US Elections – The Proof Is In The Pudding

The week ahead is a huge for data and events.  First and foremost is the US Presidential election on Tuesday.  Polls show Democratic contender Biden well in the lead over President Trump, with around an 8.8% gap in polling between the two contenders.  However, Biden has lost some ground over recent weeks in polls including in key toss-up races though betting odds actually show a late shift back in favour of Biden.  Polls predict that Democrats will also take the Senate from the Republicans and add to their majority in the House. 

While the polls indicate a Blue Wave for the Democrats there is still a healthy degree of cynicism given how badly they predicted the outcome of the 2016 election, when most pollsters predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.  In recognition pollsters say they have changed their methodologies to correct for past errors.  The proof is in the pudding and until elections are over, investors will be holding their breath.  Even after election day itself, it is not clear that we will see an outcome quickly.  A jump in early voting may complicate things as well as the large amount of mail in voting, which could in some states take days to count. 

The problem may be more acute if the election is a close call, which polls are admittedly not suggesting, but nonetheless, the potential for multiple legal challenges and even civil unrest should not be discounted.  Note that States technically have until December 14 to certify election results.  Some states that will be key to either side will be Florida and Pennsylvania as well as Michigan,  North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin.  Florida in particular, could be essential, and could be one of the first states to be called on election night.  The winner in Florida has gone on to the win the Presidency in 13 of the 14 last elections. It is also one of the closest races this time around.

All of this is taking place at a time when Covid-19 cases are accelerating, potential a bad omen for Trump given that polls have shown widespread disapproval over his handling of the virus.  Indeed, Covid inflections in the US increased by 97,000 on Friday, the largest one day increase since the outbreak of the virus. The jump in cases were led by Midwestern states, some of which are major battleground states in the elections.  Admittedly, some of the increase in cases can be ascribed to higher testing rates, but hospitalisations have also risen sharply. 

All of this doesn’t bode well for the economy.  While the third quarter registered an above consensus increase in US GDP of 33.1% on annualised basis, the outlook for Q4 looks much softer and without a new fiscal stimulus package, momentum will slow sharply.  The labour market in particular is weak and while this week’s US October employment report will likely show a strong increase in non-farm payrolls (consensus 610,000), there will still likely be around 10 million fewer jobs since February.  The Federal Reserve FOMC meeting this week is unlikely to deliver any further support, with the onus squarely on more fiscal stimulus.

Equity markets have clearly become increasingly nervous heading into the election, with US stocks registering their worst week since March amid election nervousness and spike in Covid infections.   Tech stocks were hit despite mostly beating earnings expectations.  The US dollar in contrast, made some headway, but didn’t really fully capitalise on the sell off in stocks and rise in risk aversion, that would usually be expected to propel the currency higher.   If polls are correct and there is a strong outcome for Democrats in the election, stocks will likely find their feet again, while the US dollar will resume weakness. 

The Week Ahead

As markets make the last strides towards year end it appears that currencies at least are becoming increasingly resigned to trading in ranges. Even the beleaguered EUR has not traded far from the 1.3200 level despite significant bond market gyrations. Even news that inflation in China came in well above expectations in November (5.1% YoY) and increased prospects of a rate hike is likely to prompt a limited reaction from a lethargic market.

At the tail end of last week US data provided further support to the growing pool of evidence indicating strengthening US economic conditions, with the trade deficit surprisingly narrowing in October, a fact that will add to Q4 GDP growth, whilst the Michigan measure of consumer confidence registered a bigger than expected increase in November to its highest level since June.

The jump in consumer confidence bodes well for retail spending and highlights the prospects that US November retail sales tomorrow are set to reveal solid gains both headline and ex-autos sales driven by sales and promotions over the holiday season. Other data too, will paint an encouraging picture, with November industrial production (Wed) set to reveal a healthy gain helped by a bounce in utility output. Manufacturing surveys will be mixed with a rebound in the Empire manufacturing survey in December likely but in contrast a drop in the Philly Fed expected.

The main event this week is the FOMC decision tomorrow the Fed is expected to deliver few surprises. The Fed funds rate is expected to remain “exceptionally low for an extended period”. Despite some recent encouraging data recovery remains slow and the fact that core inflation continues to decelerate (CPI inflation data on Wednesday is set to reveal a benign outcome with core CPI at 0.6%) whilst the unemployment rate has moved higher means that the Fed is no rush to alter policy including its commitment to buy $600 billion in Treasuries including $105 billion between now and January 11.

In Europe there are also some key releases that will garner plenty of attention including the December German ZEW and IFO investor and manufacturing confidence surveys and flash purchasing managers indices (PMI) readings. The data are set to remain reasonably healthy and may keep market attention from straying to ongoing problems in the eurozone periphery but this will prove temporary at least until the markets are convinced that European Union leaders are shifting away from “piecemeal” solutions to ending the crisis. The EU leaders’ summit at the end of the week will be important in this respect. A Spanish debt auction on Thursday will also be in focus.

Assuming the forecasts for US data prove correct it is likely that US bond markets will remain under pressure unless the Fed says something that fuels a further decline in yield such as highlighting prospects for more quantitative easing (QE). However, following the tax compromise agreement last week this seems unlikely. Higher relative US bond yields will keep the USD supported, and as I have previously noted, the most sensitive currencies will be the AUD, EUR and JPY, all of which are likely to remain under varying degrees of downward pressure in the short term. The AUD will also be particularly sensitive to prospects of further Chinese monetary tightening.

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