Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

State Of Shock

Equity markets are in a state of shock.  After a stellar year last year equities have started the year in terrible shape. The rout extended further at the end of last week, capping off the worst week in over a year for US stocks.  Tech continued to lead losses, with the Nasdaq down 7.6% over the week.  Notably global equities were impacted less than the US, reflecting the fact that most equity markets outside of the US are less tech orientated.  Anything with leverage and consisting of highly speculative investment such as Crypto are bearing the brunt of the pressure.  Volumes of equity put options on the S&P 500 have also risen sharply as investors try to hedge further losses on US stocks. 

The main cause of market pressure remains the build-up of expectations of Fed tightening, with Fed officials sounding increasingly hawkish and speculation growing of a 50 basis point Fed rate hike in March as well as several more hikes over the course of this year, with four hikes already priced in for this year.   It’s hard to see such pressure abating soon. Indeed, technical indicators on the S&P 500 look poor, with the index having closed below its 200 day moving average level.  However, with market pricing for US rate hikes already so aggressive, a lot of the pain may already have been inflicted unless the Fed really does hike at every meeting this year.  

Wednesday’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting will give further clues US interest rate policy, with the Fed likely to give signals that a March rate hike is in the offing.  However, this should not be surprising given that Fed officials have over recent weeks already strongly hinted at a March rate hike.  What will be scrutinised is any clues on Fed balance sheet reduction (quantitative tightening) as well as the path of the funds rate after March.  It’s unlikely that the Fed provides any firm indications, but nonetheless the press conference could prove more interesting.

Other policy meetings this week include the Bank of Canada meeting (Wednesday). It’s a close call but strong domestic data points to a 25-basis points policy rate hike, kicking off a likely cycle of hikes in the months ahead.  Separately, rate hikes in Hungary (tomorrow) and South Africa (Thursday) are also likely.   Following unchanged outcomes from Malaysia and Indonesia and a policy cut in China last week, there is little on the data and events front in Asia this week.  

Political and geopolitical developments will garner plenty of attention this week.  In the UK the Sue Gray report on “Partygate” will be released.  In Italy, the path for Draghi to be elected President appears to have become easier, with Berlusconi pulling out of the running though it is by no means a clear cut process.  Meanwhile, the situation with regard to Ukraine is on tenterhooks, with Russia reportedly continuing to build up troops on the border, and risks of “significant military action” rising.

Currency markets have been largely spared the carnage seen in equity markets. Speculative positioning data suggests the market remains heavily long the dollar index (DXY). Higher US real rates and continued tightening of Fed rate expectations suggests any pull back in the USD will be limited and the currency remains a buy on dips. Notably, GBP positioning has remained firm, ignoring the potential for a no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Asian currencies also remain relatively resilient, with the Chinese currency likely to continue outperforming.

Testing The Fed’s Resolve, China Data Gives Some Relief

In the aftermath of the surge in US consumer prices in October which reached the highest since 1990 at 6.2% year-on-year, the Fed’s stance is under intense scrutiny.  While tapering is beginning soon, the biggest question mark is on the timing of interest rate hikes, with markets having increasingly brought forward expectations of the first Fed hike to mid next year even as Chair Powell & Co keep telling us that inflation pressures are “transitory”.  Front end rates have reacted sharply and the US dollar is following rates US rates higher.  The flatter yield curve also suggests the market is struggling to believe the Fed.  Meanwhile, liquidity in interest rates market remains thin, and smaller Fed purchases going forward will not help.  In contrast, equities are hardly flinching, with the FOMO rally persisting. US equities closed the week higher despite a drop in the Michigan sentiment index, which fell to a new 10-year low of 66.8 in early November (consensus 72.5), with inflation being largely to blame. 

There was a bit of relief for markets on the China data front today.  The October data slate revealed less sharp softening compared to the previous month, but momentum continues to be downwards. Industrial production increased by 3.5% (consensus 3.0% y/y). A host of regulatory, and environmental pressures are leading to policy led weakness in manufacturing.  While there has been some easing in such pressures, there is unlikely to be much of a let up in the months ahead.  While retail sales also increased by more than expected up 4.9% (consensus 3.7% y/y) sales have been impacted by China’s “zero-tolerance” COVID policy, which has led to lockdowns across many provinces.  Fixed assets and property investment slowed more than expected reflect the growing pressure on the property sector. Also, in focus today will be the virtual summit between President’s Biden and Xi. I don’t expect any easing in tariffs from the US side.  

Over the rest of the week, US retail sales data will be take prominence (Tue). Sales likely rose by a strong 1.3% month on month in October, but the data are nominal and goods prices rose 1.5% in the October CPI, implying real good spending was far more restrained.  Central bank decisions among a number of emerging markets including in Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Turkey (Thu), Indonesia (Thu) and Philippines (Thu) will also be in focus.  The divergence between most Asian central banks and elsewhere is becoming increasingly apparent, with expectations for policy rate hikes in Hungary and South Africa, and a likely cut in Turkey contrasting with likely no changes from Indonesia and Philippines.   Also watch for any traction on the passage of the $1.75bn “build back better” fiscal package in the US, with a possible House vote this week.  Separately, markets are still awaiting news on whether Fed Chair Powell will remain for another term or whether Brainard takes his seat, with a decision possible this week.

As noted, sharply higher than expected inflation readings in the US and China will play havoc with the narrative that inflation pressures are “transitory” while highlighting the depth of supply side pressures.  Higher US market rates, with the US yield curve shifting higher in the wake of the CPI, bodes badly for emerging market carry trades in the near term as it reduces the relative yield gap.  At the same time a tightening in global liquidity conditions via Fed tapering may also raise some obstacles for EM carry.  That said, there is still plenty of juice left in carry trades in the months ahead.  Markets are already aggressively pricing in Fed rates hikes and there is limited room for a further hawkish shift i.e a lot is already in the price.  Meanwhile FX volatility remains relatively low even as volatility in rate markets is elevated.  Many EM central banks are also hiking rates. As such carry and volatility adjusted expected returns in most EM FX remain positive.

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. 

Two Speed Recovery

The spread of the COVID Delta variant globally holds key risks for markets in the weeks ahead.  However, as long as hospitalisation rates remain relatively low, it should be less detrimental to the path of re-opening in countries with higher vaccination rates.  As a stark example, the UK will shed almost all of its COVID restrictions today despite spiking COVID cases amid relatively low hospitalisation rates.  

This is particularly difficult for many emerging markets including much of Asia given low vaccination rates.  As such, a two-speed recovery between developed and emerging economies is occurring, with the former registering much higher vaccination rates compared to the latter.  Unlike the move to re-open in developed markets, re-opening in many emerging markets is far more difficult given sharply increasing hospitalisation rates among unvaccinated people as the Delta variant runs rampant. 

As such, the risks of renewed restrictions in many countries could put the global recovery process in jeopardy at a time when we are already past peak growth.  Maybe this is helping to dampen US bond yields or yields are being supressed by the fact that the market has a lot of faith in the Fed even as inflation has surprised on the upside in many countries.  Whatever the cause, US 10y bond yields have slipped below 1.3% back to levels not seen since mid-February and continue to edge lower.    

Event highlights this week include several central bank policy decisions including in China (Tue), Eurozone, Indonesia, South Africa (all Wed) and Russia (Fri).  No changes are expected for China’s Loan Prime Rate (LPR) though the risk of easing has increased marginally following the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) reserve requirements (RRR) cut last week. The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) is expected to hike by 75bp, with risks of a bigger move.  Bank Indonesia is likely to remain on hold despite growing economic pressure.  South Africa’s Reserve Bank (SARB) is expected to remain on hold and remain dovish while a change in forward guidance from the European Central Bank (ECB) is expected this week. 

Oil will be in focus today after OPEC+ agreed on a deal to expand output, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia putting away differences to agree upon a 400k barrels a day increase in output from August.  The US dollar (USD) is trading firmer, but overall looks like it is close to topping out.  For example, EURUSD looks oversold relative to real rate differentials.  Interest rates markets will eye US fiscal developments, with Democrats crafting the budget resolution needed for a reconciliation bill, which may see additional progress this week.

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