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.  

Fed Tapering Concerns/Rising COVID Cases In Europe

Equities struggled at the end of last week amid news of rising COVID cases and hints by Federal Reserve officials of a preference for faster tapering though tech stocks benefitted from a rally in US Treasuries.  Oil prices fell further as markets pondered the potential for releases from China, Japan and US strategic oil reserves. Meanwhile, various countries are registering record daily COVID cases in Europe, resulting in partial lockdowns in a few countries. The outlook doesn’t look good heading into the winter flu season, while protests against mobility restrictions are on the rise. 

The US dollar extended gains at the start of this week helped by hawkish comments from Federal Reserve officials.  Conversely, rising COVID cases across Europe and resultant mobility restrictions, have hurt the euro, with the EURUSD exchange rate falling through 1.13 and showing little sign of any reversal.  Worsening sentiment towards the euro has fuelled a collapse in speculative euro positioning, with the market being net short for 6 out of the last 7 weeks (according to the CFTC IMM net non-commercial futures data).  In contrast, China’s authorities are becoming more concerned with the strength of the Chinese renminbi, which is currently around five year highs in trade weighted terms.  Measures to cap renmimbi strength are likely to be forthcoming.

Risk assets could struggle in the wake of speculation/pressure for more aggressive Fed tapering.  Fed Vice Chair Clarida and Governor Waller sounded relatively hawkish on Friday. Clarida said that the FOMC could discuss the pace of tapering at the December FOMC meeting and separately Waller stated that recent data had pushed him toward “favoring a faster pace of tapering and a more rapid removal of accommodation in 2022.”  This implies that the December Fed FOMC meeting will be a live one and could potentially see the announcement of more rapid tapering than the $15bn per month rate that was announced at the last Fed meeting. 

As such, the Fed FOMC minutes (Wed) will be under scrutiny to provide clues to any hint of support for more aggressive tapering though they will likely reveal that most officials see no rush for rate hikes.  On the same day the US core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) report is likely to have registered a strong increase in October keeping inflation concerns at the fore.  Fed nominations are also likely this week, and markets will be especially focused on whether Fed Chair Powell will be reaffirmed for another term.  The overall composition of the FOMC is likely to become a more dovish one next year. 

Several central bank policy decisions are scheduled this week including in China where the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) unsurprisingly kept its Loan Prime Rate on hold today.  However, in its latest quarterly monetary policy report released on Friday, the PBoC removed some key phrases cited in its previous reports, implying a softer tone to policy ahead. Any such easing would be targeted such as recent support for lenders via a new special relending facility to support the clean use of coal, via loans at special rates.  Additionally, a cut in the reserve ratio (RRR) cannot be ruled out.

Next up will be the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) (Wed), with a 25bp hike likely and risks of an even bigger 50bp hike. The Bank of Korea is also likely to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates likely (Thu) given rising inflation pressures and concerns about financial imbalances. The Riksbank in Sweden (Thu) is likely to keep policy unchanged though an upgrade in their forecasts is expected. 

Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

Calm After The Storm

The start of 2020 has not come without incident, to say the least.  The US killing of an Iranian general and Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq prompted a flight to safety, with investors piling into gold, Japanese yen while pushing oil prices higher.   However, each time the impact has been short lived, with markets tending to move back towards a calmer tone.  What is underpinning this is the view that both sides do not want a war.  Indeed Iran stated that it has ‘concluded proportionate measures’ and does not ‘see escalation or war’ while President Trump tweeted that ‘All is well’ after the Iranian missile attacks. While the risk of escalation remains high, it does appear that neither side wants to become entangled in a much deeper and prolonged situation.

As such, while markets will remain nervous, and geopolitical risks will remain elevated, the market’s worst fears (all-out war) may not play out.  This leaves the backdrop of an improving economic environment and ongoing policy stimulus in place, which in turn will help provide overall support to risk assets including equities and emerging markets assets.  As my last post highlighted, two major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end were also lifted.  Unless there is a major escalation between the US and Iran this more sanguine tone, albeit with bouts of volatility, is likely to remain in place in the weeks ahead.  This also mean that attention will eventually turn back to data releases and economic fundamentals.

In this respect the news is not so bad.  Although the US ISM manufacturing index weakened further and deeper into contraction territory below 50 other data including the ISM non-manufacturing index which beat expectations coming in at , suggests that the US economy is still on a rosy path.  While the consensus expectations is for US payrolls to soften to a 160k increase in December compared to 266k previously, this will still leave a high average over recent months. The Fed for its part continues to provide monetary support and liquidity via its repo operations (Quantitative easing with another name) and is unlikely to reverse rate cuts.   Elsewhere globally the economic news is also improving, with data showing global economic stabilization into year end.

Eurozone contagion spreading quickly

Contagion from the eurozone debt crisis is spreading quickly, threatening to turn a regional crisis into a global crisis. As highlighted by Fitch ratings further contagion would pose a risk to US banks. Consequently risk assets continue to be sold but interestingly oil prices are climbing. Taken together with comments earlier in the day from the Bank of England that failure to resolve the crisis will lead to “significant adverse effects” on the global economy, it highlights the risks of both economic and financial contagion.

Predominately for some countries this is becoming a crisis of confidence and failure of officials to get to grips with the situation is resulting in an ever worsening spiral of negativity. Although Monti was sworn in as Italian Prime Minister and Papademos won a confidence motion in the Greek parliament the hard work begins now for both leaders in convincing markets of their reform credentials. Given that there is no agreement from eurozone officials forthcoming, sentiment is set to worsen further, with safe haven assets the main beneficiaries.

EUR/USD dropped sharply in yesterday’s session hitting a low around 1.3429. Attempts to rally were sold into, with sellers noted just below 1.3560. Even an intensification of bond purchases by the European Central Bank (ECB) failed to prevent eurozone bond yields moving higher and the EUR from falling.

Against this background and in the absence of key data releases EUR will find direction from the Spanish 10 year bond auction while a French BTAN auction will also be watched carefully given the recent increase in pressure on French bonds. Having broken below 1.3500, EUR/USD will aim for a test of the 10 October low around 1.3346 where some technical support can be expected.

US data releases have been coming in better than expected over recent weeks, acting to dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing and in turn helping to remove an impediment to USD appreciation. While the jury is still out on QE, the USD is enjoying some relief from receding expectations that the Fed will forced to purchase more assets. Further USD gains are likely, with data today including October housing starts and the November Philly Fed manufacturing confidence survey unlikely to derail the currency despite a likely drop in starts.

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