Chinese Data Softens

It was a tough week for risk assets last week as stocks dropped, volatility increased and the battle between retail investors and hedge funds intensified, with the latter on the losing side. The end of the week saw US and European stocks drop.  Whether the decline in stocks is due to over extended valuations, vaccine variants, vaccine supply pressures, weak activity data or more likely a combination of all of these, asset markets go into this week on a more unstable footing, with risks skewed towards pull back extending further.  It’s hard to blame day traders for the drop given that most of activity from retail traders is buying of stocks, and now silver, with heavy short position, but they are likely contributing to the rise in volatility.  The US dollar (USD) could be a key beneficiary given the massive extent of short positioning in the currency.

Data in China is showing some softening in momentum.  China’s Jan official purchasing managers index (PMI) kicked off this week’s data and event schedule yesterday, with both the manufacturing and service sector PMIs disappointing expectations; the manufacturing PMI fell to 51.3 in Jan (consensus 51.6, last month 51.9) and services to 52.4 in Jan from 55.7 previously.  China’s softer PMI once again contrasted with a series of Asia manufacturing PMIs, released this morning. Later today the US Jan ISM manufacturing index is likely to register a modest decline (consensus: 60.0 from 60.7 previously). Also in focus today is India’s budget announcement, with the Fiscal Year 2021 budget deficit likely to be around 6-7% of GDP, much higher than the original 3.5% estimate.  

Over the rest of the week there are interest rate decisions in Australia (Tuesday), Thailand, Poland (both on Wednesday), UK (Thursday) and India (Friday).  Among these the Reserve Bank of India has the most potential for a surprise relative to market expectations, with a rate cut likely.  The highlight of the week is likely to be the US January jobs report at the end of this week (consensus 55k).  Deliberations on US fiscal stimulus will also be in focus, with a group of 10 Republican Senators writing to President Biden with a $600 billion stimulus proposal, well below the $1.9 trillion put forward by the administration.  Democrats have hinted that they may push through stimulus via reconciliation, which not require Republican support in the Senate, but such a move would likely sour any mood of cooperation in the Senate. 

The Week Ahead

This week the difficulty of trying to pass President Biden’s $1.8tn stimulus package through Congress is likely to become increasingly apparent.  Many Senate republicans are already balking at the price tag and contents, adding more weight to the view of an eventual passage of a sub $1tn package of measures (see my explanation of why Republican support is needed). One of the most contentious issues is likely to be a federally mandated $15 minimum wage. 

At least, the Senate won’t be juggling the impeachment of Donald Trump, at the same time as debating administration nominations and President Biden’s fiscal proposal, with the impeachment trial now scheduled for the week of February 8.

The contrast between US and European data at the end of last week was clear in the release of Markit purchasing managers indices (PMI) data.  US PMI’s registered strong flash readings for January, with both the manufacturing and services indices rising while in contrast the Eurozone composite PMI fell in January, sliding further into contraction.  A disappointing UK retail sales report highlighted the pressure on the UK high street too. 

The reality is that many developed economies are struggling into the new year, with a sharp increase in virus cases including new variants, slower than hoped for rollout of vaccines, and vaccine production shortages, all pointing to a later than expected recovery phase. 

This week, the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed) will garner most attention in markets. A few Fed officials mentioned tapering recently, clearly rattling markets, as memories of the 2013 “taper tantrum” came back to the surface.  After tamping down on any taper talk Fed Chair Powell is likely remain dovish even as he expresses some optimism on growth.  Growth in Q4 will have looked weak and US Q4 GDP (Thu) will be in focus, with most components likely to have slowed.  A plethora of earnings releases will continue this week including key releases from the likes of Microsoft, AMD, Tesla, Apple and Facebook. 

A dovish FOMC will do no favours for the US dollar (USD), which came under renewed pressure last week.  However, risk assets appear to be struggling a little and should risk appetite worsen it could boost the USD, especially given extreme short positioning in the currency. Emerging Market currencies will be particularly vulnerable if any rally in the USD is associated with higher US real yields. 

Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

Growth/Risk Asset Rally Dichotomy To Continue

Happy New Year!  2020 ended with record highs for US stock markets, capping off a solid year for risk assets amid massive and ongoing central bank liquidity injections.  In contrast the dollar index (DXY) ended the year languishing around its lowest levels since April 2018.  The dichotomy between the sharp deterioration in global growth and risk asset performance has widened dramatically.  Given the acceleration in COVID-19 cases over recent weeks and consequent lockdowns, especially in the US and Europe, this divergence is likely to be sustained and even widen further over the next few months, at least until various vaccines finally manage to stem the damage.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for markets over recent weeks/months have been US fiscal stimulus and Brexit.  Both have now passed with last minute deals, setting the scene for a clearer path in the weeks ahead though political obstacles have not disappeared by any means, with the Georgia Senate run-off elections scheduled for Tuesday.  The outcome will be crucial for control of the US Senate with Democrats needing wins in both races to take over. However, the races are too close to call according to polls. Separately the US Congress will meet on Wednesday to declare the winner of the Presidential election. 

On the data and events front the week begins with an OPEC+ meeting tomorrow, with officials deliberating on whether to expand output by up to 500k barrels.  There are also a series of December Markit manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMI) tomorrow including in various countries in Asia as well as the release of the Caixin manufacturing PMI in China.  US data will take centre stage with the release of the ISM manufacturing survey (Tuesday), Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) and non-farm payrolls (Friday).  Overall, markets are likely to begin the year much as the same way they left 2020, with risk appetite remaining firm. 

One interesting observation as we kick off 2021 is that so many investor and analysts’ views are aligned in the same direction (long Emerging markets, short USD, long value stocks, etc), and positioning is already looking stretched in various asset classes as a result.  While I would caution against catching a falling knife there is a clearly a risk of jumping on the same bandwagon as everybody else in a market that is increasingly positioned in one direction.  Overall, while the risk rally is likely to continue to have legs in the months ahead, investors should be on their toes in the weeks ahead given risks of a positioning squeeze in various asset classes.

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. 

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