All Bets Are Off!

For anyone thinking that markets had already fully priced aggressive Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes, last week’s message from the US May CPI inflation report as well the ECB meeting was crystal clear.  All bets are off!  The US CPI report destroyed any hopes that US inflation had peaked with headline CPI surging 1% on the month and the annual rate hitting a new post-COVID high of 8.6%.  If there was ever any doubt, the data not only seals the case for at least a 50 basis point (1/2 %) hike at this Wednesday’s Fed FOMC meeting but increases the risk of a 75bp move though the latter still seems unlikely.  More likely, the Fed embarks on a series of 50bps hikes. . 

Separately, the ECB shifted away from its long held dovish stance and announced an expected end to its bond purchase plan (APP) at the beginning of July, effectively pre-announced a 25bp policy rate hike in July and 25-50bp hikes in September, with the central bank expecting to maintain a tightening cycle beyond September.  Many other central banks are scrambling to catch up the curve as inflation pressures end up being much higher than many of them previously anticipated.  There are exceptions of course such as Japan (see below), Russia recently cut its policy rate by 150bp and China which may still cut policy rates in the weeks ahead (watch this week’s 1y Medium Term Lending Facility decision, with a small 5-10bp cut possible), but these exceptions are few and far between.

The jump in US inflation will also further support the US dollar, keeping it on the front in the days ahead against most other currencies.  Already at the start of the week, most currencies were hurt in the face of a resurgent US dollar, especially high beta emerging market currencies. Separately, market volatility measures (e.g. MOVE and VIX) are likely to rise while liquidity is likely to remain poor.  Risk assets overall are likely to struggle against this background. Overall, it’s hard to see sentiment turn around quickly.

This week the main focus will be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) but there are also several other central bank decisions of interest including the BCB in Brazil (Wed) where consensus expects the pace of hikes to slow to 50bp.  Additionally, 25bp rate hikes from the Bank of England and CBC in Taiwan (both Thu) are expected while the Bank of Japan (Fri) meeting is likely to be uneventful as BoJ governor Kuroda has doubled down on his aggressive stimulus stance while noting that a weaker Japanese yen benefits the economy.  Key data this week includes likely yet more weak Chinese activity data in May (Wed), jobs data the UK (Tue) and Australia (Thu) and a likely stronger than consensus increase in May  US retail sales (Wed).  

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.  

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.

Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

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