in the aftermath.   Such news will come as a relief to markets, but recession worries are not likely to dissipate quickly, which will likely keep volatility elevated, and maintain the bias towards safe haven assets in the weeks ahead.

Euro firmer, AUD vulnerable to risk gyrations

A surprise drop in US August consumer confidence which dropped to its lowest since November last year put a dampener on markets and notably the VIX index edged higher. Consequently treasuries rose and equities slipped despite a firmer than expected increase in US house prices in June. The confidence data adds the pressure on Fed Chairman Bernanke to give some indication of a further round of quantitative easing during his speech at Jackson Hole on Friday.

An upward revision to US Q2 GDP and a bounce in July pending home sales today are unlikely to change this perspective although the Fed’s Beige Book will likely show some moderate improvement providing the Fed with useful information.

Separately decent debt auctions in Spain and Italy helped to calm Eurozone market nerves further amid hopes of European Central Bank (ECB) action next week despite the news that Spanish region Catalonia formally asked for EUR 5 billion in funding. As a result the EUR retained a firmer tone.

Contrary to expectations, EUR/USD continued to push higher. Just why the currency is strengthening given the significant event risk in the days and weeks ahead is questionable although in part the move is attributable to an ongoing short squeeze. Hopes of constructive ECB action next week taken together with Fed quantitative easing expectations have helped to put the USD on the back foot, allowing the EUR to take advantage.

Admittedly the drop in Eurozone peripheral bond yields is certainly helpful for the EUR, while my short term quantitative ‘fair value’ estimate for EUR/USD suggests more upside too. Nonetheless, given the risk that so much could go wrong in the weeks ahead I am loathe to get on the bullish EUR bandwagon. While EUR/USD and EUR on the crosses will likely remain firm ahead of Jackson Hole I expect the EUR to struggle to hold onto gains into next week.

AUD has lost ground since around 10 August. This has roughly coincided with a rise in risk aversion over recent weeks. Indeed, AUD maintains a strong correlation with risk aversion and is therefore highly susceptible to swings in risk appetite. Additionally renewed China worries have also dampened the attraction of the AUD given the increasing dependency of Australia’s economy to China both directly through trade and indirectly via commodity prices.

While I remain positive on the AUD over the medium term, the high level of speculative positioning in the currency suggests some vulnerability to profit taking over the short term, with AUD/USD vulnerable to a drop to technical support around 1.0282. Much will depend on news out of China in terms of AUD direction, with Chinese stock market gyrations also providing some influence.

Market fear rising

In what was fairly subdued trading conditions in the wake of a UK holiday the most interesting market move was the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ which has been on a steady increase since 17 August. The rise in equity volatility suggests that the relative calm experienced over the summer may be ending.

Major events over coming days and weeks including the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday, IMF/EU review of Portugal today, ECB meeting on September 6, Dutch general election on 12 September, German constitutional court decision on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same day, as well as the Fed FOMC meeting on September 12-13, highlight the potential for more volatility and uncertainty.

Yesterday’s fourth consecutive drop in the German IFO index was all but ignored as attention turns to Jackson Hole. Nonetheless, the announcement of the formation of a working group between France and Germany suggests some improvement in coordination towards finding a solution to the Eurozone crisis, while the ECB’s Asmussen further heightened speculation that the upcoming ECB meeting would detail the ECB’s proposed bond buying program.

Meanwhile, although the Fed’s Evans (non voter) highlighted his preference for more Fed quantitative easing an improvement in consumer confidence in August expected to be revealed today, will add to data playing against imminent QE.

All of the above leaves FX markets in limbo. The USD remains restrained by expectations of Fed QE but relatively better economic data compared to the Eurozone, suggests that any USD decline will be limited. Moreover, the fact that aggregate speculative USD positioning turned negative for the first time since September 2011, suggests that there is now some scope for short covering.

Conversely, hopes of ECB bond buying offer the EUR some solace but as noted, the many events over coming weeks in Europe, highlight the risks to the currency and we suspect that EUR/USD has topped out around 1.2500.

Market tensions set to return

Having returned from my summer break it appears that markets are in reasonable shape. Volatility is low, while equities have registered solid gains over recent weeks and markets in general appear to be more settled. In part this is due to hopes and expectations of further stimulus measures in the US and Europe. The coming weeks may be much less calm than experienced over the summer.

Having lost steam over recent weeks the USD may benefit from renewed market nervousness over coming weeks. On the one hand there are hopes of more Fed stimulus in September following comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke that there is “scope for further action”. More information will likely come from the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday and expectations of more quantitative easing could restrain the USD.

On the other hand, it increasingly appears that the summer rally in risk assets is beginning to fade, a factor that will help the USD. The latter effect is likely to be more dominant on the USD especially as it is far from clear that another round of Fed quantitative easing will be USD negative. My analysis suggests that the impact on the USD from QE is ambiguous.

There is plenty of event risk over coming weeks which could feed potential nervousness in the market and help the USD. Markets have to contend with the IMF / EU review of Portugal’s aid program tomorrow which takes place against the background of reports that deficit targets have slipped amid weakening growth. In addition, the 6 September European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will be a major focus given expectations of a further cut in policy rates and other policy steps to purchase Eurozone peripheral debt

Aside from these events, Dutch general elections on 12 September could provoke more uncertainty given that polls currently show a split outcome while the decision by the German constitutional court on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same date will add to tensions especially as the outcome remains unclear.

Meanwhile, discussions and speculation on Greece’s future within the Eurozone or at least some easing in its bailout terms and a potential formal request for Spanish bailout from the EFSF temporary bailout fund will run alongside these other uncertainties.

To cap it all off, these events combined with the the Eurogroup / Ecofin meeting on 14-15 September will leave markets with plenty to fret about over coming weeks. EUR/USD will struggle to extend upon its gains against this background, with moves above 1.2600 likely to provide better levels to sell EUR.

%d bloggers like this: