Reflation Trade Is Back

A much softer than expected US January jobs report didn’t prevent US equities from closing higher at the end of last week as the reflation trade kicked back in.  One of the biggest driving forces for markets was the growing prospects that much of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plan will be passed, albeit via a process of reconciliation, which allows Democrats to circumvent the need to gain the support of at least 10 republicans. This contrasts with prior expectations that the final stimulus was going to be less than $1 trillion. 

Pushing stimulus through this way highlights Biden’s urgency to inject more spending into the economy but could come at the cost of hurting bipartisan policy efforts. The impact of expectations of increased fiscal stimulus is particularly apparent in the US rates market, with US Treasuries selling off and bear steepening of the curve.  Although higher US Treasury yields failed to give support to the US dollar (USD) there is still scope for a short covering rally, which could still help give the USD relief.     

At the beginning of the year the US jobs market took a hit from renewed lockdowns and surge in COVID cases; US January non-farm payrolls increased 49k, and December was revised to -227k from -140k while more positively the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7% though this was flattered by a drop in the participation rate as less people were looking for work.  According to the payrolls report there are still 9.9 million more unemployed compared to pre-COVID levels.  As such, the weak jobs data added more support to Biden’s fiscal stimulus proposals.   

This week focus will likely turn more to President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate than economic data.  Key data/events this week include China’s credit and monetary aggregates (9-15 Feb), central bank decisions in Sweden (Wed), Philippines, Mexico (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Among these the consensus is for only Mexico to cut its policy rate. Also in focus are inflation readings in China (Wed), US (Wed) and India (Fri).  UK GDP (Fri) and US Michigan sentiment (Fri) will also garner attention. 

The return of the reflation trade, rally in risk assets and decline in cross-asset volatility bodes well for emerging markets (EM) assets.  However, there are definitely various cross currents impacting asset markets at present especially with US Treasury yields rising, which could potentially support the USD and pressure EM local bond rates markets.  EM assets were clearly favoured towards the end of last year, and while the positive story has not dissipated, EM assets may take a pause for breath before pushing higher again.  

In Asia, the Chinese-new-year holidays this week may dampen activity while China’s PBoC also appears to be limiting liquidity injections around the holidays, which could limit some of the gains in Chinese and impact China linked assets.  Chinese authorities have re-focussed attention on preventing an excessive build-up of leverage and credit metrics have peaked as a result.  As such, they may be less keen to inject a lot of liquidity into markets at present. 

All Eyes On Europe

EUR looks range bound ahead of key events including the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting, European Union Summit and release of bank stress test results. A senior German official poured cold water over expectations of a concrete outcome from the EU Summit, dampening EUR sentiment as a result.

There will be plenty of attention on the ECB to determine whether they will give a little more ground and provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery. While a refi policy rate cut is highly likely as well as additional liquidity measures I do not expect any move in the direction of more aggressive action to support peripheral bonds in terms of becoming “lender of the last resort’.

If however, the ECB hints at intensifying its securities market purchases of Eurozone bonds this will likely bode well for the EUR. Indeed, reports overnight suggest that the ECB will announce a set of measures to stimulate bank lending including easing collateral requirements for banks.

More weak UK data in the form a bigger than consensus drop in manufacturing and industrial production in October add to the soft BRC retail sales and house price data, in putting pressure on the Bank of England (BoE) to increase its quantitative easing at today’s policy meeting. While the BoE is set to keep policy unchanged it is only a matter of time before additional asset purchases are announced.

Despite the weaker IP data GBP has held up relatively well against the USD although downside risks appear to be intensifying. If I am correct in the view of no change by the BoE today we expect little change in GBP although there could be a risk of a push higher in EUR/GBP if the ECB delivers some positive news, with resistance seen around 0.8665.

The RBNZ unsurprisingly left policy rates unchanged at 2.5%, sounded less hawkish than the previous meeting and also lowered growth forecasts. The NZD was left unmoved by the rate decision and looks well supported at current levels perhaps due to relief that the statement was not more dovish. The kiwi has been an underperformer over the year but unlike the AUD it has not been particularly influenced by gyrations in risk aversion.

Interest rate futures differentials have seen a renewed widening versus the US over recent weeks. This is significant given that the NZ-US interest rate differentials have a very strong correlation with the performance of NZD/USD. If this widening is sustained it will point to upside potential for the Kiwi.

Drastic Action Needed

There has been no let up in pressure on eurozone markets and consequently risk aversion continues to increase. The failure of Ireland’s bailout package to stem the haemorrhaging in eurozone bond markets highlights the difficulties in finding in a lasting solution and worsening liquidity conditions in several eurozone bond markets highlights the urgency to act.

Indeed, if spreads continue to widen as they have since late October, by early to mid 2011, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian Euribor spreads would be higher than the EFSF loan spread. In the (admittedly extreme) case that sovereigns could not raise money in the market, peripherals would run out of money early in 2011. Policy makers will try to not let the situation get so out of hand but what can be done to stem the damage?

The European Central Bank (ECB) may be forced to delay its exit strategy by maintaining unlimited liquidity allotments to banks into next year and/or implement further liquidity support measures. The ECB meeting will be closely scrutinized for details, with ECB President Trichet having to adjust policy accordingly. A further option could be for the ECB to step up its bond buying programme which may provide some relief to peripheral eurozone bond markets and the EUR.

Whether this offers a lasting solution however, is debatable. The risk of action by the ECB tomorrow may fuel some caution in the market towards selling the EUR further in the short term and could even prompt some short EUR covering around the meeting which could see EUR/USD regain a sustainable hold above 1.3000 again but this may be temporary, offering better levels to sell.

Meanwhile, speculation of a break up of the eurozone into a core euro and a peripheral euro has intensified given the growing divergence in growth and competitiveness across the region. Such speculation looks far fetched. The eurozone project has been politically driven from the start and over the last 60 years or so internal economic strains have been papered over by politicians. The political will is likely to remain in place even if the divergence in fundamentals across Europe has continued to widen.

Bond market sentiment was not helped by the fact that S&P put Portugal’s ratings on creditwatch negative citing downward economic pressure and concerns over the government’s credit worthiness. Importantly S&P still expects Portugal to remain at investment grade if downgraded. Note that Portugal’s central bank highlighted that the country’s banking sector faced “intolerable” risk unless the government implements planned austerity measures.

In contrast the US story is looking increasingly positive, highlighting that the USD’s strength is not merely a reaction to EUR weakness but more likely inherent and broad improvement in USD sentiment. US consumer confidence, Chicago PMI and the Milwaukee PMI beat forecasts in November, continuing the trend of consensus beating data releases over recent weeks.
Although this does not change the outlook for quantitative easing (QE) as the Fed remains focused on core CPI and the unemployment rate, the data paints an encouraging picture of the economy.

The Week Ahead

As last week progressed there was a clear deterioration in sentiment as growth worries crept back into the market psyche. It all started well enough, with a positive reaction to China’s de-pegging of the CNY but the euphoria faded as it became evident that there was still plenty of two-way risk on the CNY. A change in Prime Minister in Australia, which fuelled hopes of a resolution to a controversial mining tax, and an austere budget in the UK, were also key events. However, sentiment took a hit as the Fed sounded more cautious on the US economy in its FOMC statement.

The US Congress finalised a major regulatory reform bill towards the end of the week and markets, especially financial stocks, reacted positively as the bill appeared to give some concessions to banks and was not as severe as feared. However, equity market momentum has clearly faded against the background of renewed growth concerns including sprouting evidence of a double-dip in the US housing market as well as fresh worries about the European banking sector. As if to demonstrate this US Q1 GDP was duly revised lower once again, to a 2.7% annualised rate of growth.

The US Independence Day holiday and World Cup football tournament will likely keep liquidity thin in the run up to month and half year end. However, there is still plenty to digest this week including the all important employment report and consumer confidence data in the US. In Europe economic sentiment gauges, purchasing managers indices and the flash CPI estimate will be in focus. Elsewhere, Japan’s Tankan survey and usual slate of month end Japanese releases, Switzerland’s KoF leading indicator and Australian retail sales will be of interest.

On balance, economic data this week is unlikely to relieve growth concerns, with Eurozone, US and UK consumer and manufacturing confidence indicators likely to post broad based declines due to a host of factors. The data will further indicate a slowing in growth momentum following Q2 2010, with forward looking surveys turning lower, albeit gradually. Whilst a double-dip scenario still seems unlikely there can be no doubt that austerity measures and the waning of fiscal stimulus measures are beginning to weigh on growth prospects even if there is still plenty of optimism for emerging market and particularly Asian growth prospects.

This suggests that Q3 could turn into a period of heightened uncertainty in which equity markets and risk assets will struggle to gain traction. In addition to growth worries, some tensions in money markets remain in place whilst banking sector concerns seem to be coming back to the fore, especially in Europe and these factors will prevent a sustained improvement in risk appetite from taking place over the coming quarter. Some more clarity may come from the results of European stress tests but much will depend on just how stressful the tests are.

In the near term, the main focus of attention will be on the US June jobs report released at the end of the week. Non-farm payrolls are set to record a decline over the month due to a reversal in census hiring, with a consensus expectation of a 110k fall. Private sector hiring is likely to record a positive reading, however, suggesting some improvement in the underlying trend in jobs growth, albeit a very gradual one. Downside risks to consensus suggest plenty of scope for disappointment.

Interestingly, weaker US data of late, has managed to restrain the USD, suggesting that cyclical factors and not just risk aversion are beginning to play into FX movements. Notably the USD was on the back foot against a number of currencies as last week progressed. Even the beleaguered EUR managed to end the week well off its weekly low and close to where it closed the previous week whilst risk currencies such as the AUD and NZD as well as GBP also posted firm performances.

Perhaps some reversal of the optimism towards US recovery prospects give USD bulls some cause for concern, but pressure is likely to prove temporary, especially given that the US economy is still on course to outperform many other major economies. Over the short-term, especially ahead of the US jobs report markets are set to remain cautious with range trading likely to dominate in the week ahead, suggesting that EUR/USD is unlikely to breach the key level of 1.2500. GBP performance has been robust but even this currency is likely to make much headway above GBP/USD 1.5000, where there are likely to be plenty of sellers.

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