Game Changer

Pfizer and BioNTech’s game changing announcement that its vaccine had been found to be more than 90% effective in a late stage trial added more fuel on a stock market rally that was already underway following President-elect Biden’s election win and likely split Congress.  It was the time for beaten up value/travel/oil stocks to shine while conversely stay at home stocks have come under pressure.  However, that story appeared to reverse overnight, with tech stocks making a comeback, suggesting that it’s not going to be a one way bet for value stocks. 

One obstacle is the rampant increase in virus cases in the US and Europe and risks of more lockdowns. Though the vaccine news is clearly positive its worth highlighting that it could take some time for any vaccine to be rolled out in sufficient numbers to allow for an opening up of economies anytime soon.  In the meantime, we still have to contend with a big wave of virus infections in Europe and US, which implies more economic pain to come.  All of this could put a renewed dampener on risk sentiment and limit the rally in stocks in the near term.  

Technical indicators (Relative Strength Index) suggest resistance in the short term; for example, the US Russell 2000 index (a broad small cap index) is verging on hitting Fibonacci retracement levels around 1746, while its also above its upper Bollinger band.  Not helping tech stocks is the regulatory stance, with Amazon hit by an antitrust charge from regulators in the EU.  The USD’s weakness also looks overdone in the short term. In particular, technical indicators show that Asian currencies and dollar bloc currencies (CAD, AUD, NZD) look stretched. The USD is likely to make further gains in the short term even as its medium term outlook remains more negative.

Meanwhile Republicans are increasingly standing with President Trump in not accepting the outcome of the election, fuelling concerns about the transition process, even as President-elect Biden’s lead in various states has grown. Many are doing so with an eye on 2024 elections. Georgia is auditing the presidential results in its state by hand, but even so, it seems extremely unlikely that Trump can reverse Biden’s 14k lead in the state and even if that does occur it wouldn’t change the outcome. 

Data, Earnings, Central Banks and Virus Cases In Focus

Risk appetite took a turn for the better at the end of last week despite an array of the usual suspect risk factors (accelerating Covid-19 cases, US-China tensions, rich valuations). This kept the US dollar under pressure given the inverse relationship between equities and the USD over recent weeks.  Market positioning continues to show sentiment for the USD remaining negative (CFTC IMM data revealed that aggregate USD speculative positions have been net short for 15 out of the last 17 weeks, including the last 5).  Increasingly risks of a US fiscal cliff as stimulus programs run out, with Republicans and Democrats wrangling over more stimulus and US Presidential elections will be added to the list of factors testing market resilience in the days and weeks ahead.

This week there are several key data and events including China June trade data (Tue), China Q2 GDP (Thu), US June  CPI (Tue), US June retail sales (Thu), Australia June employment data and several central bank decisions including Bank of Japan (Wed), European Central Bank (Thu), Bank of Canada (Wed), Bank Indonesia (Thu), Bank of Korea (Thu), and National Bank of Poland (Tue).  Aside from economic data and events the path of virus infections will be closely watched, especially in the US given risks of a reversal of opening up measures.  Last but not least the Q2 earnings season kicks off this week, with financials in particular in focus this week.  Low real yields continue to prove supportive for equities and gold, but very weak earnings could prove to be a major test for equity markets.

On the data front, Chinese exports and imports likely fell in June, but at a slower pace than in the previous month, China’s Q2 GDP is likely to bounce, while US CPI likely got a boost from gasoline prices, and US retail sales likely recorded a sharp jump in June. Almost all of the central bank decisions this week are likely to be dull affairs, with unchanged policy decisions amid subdued inflation, although there is a high risk that Bank Indonesia eases.  The EU Leaders Summit at the end of the week will garner attention too, with any progress on thrashing out agreement on the recovery package in focus.  Watch tech stocks this week too; FANGS look overbought on technical including Relative Strength Index (RSIs) and more significantly breaching 100% Fibonacci retracement levels as does the Nasdaq index, but arguably they have looked rich in absolute terms for a while.

There has been plenty of focus on the rally in Chinese equities over recent weeks and that will continue this week.  Last week Chinese stocks had their best week in 5 years and the CSI 300 is up close to 19% year to date.  Stocks have been helped by state media stories highlighting a “healthy” bull market, but the rally is being compared to the bubble in Chinese stocks in 2014/15, with turnover and margin debt rising.  At that time stock prices rallied sharply only to collapse.   However, Chinese equity valuations are cheaper this time and many analysts still look for equities to continue to rally in the weeks ahead.  China’s authorities are also likely to be more careful about any potential bubble developing.

Fundamentals Versus Liquidity

Markets took fright last week. The divergence between what fundamentals are telling us and what markets are doing has widened dramatically, but bulls will say don’t fight the Fed.  However, after an unprecedented run up from the late March lows, equity markets and risk assets appeared to react negatively to a sober assessment of the economic recovery by Fed Chair Powell at last week’s FOMC meeting. News of a renewed increase in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the US against the background of ongoing protests in the country, added to market nervousness.  On Thursday stocks registered their biggest sell off since March but recovered some composure at the end of the week. Volatility has increased and markets are looking far more nervous going into this week.

Exuberance by day traders who have been buying stocks while stuck in lockdown, with not much to do and government pay outs in hand, have been cited as one reason that equities, in particular those that were most beaten up and even in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, have rallied so strongly.  Many (those that prefer to look at fundamentals) believe this will end in tears, comparing the run up in some stocks to what happened just before the tech bubble burst in 2000/01.  The reality is probably somewhat more nuanced.  There’s definitely a lot of liquidity sloshing around, which to some extent is finding itself into the equity market even if the Fed would probably prefer that it went into the real economy.   However, buying stocks that have little intrinsic value is hard to justify and market jitters over the past week could send such investors back to the sidelines.

Stumbling blocks to markets such as concerns about a second wave of virus infections are very real, but the real question is whether this will do any more damage to the economy than has already happened.  In this respect, it seems highly unlikely that a second or even third round of virus cases will result in renewed lockdowns.  Better preparedness in terms of health care, contract tracing, and a general malaise from the public about being locked down, mean that there is no appetite for another tightening in social distancing restrictions.  The result is a likely increase in virus cases, but one that may not do as much economic damage.

Last week’s equity market stumble has helped the US dollar to find its feet again.  After looking oversold according to various technical indicators such as the Relative Strength Index (RSI) the dollar rallied against various currencies recently.  Sentiment for the dollar had become increasingly bearish (overly so in my view), with the sharp decline in US yields , reduced demand for dollars from central banks and companies globally amid an improvement in risk appetite weighing on the currency.  However, I think the dollar is being written off way to quickly.  Likely US economic and asset market outperformance suggests that the US dollar will not go down without a fight.

Chinese currency drops sharply

Once again the Chinese currency CNY dropped, this time recording its biggest drop in 2 years. The message is clear China wants to deter hot money inflows ahead of a potential band widening.

Weaker Chinese economic data is also undermining demand for the CNY from exporters while the Chinese authorities want to increase the volatility of the CNY and engineer a degree of two way risk.

Chinese officials have played down the drop in the CNY and CNH but nonetheless, markets are seeing it as a shift in policy following recently weaker economic data. China’s Finance Minister Lou Jiwei noted that that move in the yuan is “within normal range” an indication that officials are not particularly concerned about the currency.

From a technical perspective the move in USD/CNY is significant. The currency pair touched 6.1227, breaching its 200 day moving average around 6.1018. The MACD (moving average convergence/divergence) has turned bullish too although the RSI (relative strength index) suggests that USD/CNY may be overbought.

Overall, expect further CNY weaknes in the short term (next few weeks) but dont expect this it to turn into a long term trend. Eventually CNY will resume an appreciation path assisted by continued strength in the country’s external balance.

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Contrasting Stance

Despite some recent Fed speakers putting doubts into the minds of the many now looking for the Fed to embark on QE2 in November, the minutes of the 21 September FOMC meeting gave the green light to the commencement of asset purchases next month. Although there is clearly no unanimity within the FOMC the majority favour further easing. Incremental data dependent asset purchases will be the most likely path.

The minutes leave the USD vulnerable to further declines but extreme short USD positioning suggest that there is plenty of risk of short covering and more likely we are probably set for a period of consolidation over coming weeks before the USD resumes its decline.

Unlike the Fed, BoJ and BoE, which remain in easing mode the ECB is already veering towards an exit strategy, albeit one that is unlikely to take effect for some time. Hawkish comments by the ECB’s Weber overnight managed to give a lift to the EUR in the wake of a further widening in interest rate differentials between the eurozone and US. Indeed, interest rate differentials (2nd contract futures) are at the widest since Feb 2009, a factor that is providing plenty of underlying support for the EUR.

Further out the follow through on the EUR will depend on whether markets believe Weber’s stance is credible. Germany’s economy is doing well but it is highly likely that Southern European officials would oppose any premature tightening in policy given the parlous state of their economies. The stronger EUR will also do some damage to growth, with its recent appreciation acting as a de facto monetary tightening.

Despite the positive influence of Weber’s comments short-term technical indicators show that the trend in EUR is vulnerable, with clear signs of negative divergence as the spot rate is still trending higher whilst the relative strength indices (RSI) are trending lower. Moreover, EUR speculative positioning is at its highest in a year, albeit still well of its all time highs. Speculators may be reluctant to build on longs in the near term. A clean and sustained break above EUR/USD 1.4000 level still looks like a stretch too far though any downside is likely to be limited to strong support around 1.3895.

Unlike the perception that the ECB is highly unlikely to follow the Fed in a path of QE2 the policy stance of the BoE is far more uncertain, a fact that continues to weigh on GBP, especially against the EUR. Recent data in the UK has played into the hands of the doves, with housing market activity and prices coming under renewed pressure, retail sales surveys revealing some deterioration and consumer confidence as revealed in the Nationwide survey overnight, weakening further.

BoE MPC member Miles summarized the situation by highlighting that the UK faces “some big risks” and even hinted that the BoE may “come to use QE”. UK jobs data today is unlikely to give any support to sentiment for GBP although as per its recent trend GBP is likely to remain resilient against the USD whilst remaining under pressure against the EUR, with a move to resistance around EUR/GBP 0.8946 on the cards in the short-term

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