Fundamentals Versus Liquidity

Markets took fright last week. The divergence between what fundamentals are telling us and what markets are doing has widened dramatically, but bulls will say don’t fight the Fed.  However, after an unprecedented run up from the late March lows, equity markets and risk assets appeared to react negatively to a sober assessment of the economic recovery by Fed Chair Powell at last week’s FOMC meeting. News of a renewed increase in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the US against the background of ongoing protests in the country, added to market nervousness.  On Thursday stocks registered their biggest sell off since March but recovered some composure at the end of the week. Volatility has increased and markets are looking far more nervous going into this week.

Exuberance by day traders who have been buying stocks while stuck in lockdown, with not much to do and government pay outs in hand, have been cited as one reason that equities, in particular those that were most beaten up and even in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, have rallied so strongly.  Many (those that prefer to look at fundamentals) believe this will end in tears, comparing the run up in some stocks to what happened just before the tech bubble burst in 2000/01.  The reality is probably somewhat more nuanced.  There’s definitely a lot of liquidity sloshing around, which to some extent is finding itself into the equity market even if the Fed would probably prefer that it went into the real economy.   However, buying stocks that have little intrinsic value is hard to justify and market jitters over the past week could send such investors back to the sidelines.

Stumbling blocks to markets such as concerns about a second wave of virus infections are very real, but the real question is whether this will do any more damage to the economy than has already happened.  In this respect, it seems highly unlikely that a second or even third round of virus cases will result in renewed lockdowns.  Better preparedness in terms of health care, contract tracing, and a general malaise from the public about being locked down, mean that there is no appetite for another tightening in social distancing restrictions.  The result is a likely increase in virus cases, but one that may not do as much economic damage.

Last week’s equity market stumble has helped the US dollar to find its feet again.  After looking oversold according to various technical indicators such as the Relative Strength Index (RSI) the dollar rallied against various currencies recently.  Sentiment for the dollar had become increasingly bearish (overly so in my view), with the sharp decline in US yields , reduced demand for dollars from central banks and companies globally amid an improvement in risk appetite weighing on the currency.  However, I think the dollar is being written off way to quickly.  Likely US economic and asset market outperformance suggests that the US dollar will not go down without a fight.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

Cautious Sentiment Towards A Trade Deal

Markets continue to focus on the potential for a “Phase 1” trade deal between the US and China.   The stakes are high. President Trump who stated that tariffs on Chinese goods would be “raised very substantially” if no deal was struck between the two sides.  US officials also poured cold water over comments by Chinese officials at the end of last week that there had been an agreement to reduce tariffs in phases.  Markets will take a cautious tone given such comments but it is still likely that a deal of sorts will agreed upon in the next few weeks.

Both sides want a deal and while Trump has said that China wants one more than he does, the US administration may want to avoid fueling market turmoil as attention increasingly turns to next year’s US elections.  This suggests that a Phase 1 deal is more likely than not, but agreement on later Phases will be much harder given that there are various structural issues that remain unresolved such as technology transfers, intellectual property theft and state subsidies.

For now what is important is that markets believe that there is progress towards a deal and an eventual signing probably sometime in December.  Despite the harder rhetoric from the US side this still looks like the most likely outcome which in turn suggests that equities and other risk assets have room to rally.  In the meantime, the situation in Hong Kong where protests have intensified will weigh not just on Hong Kong’s markets but markets across the region adding another reason for market caution in the short term.

On the data and events front attention will be on US October CPI, retail sales and a crop of Fed speakers including Fed Chair Powell who is unlikely to change the view the Fed is on pause for the time being.  Elsewhere Chinese data has been less than impressive this week, with October aggregate financing and new yuan loans both coming in weaker than expected.   This is likely to be echoed by the retail sales and industrial production data this week too.

On the FX front, the US dollar has made up around of its October losses amid some deterioration in risk appetite.  Further moves will depend on the progress towards a trade deal, with the USD likely to be pressured should it become clearer that a deal is likely to be signed and vice-versa.  US retail sales data will also have some impact in the short term, but with the Fed on pause and US data holding up the USD the will be driven by driven by the gyrations in risk assets.

US-China Trade Talk Hopes Begin To Fade

Attention this week will be very much centered on a few key events, most prominent of which is US-China trade talks scheduled to begin on Thursday in Washington.   A speech by Fed Chair Powell at the annual NABE conference tomorrow and Fed FOMC minutes  will also garner plenty of attention for clues to the Fed FOMC meeting at the end of this month.   In the UK, as the end October deadline approaches attention turns to whether Prime Minister Johnson can seal a deal with European officials.

Starting with US-China trade talks, reports (Bloomberg) today suggest that China is unwilling to agree to a comprehensive trade deal with the Trump administration.   The report states that senior Chinese officials have indicated that the range of topics they are willing to discuss has narrowed considerably.  The implication is that major structural issues such as intellectual property theft, technology transfers, state subsidies, and other issues are off the table, limiting the scope of any agreement emerging from meetings this week.   Markets have unsurprisingly reacted negatively to the reports.

If China is indeed unwilling to enter into a broader trade discussion, prospects for even an interim trade deal look slim especially considering that US officials were last week talking down the prospects of a narrow deal.  Markets have been pinning their hopes on some progress on trade talks and any failure to advance talks this week will cast a heavy shadow over markets in the days ahead.

Separately European leaders appear to have poured cold water on the UK government’s proposals for a deal to end the Brexit impasse.  The main sticking point is the removal of the Irish backstop and proposal to implement a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  If no deal is reached an extension seems likely given the passage of the Benn Act, which requires the PM to ask the EU for a delay if parliamentary approval has not been given to a withdrawal agreement or a no deal exit.  Nonetheless, Johnson continues to warn the EU that he will take the UK out of Europe at the end of October. The uncertainty is unsurprisingly once again hurting the pound.

In  the US the release of US September CPI, speech by Fed Chair Powell and FOMC minutes will provide further clues to the Fed’s thinking ahead of the FOMC meeting this month.  Market pricing for an October rate cut increased in the wake of a recent run of weaker data (especially the September ISM surveys, which weakened) though the September jobs report (non farm payrolls increased by 136k while the unemployment rate fell to a record low of 3.5%) released at the end of last week did not provide further ammunition for those expecting a more aggressive Fed rate cut.  A 25bp cut sees likely at the October meeting.

 

 

Oil Surges, Central Banks Galore

Oil prices jumped following drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend.  Oil rose by around 20% to just shy of $72, before halving its gain later.  Even after failing to hold onto initial gains the rise in oil prices still marks one if its biggest one day gains.  Concerns about reduced oil supply have risen as a result of the attacks as they could reduce Saudi oil production for a prolonged period, with around 5% of global oil supply impacted.  Additionally the attacks could raise geopolitical tensions in the region.

As markets digest the impact of the drone attacks, there will also be several central bank decisions globally to focus on this week.  The main event is the Fed FOMC meeting mid-week, where a 25bp cut is largely priced in by the market.  Given that a rate cut is well flagged markets will pay close attention to the Fed’s summary of economic projections, in particular the Fed’s dot plot.  It seems unlikely that Fed Chair Powell is going to sound too dovish, with little to suggest that the Fed is on path for a more aggressive easing path.

Another major central bank meeting this week is the Bank of Japan (BoJ) on Thursday.  While a policy move by the BoJ at is unlikely this week BoJ policy makers have sounded more open to easing.  A consumption tax hike planned for next month together with a strong JPY have increased the pressure for the BoJ to act. Separately easier policy from other major central banks amid slowing global growth are unlikely be ignored.  However, policy is already ultra- easy and the BoJ remains cognisant of the adverse secondary impact of policy on Japanese Banks.

The Bank of England deliberates on policy this week too but it seems highly unlikely that they would adjust policy given all the uncertainties on how Brexit developments will pan out.  Until there is some clarity, the BoE is likely to remain firmly on hold, with the base rate remaining at 0.75%.  GBP has rallied over recent weeks as markets have stepped back from expectations of a hard Brexit, but this does not mean that a deal is any closer than it has been over the past months.  Elsewhere the SNB in Switzerland and Norges Bank in Norway are also expected to keep policy rates on hold this week.

Several emerging markets central banks will also deliberate on policy this week including in Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Taiwan.  The consensus (Bloomberg) expects a 50bp rate cut in Brazil, no change in South Africa and Taiwan and a 25bp rate cut in Indonesia.  Overall many emerging markets continue to ease policy amid slowing growth, lower US policy rates and declining inflation pressures.

 

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