Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

Fed Tapering Concerns/Rising COVID Cases In Europe

Equities struggled at the end of last week amid news of rising COVID cases and hints by Federal Reserve officials of a preference for faster tapering though tech stocks benefitted from a rally in US Treasuries.  Oil prices fell further as markets pondered the potential for releases from China, Japan and US strategic oil reserves. Meanwhile, various countries are registering record daily COVID cases in Europe, resulting in partial lockdowns in a few countries. The outlook doesn’t look good heading into the winter flu season, while protests against mobility restrictions are on the rise. 

The US dollar extended gains at the start of this week helped by hawkish comments from Federal Reserve officials.  Conversely, rising COVID cases across Europe and resultant mobility restrictions, have hurt the euro, with the EURUSD exchange rate falling through 1.13 and showing little sign of any reversal.  Worsening sentiment towards the euro has fuelled a collapse in speculative euro positioning, with the market being net short for 6 out of the last 7 weeks (according to the CFTC IMM net non-commercial futures data).  In contrast, China’s authorities are becoming more concerned with the strength of the Chinese renminbi, which is currently around five year highs in trade weighted terms.  Measures to cap renmimbi strength are likely to be forthcoming.

Risk assets could struggle in the wake of speculation/pressure for more aggressive Fed tapering.  Fed Vice Chair Clarida and Governor Waller sounded relatively hawkish on Friday. Clarida said that the FOMC could discuss the pace of tapering at the December FOMC meeting and separately Waller stated that recent data had pushed him toward “favoring a faster pace of tapering and a more rapid removal of accommodation in 2022.”  This implies that the December Fed FOMC meeting will be a live one and could potentially see the announcement of more rapid tapering than the $15bn per month rate that was announced at the last Fed meeting. 

As such, the Fed FOMC minutes (Wed) will be under scrutiny to provide clues to any hint of support for more aggressive tapering though they will likely reveal that most officials see no rush for rate hikes.  On the same day the US core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) report is likely to have registered a strong increase in October keeping inflation concerns at the fore.  Fed nominations are also likely this week, and markets will be especially focused on whether Fed Chair Powell will be reaffirmed for another term.  The overall composition of the FOMC is likely to become a more dovish one next year. 

Several central bank policy decisions are scheduled this week including in China where the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) unsurprisingly kept its Loan Prime Rate on hold today.  However, in its latest quarterly monetary policy report released on Friday, the PBoC removed some key phrases cited in its previous reports, implying a softer tone to policy ahead. Any such easing would be targeted such as recent support for lenders via a new special relending facility to support the clean use of coal, via loans at special rates.  Additionally, a cut in the reserve ratio (RRR) cannot be ruled out.

Next up will be the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) (Wed), with a 25bp hike likely and risks of an even bigger 50bp hike. The Bank of Korea is also likely to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates likely (Thu) given rising inflation pressures and concerns about financial imbalances. The Riksbank in Sweden (Thu) is likely to keep policy unchanged though an upgrade in their forecasts is expected. 

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

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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