US Elections – The Proof Is In The Pudding

The week ahead is a huge for data and events.  First and foremost is the US Presidential election on Tuesday.  Polls show Democratic contender Biden well in the lead over President Trump, with around an 8.8% gap in polling between the two contenders.  However, Biden has lost some ground over recent weeks in polls including in key toss-up races though betting odds actually show a late shift back in favour of Biden.  Polls predict that Democrats will also take the Senate from the Republicans and add to their majority in the House. 

While the polls indicate a Blue Wave for the Democrats there is still a healthy degree of cynicism given how badly they predicted the outcome of the 2016 election, when most pollsters predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.  In recognition pollsters say they have changed their methodologies to correct for past errors.  The proof is in the pudding and until elections are over, investors will be holding their breath.  Even after election day itself, it is not clear that we will see an outcome quickly.  A jump in early voting may complicate things as well as the large amount of mail in voting, which could in some states take days to count. 

The problem may be more acute if the election is a close call, which polls are admittedly not suggesting, but nonetheless, the potential for multiple legal challenges and even civil unrest should not be discounted.  Note that States technically have until December 14 to certify election results.  Some states that will be key to either side will be Florida and Pennsylvania as well as Michigan,  North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin.  Florida in particular, could be essential, and could be one of the first states to be called on election night.  The winner in Florida has gone on to the win the Presidency in 13 of the 14 last elections. It is also one of the closest races this time around.

All of this is taking place at a time when Covid-19 cases are accelerating, potential a bad omen for Trump given that polls have shown widespread disapproval over his handling of the virus.  Indeed, Covid inflections in the US increased by 97,000 on Friday, the largest one day increase since the outbreak of the virus. The jump in cases were led by Midwestern states, some of which are major battleground states in the elections.  Admittedly, some of the increase in cases can be ascribed to higher testing rates, but hospitalisations have also risen sharply. 

All of this doesn’t bode well for the economy.  While the third quarter registered an above consensus increase in US GDP of 33.1% on annualised basis, the outlook for Q4 looks much softer and without a new fiscal stimulus package, momentum will slow sharply.  The labour market in particular is weak and while this week’s US October employment report will likely show a strong increase in non-farm payrolls (consensus 610,000), there will still likely be around 10 million fewer jobs since February.  The Federal Reserve FOMC meeting this week is unlikely to deliver any further support, with the onus squarely on more fiscal stimulus.

Equity markets have clearly become increasingly nervous heading into the election, with US stocks registering their worst week since March amid election nervousness and spike in Covid infections.   Tech stocks were hit despite mostly beating earnings expectations.  The US dollar in contrast, made some headway, but didn’t really fully capitalise on the sell off in stocks and rise in risk aversion, that would usually be expected to propel the currency higher.   If polls are correct and there is a strong outcome for Democrats in the election, stocks will likely find their feet again, while the US dollar will resume weakness. 

US Dollar Sliding, Gold At Record Highs

Risk sentiment has turned south and the US stock rotation out of tech into value has gathered pace, with the Nasdaq ending down for a second straight week.  Gold is turning into a star performer, registering a record high today, while the US dollar continues to lose ground.  Economic activity is slowing, second round virus cases are accelerating in places that had previously flattened the curve, while US- China tensions are heating up.  Attention this week will centre on US fiscal discussions while US-China tensions remain a key focal point.

Reports suggest that Senate Republicans and the US administration have agreed on a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package.  This will be the opening offer in discussions with Democrats (who had passed a $3 trillion package in House in May), with less than a week before unemployment benefits expire.  Whether the $1 trillion on the table will be sufficient to satisfy Democrats is debatable and a figure of around $1.5 trillion looks plausible. Time is running out and pressure to reach a compromise is growing.   Further uncertainty will likely weigh on US markets in the days ahead.

US-China tensions remain a key focus for markets. Worries about a dismantling of the Phase 1 trade deal still looks premature even as China has fallen behind in terms of purchasing US imports.  The closure of the US consulate in Chengdu following the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston will be seen as a proportionate move, that is unlikely to escalate matters.  Nonetheless, a further escalation is inevitable ahead of US elections in November, with a broad array of US administration officials becoming more aggressive in their rhetoric against China.  As such, further sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies could be on the cards.

The week could prove critical for the US dollar given that it is breaching key technical levels against a host of currencies, with the currency failing to benefit from rising risk aversion recently. While not a game changer the European Union “recovery fund” is perceived as a key step forward for the EU, a factor underpinning the euro.  Key data and events over the week include the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed), US (Thu) and Eurozone Q2 GDP (Fri) and China purchasing managers indices (PMI) (Fri).  US Q2 earnings remain in focus too.  Before these data releases, today attention turns to the German IFO survey (consensus 89.3) and US durable goods orders (consensus 6.8%).

 

Euro still looks uglier than the dollar

Currency markets continue to vacillate between US debt ceiling concerns and eurozone peripheral debt worries. Despite a lack of agreement to raise the debt ceiling, with House Republicans failing to back a proposal by House speak Boehner, the USD actually strengthened towards the end of the week as eurozone peripheral issues shifted back into focus.

The resilience of the USD to the lack of progress in raising the debt ceiling is impressive and reveals that the EUR looks even uglier than the USD, in many investors’ eyes.

Much in terms of direction for the week ahead will depend on the magnitude of any increase in the debt ceiling and accompanying budget deficit reduction measures. Assuming that a deal is reached ahead of the August 2 deadline it is not obvious that the USD and risk currencies will enjoy a rally unless the debt ceiling deal is a solid and significant one.

Given the limited market follow through following the recent deal to provide Greece with a second bailout, the EUR remains wholly unable to capitalise on the USD’s woes.

A reminder that all is not rosy was the fact that Moody’s ratings agency placed Spain’s credit ratings on review for possible downgrade while reports that the Spanish parliament will be dissolved on September 26 for early elections on November 20 will hardly help sentiment for the EUR. Compounding the Spanish news doubts that the EFSF bailout fund will be ready to lend to Greece by the next tranche deadline in mid-September and whether Spain and Italy will participate, have grown.

Some key data releases and events will also likely to garner FX market attention, with attention likely to revert to central bank decisions including the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Reserve Bank of Australia and US July jobs report. None of the central banks are likely to shift policy rates, however.

The risk for the USD this week is not only that there is disappointing result to the debt ceiling discussions, but also that there is a weak outcome to the US July jobs report. An increase of around 100k in payrolls, with the unemployment rate remaining at 9.2%, will fixate market attention on weak growth and if this increases expectations for a fresh round of Fed asset purchases the USD could be left rather vulnerable.

The RBA is highly unlikely to raise interest rates but the tone of the accompanying statement is unlikely to be dovish. The RBA noted the strong emphasis on the Q2 CPI inflation data and in the event it came in higher than expected, a fact that supports my expectation that the Bank will hike policy rates at least once more by the end of this year.

Markets have largely priced out expectations of a rate cut but there is still scope for a more hawkish shift in Australian interest rate markets, which will give the AUD a boost. However, AUD remains vulnerable to developments in the US and Europe as well as overall risk aversion, and a preferable way to play a positive AUD view in the current environment is via the NZD.

Risk Aversion to remain elevated

It remains a tumultuous time for markets, gripped by a cacophony of concerns ranging from the lack of resolution to the Eurozone debt crisis to the failure to reach agreement on raising the US debt ceiling and associated deficit reduction plans. Mingled among these is the growing evidence that economic growth is turning out weaker than expected. Meanwhile Europe’s crisis appears to be shifting from bad to worse, as reflected in a shift in attention towards the hitherto untouched Italy although Italian concerns have eased lately.

The release of the EU bank stress test results at the end of last week have not helped, with plenty of criticism about their severity and rigour following the failure of only 8 banks out of the 90 tested. Expectations centred on several more banks failing, with much more capital required than the EUR 2.5 billion shortfall revealed in the tests. Answering to this criticism officials note that there has already been a significant amount of capital raised over recent months by banks, but this will be insufficient to stem the growing disbelief over the results.

Attention is still very much focussed on Greece and reaching agreement on a second bailout for the country, with further discussions at the special EU summit on July 21. The contentious issue remains the extent of private sector participation in any debt restructuring. The decision to enhance the flexibility of the EFSF bailout fund to embark on debt buybacks has not helped. Consequently contagion risks to other countries in the Eurozone periphery are at a heightened state. Despite all of this the EUR has shown a degree of resilience, having failed to sustain its recent drop below 1.40 versus USD.

One explanation for the EUR’s ability to avoid a steeper decline is that the situation on the other side of the pond does not look much better. Hints of QE3 in the US and the impasse between Republicans and Democrats on budget deficit cutting measures tied to any increase in the debt ceiling are limiting the USD’s ability to benefit from Europe’s woes. Moreover, more weak data including a drop in the Empire manufacturing survey and a drop in the Michigan consumer sentiment index to a two-year low, have added to the worries about US recovery prospects.

Against this background risk aversion will remain elevated, supporting the likes of the CHF and JPY while the EUR and USD will continue to fight it out for the winner of the ugliest currency contest. Assuming that a deal will eventually be cobbled together to raise the US debt ceiling (albeit with less ambitious deficit cutting measures than initially hoped for) and that the Fed does not embark on QE3, the EUR will emerge as the most ugly currency, but there will be plenty of volatility in the meantime.

Data and events this week include more US Q2 earnings, June housing starts and existing home sales. While housing data are set to increase, the overall shape of the housing market remains very weak. In Europe, July business and investor surveys will be in focus, with a sharp fall in the German ZEW investor confidence survey likely and a further softening in July purchasing managers indices across the eurozone. The German IFO business confidence survey is also likely to decline in July but will still point to healthy growth in the country. In the UK Bank of England MPC minutes will confirm no bias for policy rate changes with a 7-2 vote likely, while June retail sales are likely to bounce back.

Which is the ugliest currency?

The contest of the uglies has once again been set in motion in FX markets as last Friday’s weak US jobs report, which revealed a paltry 18k increase in June payrolls, downward revisions to past months and a rise in the unemployment rate, actually left the USD unperturbed. Europe’s problems outweighed the negative impact of more signs of a weak US economy, leaving the EUR as a bigger loser.

The USD’s resilience was even more impressive considering the drop in US bond yields in the wake of the data. However, news over the weekend that talks over the US budget deficit and debt ceiling broke down as Republicans pulled out of discussions, will leave USD bulls with a sour taste in their mouth.

Should weak jobs recovery dent enthusiasm for the USD? To the extent that it may raise expectations of the need for more Fed asset purchases, it may prove to be an obstacle for the USD. However, there is sufficient reason to look for a rebound in growth in H2 2011 while in any case the Fed has set the hurdle at a high level for more quantitative easing (QE).

Fed Chairman Bernanke’s reaction and outlook will be gleaned from his semi-annual testimony before the House (Wed) although he will likely stick to the script in terms of US recovery hopes for H2. This ought to leave the USD with little to worry about. There will be plenty of other data releases this week to chew on including trade data, retail sales, CPI and PPI inflation and consumer confidence as well as the kick off to the Q2 earnings season.

Fresh concerns in Europe, this time with contagion spreading to Italy left the EUR in bad shape and unable to capitalise on the soft US jobs report. In Italy high debt levels, weak growth, political friction and banking concerns are acting in unison. The fact that there is unlikely to be a final agreement on second Greek bailout package at today’s Eurogroup meeting will act as a further weight on the EUR.

Discussions over debt roll over plans, the role of the private sector and the stance of ratings agencies will likely drag on, suggesting that the EUR will not find any support over coming days and will more likely lose more ground as the week progresses. If these issues were not sufficiently worrisome, the release of EU wide bank stress tests on Friday will fuel more nervousness. Against this background EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a drop to technical support around 1.4102.

The Bank of Japan is the only major central bank to decide on interest rates this week but an expected unchanged policy decision tomorrow is unlikely to lead to any JPY reaction. In fact there appears to be little to move the JPY out of its current tight range at present. USD/JPY continues to be the most correlated currency pair with 2-year bond yield differentials and the fact that the US yield advantage has dropped relative to Japan has led to USD/JPY once again losing the 81.0 handle.

However, as reflected in the CFTC IMM data the speculative market is still holding a sizeable long position in JPY, which could result in a sharp drop in the currency should US yields shift relatively higher, as we expect over coming months. In the short-term USD/JPY is likely to be well supported around 80.01.

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