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. 

Busy Week Ahead For Central Banks

US equities came under more pressure at the end of last week, with the S&P 500 falling to its lowest in four weeks, down around 2% month to data.  The drop will test the buy on dips mentality as the S&P is once again resting just above its pivotal 55-day moving average, a level that has seen strong buying interest in the past. 

Economic data gave little help to market sentiment, with the University of Michigan confidence index improving a little to 71.0 in early September but falling slightly below consensus expectations at 72.0.  Separately, the inflation expectations measures were broadly unchanged, with the most relevant series for Fed officials (the 5-10y) remaining steady at 2.9%, which is still consistent with the Fed’s 2% goal.

This week is all about central bank meetings, with an array of policy meetings including in Indonesia (Tue), Sweden (Tue), Hungary (Tue), China (Wed), Japan (Wed), US (Wed), Brazil (Thu), Philippines (Thu), UK (Thu), Norway (Thu), Switzerland (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and Taiwan (Fri), all on tap. 

Most focus will obviously be on the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting, during which officials will likely signal that they are almost ready to taper. A formal announcement is likely in December or possibly November.  Most other central banks are likely to stay on hold except a likely 25bp hike in Norway, 25bp in Hungary, and 100bp in Brazil.

Politics will also be in focus, with Canada’s Federal election and the results of Russia’s parliamentary elections today.  Polls suggest the incumbent Liberals ahead though the most likely outcome is a minority government in Canada while in Russia the ruling pro Kremlin United Russia party is likely to renew its supermajority. 

Other issues in focus this week are frictions over the US debt ceiling, with the House voting soon on raising the ceiling.  US Treasury Secretary Yellen renewed her calls for Congress to raise of suspend the debt ceiling stating in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that failing to do so “would produce widespread economic catastrophe”. 

In China, Evergrande’s travails will be in the spotlight on Thursday when interest payments on two of its notes come due amid growing default risks.  Indeed, China related stocks slid on Monday morning as Evergrande concerns spread through the market.  Property developer stocks are under most pressure and whether there is wider contagion will depend on events on Thursday.

The US dollar has continued to strengthen, edging towards its 20 Aug high around 92.729 (DXY) and looks likely to remain firm heading into the Fed FOMC meeting especially as it will hard for Fed Chair Powell to sound too dovish and given risks of a hawkish shift in the dot plot.  Positioning data is showing increasingly positive sentiment towards the dollar, with speculative positioning (CFTC IMM net non-commercial futures) data showing the highest net long DXY position since May 2020. 

Conversely, speculative positioning in Australian dollar has hit a record low likely undermined by weaker iron ore prices.  Similarly, positioning in Canadian dollar is at its lowest since Dec 2020 while Swiss franc positioning is at its lowest since Dec 2019. Asian currencies have been hit, with the ADXY sliding over recent days.  The Chinese currency, CNY has been undermined by weaker data and concerns over Evergrande while high virus cases in some countries are hurting the likes of Thai baht. 

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. 

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.

Sweden Riksbank preview

There is almost no disagreement about expectations for today’s Riksbank policy decision. The central bank last lowered the repo rate in December and is unlikely to alter policy settings again so soon, with the policy rate likely to be maintained at 0.75%

The SEK is unlikely to be impacted by today’s rate decision, with the currency benefitting from the recent improvement in risk appetite. However, a relatively dovish statement from the Riksbank may undermine the SEK especially as it approaches EUR/SEK support around 8.75.

Further out, we expect SEK to continue to appreciate gradually but its worth noting that gains in the currency are not comfortable for the Swedish authorities, who have called for stricter capital rules on its banks to help weaken the currency (via keeping policy rates low).

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