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.

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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