US Elections Take Yet More Twists & Turns

Amidst mixed messages from the White House about President’s Trump’s health and a growing circle of US administration officials and Senate Republicans infected with Covid-19, markets will kick of this week with many questions about the running of government, prospects for fresh fiscal stimulus and the nomination of the new Supreme Court Justice. President Trump pushed for stimulus in tweet while in hospital but obstacles in the Senate remain, including the fact that the Senate has adjourned until Oct 19, a factor that will also delay the Supreme Court confirmation process. 

In what was already an election fraught with various issues, President Trump’s Covid infection has added another layer of uncertainty.  The fact that several of his campaign aides have tested positive also complicates his ability to campaign to try to close the gap with ex- VP Biden.  There is also the question of whether the President will be well enough to take part in the second Presidential debate scheduled for October 15.  Markets initial sharp negative reaction to the news that Trump had contracted the virus, on Friday was tempered by the end of the session suggesting some calm.  However, every piece of news on Trump’s health will be closely scrutinized in the days ahead.  

The US dollar ended last week firm and this trend is likely to continue given the uncertainty about events in the weeks ahead, which despite the fact that much of this uncertainty is US led, will still likely lead to some safe haven dollar demand. 

A weaker than consensus US September jobs report didn’t help markets at the end of last week, with non-farm payrolls coming at 661k (consensus 859k) while a 0.5% drop in the unemployment rate was due a drop in the participation rate.  US non-farm payrolls are still down 10.7 million from the levels seen in February, highlighting the still significant pressure on the US labour market despite the job gains over recent months. 

Attention this week will focus on Federal Reserve Chair Powell’s speech on Tuesday and Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday, which will be scrutinised for details on how the Fed will implement average inflation targeting.  Also on tap is the US Vice Presidential debate on Wed between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, which hopefully will not be a fractious as the debate between President Trump and ex-Vice President Biden.  

Monetary Policy rate decisions in Australia (consensus 0.25%) on Tuesday and in Poland (consensus 0.1%) on Wednesday as well as the Australian Federal budget on Tuesday will also garner attention this week. 

Tough Times for the US Dollar

The US dollar had an awful July, with the USD index dropping by around 5% over the month, its worst monthly performance in 10 years. A range of factors can be cited for USD weakness including an asset allocation shift to assets outside of the US, worsening news on US Covid cases over recent weeks, improved risk appetite, US election concerns, lower real yields and fiscal cliff worries, among other factors.  Gold has been a particularly strong beneficiary of the malaise in the USD and declining real yield yields.  The Fed’s pledge to keep on aggressively supporting the economy and likely strengthening of forward guidance in the months ahead suggest that any increase in US interest rates could be years off.

It is still difficult to see the recent weakness in the USD resulting in a deterioration in its dominant reserve currency status though the longer the factors noted above remain in place, the bigger the danger to longer term confidence in the USD. As a reminder of such risks Fitch ratings downgraded US AAA credit rating to a negative outlook.  I do not expect markets and the USD to be impacted by the move, but it does highlight a worsening in US fundamentals.  While other currencies are still a long away from displacing the USD dominance in FX reserves, financial flows, FX trading and trade, the longer term risks to the USD are clear.

That said, the USD caught a bid at the end of last week resulting in a sharp retreat in the euro (EUR) from heavily overbought technical levels.  It is unlikely to be a coincide that this occurred as US Covid cases showed signs of peaking while cases in many parts of Europe began to accelerate, resulting in delays to opening up or renewed tightening of social distancing measures there.  US stocks have also continued to perform well, despite much discussion of a rotation to value stocks.  Solid earnings from US tech heavyweights solidified their position as leaders of the pack.  It is too early to say that this is the beginning of a USD turnaround, but the currency is heavily oversold in terms of positioning and technicals, which point to room for some respite.

Turning to the week ahead attention will be on July global Purchasing Managers Indices (PMI) data beginning with China’s private sector Caixin PMI (consensus 51.1), and the US ISM survey (consensus 53.6) tomorrow.  Central bank decisions include the Reserve Bank of Australia (Tue), Bank of England (Thu), Reserve Bank of India (Thu) and Bank of Thailand (Wed).  No change is likely from the RBA, BoE and BoT, but expect a 25bp cut from RBI.  At the end of the week two pieces of data will take precedence; US July jobs data and China July trade data.  US-China tensions will come under further scrutiny after President Trump vowed to ban TikTok in the US while pouring cold water on a sale to a third party.

 

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).

Market Volatility Continues To Compress

The US Independence Day holiday kept trading, market activity and volatility subdued for much of last week.  In any case equity markets and risk assets have been struggling on the topside and appear to be losing momentum.  Markets are being buffeted by conflicting forces; economic news has beaten expectations. For example, the US June jobs report was better than expected though total job gains of 7.5 million in recent months are still only around a third of total jobs lost.  In contrast, worsening news on Covid 19 infections, with the WHO reporting a one day record high in global infections, threatens to put a dampener on sentiment.  Consolidation is likely, with Summer trading conditions increasingly creeping in over the weeks ahead. As such volatility is likely to continue to be suppressed, aided by central banks’ liquidity injections.

Over recent weeks geopolitical risks have admittedly not had a major impact on markets but this doesn’t mean that this will remain the case given the plethora of growing risks.  China’s installation of new security legislation into Hong Kong’s basic law and the first arrests utilizing this law were in focus last week.  A US administration official has reportedly said that the president is considering two or three actions against China, and markets will be on the lookout for any such actions this week, which could include further sanctions against individuals are more details of what the removal of HK’s special trading status will entail.  Meanwhile the US has sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea reportedly to send a message against China’s military build up in the area, with China’s PLA conducting a five-day drill around the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.

Data releases and events this week are unlikely to lead to a change in this dynamic.  At the beginning of the week attention will focus on further discussions between the UK and EU over the post Brexit landscape while in the US the June non-manufacturing ISM survey will garner attention.  So far talks on a trade deal between the UK and EU have stalled though there were hints of progress last week, even as officials admitted that “serious divergencies remain”.  The US ISM non-manufacturing survey is likely to move back to expansion (above 50) but is increasingly being threatened by the increase in Covid infections, which could yet again dampen service sector activity. On the policy front there will be fiscal updates from the UK and Canada on Wednesday against the backdrop of ramped up spending, and monetary policy decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and BNM in Malaysia on Tuesday.  The RBA is widely expected to keep policy unchanged while BNM may cut rates by 25 basis points.

 

Revoking Hong Kong’s Special Status – Data/Events This Week.

In a further escalation of US-China tensions, President Trump revoked Hong Kong’s (HK) “Special Status” as revealed in a speech on Friday.  What does this mean? At this stage there is scant detail to go on.  Trump also promised to implement sanctions against individuals in China and HK who he deems responsible for eroding HK’s autonomy, but no names were given. Markets reacted with relief, with US equities closing higher on Friday, perhaps in relief that that the measures outlined by Trump were not more severe, or that the lack of detail meant that there could be various exemptions.

On the face of it, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” would deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s economy and to US companies there, while hurting China’s economy too.  However, while still an important financial centre, Hong Kong’s economy relative to China is far smaller than it was at the time of the handover in 1997, at around 3%.   As such, removing Hong Kong’s “Special Status” could be less painful on China than it would have been in the past.  This may explain why the US administration is focusing on other measures such as student visa restrictions, sanctioning individuals, restricting investment etc.  Even so, tensions will continue to cast a shadow over markets for some time to come and will likely heat up ahead of US elections in November.

Data wise, the week began with the release of China’s May manufacturing and non-manufacturing purchasing manager’s indices (PMIs) today.  The data revealed a slight softening in the manufacturing PMI to 50.6 in May from 50.8 in April, indicating that manufacturing activity continues to remain in expansion.  However, the trade related components were weak, suggesting that China’s exports and imports outlook is likely to come under growing pressure, weighing on overall recovery.  China’s currency, the renminbi, has been weakening lately against the US dollar and against its peers, though it rallied against the dollar on Friday.  Further gradual weakness in the renminbi looks likely over coming weeks.

This week there will be attention on various data releases and events including US May jobs data, ISM manufacturing, European Central Bank (ECB) and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy decisions and UK-EU Brexit discussions.  Of course markets will remain tuned into Covid-19 developments as economies around the world continue to open up.   While the US jobs and ISM data will likely remain very weak, the silver lining is that the extent of weakness is likely to lessen in the months ahead.  Consensus forecasts predict a massive 8 million drop in US non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate to increase to close to 20%.  The RBA is likely to leave policy unchanged at 0.25% while the ECB is expected to step up its asset purchases. Meanwhile UK-EU Brexit discussions are likely to continue to be fraught with difficulty.

 

 

 

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