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. 

A Sour Note

Markets ended last week on a sour note as a few underlying themes continue to afflict investor sentiment.  The latest concern was the decision by US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to pull back the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program despite Fed objections. The timing is clearly not ideal given the worsening in the US economy likely in the next few weeks amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, and lack of fiscal stimulus.  That said, these facilities have hardly been used, due in part to stringent terms on many of these lending facilities.  Also pulling the funds back from the Fed could give Congress room to move towards a fiscal deal.  The decision may also not get in President-elect Biden’s way; if he needs the funds for the Fed to ramp up lending the Treasury can quickly extend funding without Congressional approval when he becomes President.  However, no new credit will be available in these programs during the interim period before he takes office, which could present risks to the economy.

Equity markets will continue to struggle in the near term amid a continued surge in Covid cases.  The latest data revealed that the US registered a one-day record of 192,000 cases.  More and more states are implementing stricter social distancing measures, but its worth noting that restrictions are less severe than in March-April.   There are also growing concerns that the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will result in an even more rapid spread of the virus, with the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommending Americans not travel over this period.  The battle playing on investor sentiment between rising Covid cases and the arrival of several vaccines, is being won by Covid worries at present, a factor that will likely continue to restrain investor sentiment for equities and other risk assets over the short term at a time when major US equity indices are running up against strong technical resistance levels. 

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) for the 5th November meeting.  While there were no new actions at this meeting the minutes may shed light on the Fed’s options to change “parameters” of quantitative easing (QE) and how close the Fed is to lengthening the maturity of its asset purchases.  Separately October US Personal Income and Spending data (Wednesday) will likely show some softening as fiscal stimulus fades.  Elsewhere, Eurozone and UK service purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Monday) will likely reveal continued weakness in contraction territory as lockdown restrictions bite into activity.  Brexit discussions will be under scrutiny, with speculation growing that we could see a deal early in the week.  On the monetary policy front, decisions in Sweden and Korea (both on Thursday) will focus on unconventional policy, with potential for the Riksbank in Sweden to extend its quantitative easing program and Bank of Korea likely to focus on its lending programs and liquidity measures, rather than cut its policy rate.  Finally, expect another strong increase in Chinese industrial profits for October (Friday).

In Asia, official worries about currency appreciation are becoming increasingly vocal.  As the region continues to outperform both on the Covid control and growth recovery front, foreign inflows are increasingly being attracted to Asia.  This is coming at a time when balance of payments positions are strengthening, with the net result of considerable upward pressure on Asian currencies at a time of broad downward USD pressure.  Central banks across the region are sounding the alarm; Bank of Korea highlighted that its “monitoring” the FX market amid Korean won appreciation while Bank of Thailand announced fresh measures to encourage domestic capital outflows, thus attempting to limit Thai baht appreciation.  In India the Reserve Bank appears to be continuing its large-scale USD buying.  In Taiwan the central bank is reportedly making it easier for investors to access life insurance policies denominated in foreign currencies. Such measures are likely to ramp up, but this will slow rather than stem further gains in Asian currencies in the weeks and months ahead in my view.

US Earnings, Virus Cases, Dollar & Data

Last week US equities registered gains, led by value rather than momentum stocks, with US equities closing higher for a third straight week amid low volumes and declining volatility.  However, the S&P 500 is still marginally lower year to date, compared to a 17% gain in the tech heavy Nasdaq index.  In theory this implies more room to catch up for value stocks vs. momentum but I wouldn’t bank on it. If the surge in virus cases equates to renewed lockdowns, the value stock story will likely fail to gain traction until either the virus curve flattens again or a vaccine is found.

Unfortunately Covid-19 infections continue to accelerate, with more than 14 million cases confirmed globally, but mortality rates are likely to be key to the extent that lockdowns intensify. US, Latin America and India are at the forefront, risking another downturn in global activity if lockdowns intensify at a time that concerns about a fiscal cliff in the US have grown.  All of this has to put against vaccine hopes, with some success in various trials, but nothing imminent on the horizon.

Meanwhile the US dollar (USD) remains under pressure, continuing its grind lower since the start of this month, with the euro (EUR) capitalizing on USD weakness to extend gains as it targets EURUSD 1.15.  The USD has maintained its negative relationship with risk, and sentiment for the currency has continued to sour as risk appetite has strengthened.  It’s hard to see the USD turning around soon, especially given uncertainty about renewed US lockdowns, fiscal cliff and US elections.

Over the weekend European Union leaders’ discussions over the “recovery fund” failed to reach a deal though there has been some softening from the “frugal four” on the issue of grants vs. loans.  However, after a third day of meetings there was still no agreement on how much of the recovery fund should be distributed via grants versus loans.  Despite the lack of agreement EUR continues to remain firm against USD and approaching key resistance around 1.1495.

US Q2 earnings remain in focus and this week is particularly busy, with tech earnings under scrutiny (including IBM today).  Last week banks were the main highlight of the earnings calendar, with US banks reporting a very strong quarter in trading revenues amid heightened market uncertainty and volatility, but large loan loss provisions. Aside from earnings expect more jawboning from US officials over China. While there is some focus on whether the US will target Chinese banks with sanctions, it is still likely that the US administration will avoid measures that will roil markets ahead of US elections.  

On the data and event front, highlights over this week include Australia RBA minutes (Tue), Eurozone PMIs (Fri) and policy rate decisions in Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and Russia (Fri).

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