US Elections Take Yet More Twists & Turns

Amidst mixed messages from the White House about President’s Trump’s health and a growing circle of US administration officials and Senate Republicans infected with Covid-19, markets will kick of this week with many questions about the running of government, prospects for fresh fiscal stimulus and the nomination of the new Supreme Court Justice. President Trump pushed for stimulus in tweet while in hospital but obstacles in the Senate remain, including the fact that the Senate has adjourned until Oct 19, a factor that will also delay the Supreme Court confirmation process. 

In what was already an election fraught with various issues, President Trump’s Covid infection has added another layer of uncertainty.  The fact that several of his campaign aides have tested positive also complicates his ability to campaign to try to close the gap with ex- VP Biden.  There is also the question of whether the President will be well enough to take part in the second Presidential debate scheduled for October 15.  Markets initial sharp negative reaction to the news that Trump had contracted the virus, on Friday was tempered by the end of the session suggesting some calm.  However, every piece of news on Trump’s health will be closely scrutinized in the days ahead.  

The US dollar ended last week firm and this trend is likely to continue given the uncertainty about events in the weeks ahead, which despite the fact that much of this uncertainty is US led, will still likely lead to some safe haven dollar demand. 

A weaker than consensus US September jobs report didn’t help markets at the end of last week, with non-farm payrolls coming at 661k (consensus 859k) while a 0.5% drop in the unemployment rate was due a drop in the participation rate.  US non-farm payrolls are still down 10.7 million from the levels seen in February, highlighting the still significant pressure on the US labour market despite the job gains over recent months. 

Attention this week will focus on Federal Reserve Chair Powell’s speech on Tuesday and Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday, which will be scrutinised for details on how the Fed will implement average inflation targeting.  Also on tap is the US Vice Presidential debate on Wed between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, which hopefully will not be a fractious as the debate between President Trump and ex-Vice President Biden.  

Monetary Policy rate decisions in Australia (consensus 0.25%) on Tuesday and in Poland (consensus 0.1%) on Wednesday as well as the Australian Federal budget on Tuesday will also garner attention this week. 

Risk aversion spikes

Increased risk aversion overnight in the wake of escalating Middle East tensions gave the USD some support but overall the USD index is gradually drifting towards its early November low around 75.631. The antithesis of USD weakness is strength in most other major currencies.

The USD is being undermined by relatively dovish expectations for US interest rates relative to elsewhere and last night’s semi annual testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate did nothing to alter this tone, with Bernanke maintaining the emphasis on subdued inflation and elevated unemployment.

The USD index itself has a high (0.82) 3-month correlation with US interest rate futures and over recent weeks as the implied yield has dropped, the USD has lost ground. The prospects of higher US bond yields may eventually provide the USD with support, especially given the prospect of substantial short-covering but in the near term the USD is likely to remain under pressure.

The upbeat run of US data highlights another source of USD support over the medium term, given the likely outperformance of the US economy over coming months. Yesterday’s ISM manufacturing survey and vehicle sales data lend support to this view. Moreover, the rise in employment component of the ISM supports the view of at least a 195k increase in February payrolls.

The Fed’s Beige Book tonight and February ADP jobs report will not alter the USD’s trajectory. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal anything to worry the Fed in terms of inflation risks although will probably reveal further signs of improved activity. The ADP report will give important clues for Friday’s February non-farm payrolls data although it’s worth noting that last month’s report was way off the mark. In any case neither release is likely to prevent a further drop in the USD.

EUR is a clear beneficiary of expectations of tighter monetary policy by the ECB and the widening interest rate (futures implied yield) differential between the US and eurozone has given the EUR plenty of support recently as reflected in the high correlation with EUR/USD. Further support to the hawkish market stance was given by the upward revision to eurozone 2011 growth and inflation forecasts by the EU. The fact that eurozone inflation increased to 2.4% YoY in February also reinforced expectations of ECB tightening sooner than later.

The ECB press conference following the council meeting tomorrow will likely shape such expectations further, the EUR has already priced in a hawkish ECB stance, limiting the prospects of further appreciation. Notably EUR/USD has failed to break resistance at its year high around 1.3861, which will prove to be a formidable cap in the short-term.

In contrast, the RBA has poured cold water over expectations of further policy rate hikes in Australia. The policy statement following yesterday’s decision to keep the cash rate on hold pointed to an extended pause in the months ahead. Despite this and perhaps because markets have already pared back Australian interest rate expectations AUD rebounded quite smartly from its post meeting low and despite some overnight weakness due to increased risk aversion it will soon verge on a break of resistance at 1.0257.

AUD/NZD has continued to charge ahead having hit a multi-year high above 1.3600. NZD underperformance has been exacerbated by the impact of the recent earthquake, with growth expectations for this year having been sharply revised lower and growing speculation of an interest rate cut. Indeed, such speculation was given further fuel by comments by NZ Prime Minister Key who noted he would welcome a policy rate cut. Nonetheless, my quantitative AUD/NZD model suggests that the cross looks over-extended at current levels, whilst relative speculative positioning supports this view.

All Eyes On US Jobs Data

Happy New Year!

2010 ended on a sour note especially for eurozone equity markets (and the Australian cricket team) where there has yet to be a resolution to ongoing growth/fiscal/debt tensions.  The EUR strengthened into year end but this looked more like position adjustment than a shift in sentiment and EUR/USD is likely to face stiff resistance around the 1.3500 level this week, with a drop back towards 1.3000 more likely.  In the US there was some disappointment in the form of a surprise drop in December consumer confidence data but pending home sales and the Chicago PMI beat expectations, with the overall tone of US data remaining positive.

There will be plenty to chew on this week in terms of data and events which will provide some much needed direction at the beginning of the year.  The main event is the December US jobs report at the end of the week.   Ahead of this there will be clues from various other job market indicators including the Challenger jobs survey, ADP employment report, and the ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys.  The data will reflect a modest improvement in job market conditions and the preliminary forecast for December payrolls is for a 135k increase, with private payrolls set to rise by 145k and the unemployment rate likely to fall slightly to 9.7%.

The minutes of the 14 December Fed FOMC meeting (Tue) will also come under scrutiny against the background of rising US bond yields.  In addition, Fed Chairman Bernanke will speak on the monetary and fiscal outlook as well as the US economy to the Senate Budget Panel.   Bernanke will once again defend the use of quantitative easing whilst keeping his options open to extend it if needed.  However, the changing composition of the FOMC with four new members added in 2011 suggests a more hawkish tinge, which will likely make it more difficult to agree on further QE.   In any case, the tax/payroll holiday package agreed by the US administration means that more QE will not be necessary. 

It’s probably not the most auspicious time for new member Estonia to be joining the eurozone especially as much of the speculation last year focussed on a potential break up.  The beginning of the year will likely see ongoing attention on the tribulations of Ireland after its bailout, with looming elections in the country.  Portugal and Spain will also remain in focus as the “two-speed” recovery in 2011 takes shape.  Data releases this week include monetary data in the form of the eurozone December CPI estimate and M3 money supply.  Inflation will tick up to 2% but this ought to be of little concern for the ECB.  Final PMI data and confidence indices will likely paint a picture of slight moderation.   

The USD ended the year on a soft note, with year lows against the CHF and multi year lows vs. AUD registered, but its weakness is unlikely to extend much further.  The key driver will remain relative bond yields and on this front given the prospects for relative US yields to move higher, the USD will likely gain support.  There maybe a soft spot for the USD in Q1 2011 but for most of the rest of the year the USD is set to strengthen especially against the EUR which will increasingly comer under pressure as peripheral tensions and growth divergence weigh on the currency.

What Stress?

Fed Chairman Bernanke has inadvertently fuelled an increase in risk aversion in the wake of his testimony to the Senate. Although Bernanke noted that he did not see the prospects of a double-dip as a high probability event he stated that the economic outlook is “unusually uncertain”. Nonetheless, although such measures would be implemented if the situation deteriorated further, the Fed was not planning on extending its non-traditional policy options in the near term.
USD benefits as Bernanke does not indicate more quantitative easing.

A combination of caution about growth prospects and disappointment that Bernanke stopped short of indicating that the Fed would embark on further non-conventional policy measures left equities weaker, but the USD was stronger, both due to higher risk aversion as well as less risk of the Fed turning the USD printing press back on again. Bernanke is back at Congress today, with a speech to the House Panel. Although this is effectively a repeat of yesterday’s testimony, the Q&A session may throw up additional clues to Fed thinking and potential for extending quantitative easing but I suspect the USD will retain its firmer tone.

In Europe, most attention remains on the upcoming release of EU bank stress test results. Leaks suggest most banks will likely pass the EU bank stress tests, with the notable exceptions of a few Spanish Cajas and German Landesbanks. Already governments in Germany, France, Greece and Belgium have said their banks are likely to pass. We should all be bracing ourselves for relief to flow through European financial markets, but somehow this does not feel like an environment that will welcome such a result. More likely questions will be asked about why did so few banks fail and why the tests were not rigorous enough?

For example, the test for “sovereign shock” is said to affect only the value of government bonds that banks mark to market, but what about the far larger proportion of government debt that is held in banking books? There are also question marks over the capital hurdle, with the most adverse scenario that banks need to reach a maximum Tier 1 capital ratio of at least 6% by end 2011. Moreover, there have also been reported divisions within European Union (EU) members about how much information to divulge. EUR has also ready lost ground over recent days but the currency could face much more selling pressure into next week if the tests are found to lack credibility.

Please note that econometer.org will take a break until the week of 16th August. Good Luck.

Unloved US Dollar

The USD index is now at its lowest level since May 3 and is showing little sign of turning around. The bulk of USD index weakness overnight came via the EUR and GBP, both of which rose sharply against the USD, with EUR/USD breaching its 90 day moving, hitting a high of 1.2955 and GBP/USD on its way to testing its 200 day moving average, reaching a high of 1.5472. Commodity currencies fared far less positively, perhaps feeling the after effects of the weaker Chinese data this week, with the NZD also dented by weaker than expected inflation data in Q2.

The USD was once again hit by US growth worries. To recap, the US data slate revealed a soft reading for PPI, whilst the July Empire manufacturing index dropped 14.5 points, a far bigger drop than forecast. The Philly Fed index also dropped further in July despite expectations of a small gain. In contrast, June industrial production edged higher, but manufacturing output actually fell. There was a bit of good news in the fact that weekly jobless claims fell more than forecast.

The releases extended the run of weak US data, keeping double-dip fears very much alive. The data have acted to validate the Fed’s cautious growth outlook expressed in the latest FOMC minutes but a double-dip is unlikely. Today’s releases include June CPI, May TIC securities flows, and July Michigan confidence. Another benign inflation report is expected. Consumer confidence is set to slip further against the background of soft data and volatility in equity markets whilst TICS data is forecast to reveal that long term securities flows declined in May compared to the $83 billion inflows registered in April.

The move in the EUR is a making a mockery out of forecasts including my own that had expected renewed downside. The relatively successful Spanish bond auction yesterday helped to ease eurozone sovereign debt concerns further, with a likely strong element of Asian participation. I have still not given up on my EUR negative view given the likelihood of a deteriorating economic outlook in the eurozone and outperfomance of the US economy, but over the short-term the EUR short squeeze may have further to go, with EUR/USD resistance seen at 1.3077.

Equity markets were saved from too much of a beating following the release of better than expected earnings from JP Morgan, a $550mn agreement between Goldman Sachs and the SEC to settle a regulatory case, and news from BP that it has temporarily stemmed the flow of oil from the leak from its Gulf well. Agreement on the US financial reform bill, passed by the Senate yesterday and likely to be signed into law by US President Obama next week, likely helped too.

The tone of the market is likely to be mixed today, with US growth concerns casting a shadow on risk trades. Earnings remain in focus and the big name releases today include BoA, GE and Citigroup but early direction could be negative following news after the US close that Google Inc. profits came in below analysts’ expectations. Data in the US today is unlikely to help sentiment given expectations of more weak outcomes, leaving the USD vulnerable to further selling pressure.

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