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.  

State Of Shock

Equity markets are in a state of shock.  After a stellar year last year equities have started the year in terrible shape. The rout extended further at the end of last week, capping off the worst week in over a year for US stocks.  Tech continued to lead losses, with the Nasdaq down 7.6% over the week.  Notably global equities were impacted less than the US, reflecting the fact that most equity markets outside of the US are less tech orientated.  Anything with leverage and consisting of highly speculative investment such as Crypto are bearing the brunt of the pressure.  Volumes of equity put options on the S&P 500 have also risen sharply as investors try to hedge further losses on US stocks. 

The main cause of market pressure remains the build-up of expectations of Fed tightening, with Fed officials sounding increasingly hawkish and speculation growing of a 50 basis point Fed rate hike in March as well as several more hikes over the course of this year, with four hikes already priced in for this year.   It’s hard to see such pressure abating soon. Indeed, technical indicators on the S&P 500 look poor, with the index having closed below its 200 day moving average level.  However, with market pricing for US rate hikes already so aggressive, a lot of the pain may already have been inflicted unless the Fed really does hike at every meeting this year.  

Wednesday’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting will give further clues US interest rate policy, with the Fed likely to give signals that a March rate hike is in the offing.  However, this should not be surprising given that Fed officials have over recent weeks already strongly hinted at a March rate hike.  What will be scrutinised is any clues on Fed balance sheet reduction (quantitative tightening) as well as the path of the funds rate after March.  It’s unlikely that the Fed provides any firm indications, but nonetheless the press conference could prove more interesting.

Other policy meetings this week include the Bank of Canada meeting (Wednesday). It’s a close call but strong domestic data points to a 25-basis points policy rate hike, kicking off a likely cycle of hikes in the months ahead.  Separately, rate hikes in Hungary (tomorrow) and South Africa (Thursday) are also likely.   Following unchanged outcomes from Malaysia and Indonesia and a policy cut in China last week, there is little on the data and events front in Asia this week.  

Political and geopolitical developments will garner plenty of attention this week.  In the UK the Sue Gray report on “Partygate” will be released.  In Italy, the path for Draghi to be elected President appears to have become easier, with Berlusconi pulling out of the running though it is by no means a clear cut process.  Meanwhile, the situation with regard to Ukraine is on tenterhooks, with Russia reportedly continuing to build up troops on the border, and risks of “significant military action” rising.

Currency markets have been largely spared the carnage seen in equity markets. Speculative positioning data suggests the market remains heavily long the dollar index (DXY). Higher US real rates and continued tightening of Fed rate expectations suggests any pull back in the USD will be limited and the currency remains a buy on dips. Notably, GBP positioning has remained firm, ignoring the potential for a no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Asian currencies also remain relatively resilient, with the Chinese currency likely to continue outperforming.

Turkey, Emerging Market Central Banks, Eurozone Divergence

Attention today is on developments in Turkey. Despite consensus expectations of a 100bp (1%) hike in rates, Turkey’s central bank delivered a bigger than expected 200bp increase last week, with a hawkish statement.  This appears not have been welcomed by Turkish President Erdogan who promptly removed central bank (CBRT) Governor Aqbal on Saturday.  Despite some reassurance from Aqbal’s replacement that policy would deliver price stability the result has been substantial pressure on Turkey’s currency the lira (TRY) at the start of trading in Asia today, with the lira down as much as 15% initially, erasing more than four months of gains.  Turkish authorities are likely to intervene to limit the damage, but the damage has been done.  There has also been some, albeit more limited fall out on other emerging market currencies.

The end of the week saw a bit of a reversal in recent trends, with tech stocks gaining most, at the expense of bank stocks, which were weighed down by the news that the US Federal Reserve would not extend the Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) exemption but rather to look at a more permanent solution. This could lower banks demand for Treasuries while constraining dealer balance sheets. Both S&P 500 and Nasdaq recorded declines over the week amid a further rise in US Treasury yields.  Quadruple witching saw an increase in volumes and oil prices recorded a sharp close to 8% decline over the week while Chinese stocks continued to suffer. 

Aside from Turkey there was some interesting central bank action last week in the emerging markets.  The BCB in Brazil hiked by 75bps, more expected, and indicated the high likelihood of another 75bps at the May meeting.  The CBR in Russia also joined in on the hawkish emerging markets (EM) action surprising markets by hiking rates by 25bps, with a likely acceleration in tightening likely over coming meetings.  EM central bank decisions this week include China (today), Philippines (Thu), Thailand (Wed), Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Mexico (Fri) and Colombia (Fri).   Separately, the SNB in Switzerland also decides on policy (Thu). China’s loan prime rates were left unchanged as expected and no changes are likely from any of the other central banks this week. 

Other data and events this week include the US PCE report (Fri), President Biden’s press conference (Thu) which could offer clues to the “Rescue” package that could amount to $3-4trn. A host of Fed speakers are also on tap, including Fed Chair Powell, as well as Eurozone flash purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Wed), and UK retail sales (Fri).  The data will reveal stark differences in the recovery picture in the UK and Eurozone while the difference between the US and Europe looks even more stark.  Europe is struggling with a third wave of Covid case, vaccination delays and tighter restrictions, leading to a reduction in growth forecasts, while US growth forecasts are being revised higher in the wake of the $1.9tn stimulus package. This will likely result in some underperformance of Eurozone markets relative to the US.  

Will the Fed Calm US Treasury Market Volatility?

The main market action on Friday was once again in US Treasuries, with another sharp sell off as the 10y yield spiked 8.8 basis points despite three large US debt auctions over the week that were received relatively well by the market.  The sell-off helped the US dollar (USD) to strengthen while oil prices slipped. USD sentiment is clearly becoming less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM data (non-commercial speculative market positioning), which shows that USD (DXY) positions (as a % of open interest) are still short, but at their highest since the week of 8 Dec 2020. Tech stocks didn’t take well to higher yields, but the Dow and S&P 500 closed higher. The move in yields may pressure Asian currencies and bond markets after some consolidation/retracement towards the end of last week though equity markets look better placed. 

At the end of last week US University of Michigan consumer sentiment rose to 83.0 in the preliminary release for March from 76.8 in February and exceeded expectations at 78.5 (consensus). This week attention will turn to a plethora of central banks spearheaded by the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed). Markets will be watching for any revisions to US growth forecasts amid a dovish tone, albeit with little sign of any push back on higher yields. US rates markets will also focus on the US 20y auction, which could keep the curve pressured steeper.  Nervousness over the Statutory Liquidity Ratio (SLR) exemption, which is set to expire at the end of the month, will also likely intensify.  A less dovish than hoped for Fed, will likely keep the USD on the front foot. 

Other central bank decisions this week will take place in the UK, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan. None of these are likely change policy settings except Brazil, where the market is looking for a 1/2% hike. Developments to look out for include some push back from the Bank of England on higher yields, a move to bring forward the rate hike path in Norway, a potentially controversial no change decision in Turkey and the Bank of Japan’s announcement of the results of its policy tools and in particular clarification on the tolerated trading range for 10-year JGBs.

Data this week kicks off with Chinese activity data today including February industrial production and retail sales. Seasonal distortions and base effects will make this month’s data look particularly strong.  Other data this week includes US Feb retail sales (tomorrow) where a weak outcome is likely depressed by harsher-than-usual winter weather as well as a fading of the boost from stimulus payments. Australia February employment is also likely to be soft (Thursday).  

Overall, equity volatility has eased, especially in the equity market, suggesting some return of normal trading conditions there, but interest rate volatility remains high driven by the move in US Treasury yields.  The USD gave back some gains towards the end of last week, but will likely benefit from higher US yields and is set to start this week in firm form.  US interest rate gyrations will likely provide further direction for the USD over the rest of the week.   Much of course will depend on the Fed FOMC meeting, which will be the main event this week. 

Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

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