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.

Game Changer

Pfizer and BioNTech’s game changing announcement that its vaccine had been found to be more than 90% effective in a late stage trial added more fuel on a stock market rally that was already underway following President-elect Biden’s election win and likely split Congress.  It was the time for beaten up value/travel/oil stocks to shine while conversely stay at home stocks have come under pressure.  However, that story appeared to reverse overnight, with tech stocks making a comeback, suggesting that it’s not going to be a one way bet for value stocks. 

One obstacle is the rampant increase in virus cases in the US and Europe and risks of more lockdowns. Though the vaccine news is clearly positive its worth highlighting that it could take some time for any vaccine to be rolled out in sufficient numbers to allow for an opening up of economies anytime soon.  In the meantime, we still have to contend with a big wave of virus infections in Europe and US, which implies more economic pain to come.  All of this could put a renewed dampener on risk sentiment and limit the rally in stocks in the near term.  

Technical indicators (Relative Strength Index) suggest resistance in the short term; for example, the US Russell 2000 index (a broad small cap index) is verging on hitting Fibonacci retracement levels around 1746, while its also above its upper Bollinger band.  Not helping tech stocks is the regulatory stance, with Amazon hit by an antitrust charge from regulators in the EU.  The USD’s weakness also looks overdone in the short term. In particular, technical indicators show that Asian currencies and dollar bloc currencies (CAD, AUD, NZD) look stretched. The USD is likely to make further gains in the short term even as its medium term outlook remains more negative.

Meanwhile Republicans are increasingly standing with President Trump in not accepting the outcome of the election, fuelling concerns about the transition process, even as President-elect Biden’s lead in various states has grown. Many are doing so with an eye on 2024 elections. Georgia is auditing the presidential results in its state by hand, but even so, it seems extremely unlikely that Trump can reverse Biden’s 14k lead in the state and even if that does occur it wouldn’t change the outcome. 

NZD outperforms

NZD has been the best performing major currency so far this year outshining other currencies by a wide margin. We expect further NZD/USD appreciation, albeit at a much more gradual pace over the coming months.

The kiwi has been propelled higher by a host of positive economic indicators including jobs data which has revealed an improving trend against the background of strengthening consumer and business confidence.

Economic growth is on track to reach our forecast of 3% this year. Additionally supportive of the NZD is the fact that NZ’s major commodity exports especially dairy products have remained high. NZD will also be helped by a likely healthy reading for Q4 GDP expected to come in at 3.7% YoY on Thursday.

NZD/USD looks set to target the 2013 high of 0.8676 as the next key target, a level that will provide strong resistance.

RBNZ sends a hawkish message

The RBNZ delivered few surprises by raising policy rates by 25bps to 2.75% overnight. The decision was widely expected but nonetheless managed to give further support to the NZD. The kiwi benefitted from a relatively hawkish statement, with the central bank stating that rate hikes totalling 125bps are likely over the coming months while revising higher its growth and inflation forecasts.

Despite some jawboning to talk the NZD lower RBNZ governor Wheeler noted that opportunities for FX intervention were low. Gains in the NZD look impressive given the headwinds from growth worries in China and lower commodity prices but downside risks remain limited, with NZD/USD set to sustain a move above 0.8500 in the near term. Also positive for NZD is the fact that milk prices continue to remain well supported.

Australian dollar rallies, Korean won bounces back

On the currency front, the best performers so far this year have been an odd combination of JPY, NZD and AUD versus USD. JPY has benefitted from both compressed yield differentials with the US and risk aversion but its gains are likely to reverse over the coming weeks as these factors reverse.

I have been generally more constructive on AUD and NZD than the consensus and remain so. Both AUD and NZD look oversold and will gradually appreciate further, especially as both the RBA and RBNZ have now likely ended their easing cycles, with the latter set to raise policy rates by the end of this quarter. AUD/USD breached 0.90 this morning helped by a strong business confidence reading for January.

Most Asian currencies have rebounded so far this month, with some of the biggest losers over January recording gains. The KRW has been the best performer in February recording gains despite continued outflows of equity capital. Korea has recorded $1.26 billion in equity outflows so far this month, the highest among Asian countries.

In contrast bond inflows into Korea have been relatively solid over January and this continued into February, helping to provide some support to KRW despite equity outflows. Helping the KRW is the fact that is much less sensitive to US bond yields than many other Asian currencies helping it to avoid any fallout from higher US yields in February. USD/KRW is on path for a break below support around 1070.

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