Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

Pause In The Risk Rally?

The rally in risk assets has extended into 2020 amid a stabilization in economic data, the Phase 1 trade deal and a persistent easy monetary policy stance by major central banks.  The sharp decline in volatility in most asset markets has also contributed to the rush to buy such as assets including equities and high yielding debt.  While the market is becoming increasingly susceptible to shocks given the increasing positioning in risks assets, the near term may be a period of consolidation rather than any reversal.

Attention this week will focus on US Q4 2019 earnings.  So far, with around 9% of S&P earnings released, the majority (around 70%) have beaten expectations.  In a 4 day US trading week this week there are a number of earnings releases that will help provide further clues to whether the US equity rally can be sustained in the weeks ahead.  The S&P 500 is already up around 3% this year, extending a 30%+ gain last year. This has echoed gains in most global equity markets.  Investors should be nervous, but there is little to suggest a reversal soon.

There are a number of data and events to focus on this week including central bank meetings in the Eurozone, Canada, Norway, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Unsurprisingly the Bank of Japan left policy unchanged today and the other are unlikely to change their policy settings except perhaps Indonesia, which may cut.  Aside from these central banks a series of manufacturing surveys (Markit PMIs) will garner attention.

In Asia, trading activity may slow as Chinese New Year approaches while impeachment proceedings against US President Trump in the Senate will also likely distract attention for many.  Another issue that has taken on increasing prominence is the outbreak of a virus that appears to have originated in central China.  Concerns have grown that the coronavirus could spread quickly especially as millions of Chinese migrate (estimated at around 3 billion trips) over the Chinese new year holidays.

Overall, nervousness over the virus alongside holidays in the region is likely to lead to consolidation in markets any even profit taking following a strong rally in risk assets over recent weeks and months.  Positioning indicators suggest that USD positioning has fallen sharply, suggesting also a risk of USD short covering in the current environment.  This all point to a pause in the risk rally in the days ahead.

Looking For The Silver Lining

As the end of the year approaches it would take a minor miracle of sorts to turn around a dismal performance for equity markets in December.   The S&P 500 has fallen by just over 12% year to date, but this performance is somewhat better than that of equity markets elsewhere around the world.  Meanwhile 10 year US Treasury yields have dropped by over 53 basis points from their high in early November.

A host of factors are weighing on markets including the US government shutdown, President Trump’s criticism of Fed policy, ongoing trade concerns, worries about a loss of US growth momentum, slowing Chinese growth, higher US rates, etc, etc.   The fact that the Fed maintained its stance towards hiking rates and balance sheet contraction at the last FOMC meeting has also weighed on markets.

A statement from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin attempting to reassure markets about liquidity conditions among US banks didn’t help matters, especially as liquidity concerns were among the least of market concerns.  Drawing attention to liquidity may have only moved it higher up the list of focal points for markets.

The other major mover is oil prices, which have dropped even more sharply than other asset classes.  Brent crude has dropped by over 40% since its high on 3 October 2018.   This has helped to dampen inflationary expectations as well as helping large oil importers such as India.  However, while part of the reason for its drop has been still robust supply, worries about global growth are also weighing on the outlook for oil.

But its not all bad news and markets should look at the silver lining on the dark clouds overhanging markets.  The Fed has become somewhat more dovish in its rhetoric and its forecasts for further rate hikes.  US growth data is not weak and there is still sufficient stimulus in the pipeline to keep the economy on a reasonably firm growth path in the next few months.  Separately lower oil is a positive for global growth.

There are also constructive signs on the trade front, with both US and China appearing to show more willingness to arrive at a deal.  In particular, China appears to be backing down on its technology advancement that as core to its “Made In China 2025” policy. This is something that it at the core of US administration hawks’ demands and any sign of appeasement on this front could bode well for an eventual deal.

US dollar under pressure

US stocks have clawed back almost all their losses registered in the wake of the mini emerging markets crisis in January. The S&P 500 closed at 1838.63, up 0.48% on Friday. The rally in stocks is impressive considering the run of weaker than forecast US data releases over recent weeks although investors appear to be placing much of the blame on poor weather conditions. The gains in US stocks echoes the generalized improvement in risk appetite, with sentiment towards emerging markets also having stabilized.

The USD continues to be a casualty of the firmer risk tone, with a lack of upward momentum in US yields also not helping the currency (10 year US Treasury yield around 2.7428%). The USD index is now close to its lows for the year around 80.00, with the JPY and commodity currencies the biggest gainers so far this year among major currencies. In terms of emerging market currencies the Indonesian rupiah and Thai baht have been the best performers versus USD.

Despite the firmer tone to risk, gold prices have continued their ascent, closing above their 200 day moving average at the end of last week. As I wrote in Gold breaches its 200 day moving average, I don’t expect the rally in gold prices to be sustained. Some market consolidation is likely today with a lack of key data releases and a US holiday (President’s Day) keeping activity subdued.

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The Week Ahead

Equity markets and risk trades have generally performed well over the last couple of weeks, with for example the S&P 500 around 7.5% higher since its late August low, whilst equity and currency volatility have been generally low, the latter despite some hefty FX intervention by the Japanese authorities which did provoke a spike in USD/JPY volatility last week.

Risk appetite took a knock at the end of last week in the wake of worries that Ireland may seek EU / IMF assistance although this was denied by Irish officials. A similar worry inflicted Portugal, and as a result peripheral bond spreads were hit. Sovereign worries in Europe have not faded quickly and bond auctions in Greece, Spain and Portugal will garner plenty of attention this week. Renewed worries ahead of the auctions suggest that the market reception could be difficult.

Attention will swiftly turn to the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting tomorrow and in particular at any shift in Fed stance towards additional quantitative easing following the decision at the August FOMC meeting to maintain the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Given the recent improvement in US economic data the Fed is set to assess incoming data before deciding if further measures are needed.

Housing data in the US will also garner plenty of attention, with several releases scheduled this week. Increases in August housing starts, building permits, existing and new home sales are also expected. Whilst this may give the impression of housing market improvement, for the most part the gains will follow sharp declines previously, with overall housing market activity remaining weak following the expiry of the government tax credit.

Weakness in house prices taken together with a drop in equity markets over the quarter contributed to a $1.5 trillion drop in US household net wealth in Q2. Wealth had been recovering after its decline from Q2 2007 but renewed weakness over the last quarter will not bode well for consumer spending. Household wealth is around $12.4 trillion lower than its peak at the end of Q2 2007.

Aside from the impact of renewed sovereign concerns, European data will not give the EUR much assistance this week either, with Eurozone September flash PMIs and the German IFO survey of business confidence set to weaken as business and manufacturing confidence comes off the boil. If the Fed maintains its policy stance whilst risk aversion increases over coming days the USD may find itself in a firmer position to recoup some of its losses both against the EUR and other currencies.

This will leave EUR/USD vulnerable to drop back down to around support in 1.2955 in the very short-term. As indicated by the CTFC IMM data there has been further short EUR position covering last week whilst sentiment for the USD deteriorated, suggesting increased room for short-USD covering in the event of higher risk aversion.

The impact of Sweden’s election outcome over the weekend is unlikely to do much damage to the SEK despite the fact that the coalition government failed to gain an outright majority. EUR/SEK has edged higher over recent days from its low around 9.1528 but SEK selling pressure is unlikely to intensify following the election, with EUR/SEK 9.3070 providing tough technical resistance.

Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

For A Few Dollars More…

…or should I say a few EUR more.   This is what the Greek authorities must be wondering.  Once again Greek worries weighed on equities and risk appetite as a whole.  Although the saga is turning into one big yawn, markets have not had their fill with the bad news coming from this small eurozone economy.  Talks between Greek officials, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union (EU) began yesterday but are expected to go on for several days or weeks until a joint text is issued on May 15, just days ahead of a EUR 8.5 billion bond redemption by Greece. 

The talks have done nothing to prevent Greece’s bond yields moving higher, with the yield on 10-year bonds pushing well over 8% whilst the spread with Germany debt also blew out to over 500bps.  The main fear in the market is that Greece will ultimately end up restructuring its debt.  Moreover, contagion fears have dealt a blow to southern European sovereign CDS especially Portugal.  It wasn’t plain sailing for German bonds either, with yesterday’s auction of EUR 3 billion of 30-year Bunds failing to sell the full amount. 

Another casualty of ongoing Greece concerns is the EUR, with the currency under performing other majors and still on its path towards EUR/USD 1.3300 in the near term and onto 1.3150 after.   EUR also looks vulnerable on the crosses and EUR/GBP in particular is one to watch, with the 28 January low around 0.86029 likely to be targeted over the near term.  UK employment data gave some relief to GBP yesterday, with further direction coming from retail sales data today and the next televised leaders’ debate.  

At some point the market will become fatigued with consensus beating earnings and the positive impact on equities will become less marked.  This point is approaching but we’re not quite there yet.  Apple, Morgan Stanley and Boeing did not disappoint, with earnings easily beating forecasts.  Boeing’s earnings in particular helped industrials to be the best performing sector on the S&P 500 although the overall index closed marginally lower.

Earnings today include Amazon.com, American Express, Credit Suisse, Microsoft, Nokia, and PepsiCo.  It is becoming plainly obvious that market expectations for earnings are too pessimistic but as noted above the positive market impact of good earnings is likely to wane. 

On the data front, highlights include March existing home sales, jobless claims and Producer Price Index (PPI).   There will be less focus on PPI given that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the month has already been released whilst claims are likely to resume a path lower following the jump over the past couple of weeks.   Existing home sales are likely to post an impressive gain as indicated by firm pending home sales data.   

Overall, it appears that risk appetite is creeping back into the market psyche but the ongoing battle between positive earnings/data versus European/Greek woes suggests that there will be no clear direction for markets.  Improving risk appetite will ultimately win but current conditions will leave currencies trading within well worn ranges, with the exception of the underperforming EUR. In contrast the USD index is likely to remain supported, taking solace from positive data releases.

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