What Could Prompt Higher Volatility?

Equities were buoyed last week in the wake of US President Biden’s infrastructure deal and renewed reflation trade optimism amid mixed post Federal Reserve FOMC messages from Fed officials. This resulted in US stocks recording their biggest weekly gain since February.  The prospects of passing the infrastructure deal has improved in the wake of Biden’s decision not to tie it to a much larger spending package that is being pushed through by Democrats but is not supported by Republicans. 

Given heightened sensitivity over inflation, the slightly weaker than expected US Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data on Friday, which increased 0.5% m/m in May, slightly below the 0.6% consensus, added further support to the reflation trade, helping the US Treasury curve to steepen.  Moreover, the University of Michigan 5-10y inflation expectations series came in lower in June compared to the previous month. Fed officials likely put much more emphasis on this long-term series and will view the 2.8% reading as consistent with their “largely transitory” take on the pickup in inflation.

Cross-asset volatility has continued to decline, which bodes well for carry trades and risk assets.  For example, the VIX “fear gauge” index has dropped to pre-COVID level, something that has been echoed in other market volatility measures.  However, it’s hard to ignore the shift in tone from many central banks globally to a more hawkish one while risk asset momentum will likely wane as the strength of recovery slows, suggesting that low volatility may not persist.  It is notable that changes in global excess liquidity and China’s credit impulse have both weakened, implying a downdraft for risk assets and commodity prices and higher volatility. 

If there is anything that could prompt any increase in volatility this week, its the US June jobs report on Friday.  June likely saw another strong (consensus 700k) increase in nonfarm payrolls while the unemployment rate likely dropped to 5.7% from 5.8% previously.  Despite the likely strong gain in hiring, payrolls would still be close to 7 million lower compared to pre-COVID levels, suggesting a long way to go before the US jobs market normalises. The June US Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index will also come under scrutiny though little change is expected from the May reading, with a 61.0 outcome likely from 61.2 in May. 

Other data and events of importance this week include the 100th year anniversary of China’s Communist Party (Thu), the release of purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally including China’s official NBS PMI (Wed) for which a slight moderation is expected.  Eurozone June CPI inflation (Wed) which is likely to edge lower, Sweden’s Riksbank policy decision (Thu) where an unchanged outcome is likely and Bank of England (BoE) Governor Bailey’s Mansion House Speech (Thu), will be among the other key events in focus this week. 

Absorbing The Fed’s Message

Markets absorbed a high inflation reading in the form of US core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) price index without flinching at the end of last week, further acknowledgement that the Fed’s “transitory” inflation message is belatedly sinking in to the market’s psyche.  Core PCE inflation exceeded expectations for April, surging 0.7% m/m after a 0.4% gain in March (consensus: 0.6%). On a y/y basis, core PCE inflation surged to 3.1%—its highest level in almost three decades. High inflation readings are likely to persist over the near-term, if for no other reason than base effect, but price pressures will likely ease by the end of the year. 

The market’s sanguine reaction has helped US Treasury yields to continue to consolidate.  Also helping to restrain yields is the fact that positive US economic surprises (data releases versus consensus expectations) are close to their lowest level since June 2020 and barely positive (according to the Citi index), in contrast to euro area economic surprises, a factor that is helping to support the euro.

Cross-asset volatility measures remain very low, with the glut of liquidity continuing to depress volatility across equities, interest rates and FX.  Given that markets’ inflation fears has eased, it is difficult to see what will provoke any spike in volatility in the near term.  All of this this does not bode well for the USD.  Sentiment as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM speculative data on net non-commercial futures USD positions, remains downbeat.  This is corroborated in FX options risk reversal skews (3m, 25d) of USD crosses. 

In particular, USDCNY will be closely watched after strong gains in the renminbi lately.  Chinese officials are trying to prevent or at least slow USD weakness vs. CNY. The latest measure came from China’s central bank, the PBoC instructing banks to increase their FX reserve requirements by 2% to 7% ie to hold more foreign currency as a means of reducing demand for the Chinese currency.  Expect official resistance to yuan appreciation pressures to grow.      

Data so far this week has been mixed. China’s May NBS manufacturing purchasing managers index released yesterday slipped marginally to 51.0 from 51.1 previously (consensus 51.1) while the non-manufacturing PMI increased to 55.2 from 54.9 previously. Both remained in expansion, however indicative of continued economic expansion. China’s exports are holding up particularly well and this is expected to continue to fuel manufacturing expansion while manufacturing imports are similarly strong. 

Today’s Reserve Bank of Australia decision on monetary policy delivered no surprises, with policy unchanged and attention shifting to the July meeting when the bond purchase program will be reviewed.  On Friday it’s the turn of the the Indian central bank, Reserve Bank of India (RBI), with an unchanged policy outcome likely despite the growth risks emanating from a 2nd wave COVID infections cross the country and attendant lockdowns.  Last but not least, is the May US jobs report for which consensus expectations are for 650,000 gain in non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate falling to 5.9% from 6.1% previously.

When Bad Means Good

Bad meant good on Friday as weaker than expected US April jobs data helped to dampen concerns over inflation risks and higher rates. At a time when markets were becoming increasingly fearful of rising inflation risks the softer US jobs data will act as a balm on such fears. It also complicates matters ahead of bipartisan talks between President Biden and congressional leaders this week. Democrats will likely use the data to outline their case for more stimulus to boost growth, while Republicans will highlight that excessive unemployment benefits are holding back hiring.  

US Payrolls increased by 266,000 in April, well below the 1 million consensus and the unemployment rate rose to 6.1% from 6.0%, above the 5.8% consensus.  The data supports the view of most Fed officials that progress has not been “substantial” enough for them to start signaling tapering.  Unsurprisingly Markets pushed back the pricing of the first rate hike from early-2023 to May 2023 in the wake of the weaker US jobs data. The US dollar (USD) took a hit and looks likely to kick off the week on the back foot.  High yielding currencies will likely benefit the most.  

This week inflation releases will come under scrutiny, with CPI data in the US (Wed), China (Tue) and India (Wed) in focus, albeit for different reasons.  In the US, base effects will likely push inflation higher, with a sharp pick up in core CPI in particular likely.  A similar story is expected in China, but base effects will likely act in the opposite direction in India.  Other highlights this week include a likely modest decline in US retail sales (Fri), further easing in China’s credit aggregates (9-15 May) and a material improvement expected to be revealed in Australia’s Federal Budget (Tue).  Last but not least, central banks in Mexico and Philippines (both Thu) are expected to leave policy unchanged.

Separately, markets will digest the outcome of UK local elections, especially those in Scotland, which revealed that pro-independence parties (SNP and Scottish Greens) gained a majority in the Scottish parliament. A constitutional battle with the Conservative UK government looms though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is showing no signs of acceding to demands for a new Scottish referendum.  There will also be focus on the aftermath of the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the US, which has already pushed energy prices higher.  And finally, the much anticipated (among Krypto traders) appearance of Elon Musk on SNL hit Dodgecoin, after he called it “a hustle”. 

India’s Covid Worsening, Central Banks and US Data

A number of holidays this week points to quieter week for markets.  However, as I note below, there are still a number of risk events on the horizon. 

A growing focus is the divergent trend in the path of Covid in emerging markets and in developed economies, with the former especially in some parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, seeing a significant worsening, which will likely result in delayed recoveries and lead to some EM asset market underperformance. 

India’s Covid situation worsens dramatically

As all the headlines show, India’s Covid situation has become particularly dire though a lack of large-scale lockdowns has led to only a limited mark down in growth forecasts there even as risks intensify.  Already there has been a political cost, with Indian PM Modi’s BJP party losing a key state election in West Bengal and losing ground in other state elections.  Virus cases are still on the rise and sadly the picture will worsen before there are any signs of improvement.  

Covid cases in India have been trending higher since February and hit record highs this weekend, above 400,000. The number of cases is approaching 20 million, with over 215k deaths, while the country has administered 157.2 million vaccine doses.  However, at the current rate of vaccination of 2.26 million per day, it will take 2.2 years to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine. 

US dollar consolidating

After losing ground in April (the USD index DXY fell close to 3% over the month) the US dollar (USD) looks likely to consolidate this month.  USD positioning has already improved over recent months, suggesting limited scope for short covering.  Seasonal factors are unlikely to be particularly influential this month.  However, I am cognizant that cross asset market volatility has eased significantly, while risk assets are already priced for a lot of good news.  Nonetheless, risk factors are increasingly rising, especially increasing Covid cases in many emerging markets as noted above.  This leaves the market prone to bouts of risk aversion, which could result in some bouts of USD strength amid an overall backdrop of consolidation.

Key data and events

This week is an important one for both data and events.  There are several central bank decisions including in Australia (Tue), Thailand and Poland (Wed), Malaysia, UK, Turkey, and Brazil (Thu).  None of the central banks are expected to change policy settings except Brazil, with the consensus looking for a 75bp hike there.  In the UK, there is uncertainty over the future path of QE and whether the Bank of England extends asset purchases or takes the first steps to bringing asset purchases to an end echoing the Bank of Canada by announcing tapering. 

On the data front, the main highlights include the US ISM surveys (today and Wed), US April jobs report (Fri) and China trade data.  Both the US ISM surveys and payrolls are likely to reveal robust readings.  Fiscal stimulus and easing Covid likely helped to boost US jobs growth in April while the unemployment rate likely fell.  Meanwhile the ISM surveys will likely remain around historical highs for similar reasons.  Overall, the data will continue to paint a picture of strengthening US economic recovery. Meanwhile China trade data is likely to reveal strong exports and imports growth, though much of this will likely be due to base effects.

Inflation Debate Rages On

Good morning, last week ended on a solid note for global equity markets, capped by strong gains in US stocks and in particular a surge towards the end of the session on Friday.  The S&P 500 is on track for its best month since November though in the next few days, month and quarter end rebalancing will continue to hold risks, which could result in increased volatility.  Another imponderable is potential follow through from huge equity sale block trades at the end of last week reportedly from Archegos Capital, which hit US media companies and Chinese tech stocks. All of this suggests risks of higher volatility in the days ahead.  

US interest rate markets came under renewed pressure, with yields backing up over the week, while the US dollar (USD) had a firmer week, with the USD index (DXY) ending above its 200-day moving average and technical indicators pointing to further gains this week.  CFTC IMM speculative positioning data (in the week to 23 March) shows that net aggregate USD short positions have been pared back further as USD sentiment continues to improve.  Positioning in most currencies vs. USD fell while Japanese yen (JPY) short positions increased further.  The oil market and container costs could be pressured higher by the continued delay in dislodging the stricken Ever from the Suez Canal, which seems to have made little progress over the weekend.

Attention this week will turn to a few key data and events.  Important among these will be President Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh (Wed) where he will likely give further details on his infrastructure plan and how it will be funded.  Key US data include the March ISM manufacturing survey (Thu) and March non-farm payrolls (Fri).  Solid outcomes for both are expected.  In Asia, focus will be on March purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across the region (Thu) including in China (Wed) where broadly positive readings are likely.  There will also be attention on the going malaise in Turkey’s markets since the sacking of the central bank (CBRT) governor while Europe continues to struggle with fresh virus waves, lockdowns, and vaccine reluctance as well as tensions over vaccine exports to the UK.

As President Biden gives his speech this week the debate about a potentially sharp rise in inflation rages on.  The Fed has tried to calm fears by highlighting that any rise in inflation over the coming months will likely be transitory.  However, with massive stimulus in the pipeline, economic recovery taking shape and the Fed set to keep policy very accommodative for years to come, market fears have risen as well as warnings from the likes of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.  Consumer inflation expectations remain largely subdued but the debate will not end quickly, and bond markets will be on tender hooks.  In the next few months inflation will turn up but this will largely be due to base effects as the collapse in activity in prices in Q1 last year falls out of the equation.  However, the jury is out on whether this will turn to more persistent inflation, something that could have a much more severe impact on markets and force central banks to belatedly tighten policy. 

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