All Eyes On Jackson Hole

Following four weeks of gains, US equities lost ground last week while equity volatility (VIX) moved higher.  Equities look likely to struggle in the days ahead.  While investor participation in the rally has been limited amid thin summer liquidity, it has contributed to easing financial conditions, likely to the chagrin of the Fed.  However, nervousness ahead of the Jackson Hole symposium (25-27 Aug) has grown with many thinking Fed Chair Powell will sound hawkish. This has given risk assets pause for thought, helping US yields back up and the US dollar to reverse recent losses.  Indeed, the USD index (DXY) now has the 14 July high around 109.29 in its sights. 

Equities could struggle to push higher in the short term.  The 200-day moving average level around 4320 for the S&P 500 looks like it will provide resistance on the top side, while the relative strength indicator (RSI) suggests that the S&P 500 is close to overbought levels.   The narrative of a bear market rally remains in place and as economic conditions worsen, the outlook for earnings will also be less positive, potentially acting as a further drag on equity market sentiment.  A stronger dollar also acts as a headwind to US stocks. 

A plethora of Federal Reserve speakers has pushed back against more dovish market expectation, yet markets are still pricing in some Fed easing in the second half of 2023. At Jackson Hole, Fed Chair Powell is likely to reinforce the view that the Fed may still have to hike policy rates several more times in the months ahead and cut less quickly than markets expect next year.  As such, last week’s move ie. US dollar rally, US Treasury yields moving higher, and equities weakening, may extend further in the days ahead. 

Emerging market currencies in particular, had a poor week, with soft China data not helping.  Indeed, China’s July activity data were uniformly weak, highlighting that the economy is likely to fall well short of the official “around 5.5%” growth target for this year.  A heatwave in China is not helping.  Today’s small 5 basis points cut in banks 1 year loan prime rates and 15 basis points cut in the 5-year rate will do little to stimulate activity especially in the property market.  CNH has been impacted and is likely to fall further. A hawkish Powell may help to keep the pressure on emerging markets in the short term and limited policy action in China will do little to mitigate such pressures. 

Aside from Jackson Hole, key data and events this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia and Korea. Indonesia (Tue) is likely to keep its policy rate on hold while Korea (Thu) is likely to hike its policy rate by 25bp.  On the data front, US core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) will likely reveal a sharper slowing in July compared to core CPI due to shelters weights (Fri) while purchasing managers indices (PMI) data globally will likely soften as growth pressures intensify, reflecting the slide towards or into recession in several economies including the US and Euro area. 

Recession vs. Inflation Battle Rages On

The recession vs. inflation battle is increasingly shifting towards the former as reflected in the recent paring back in US Federal Reserve tightening expectations and growing market pricing of rate cuts beginning as soon as early next year.  The weakness in the US July Services purchasing managers index (PMI) added more weight to this argument.  This week’s second quarter US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data is likely to confirm two quarters of negative growth, which should mean technical recession though in the case of the US, recession is defined by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months”.  Either way, the US economy is on a softer path.

This week is a big one for events and data. The Fed is widely expected to hike US policy rates by 75 basis points tomorrow. Expectations of a bigger 100bps move have been pared back. If the Fed does hike by 75bp it will likely result in interest rates reaching a neutral rate (the theoretical federal funds rate at which the stance of Federal Reserve monetary policy is neither accommodative nor restrictive). At this meeting there will be a lot of focus on the Fed’s forward guidance but in reality the magnitude of hikes at the next FOMC meeting in September will be contingent on key inflation releases and other data, with two inflation reports (10 August and 13 September) to be published ahead of the next Fed meeting.

In Europe there was yet more disappointing economic news this week, with the German July IFO business sentiment survey falling sharply. The data gave a similar message to last week’s weak PMIs, provides yet more evidence that the German economy is falling into recession.   News that Russia has cut gas deliveries to Europe through Nord Stream 1 will only add to such concerns.  After surprising with a 50bp rate hike last week, the ECB arguably faces a bigger problem than the Fed.  At least in the US, the consumer is still quite resilient, with demand holding up well, while in contrast, demand is weak in Europe and the economy is sliding into recession at a time when inflation is around four times higher than target. 

Emerging markets have found some respite from the pull back in the US dollar over recent days, but it is questionable how far the dollar will sustain any pull back.  Increased worries about the US economy and a paring back of Fed tightening expectations could damage the dollar further, but let’s not forget that the Fed is still tightening more rapidly than many other major central banks, which ought to limit any US dollar weakness.  Even so, even if it’s a short-term phenomenon, emerging market currencies and bonds will find some relief from a softer dollar tone for now.  That said, many frontier economies such as in North Africa and South Asia are likely to struggle from higher food and energy prices for some months to come. If the dollar does resume its ascent it will only add to their pain. 

Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

Powell Keeps The Risk Rally Going

It felt as though markets spent all of last week waiting for the Jackson Hole symposium but in the event Federal Reserve Chair Powell didn’t really tell us anything new.  This was good enough for risk assets, with equities ending the week higher and bonds also rallying, with the US Treasury curve bull steepening, setting up a positive start for equity markets this week.  The US dollar came under pressure as Powell did not repeat the hawkish messages of some recent Fed speakers over recent days.

Overall Powell noted that one of the key criteria for tapering has been met, namely “substantial further progress” for inflation while “clear progress” has been met on the second goal of maximum employment. Powell also disassociated the criteria for rate hikes and tapering, with markets continuing to price in the first hike around March 2023. A tapering announcement is likely this year, but September looks too soon. 

The US dollar is likely to remain under pressure this week in the wake of Powell’s comments which ought to bode well for many emerging market currencies.  The potential for a softer than consensus US August jobs report (non-farm payrolls consensus 750k) at the end of the week also suggests that the USD could struggle to make a short term rebound though US interest rate markets, will likely remain supported. 

All of this bodes well for some consolidation in Asian markets though tomorrow’s Chinese August purchasing managers index (PMI) data will provide further direction.  Further moderation in both manufacturing and services PMIs will likely keep up the pressure on the authorities there to avoid renminbi appreciation as well as loosen liquidity likely via another reserve requirement ratio (RRR) cut. 

Other key data this week includes Q2 GDP releases in Australia (Wed), India (Tue), and Canada (Tue), US ISM surveys (Wed) and (Fri), Eurozone inflation data (Tue), and Polish inflation (Tue).  Also keep an eye on German political developments; the election is less than one month away and recent polling has shown that the SPD has pulled ahead of Merkel’s CDU for the first time in 15 years, raising the possibility of a left wing coalition. 

Geopolitical issues, specifically to do with Afghanistan remain a threat to risk appetite as the US deadline for evacuation approaches.  Separately, oil prices could be impacted by Hurricane Ida, which hit the US Gulf Coast yesterday.   

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. 

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