Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

Bernanke hits Treasuries, boosts dollar

Fed Chairman Bernanke’s prepared testimony expressed no hurry to scale back policy accommodation given the risks to economy recovery. However, in the Q&A session following the testimony he noted that the Fed is prepared to adjust the current flow rate of asset purchases in response to incoming data. Importantly in terms of timing Bernanke hinted that the Fed could “take a step down in the pace of purchases” in the next few FOMC meetings dependent on the data. While it is likely that many FOMC members want to see more evidence of recovery especially in the jobs market a reduction in asset purchases in Q4 is likely assuming this evidence if forthcoming. The FOMC minutes echoed this sentiment.

Bernanke’s comments and the minutes fuelled plenty of market volatility, with equities selling off after an initial rally and Treasury yields rising, with the 10 year US Treasury yield flying through the 2% level. Commodities dropped and the USD strengthened, with USD/JPY breaking through 103.00. This pattern is likely to be echoed in Asian trading today but much of the market reaction to the Fed has already occurred and it will need more evidence of either stronger US data or more hawkish Fed comments to extend yesterday’s moves. US jobless claims today will take on more prominence in this respect in the absence of other major data releases with the exception of a likely gain in April new home sales.

The USD is set to consolidate its gains over the short term firmly underpinned by higher US bond yields. Funding currencies (JPY and CHF), yielding and commodity currencies (AUD, NZD and CAD ) look most vulnerable to a firm USD although almost all currencies have felt some of the pressure. The net result is that the USD index has reached its highest level in close to 3 years. Given that the rise in US yields may only mark the beginning of a deeper reversal the upside for the USD over coming months could be significant.

Fortunately for Asian currencies they have not been particularly sensitive to USD strength over recent months as domestic factors have taken on more prominence although the KRW and SGD have been particularly sensitive to JPY weakness. Nonetheless, Asian currencies are set to remain under pressure over the short term as concerns of a slowing in capital flows to the region may grow. Singapore’s better than expected Q1 GDP reading (1.8% QoQ) released this morning will do little to stem the pressure. Meanwhile comments by Korean officials on the impact on the country’s exports from a stronger JPY will keep the KRW pressured.

Central banks ready to act

Markets are in wait and see mode ahead of Greek elections with range trading likely to dominate market action, albeit with a slightly risk on bias. US data disappointed once again, with jobless claims coming in worse than expected, compounding the growing fears about deterioration in US job market conditions. Perversely the poor jobs data coming against the background of soft May CPI inflation data have fuelled expectations of Fed action at next week’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting.

It is not only the Fed that markets believe may act, with reports overnight suggesting that there may be some form of coordinated action by central banks should the Greek election outcome prove to be unfavourable. On this front, the news appears to be a little more encouraging as expectations that pro bailout parties will garner relatively more votes has grown as reflected in the 10% rally in Greek shares overnight.

If it takes weak economic data for markets to rally nowadays then there will be plenty available today, with declines expected for the May Empire manufacturing survey and June Michigan confidence, while industrial production is only likely to register a marginal gain in May. While the data may add more fuel to the fire, I suspect it will still be insufficient to result in more Fed balance sheet expansion.

European Central Bank (ECB) President Draghi is scheduled to speak today but I doubt he will suggest a move towards another LTRO or Securities Market Purchases. On the subject of central banks the Bank of Japan will announce its policy decision today but I expect no change in stance despite the fact that the 1% inflation goal remains a long way off. Currencies will remain in ranges but hopes of central bank action and a favourable outcome to the Greek elections will provide support for risk currencies and keep the USD under pressure.

Waiting for a solution to Europe’s crisis

The boost to sentiment following Germany’s approval of changes to the EFSF bailout fund was brief. Although the outcome of the vote was not particularly surprising political concerns were assuaged by the fact that Chancellor Merkel secured support from within her coalition. Markets were also helped by a bigger than expected drop in weekly US jobless claims but this also failed to provide a lasting impact.

The bottom line is that there is still a huge degree of scepticism on the ability of policymakers to resolve the crisis in the eurozone periphery while growth worries have not receded. Even the approved changed to the EFSF bailout fund are increasingly being seen as old news given the view that it will need deeper changes including ‘leveraging’ it up.

Consequently risk aversion remains at a highly elevated level and is showing no sign of easing. It may be difficult to turn sentiment around as we go into the final quarter of the year, especially as those investors registering profits for the year may want to capitalise on these profits rather than sit through continued volatility in the weeks ahead. Indeed the sharp drop in gold prices over the last couple of weeks even in an environment of elevated risk aversion may reflect this.

Similarly risk assets may struggle to recover over coming weeks unless there is a major improvement in the situation in Europe or in growth data. Markets will go into the end of this week looking ahead to key events next week including an Ecofin meeting at the beginning of next week, a European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and the US September jobs report.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European Finance Ministers on Monday especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop.

While the extent of short market positioning at the beginning of week left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering diminishes. Unless the Ecofin meeting delivers on expectations EUR/USD will likely re-test the 26 September low around 1.3363.

Fed does the Twist, markets do the Shake

Although it was widely expected the Federal Reserve’s decision to implement a fresh version of Operation Twist together with a downbeat assessment of the economy came as a disappointment to equities and risk assets in general. The only surprise was the larger size of the operation at $400 billion.

Moody’s downgrade of three US banks added to the malaise as US equities dropped sharply, commodities slid, longer term Treasuries rallied whilst shorter term bonds dropped. The USD registered broad gains both on the back of the fact that no more quantitative easing was announced and due to a shift away from risk assets. At least there was no more negative news out of the eurozone as talks between the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) and Greek officials continue on the next tranche of the bailout.

Markets will continue to digest the Fed’s outcome today and the negative tone will likely filter through markets today. There is little on the data front to result in a shift in this tone. In the US data includes weekly jobless claims while in Europe attention will be on manufacturing and service sector confidence measures.

While the potential for a positive outcome to talks in Greece may provide a short term boost to sentiment the overwhelming tone is likely to remain negative especially as Operation Twist is unlikely to change the dynamic of a weak growth trajectory for the US and developed economies over the coming months. Against this background, selling risk assets on rallies remains the preferred option.

The USD will continue to look firmest against high beta emerging market currencies in the current environment. Currencies in this group are those that have the highest correlations with risk (as m measured by my in house risk barometer) over the past 3 months including CAD, ZAR, TRY, INR, MXN, ARS & RUB. In contrast currencies that also have high correlations but actually strengthen as risk aversion increases are CNY and JPY.

Edging Towards A European Deal For Greece

The momentum towards some form of agreement at the Special EU Summit today is growing, with French and German leaders reaching a “joint position on Greece’s debt situation”. Details of this position are still unknown, however. EUR has found support as expectations of a positive outcome intensify.

However, given that positive news is increasingly being priced in, and the market is becoming increasingly long, upside EUR potential will be limited even in the wake of a comprehensive agreement. A break above EUR/USD resistance around 1.4282 would bring in sight the next key resistance level around 1.4375 but this where the rally in EUR/USD is set to be capped.

Prospects of a major US debt default or at the least a government shutdown appear to be receding as the US administration has indicated some willingness to opt for a short term increase in the US borrowing limit to give more time for a bigger deficit reduction deal to be passed by Congress. Meanwhile, there will be further news on the deficit reduction plans put forward by the “gang of six” US senators, with a press conference scheduled for later today.

Debt ceiling negotiations are likely to be the main focus of market attention, with the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and weekly jobless claims relegated to the background. A speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke is unlikely to deliver anything new today. The USD is likely to be on the back foot given expectations of a deal in Europe and improved risk appetite but we expect losses to be limited.

The JPY continues to defy my bearish expectations. Over recent days the US yield advantage over Japan in terms of 2Y bonds dropped to multi-year lows below 20bps. Given the high correlation between USD/JPY and yield differentials, this has corresponded with the fall below 80.00.

Expectations of JPY weakness versus USD is highly dependent on the US – Japan yield gap widening over coming months. For this to happen it will need concerns about the US economy and expectations of more Fed asset purchases to dissipate, something that may not happen quickly given the rash of disappointing US data releases lately.

GBP found itself on the front foot following the release of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee minutes, which were less dovish than anticipated. They also revealed that the BoE expects inflation to peak higher and sooner than previously expected. However, the fact that the overall tone was similar to the last set of minutes meant there was little follow through in terms of GBP.

Further direction will come from June retail sales data today and forecasts of a bounce in sales will likely help allay concerns about a downturn in consumer spending. Nonetheless, GBP is still likely to struggle to break through resistance around 1.6230 versus USD.

Asia Helps The Euro Again

Following the pressure on markets over recent days there is some relief filtering through markets today although sentiment remains fickle. Weaker than expected US April durable goods orders data failed to dent confidence with equity markets ending in positive territory overnight even though the data added to a plethora of global data disappointments over recent weeks.

Once again the EUR has been saved by Asian demand, this time not directly for the EUR itself but by reports that China and other Asian investors will purchases EFSF bailout bonds, with China apparently reported to be “clearly interested” in the mid June sales of Portuguese bailout bonds, with Asian investors representing a “strong proportion” of the buyers.

Despite the reassuring news about Asian official interest in eurozone debt, problems in the periphery remain a major drag on the EUR. Developments at the two day G8 heads of governments meeting in Deauville and various speeches by officials from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB) regarding Greece’s travails will be particularly important for EUR direction.

The various speakers are likely to maintain the pressure on peripheral countries to continue their austerity programmes in order to gain external support. Nonetheless, there still appears to be conflicting comments about what Greece will do with regard to its debt burden. Whilst some EU officials have espoused the benefits of extending Greek debt maturities on a voluntary basis, the ECB has steadfastly stood against any form of restructuring.

Other than the events above, in the US the second reading of Q1 GDP will be released. The consensus looks for an upward revision to a 2.1% annual rate from an initial estimate of 1.8% due mainly to an upward revision to inventories. US weekly jobless claims will also be of interest especially as the recent increase in the 4-week average for jobless claims has provoked renewed fears about the jobs market recovery.

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