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.

Crypto Volatility

It was a calmer end for stock markets in a volatile week but crypto was not so fortunate after China’s State Council repeated its warning about Bitcoin mining and trading as central banks appear to be increasing their scrutiny of crypto at a time when many of them are introducing their own digital currencies.  Concerns over increased regulations, especially in China where the bulk of Crypto mining takes place, taken together with ESG issues as focus turns to the environmental costs of mining crypto, threaten to do more damage.  Volatility continued over the weekend, with Bitcoin and other crypto undergoing sharp moves.  Crypto volatility threatens to find its way into other markets, with for example, US equities positively correlated to moves in crypto while the US dollar (USD) could benefit.

There was at least a little relief for markets in terms of inflation angst, with market inflation measures (breakevens) falling while commodities, another factor fueling inflation fears, continued to come off the boil. It seems that the Federal Reserve’s dovish message may finally be sinking in even as the Fed FOMC minutes noted that they are planning on discussing tapering at some point, rather than previously not even thinking about thinking of tapering. US Treasury yields have been capped amid the cooling in inflation fears while rate sensitive equities, especially Tech are likely to find some solace.  The USD has struggled over recent weeks but the recent rise in real yields will likely offer some support. 

There was yet more evidence that the US economy is powering ahead, with measures of manufacturing and services sentiment as reflected in Markit purchasing managers indices (PMIs), rising to record highs as fiscal support and an improving COVID-19 outlook continue to boost optimism. While US economic data has been strengthening, markets have become accustomed to positive US releases and therefore any reaction is likely to be more muted.  Indeed, the Citi Economic Surprise Index, a measure of US data relative to expectations, is near its lowest since June 2020. 

This week is relatively light on the data front.  The key US data release is the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report, something that the Federal Reserve looks at closely, on Friday; consensus expectations are for a 2.3% quarter on quarter (q/q) increase in core PCE in Q1.  A number of Fed speakers will also be on the wires and their comments will be scrutinized on any further elaboration on “discussing a plan” on tapering.  There will also be a few central bank decisions including in Hungary (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), and Korea (Thu).  No changes are likely from any of these central banks.

India Risks, Highlights For The Week Ahead

It was a strong end to last week for US markets, with S&P 500 up over 1%, helped by stronger than expected new home sales and April US Markit purchasing managers indices (PMI) data. As risk assets rallied the US dollar and US Treasuries sold off.  There are plenty of event risks this week. Also, there will be deluge of US earnings releases this week including most tech heavyweights while markets will likely remain nervous over President Biden’s tax plans.  Geopolitical risks will also remain on the forefront. 

Even as the progress on the vaccination front continues the renewed increases in virus cases in many countries, particularly in India, where the situation has deteriorated markedly, threatens to delay recovery. The acceleration in virus cases has been dramatic, with Prime Minister Modi noting how it has “shaken the nation”. Virus cases hit 349,000 on Saturday and show no sign of receding. The toll on the health system in India has been massive, but the variants also holds risks to the rest of the world while it will also lead to a major disruption in India’s vaccine exports, threatening vaccination programs in several countries.  

Friday’s economic data round was broadly firm. Alongside the US releases noted above, Euro area April PMIs were generally better than expected, with G10 manufacturing PMIs pointing to strengthening momentum overall.  Separately, Russia’s central bank, the CBR surprised with a bigger than expected 50bp rate hike.  Today’s data releases include the April German IFO business confidence survey; consensus expectations forecast an increase to 97.8 from 96.6 previously. In the US, durable goods orders are forecast to rise in March by 2.5% m/m following a weather-related 1.2% m/m drop in February.

The focus over the rest of the week will turn to central bank decisions in Japan, Sweden and Hungary (all on Tue) and the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed).  Although the Bank of Canada’s shift last week will prompt a little more nervousness about G10 central bank tapering the policy meetings are likely to be largely uneventful, this week. Nonetheless, the Fed tone is likely to be more positive than in March, while in contrast the Bank of Japan may sound more cautious amid a third state of emergency in Tokyo. 

A key event this week will be President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress.  After the hit to markets in the wake of the news of a proposal to hike taxes, markets will look for any further details.  Key data releases this week include Australia Q1 CPI inflation (Wed), US Q1 advance GDP (Thu), China’s April purchasing managers indices data (Fri) and Euro area Q1 GDP (Fri).  

Geopolitical Risks Rise

Last week ended on a positive note for risk assets, with equities rallying to record highs. In particular tech stocks are back in lead this quarter. The biggest surprise was the ability of US Treasuries to rally at the same time, particularly in the wake of a strong slate of economic data. The rally may be attributable to strong foreign and pension buying amid short market positioning.  Indeed, CFTC data show that Treasury bearish positions had increased as of April 13th.  The pull back in US Treasury yields points to some relief for emerging market assets. Similarly, commodity positions had also been cut, with gold, copper and oil positioning liquidation taking place. The risk rally and lower US yields have put the US dollar on the back foot, extending its decline over the week.  As such, the USD “exceptionalism” story appears to be fading somewhat.

Last week finished off with another set of firm US data; Housing starts surged 19.4% m/m to 1,739k, well-above the 1,613k consensus, from 1,457k (revised from 1,421k) in February. Similarly, consumer sentiment continued to improve in April, according to the preliminary release of the University of Michigan survey, with the index rising to a new post-COVID high of 86.5.  This week’s highlights include central bank decisions in China (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), Canada (Wed), Euro area (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Russia’s central bank CBR is expected to hike by 25bp while no changes are expected from the other central banks.  Canada’s Federal Budget today and CPI (Wed) will also be in focus.  Data wise, Australia March retail sales (Wed), New Zealand Q1 CPI and Euro area flash purchasing managers indices PMIs (Fri) will garner attention.  

On Friday, the US Treasury released its semi-annual FX report and found that once again Vietnam and Switzerland met all three criteria under the 2015 Act. over 2020.  Taiwan was also found to breach the Treasury criteria.  The outcome means that there will be ‘enhanced analysis’ of these countries.  However, the {US} US Treasury declined to name any of these countries as currency manipulators, citing insufficient evidence under the 1988 Act.  The other interesting development is that the Treasury questioned the foreign exchange activities of Chinese state banks given that it appears that China’s official FX intervention was very limited.  Separately, Ireland and Mexico were added to the US Treasury Monitoring List.

Geopolitical risks are rising once again and could act as a threat to markets in the day and weeks ahead. Last week the US levied sanctions on Russia including targeting Russian government debt. Russia responded with counter sanctions. However, the US administration did hold out an olive branch in the form of a potential joint summit. Focus is also on growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Similarly, US and Japanese leaders voiced concerns over Chinese policies, which were subsequently rejected by China’s foreign ministry. Despite the US criticism of China the US and China appear to be moving ahead with cooperate on climate change. US-China over Taiwan remain elevated however.

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