Geopolitical Risks Rise

Last week ended on a positive note for risk assets, with equities rallying to record highs. In particular tech stocks are back in lead this quarter. The biggest surprise was the ability of US Treasuries to rally at the same time, particularly in the wake of a strong slate of economic data. The rally may be attributable to strong foreign and pension buying amid short market positioning.  Indeed, CFTC data show that Treasury bearish positions had increased as of April 13th.  The pull back in US Treasury yields points to some relief for emerging market assets. Similarly, commodity positions had also been cut, with gold, copper and oil positioning liquidation taking place. The risk rally and lower US yields have put the US dollar on the back foot, extending its decline over the week.  As such, the USD “exceptionalism” story appears to be fading somewhat.

Last week finished off with another set of firm US data; Housing starts surged 19.4% m/m to 1,739k, well-above the 1,613k consensus, from 1,457k (revised from 1,421k) in February. Similarly, consumer sentiment continued to improve in April, according to the preliminary release of the University of Michigan survey, with the index rising to a new post-COVID high of 86.5.  This week’s highlights include central bank decisions in China (Tue), Indonesia (Tue), Canada (Wed), Euro area (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Russia’s central bank CBR is expected to hike by 25bp while no changes are expected from the other central banks.  Canada’s Federal Budget today and CPI (Wed) will also be in focus.  Data wise, Australia March retail sales (Wed), New Zealand Q1 CPI and Euro area flash purchasing managers indices PMIs (Fri) will garner attention.  

On Friday, the US Treasury released its semi-annual FX report and found that once again Vietnam and Switzerland met all three criteria under the 2015 Act. over 2020.  Taiwan was also found to breach the Treasury criteria.  The outcome means that there will be ‘enhanced analysis’ of these countries.  However, the {US} US Treasury declined to name any of these countries as currency manipulators, citing insufficient evidence under the 1988 Act.  The other interesting development is that the Treasury questioned the foreign exchange activities of Chinese state banks given that it appears that China’s official FX intervention was very limited.  Separately, Ireland and Mexico were added to the US Treasury Monitoring List.

Geopolitical risks are rising once again and could act as a threat to markets in the day and weeks ahead. Last week the US levied sanctions on Russia including targeting Russian government debt. Russia responded with counter sanctions. However, the US administration did hold out an olive branch in the form of a potential joint summit. Focus is also on growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Similarly, US and Japanese leaders voiced concerns over Chinese policies, which were subsequently rejected by China’s foreign ministry. Despite the US criticism of China the US and China appear to be moving ahead with cooperate on climate change. US-China over Taiwan remain elevated however.

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

Fiscal Deadlock/China data

This week kicked off with a heavy China’s Sep data slate and Q3 GDP today.  The data releases were positive, revealing yet more signs of strengthening recovery. Industrial production, retail sales, jobs and property investment all beat expectations while Q3 GDP fell short. The data supports the view that China will be one of the only major economies to record positive growth this year. This bodes well for China’s markets and will likely also filter into improving prospects for the rest of Asia.

In contrast US recovery continues to be at risk, with fiscal stimulus discussions remaining deadlocked; a 75-minute conversation between House Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin yielded no progress at the end of last week.  Pelosi has now given a 48-hour deadline to agree on stimulus while Senate majority leader McConnell has scheduled a Senate vote on a more targeted $500bn bill tomorrow. Talks are scheduled to continue today but there still seems to be little chance of a deal this side of elections. 

On the data front, US Sep retail sales data registered broad-based gains on Friday, with headline sales up 1.9% m/m (consensus 0.8%). In contrast, industrial production fell a sharp 0.6% m/m in Sep (consensus +0.5%).  Lastly, Michigan consumer sentiment rose in the preliminary Oct report to 81.2 from 80.4 in Sep (consensus 80.5).  The lack of a fiscal deal means that the prospects of a loss of momentum in the US economy has grown, something that will become more apparent in the weeks ahead. US data is limited this week and instead focus will remain on progress or lack thereof, on fiscal stimulus as well as the Presidential debate towards the end of the week. 

Another saga that is showing little progress is EU/UK Brexit transition talks.  The stakes have risen, with UK PM Johnson warning UK businesses to prepare for a hard exit while threatening to abandon talks completely.  On a more positive note UK officials are reportedly prepared to rewrite the contentious Internal Market Bill, which may appease the EU.  Credit ratings agencies are running out patience however, with Moody’s downgrading the UK ratings by one notch to Aa3. The pound seems to be taking all of this in it stride, clinging to the 1.30 level against the US dollar, suggesting that FX markets are not yet panicking about the prospects of a no deal transition.

Several emerging markets central banks are in focus this week including in China (Tue), Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), and Russia (Fri).  Of these Turkey is expected to hike by 150 basis points, but the rest are likely to stand pat.  Most central banks are taking a wait and see approach, especially ahead of US elections. Reserve Bank of Australia meeting minutes tomorrow will garner attention too, with clues sought on a potential rate cut next month.  

Risk appetite firms

Despite the decision by Crimea’s parliament to formally request accession to Russia markets risk assets performed well overnight, with US and European equity markets registering solid gains. Consequently US yields rose overnight while the USD made gains against safe haven currencies.

Market relief probably reflected the fact that the referendum itself passed without violence while the reaction by the West in terms of sanctions was not seen to have a particularly detrimental impact on sentiment.

China’s decision to widen its currency band also passed with little fanfare given that such a move was largely anticipated. There will be some positive pass through into the Asian session from the gains in asset markets overnight although a degree of caution continues to be warranted given the still precarious situation in the Ukraine and ongoing tensions between Russia and the West.

No relief for risk assets

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the tumultuous build up to the poll the Crimean referendum resulted in an over 90% vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia according to Russian state media. Risk assets were already under pressure leading into the vote and the news is not going to help sentiment in any way, with the West already denouncing the result and Russia seeing it as a validation of its stance. Further sanctions and other punitive measures are likely to be announced leading to a heightening of tensions and increased risk aversion.

Our risk barometer is already well into “risk hating” territory highlighting the intensifying pressure on risk assets and demand for safe havens. Consequently expect the likes of the CHF, JPY and gold to remain under upward pressure and anything with high beta to be under downward pressure.

There is also plenty of data and events to capture the interest of markets this week, with the Fed FOMC meeting capturing top billing. Unsurprisingly no change in policy is expected, with a USD 10 billion taper set to be announced. Fed Chairman Yellen is set to highlight that the bar remains high to any slowing in the pace of tapering while more qualitative guidance is set to be announced.

On the data front US data will remain weather impacted but nonetheless, February industrial production is set to reveal a small gain today while manufacturing surveys will reveal some improvement in March. Additionally housing starts are set to rebound in February. However, Treasury yields are likely to be capped despite more encouraging data as safe haven demand intensifies, leaving the USD also restrained.

In Europe the data flow is less numerous and what there is will support the view that more action is needed by the European Central Bank (ECB) to ease policy. February CPI inflation is set for a downward revision while the German ZEW investor confidence index will slip further.

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