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. 

Growth/Risk Asset Rally Dichotomy To Continue

Happy New Year!  2020 ended with record highs for US stock markets, capping off a solid year for risk assets amid massive and ongoing central bank liquidity injections.  In contrast the dollar index (DXY) ended the year languishing around its lowest levels since April 2018.  The dichotomy between the sharp deterioration in global growth and risk asset performance has widened dramatically.  Given the acceleration in COVID-19 cases over recent weeks and consequent lockdowns, especially in the US and Europe, this divergence is likely to be sustained and even widen further over the next few months, at least until various vaccines finally manage to stem the damage.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for markets over recent weeks/months have been US fiscal stimulus and Brexit.  Both have now passed with last minute deals, setting the scene for a clearer path in the weeks ahead though political obstacles have not disappeared by any means, with the Georgia Senate run-off elections scheduled for Tuesday.  The outcome will be crucial for control of the US Senate with Democrats needing wins in both races to take over. However, the races are too close to call according to polls. Separately the US Congress will meet on Wednesday to declare the winner of the Presidential election. 

On the data and events front the week begins with an OPEC+ meeting tomorrow, with officials deliberating on whether to expand output by up to 500k barrels.  There are also a series of December Markit manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMI) tomorrow including in various countries in Asia as well as the release of the Caixin manufacturing PMI in China.  US data will take centre stage with the release of the ISM manufacturing survey (Tuesday), Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) and non-farm payrolls (Friday).  Overall, markets are likely to begin the year much as the same way they left 2020, with risk appetite remaining firm. 

One interesting observation as we kick off 2021 is that so many investor and analysts’ views are aligned in the same direction (long Emerging markets, short USD, long value stocks, etc), and positioning is already looking stretched in various asset classes as a result.  While I would caution against catching a falling knife there is a clearly a risk of jumping on the same bandwagon as everybody else in a market that is increasingly positioned in one direction.  Overall, while the risk rally is likely to continue to have legs in the months ahead, investors should be on their toes in the weeks ahead given risks of a positioning squeeze in various asset classes.

Asia In Demand

Equity markets managed to shake off Covid concerns at the end of last week despite virus cases in the US reaching a record high and Europe battling a full-blown second wave; S&P 500 and Russell 2000 hit record highs.  Asian equities started the week building on this positive momentum.  Helping markets was the news that advisors to President-elect Joe Biden have said they oppose a nationwide US lockdown despite the sharp rise in virus cases.  This will help allay fears that the US economy will weaken sharply over the next few months amid severe lockdowns and before a vaccine can be distributed.

Vaccine enthusiasm will likely play against Covid escalation in the days and weeks ahead. In the near-term slim chances of a sizeable US fiscal stimulus taken together with a more rapid increase in global Covid infections highlight clear risks to risk assets, and this may be enough to put roadblocks in place at a time when various equity indices are reaching key technical levels.  Conversely, it is too early to write the US dollar off in the short term even if the medium-term trend is likely to be downwards. 

Asia remains favoured within emerging markets, as the virus has come under control across most of the region.  News of the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal by 15 countries in the region after 8 years of negotiations, but without the US and India, provides another boost to regional economic and market prospects.  The deal is less extensive than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as it removes around 90% of tariffs rather than 100% under TPP.  Nonetheless, it is estimated that the deal could boost the global economy by close to $200bn by 2030.  Although the deal still has to be ratified by a number of countries it is a step closer to a unified trade block like the EU.   

Additionally, Chinese data today ought to be supportive for regional assets even amid the threat of further sanctions by President Trump’s administration in the weeks ahead. China’s October activity data including industrial production fixed assets investment, property investment and the jobless rate were on balance positive, showing that China’s economic recovery is gathering steam.  The data will likely provide further support to China’s markets including China’s currency, though it effectively seals the case for no further easing by China’s central bank, PBoC, while giving the rest of Asia more fuel to rally. 

Over the rest of the week emerging markets central banks will garner most attention, with a plethora of policy rate decisions on tap.  Hungary (Tue), Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and China (Fri) are set to keep policy rates on hold while Indonesia (Thu) is likely to cut by 25bps and Turkey is expected to hike its policy rate by 475bp hike (Thu).   Turkey in particular will be a focus in this respect given the replacement of central bank governor and the more than 10% rally in the Turkish lira last week.

Markets Facing a Test of Reality vs. Liquidity

Risk assets ended last week under pressure (S&P 500 fell 2.4%) as some US states including Texas and Florida began to reverse opening measures and Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert, warned that some states may have to return to full “shelter in place”.  Banks were among the worst performers even as they came through the Fed’s stress tests in reasonably good shape.  The Fed did however, cap buybacks and dividend payouts for the 33 banks that underwent tests. However, the reality is that banks were hardly likely to increase dividends over the next few months, while the 8th biggest banks had already suspended buybacks.  Perhaps what spooked markets was the news of “additional stress analyses later in the year”.

It feels like equities and risk assets in general are facing a test of reality vs. liquidity. It’s hard to fight the growth in excess liquidity global (G4 central bank balance sheets minus GDP growth) which has risen to its highest rate since Sep 2009, coinciding with a solid run in global equities over that period.  Clearly forward earnings valuations have richened but while absolute valuations appear rich (S&P forward price/earnings ratio has risen to 24.16), relative valuations ie compared to low global rates, are more attractive. This hasn’t stopped the intensification of concerns that after a solid market rally over recent months, the entry of a range of speculative investors is leading to a Minsky Moment.

Investor concerns range from the fact that the rally has been narrowly based, both in terms of the types of investors (retail investors piling in, while institutional have been more restrained) and type of stocks (momentum vs. value), the approach of US Presidential elections in November and in particular whether there could be a reversal of corporate tax cuts, as well as the potential for renewed lockdowns. Add to the mix, geopolitical concerns and a certain degree of market angst is understandable. All of this is having a growing impact on the market’s psyche even as data releases show that recovery is progressing somewhat on track, as reflected for example in the New York Fed’s weekly economic index, which has continued to become less negative and the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which is around its highest on record.

China, which was first in and now looks to be first out is a case in point, with growth data showing ongoing improvement; data today was encouraging, revealing that industrial profits rose 6% y/y in May though profits in the first five months of the year still fell 19.3%, with state-owned enterprises recording the bulk of the decline.  While there are signs that Chinese activity post-Covid is beginning to level off, domestic consumption is gradually improving. This week, market activity is likely to slow ahead of the US July 4th Independence Day holiday but there will be few key data highlights that will garnet attention, including June manufacturing PMIs in China and the US (ISM), and US June non-farm payrolls.

Fundamentals Versus Liquidity

Markets took fright last week. The divergence between what fundamentals are telling us and what markets are doing has widened dramatically, but bulls will say don’t fight the Fed.  However, after an unprecedented run up from the late March lows, equity markets and risk assets appeared to react negatively to a sober assessment of the economic recovery by Fed Chair Powell at last week’s FOMC meeting. News of a renewed increase in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the US against the background of ongoing protests in the country, added to market nervousness.  On Thursday stocks registered their biggest sell off since March but recovered some composure at the end of the week. Volatility has increased and markets are looking far more nervous going into this week.

Exuberance by day traders who have been buying stocks while stuck in lockdown, with not much to do and government pay outs in hand, have been cited as one reason that equities, in particular those that were most beaten up and even in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, have rallied so strongly.  Many (those that prefer to look at fundamentals) believe this will end in tears, comparing the run up in some stocks to what happened just before the tech bubble burst in 2000/01.  The reality is probably somewhat more nuanced.  There’s definitely a lot of liquidity sloshing around, which to some extent is finding itself into the equity market even if the Fed would probably prefer that it went into the real economy.   However, buying stocks that have little intrinsic value is hard to justify and market jitters over the past week could send such investors back to the sidelines.

Stumbling blocks to markets such as concerns about a second wave of virus infections are very real, but the real question is whether this will do any more damage to the economy than has already happened.  In this respect, it seems highly unlikely that a second or even third round of virus cases will result in renewed lockdowns.  Better preparedness in terms of health care, contract tracing, and a general malaise from the public about being locked down, mean that there is no appetite for another tightening in social distancing restrictions.  The result is a likely increase in virus cases, but one that may not do as much economic damage.

Last week’s equity market stumble has helped the US dollar to find its feet again.  After looking oversold according to various technical indicators such as the Relative Strength Index (RSI) the dollar rallied against various currencies recently.  Sentiment for the dollar had become increasingly bearish (overly so in my view), with the sharp decline in US yields , reduced demand for dollars from central banks and companies globally amid an improvement in risk appetite weighing on the currency.  However, I think the dollar is being written off way to quickly.  Likely US economic and asset market outperformance suggests that the US dollar will not go down without a fight.

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