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. 

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.

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