Weaker China data and Delta Concerns

The same old discussion continues to afflict equity investors as lofty valuations balance against a wall of liquidity.  So far liquidity is winning out as US equity indices are trading around record highs despite a surprise 13.5% plunge in August US consumer confidence released last Friday, which marked one of the largest declines ever in the University of Michigan series. In fact confidence fell to a level even below the COVID low, likely due to Delta variant concerns. 

The confidence data fuelled a bull flattening in US Treasuries and USD sell off.  As reflected in the confidence data, the Delta variant is increasingly threatening recovery and evidence of sharply rising virus cases even in highly vaccinated countries sends a worrying sign of what to expect going forward. 

Geopolitics will be in focus after the Taliban effectively took over Afghanistan after marching into Kabul yesterday.  This will have major repercussions in South Asia and the rest of the region.  Separately, Canada’s PM Trudeau has called a snap election on Sep 20 while Malaysia’s PM Yassin has resigned today.  Geopolitics, weak US confidence data, China’s regulatory crackdown and ongoing Delta variant concerns, with Philippines and Thailand registering record virus cases in Asia led to a cautious start to the week for Asia. 

Further direction came from China’s July data slate released today.  The data revealed weaker than expected outcomes across the board, with industrial production and retail sales alongside other data revealing further softening.  The releases provided more evidence that Chinese consumer caution has intensified in the wake of targeted lockdown measures in several provinces while industrial activity is being hampered by supply constraints and weakening demand for exports.

The Chinese data will likely provide more support to expectations of further easing in liquidity from the central bank (PBOC) and even policy rate cuts. Separately, China’s regulatory crackdown has extended further, weighing on Chinese and regional assets, but there is little sign that officials are looking to step back.   More broadly, weaker Chinese data will likely contribute to a near term tone of risk aversion afflicting global market sentiment amidst worsening Delta variant concerns, rising growth worries and geopolitical risks.

Over the rest of the week Fed FOMC minutes (Wed), in particular views on the shape of quantitative easing tapering, as well as central bank decisions in New Zealand (Wed), Indonesia (Thu) and Norway (Thu) are in focus.  The RBNZ is likely to be the most eventful among these, with a 25bp hike in its policy rate (OCR) expected amid firming data and rising inflation pressures.  Key data this week includes US July retail sales (Tue), with falls in both the headline and control group readings likely as the boost to spending from stimulus and reopening fades. 

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.

USD underperforms

The Fed expanded its asset purchases by buying $45 billion in longer dated Treasuries following the end of Operation Twist, with total purchases at USD 85 billion per month. The Fed went a step further by changing the guidance, now anticipating that policy will be maintained at an “exceptionally low range for the Fed Funds rate” as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6 ½ % and inflation no more than ½ % above the Fed 2% goal.

Equity market reaction was limited, with any positive boost dampened by the recognition that the Fed will not be able to offset the blow to the economy from the fiscal cliff. On this front, progress has been limited as the likelihood of a deal by the end of the year is diminishing by the day.

In Europe sentiment is somewhat better as hopes that the EU Council meeting today will yield an agreement on banking union and supervision. Final approval for the delayed Greek loan tranche is likely to be delivered following the completion of Greece’s debt buyback. The better news in Europe will be reflected in a decent reception to the Spanish and Italian bond offerings today.

The USD did not take too kindly to the latest efforts by the Fed to boost the economy although there are clearly diminishing returns as far as FX markets are concerned with regard to Fed QE. Nonetheless, the USD is coming under growing pressure into year end.

Next year assuming that the fiscal cliff in the US is resolved, with a limited fiscal drag on the economy, a relatively positive growth trajectory for the US alongside an expected increase in US bond yields will mean that the USD will still enjoy gains against currencies with weaker growth paths namely the EUR and JPY.

My forecasts for the USD index based on forecasts for its constituents show a gradual strengthening over the course of the next couple of years (82.4 and 85.7 by end-2013 and -2014, respectively) largely due to the USD’s expected appreciation versus EUR and JPY. In reality, this is misleading as improving risk appetite and continued capital inflows to EM and commodity currencies will mean that the USD will underperform.

EUR slides as summit hopes fade

Any boost to confidence following the recent EU Summit is fading fast. Policy easing from the European Central Bank, Bank of England, and PBoC in China, have done little to turn things around. Moreover, the weaker than expected US June jobs report has added to the calls for the Federal Reserve to inject more monetary stimulus via another round of quantitative easing but this is unlikely anytime soon.

Admittedly the jobs data which reported an 80k increase in payrolls and unemployment rate remaining at 8.2%, was disappointing but it was not weak enough to trigger imminent Fed action. Congressional testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke on July 17 and 18 will provide the next key clues to whether the Fed is moving closer to more QE.

This leaves markets in a miserable state of being. It was hoped that the recent EU Summit would provide much needed breathing space and relief to Eurozone peripheral bond markets. However, renewed policy implementation doubts, concerns that the Summit did not go far enough and opposition from Finland and the Netherlands who appear to have taken an even tougher stance than Germany, have resulted in Spanish and Italian bonds facing significant pressure once again with yields higher than pre summit levels.

A delay in the ESM permanent bailout fund, timing of the setting up of a banking supervisory authority and doubts about the size of the bailout fund given that the ECB appears to have ruled out a banking license as a means of leveraging up the ESM, are just a few of the concerns afflicting markets. Meanwhile, added to this list is the fact that Greece’s next bailout tranche has been delayed to mid September. Many of these issues as well as the bailout of Spanish banks will be discussed at today’s Ecofin meeting but the chances of much progress remain limited.

The EUR which is of course not uncrorrelated with peripheral bond yields has itself fallen sharply. Thin trading conditions have helped to exacerbate the drop in the EUR while the realisation that the EU summit has been no game changer is increasingly weighing on the currency. I had thought that the Summit may have helped to at least provide a floor under the EUR but this now looks like a case of misplaced optimism.

The only supportive factor for the currency is that it looks heavily oversold, with market positioning extremely short. However, if a break below the 2012 EUR/USD low around 1.2288 can be sustained markets will quickly latch onto 1.20 as the next target. Given the lack of major events or data releases over coming days there looks like little to offer the EUR any support.

Is gold losing its lustre?

Hopes and expectations of more Fed quantitative easing in the wake of a run of weak US data, including the US May jobs report, has been attributable to the bounce in gold prices over recent weeks. However, Fed Chairman Bernanke dampened such hopes in his speech to Congress, in which he did not indicate a desire to move towards more QE. The Fed is unlikely in my view to embark on more QE any time soon.

Clearly, should the Fed implement more QE it will help to renew the attraction of gold. Once again markets will see the consequences of Fed QE as a means to debase the USD. A shift in Fed stance cannot be ruled out if US economic conditions worsen further and/or the Eurozone crisis escalates. Assuming no more QE and no more USD debasement, gold prices ought to decline over coming months.

One of the biggest factors putting downward pressure on gold prices has been the strength of the USD. While I do not expect the USD to continue to strengthen at the same pace as it has done recently, further gradual gains in the currency are likely. My FX forecasts predict a further small gain for the USD index by the end of the year but I also believe that the recent run up in the USD may have been too rapid. Assuming that the USD continues on a gradual upward trajectory I expect it to exert a negative influence on gold prices.

Gold appears to have lost its sensitivity to risk aversion. Indeed, gold’s relationship with risk has actually inverted over recent months, with a negative but significant relationship registered over the past 3 months between gold prices and my Risk Aversion Barometer. In other words as risk aversion goes up, gold prices actually drop.

The lack of reaction to higher risk aversion shows that the lustre of gold as a safe haven has faded as investors pull capital out of this as well as many other asset classes. However, gold’s drop is not unusual when compared to other commodity prices, with oil and copper prices falling too and gold maintaining a strong correlation with these commodities.

Some deterioration in sentiment towards gold prices has been reflected in the drop in speculative appetite for the commodity. Speculative demand for gold hit a cyclical high in August 2011 but since then there has been a steady reduction in appetite for gold from these investors. Indeed, CFTC IMM data reveals that speculative gold positioning dropped well below its three-month average. However, positioning is still well above its all time lows reached in February 2005, suggesting if anything, there is scope for more declines.

On top of the drop in speculative appetite for gold the technical picture has turned bearish. Since March 2009 at the height of the financial crisis the 100 day moving average price of gold had been trading above the 200 day moving average. On 27 March 2012 the 100 day moving average crossed below the 200 day moving average. Moreover, gold is now trading below both the 100 and 200 day moving average prices which sends a bearish technical message. Over the near term some key levels to look for are the 100 day moving average around 1658 on the topside and trendline support around the 1530 level on the bottom.

Another determinant of gold prices is demand from India and China. Growth in both countries is slowing, suggesting that gold demand is also weakening. While I certainly do not expect a collapse in demand from either country I have no doubt that compared to last year the strength of demand will be softer over coming months. Although I still look for a soft landing in China the Indian economic picture has clearly deteriorated while the Indian rupee has weakened. A weaker INR means that has become increasingly more expensive to import gold to India for domestic purchasers.

Overall, a weaker real demand picture taken together with reduced speculative appetite implies little support for gold prices. Moreover, a firmer USD in general will continue to weigh on prices. Perhaps a dose of inflation would help gold prices but there is little risk of this given the still sizeable amount of excess capacity in major economies.

Uncertainty about QE will help to limit any downside pressure on gold prices but elevated risk aversion will provide little assistance to gold. If however, the Eurozone and global picture deteriorates further gold will find itself with a lifeline but only if this means more currency debasement and a Fed engineered lower USD. If not, a further decline is on the cards and I forecast a drop in gold prices to around USD 1475 by the end of the year.

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