Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

Will The Fed Hike By 50bp? Asia Singing To Its Own Tune

The outsized gain in the US January CPI inflation rate has firmly put a 50 basis points (bp) Federal Reserve rate hike on the table as well as reinforcing expectations of a series of consecutive rate hikes while St Louis Fed President Bullard even raised the prospect of an inter-meeting hike in the wake of the CPI data.  Markets are now pricing close to 7 hikes in 2022 and 80% odds of a 50bp hike in March. 

US CPI inflation jumped to 7.5% y/y, a 40-year high, with prices rising by 0.6% m/m and core CPI rising to 6% y/y, all above consensus.  In the wake of the data Bullard strengthened his hawkish rhetoric by saying that he would like to see 100bp of hikes by July 1 2022.  Markets have quickly ramped up their expectations for Fed tightening, with a growing chorus expecting a series of consecutive hikes.

Markets are reacting badly, with equities under renewed pressure, bond yields moving higher and the US dollar firming.  It’s hard to see such pressure easing anytime soon.  Historically the bulk of market pressure takes place as the market prices in / discounts rate hikes rather than after the Fed actually hikes.  This suggests that markets will remain highly nervous at least until the March Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. 

It is clear that the data is killing off any chance of a more tepid pace of US monetary tightening. The Fed alongside other major central banks are frantically trying to regain credibility in the wake of much stronger inflation readings than they had anticipated by espousing increasingly hawkish rhetoric, which will likely soon be followed with action as policy rates increase and central bank balance sheets start to shrink. 

There is now a growing probability that the Fed will kick off its monetary tightening with a 50bp rate hike followed by consecutive hikes in the months ahead as well as quantitative tightening in the second quarter.  It’s not quite a done deal but another strong US inflation print for February will seal the case for a 50bp hike in March.

In contrast, Asia monetary policy is singing to its own tune.  Unlike in past tightening cycles when Asian central banks were forced to tighten to avoid pressure on their markets, especially to avoid currency weakness, there is limited signs of such pressures at present.  Some in Asia such as the Bank of Korea and Monetary Authority of Singapore have tightened already, but this is largely due to domestic factors rather than the Fed.

The stark difference in stance between Asian central banks and what is being priced in for the Fed has been particularly apparent by the recent dovish policy decisions in India, Indonesia, and Thailand, with all three central banks showing no urgency to tighten.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan acting to defend its yield curve policy by conducting unlimited fixed-rate JGB purchases, was clearly a dovish move.  Last but not least, the PBoC, China’s central bank has already cut its policy Loan Prime Rate and is likely to do so again in the next few months.  

Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

Market Cross-Currents

There are many cross currents afflicting markets at present.  Equity valuations look high but US earnings have been strong so far, with close to 90% of S&P 500 earnings coming in above expectations. This has helped to buoy equity markets despite concerns over the spreading of the Delta COVID variant and its negative impact on recovery.  Yet the market doesn’t appear entirely convinced on the recovery trade, with small caps continuing to lag mega caps. 

The USD index (DXY) remained supported at the end of last week even as US yields remain capped, but the USD does appear to be losing momentum. Positioning has now turned long according to the CFTC IMM data indicating that the short covering rally is largely exhausted; aggregate net USD positioning vs. major currencies (EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD & CHF as a percent of open interest) turned positive for the first time in over a year. 

Inflation fears have not dissipated especially after recent above consensus consumer price index (CPI) readings, for example in the US and UK.  Reflecting such uncertainty, interest rate market volatility remains high as seen in the ICE BofA MOVE index while inflation gauges such as 5y5y swaps have pushed higher in July.  There was some better news on the inflationary front at the end of last week, with the Markit US July purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealing an easing in both input and selling prices for a second straight month, albeit remaining at an elevated level. 

This week we will get more information on inflation trends, with the June Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report in the US (Fri), Eurozone July CPI (Fri), Australia Q2 CPI (Wed) and Canada June CPI (Wed), on tap this week.  We will also get to see whether the Fed is more concerned about inflation risks at the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meeting (Wed).  The Fed is likely to continue to downplay the surge in inflation, arguing that it is transitory, while the standard of “substantial further progress” remains a “ways off”.   Nonetheless, it may not be long before the Fed is more explicit in announcing that is formally moving towards tapering. 

An emerging markets central bank policy decision in focus this week is the National Bank of Hungary (NBH) where a 15bp hike in the base rate is expected.  Central banks in emerging markets are taking differing stances, with for example Russia hiking interest rates by 100 basis points at the end of the week while China left its Loan Prime Rate unchanged.  The July German IFO business climate survey later today will be in focus too (consensus 102.5).  Overall, amid thinner summer trading conditions market activity is likely to be light this week.

Two Speed Recovery

The spread of the COVID Delta variant globally holds key risks for markets in the weeks ahead.  However, as long as hospitalisation rates remain relatively low, it should be less detrimental to the path of re-opening in countries with higher vaccination rates.  As a stark example, the UK will shed almost all of its COVID restrictions today despite spiking COVID cases amid relatively low hospitalisation rates.  

This is particularly difficult for many emerging markets including much of Asia given low vaccination rates.  As such, a two-speed recovery between developed and emerging economies is occurring, with the former registering much higher vaccination rates compared to the latter.  Unlike the move to re-open in developed markets, re-opening in many emerging markets is far more difficult given sharply increasing hospitalisation rates among unvaccinated people as the Delta variant runs rampant. 

As such, the risks of renewed restrictions in many countries could put the global recovery process in jeopardy at a time when we are already past peak growth.  Maybe this is helping to dampen US bond yields or yields are being supressed by the fact that the market has a lot of faith in the Fed even as inflation has surprised on the upside in many countries.  Whatever the cause, US 10y bond yields have slipped below 1.3% back to levels not seen since mid-February and continue to edge lower.    

Event highlights this week include several central bank policy decisions including in China (Tue), Eurozone, Indonesia, South Africa (all Wed) and Russia (Fri).  No changes are expected for China’s Loan Prime Rate (LPR) though the risk of easing has increased marginally following the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) reserve requirements (RRR) cut last week. The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) is expected to hike by 75bp, with risks of a bigger move.  Bank Indonesia is likely to remain on hold despite growing economic pressure.  South Africa’s Reserve Bank (SARB) is expected to remain on hold and remain dovish while a change in forward guidance from the European Central Bank (ECB) is expected this week. 

Oil will be in focus today after OPEC+ agreed on a deal to expand output, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia putting away differences to agree upon a 400k barrels a day increase in output from August.  The US dollar (USD) is trading firmer, but overall looks like it is close to topping out.  For example, EURUSD looks oversold relative to real rate differentials.  Interest rates markets will eye US fiscal developments, with Democrats crafting the budget resolution needed for a reconciliation bill, which may see additional progress this week.

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