Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

Revoking Hong Kong’s Special Status – Data/Events This Week.

In a further escalation of US-China tensions, President Trump revoked Hong Kong’s (HK) “Special Status” as revealed in a speech on Friday.  What does this mean? At this stage there is scant detail to go on.  Trump also promised to implement sanctions against individuals in China and HK who he deems responsible for eroding HK’s autonomy, but no names were given. Markets reacted with relief, with US equities closing higher on Friday, perhaps in relief that that the measures outlined by Trump were not more severe, or that the lack of detail meant that there could be various exemptions.

On the face of it, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” would deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s economy and to US companies there, while hurting China’s economy too.  However, while still an important financial centre, Hong Kong’s economy relative to China is far smaller than it was at the time of the handover in 1997, at around 3%.   As such, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” could be less painful on China than it would have been in the past.  This may explain why the US administration is focusing on other measures such as student visa restrictions, sanctioning individuals, restricting investment etc.  Even so, tensions will continue to cast a shadow over markets for some time to come and will likely heat up ahead of US elections in November.

Data wise, the week began with the release of China’s May manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing manager’s indices (PMIs) today.  The data revealed a slight softening in the manufacturing PMI to 50.6 in May from 50.8 in April, indicating that manufacturing activity continues to remain in expansion.  However, the trade related components were weak, suggesting that China’s exports and imports outlook is likely to come under growing pressure, weighing on overall recovery.  China’s currency, the renminbi, has been weakening lately against the US dollar and against its peers, though it rallied against the dollar on Friday.  Further gradual weakness in the renminbi looks likely over coming weeks.

This week there will be attention on various data releases and events including US May jobs data, ISM manufacturing, European Central Bank (ECB) and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy decisions and UK-EU Brexit discussions.  Of course markets will remain tuned into Covid-19 developments as economies around the world continue to open up.   While the US jobs and ISM data will likely remain very weak, the silver lining is that the extent of weakness is likely to lessen in the months ahead.  Consensus forecasts predict a massive 8 million drop in US non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate to increase to close to 20%.  The RBA is likely to leave policy unchanged at 0.25% while the ECB is expected to step up its asset purchases. Meanwhile UK-EU Brexit discussions are likely to continue to be fraught with difficulty.

 

 

 

Opening Up

Attention is squarely going to be on efforts to open up economies in the days and weeks ahead.  Most US states are opening up to varied degrees while the same is happening across Europe.  The risk of course is that a second or even third wave of Covid-19 emerges for some countries, as is being seen in some parts of Asia, for example Korea where renewed social distancing measures have been put in place after a fresh cluster of cases in clubs and bars there.

However, governments will need to weigh up these risks against the growing economic costs of lockdown, which will by no means be easy.  Even as social distancing and lockdown measures are eased, it will likely be a gradual process, with activity likely to remain under pressure.  This is when the real test for markets will take place.  While markets have clearly been buoyed by unprecedented stimulus measures, especially from the Federal Reserve, which could continue for some time, fiscal injections will run their course over the next couple of months.

As revealed in April US jobs data at the end of last week the costs in terms of increased unemployment has been severe. The US unemployment rate hit a post war high of 14.7% while 20.5 million people lost their jobs.  This news will be echoed globally. Markets were expecting bad news and therefore the reaction was limited, but the data will nonetheless put more pressure on policy makers to keep the stimulus taps open.  Discussions are already in place between US Republican and Democrats over a new package, though disagreements on various issues suggest a deal may not happen soon.

Another spanner in the works is tensions between the US and China.  The US administration has become more vocal on blaming China for the virus, over recent weeks.  This had threatened to undermine the “phase 1” trade deal agreed a few months ago.  However, there were some soothing remarks on this front, with a phone call between senior US and Chinese officials last week, highlighting “good progress” on implementing the deal.  Despite such progress, it may not calm tensions over the cause of the virus, especially ahead of US elections in November and markets are likely to remain nervous in the weeks ahead.

This week there will be more evidence on tap to reveal the economic onslaught of the virus, just as many countries are finally flattening the virus curve itself.   Q1 GDP releases will reveal weakness in several countries.  Chinese activity data including retail sales and industrial production as well as credit metrics will give further evidence of the virus impact and how quickly China is recovering.  If anything, China’s recovery path will likely show the pain ahead for many economies that are easing lockdown measures.  In the US, inflation data and retail sales will garner attention.  In terms of central banks attention will be on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ). While no change in policy rates is likely a step up in the RBNZ’s asset purchases may take place.

 

 

 

 

Covid-19 Economic Toll Worsening

Unease about the economic toll of Covid-19 is starting to dent the rebound in equity markets.  The disconnect between the strength of the rally in equities and the reality on the ground has become increasingly visible following recent earnings releases including from tech heavyweights Apple and Amazon, and dismal economic data which included sharp falls in US and Eurozone Q1 GDP data.  Q2 will look even worse as most of the economic damage was inflicted in April, suggesting that the pain is just beginning.

Meanwhile geopolitical tensions between the US and China are adding another layer of pressure on markets, with US President Trump stating that he had seen strong evidence that Covid-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.  Trump’s comments have raised the spectre of a renewed trade war between the two countries at a time when in any case it was looking increasingly difficult for China to live up to its end of the agreement to purchase a substantial amount of US goods in the wake of a Phase 1 deal.

Some of the economic pain emanating from the shutdowns will be on show this week, with the US April jobs report likely to reveal a sharp rise in the jobless rate and massive decline in non-farm payrolls, with markets looking for an increase to around 16% and a drop of 22 million, respectively.  Already jobless claims have risen to over 30 million, with the only silver lining being that the rate of increase in claims has declined over recent weeks.  The extremely sharp deterioration in job market conditions threatens to weigh heavily on recovery.

The US dollar fell towards the end of March due in part to month end rebalancing (given US equity and bond market outperformance over the month), but also due to a general improvement in risk sentiment, reducing any safe have demand for dollars.  If as is likely markets become increasingly nervous about the sustainability of the rally in risk assets, the USD is likely to move higher during the next few weeks. Even in an environment where global equities sell off, US assets are still better placed in terms of return potential than those elsewhere, implying US dollar outperformance.

In terms of data and events focus this will turn to the Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia policy meetings.  Neither are likely to cut interest rates further, but the BoE could announced a further increase in asset purchases, while conversely the RBA is likely to maintain its asset purchases tapering path.  Aside from the US jobs data noted above, the other piece of data globally that will be watched carefully is China’s April trade report.  A weak outcome is likely for sure, but the extent of deterioration in exports and imports, will have very negative global consequences.

Fed, ECB, UK elections In Focus

An event filled week lies ahead.  Several central bank decisions including the Federal Reserve FOMC (11th Dec), European Central Bank (ECB) (12 Dec) and Swiss National Bank (SNB)  (12 Dec) are on the calendar.  All of these major central banks are likely to leave policy unchanged and the meetings should prove to be uneventful.  Fed Chair Powell is likely to reiterate the Fed’s patient stance, with last Friday’s strong US November job report (payrolls rose 266k) effectively sealing the case for no change in policy at this meeting, even as a Phase 1 trade deal remains elusive.

Similarly recently firmer data in Europe have pushed back expectations of further ECB easing, though President Lagarde is likely to sound cautious highlighting her desire to maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance.  The picture is rather different for emerging market central banks this week, with policy easing likely from Turkey (12 Dec), Russia (13 Dec) and Brazil (12 Dec) while Philippines (12 Dec) is likely to keep policy unchanged.

UK general elections on Thursday will be closely watched, with GBP already having rallied above 1.30 vs USD as polls show a strong lead for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.  The main question is whether Johnson will have gained enough of a share of the vote to gain a majority, allowing him to push ahead with his Brexit plans, with Parliament voting to leave the European Union by Jan 31.

Polls may not be as accurate as assumed in the past given surprises over recent years including the Brexit vote itself, but the wide margin between the two parties highlights the relatively stronger position of the Conservatives going into the election.  Nonetheless, given that a lot is in the price already, the bigger (negative) reaction in GBP could come from a hung parliament or Labour win.

This week is also crunch time for a decision on the threatened December 15 tariffs on China.  As previously noted there is little sign of any deal on any Phase 1 trade deal.  It appears that issues such as the amount of purchases of US goods by China remain unresolved.  Recent comments by President Trump suggest that he is prepared to delay a deal even as far as past the US elections in November 2020.

Whether this is tactic to force China to agree on a deal or a real desire not to rush a deal is difficult to determine, but it seems as though Phase 1 will deal will not be signed this year given the limited time to do so.  December 15 tariffs could be delayed but this is also not guaranteed.  President Trump’s attention will also partly be on the potential for an impeachement vote in the House this week.

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