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.

Equity flows to Asia surge

Equity flows to Asia have begun the year in solid form. Although not quite as strong as in 2010 the pace of recent acceleration in flows has been more rapid, suggesting that it will soon overtake the year to date inflows seen over 2010. In total Asia has registered around $4.955 billion in foreign equity inflows. Korea has received the biggest inflows at $2.4 billion followed by India $1.04bn and Taiwan $1.03 billion.

The Indian rupee (INR) has been a clear beneficiary of such flows while the Korean won (KRW) has also strengthened. I suspect that official resistance may have limited Taiwan dollar (TWD) gains but clearly the risk on start to the year has resulted in strengthening inflows and in turn stronger Asian currencies.

Unless there is a disaster in Greece or elsewhere in Europe next week there is little to stop the short term trend but I remain wary over coming weeks and am cautious about extrapolating this trend forward. Like in 2010 and 2011 equity flows began the year strongly only to drop over following weeks and currencies were not slow to follow.

GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

Resisting Asian FX Appreciation

The upward momentum in Asian currencies has continued unabated over recent weeks the gyrations in risk appetite. Most Asian currencies have registered gains against the USD over 2010 with the notable exception of one of last year’s star performers, KRW which after gaining by close to 9% last year has weakened slightly this year. Last year’s best performer the IDR which raked in close to 20% gains over 2009 versus USD has continued to strengthen this year, albeit to a smaller degree. Another currency that has extended gains this year has been the THB, which is on track to beat last year’s 4% appreciation against the USD.

The strength in Asian currencies has in part reflected robust inflows into Asian equity markets. For example Indonesia has been the recipient of around $1.7 billion in equity inflows so far this year. However, India and Korea have registered even larger inflows into their respective equity markets, at around $13 billion and $7.7, respectively, yet both the INR and KRW have underperformed other Asian currencies. The explanation for this is largely due to deteriorating current account positions in both countries. Further deterioration is likely.

The fact that equity flows have had only a small impact on the INR and KRW is reflected in their low correlations with their respective equity market performance. For most other Asian currencies the correlation with equity performance has been quite high, with the THB and MYR having the strongest correlations with their respective equity market indices over the past 3-months although the SGD, PHP and IDR have also maintained statistically significant correlations.

Clearly, for many but not all Asian currencies equity market gyrations are important drivers but at a time when growth is slowing more than many had expected in the US and governments in the eurozone are implementing austerity measures which will likely result in slowing growth and a worsening trade picture in the region, central banks in Asia will become increasingly wary of allowing their currencies from strengthening too quickly.

Increasingly Asian currency strength is being met with intervention by central banks in the region buying USDs against a host of Asian currencies. Over recent weeks this intervention appears to have become more aggressive. Nonetheless, any FX intervention led weakness in Asian FX is likely to prove short lived, with renewed appreciation likely over the coming months unless risk aversion increases dramatically. In other words a drop in Asian currencies will provide better opportunities to go long.

The CNY will play an important role on the pace and pattern of Asian currency movements. Investors in the region will also have one eye on developments on the visit of US National Economic Council director Larry Summers to Beijing. The CNY has firmed over recent days but this appears to be the usual pattern when a senior US official is in town and ahead of a G20 meeting. The fact is however, that the lack of CNY appreciation since the June CNY de-pegging remains a highly sensitive issue.

China is unlikely to yield to US pressure and is set to continue to act at its own pace and comments from officials in China over the past couple of days suggest no shift in FX stance. Although the CNY has not appreciated by as much as many had hoped for or expected since the June de-pegging the path is likely to be upwards, albeit at a gradual pace. For Asian currencies a slow pace of CNY appreciation implies further reluctance to allow a fast pace of appreciation so expect plenty of FX intervention in the weeks and months ahead.

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