Inflation Debate Rages On

Good morning, last week ended on a solid note for global equity markets, capped by strong gains in US stocks and in particular a surge towards the end of the session on Friday.  The S&P 500 is on track for its best month since November though in the next few days, month and quarter end rebalancing will continue to hold risks, which could result in increased volatility.  Another imponderable is potential follow through from huge equity sale block trades at the end of last week reportedly from Archegos Capital, which hit US media companies and Chinese tech stocks. All of this suggests risks of higher volatility in the days ahead.  

US interest rate markets came under renewed pressure, with yields backing up over the week, while the US dollar (USD) had a firmer week, with the USD index (DXY) ending above its 200-day moving average and technical indicators pointing to further gains this week.  CFTC IMM speculative positioning data (in the week to 23 March) shows that net aggregate USD short positions have been pared back further as USD sentiment continues to improve.  Positioning in most currencies vs. USD fell while Japanese yen (JPY) short positions increased further.  The oil market and container costs could be pressured higher by the continued delay in dislodging the stricken Ever from the Suez Canal, which seems to have made little progress over the weekend.

Attention this week will turn to a few key data and events.  Important among these will be President Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh (Wed) where he will likely give further details on his infrastructure plan and how it will be funded.  Key US data include the March ISM manufacturing survey (Thu) and March non-farm payrolls (Fri).  Solid outcomes for both are expected.  In Asia, focus will be on March purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across the region (Thu) including in China (Wed) where broadly positive readings are likely.  There will also be attention on the going malaise in Turkey’s markets since the sacking of the central bank (CBRT) governor while Europe continues to struggle with fresh virus waves, lockdowns, and vaccine reluctance as well as tensions over vaccine exports to the UK.

As President Biden gives his speech this week the debate about a potentially sharp rise in inflation rages on.  The Fed has tried to calm fears by highlighting that any rise in inflation over the coming months will likely be transitory.  However, with massive stimulus in the pipeline, economic recovery taking shape and the Fed set to keep policy very accommodative for years to come, market fears have risen as well as warnings from the likes of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.  Consumer inflation expectations remain largely subdued but the debate will not end quickly, and bond markets will be on tender hooks.  In the next few months inflation will turn up but this will largely be due to base effects as the collapse in activity in prices in Q1 last year falls out of the equation.  However, the jury is out on whether this will turn to more persistent inflation, something that could have a much more severe impact on markets and force central banks to belatedly tighten policy. 

Turkey, Emerging Market Central Banks, Eurozone Divergence

Attention today is on developments in Turkey. Despite consensus expectations of a 100bp (1%) hike in rates, Turkey’s central bank delivered a bigger than expected 200bp increase last week, with a hawkish statement.  This appears not have been welcomed by Turkish President Erdogan who promptly removed central bank (CBRT) Governor Aqbal on Saturday.  Despite some reassurance from Aqbal’s replacement that policy would deliver price stability the result has been substantial pressure on Turkey’s currency the lira (TRY) at the start of trading in Asia today, with the lira down as much as 15% initially, erasing more than four months of gains.  Turkish authorities are likely to intervene to limit the damage, but the damage has been done.  There has also been some, albeit more limited fall out on other emerging market currencies.

The end of the week saw a bit of a reversal in recent trends, with tech stocks gaining most, at the expense of bank stocks, which were weighed down by the news that the US Federal Reserve would not extend the Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) exemption but rather to look at a more permanent solution. This could lower banks demand for Treasuries while constraining dealer balance sheets. Both S&P 500 and Nasdaq recorded declines over the week amid a further rise in US Treasury yields.  Quadruple witching saw an increase in volumes and oil prices recorded a sharp close to 8% decline over the week while Chinese stocks continued to suffer. 

Aside from Turkey there was some interesting central bank action last week in the emerging markets.  The BCB in Brazil hiked by 75bps, more expected, and indicated the high likelihood of another 75bps at the May meeting.  The CBR in Russia also joined in on the hawkish emerging markets (EM) action surprising markets by hiking rates by 25bps, with a likely acceleration in tightening likely over coming meetings.  EM central bank decisions this week include China (today), Philippines (Thu), Thailand (Wed), Hungary (Tue), South Africa (Thu), Mexico (Fri) and Colombia (Fri).   Separately, the SNB in Switzerland also decides on policy (Thu). China’s loan prime rates were left unchanged as expected and no changes are likely from any of the other central banks this week. 

Other data and events this week include the US PCE report (Fri), President Biden’s press conference (Thu) which could offer clues to the “Rescue” package that could amount to $3-4trn. A host of Fed speakers are also on tap, including Fed Chair Powell, as well as Eurozone flash purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Wed), and UK retail sales (Fri).  The data will reveal stark differences in the recovery picture in the UK and Eurozone while the difference between the US and Europe looks even more stark.  Europe is struggling with a third wave of Covid case, vaccination delays and tighter restrictions, leading to a reduction in growth forecasts, while US growth forecasts are being revised higher in the wake of the $1.9tn stimulus package. This will likely result in some underperformance of Eurozone markets relative to the US.  

Will the Fed Calm US Treasury Market Volatility?

The main market action on Friday was once again in US Treasuries, with another sharp sell off as the 10y yield spiked 8.8 basis points despite three large US debt auctions over the week that were received relatively well by the market.  The sell-off helped the US dollar (USD) to strengthen while oil prices slipped. USD sentiment is clearly becoming less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM data (non-commercial speculative market positioning), which shows that USD (DXY) positions (as a % of open interest) are still short, but at their highest since the week of 8 Dec 2020. Tech stocks didn’t take well to higher yields, but the Dow and S&P 500 closed higher. The move in yields may pressure Asian currencies and bond markets after some consolidation/retracement towards the end of last week though equity markets look better placed. 

At the end of last week US University of Michigan consumer sentiment rose to 83.0 in the preliminary release for March from 76.8 in February and exceeded expectations at 78.5 (consensus). This week attention will turn to a plethora of central banks spearheaded by the Federal Reserve FOMC (Wed). Markets will be watching for any revisions to US growth forecasts amid a dovish tone, albeit with little sign of any push back on higher yields. US rates markets will also focus on the US 20y auction, which could keep the curve pressured steeper.  Nervousness over the Statutory Liquidity Ratio (SLR) exemption, which is set to expire at the end of the month, will also likely intensify.  A less dovish than hoped for Fed, will likely keep the USD on the front foot. 

Other central bank decisions this week will take place in the UK, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan. None of these are likely change policy settings except Brazil, where the market is looking for a 1/2% hike. Developments to look out for include some push back from the Bank of England on higher yields, a move to bring forward the rate hike path in Norway, a potentially controversial no change decision in Turkey and the Bank of Japan’s announcement of the results of its policy tools and in particular clarification on the tolerated trading range for 10-year JGBs.

Data this week kicks off with Chinese activity data today including February industrial production and retail sales. Seasonal distortions and base effects will make this month’s data look particularly strong.  Other data this week includes US Feb retail sales (tomorrow) where a weak outcome is likely depressed by harsher-than-usual winter weather as well as a fading of the boost from stimulus payments. Australia February employment is also likely to be soft (Thursday).  

Overall, equity volatility has eased, especially in the equity market, suggesting some return of normal trading conditions there, but interest rate volatility remains high driven by the move in US Treasury yields.  The USD gave back some gains towards the end of last week, but will likely benefit from higher US yields and is set to start this week in firm form.  US interest rate gyrations will likely provide further direction for the USD over the rest of the week.   Much of course will depend on the Fed FOMC meeting, which will be the main event this week. 

Markets Facing a Test of Reality vs. Liquidity

Risk assets ended last week under pressure (S&P 500 fell 2.4%) as some US states including Texas and Florida began to reverse opening measures and Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert, warned that some states may have to return to full “shelter in place”.  Banks were among the worst performers even as they came through the Fed’s stress tests in reasonably good shape.  The Fed did however, cap buybacks and dividend payouts for the 33 banks that underwent tests. However, the reality is that banks were hardly likely to increase dividends over the next few months, while the 8th biggest banks had already suspended buybacks.  Perhaps what spooked markets was the news of “additional stress analyses later in the year”.

It feels like equities and risk assets in general are facing a test of reality vs. liquidity. It’s hard to fight the growth in excess liquidity global (G4 central bank balance sheets minus GDP growth) which has risen to its highest rate since Sep 2009, coinciding with a solid run in global equities over that period.  Clearly forward earnings valuations have richened but while absolute valuations appear rich (S&P forward price/earnings ratio has risen to 24.16), relative valuations ie compared to low global rates, are more attractive. This hasn’t stopped the intensification of concerns that after a solid market rally over recent months, the entry of a range of speculative investors is leading to a Minsky Moment.

Investor concerns range from the fact that the rally has been narrowly based, both in terms of the types of investors (retail investors piling in, while institutional have been more restrained) and type of stocks (momentum vs. value), the approach of US Presidential elections in November and in particular whether there could be a reversal of corporate tax cuts, as well as the potential for renewed lockdowns. Add to the mix, geopolitical concerns and a certain degree of market angst is understandable. All of this is having a growing impact on the market’s psyche even as data releases show that recovery is progressing somewhat on track, as reflected for example in the New York Fed’s weekly economic index, which has continued to become less negative and the Citi Economic Surprise Index, which is around its highest on record.

China, which was first in and now looks to be first out is a case in point, with growth data showing ongoing improvement; data today was encouraging, revealing that industrial profits rose 6% y/y in May though profits in the first five months of the year still fell 19.3%, with state-owned enterprises recording the bulk of the decline.  While there are signs that Chinese activity post-Covid is beginning to level off, domestic consumption is gradually improving. This week, market activity is likely to slow ahead of the US July 4th Independence Day holiday but there will be few key data highlights that will garnet attention, including June manufacturing PMIs in China and the US (ISM), and US June non-farm payrolls.

Calm after the storm

After yesterday’s carnage, global equity markets have recovered some of their poise. Whether this is a pause before another wave of pressure or something more sustainable is debatable. It appears that US equities are finally succumbing to a plethora of bad news.  Higher US yields have driven the equity risk premium lower.  Also there’s probably a degree of profit taking ahead of the onset of the Q3 US earnings season.

At the same time valuations have become increasingly stretched.  For example, the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is around 6% higher than its 5 year average while almost all emerging market price/earnings ratios are well below their 5 year averages.  While strong US growth prospects may justify some or even all of this differential, the gap with emerging markets has widened significantly.

While US President Trump blames an “out of control” US Federal Reserve, it would have been hard for the Fed to do anything else but raise policy rates at its last meeting.  If the Fed didn’t hike at the end of September, bond yields would like have moved even higher than the 3.26% reached on the 10 year US Treasury yield earlier this week as markets would have believed the Fed is falling behind the curve.   However, as US yields rise and the equity risk premium reacts, the opportunity cost of investing in equities rises too.

In the FX world the US dollar could succumb to more pressure if US equities fall further but as we saw yesterday, USD weakness may mainly be expressed versus other major currencies (EUR etc).  Emerging market currencies continue to face too many headwinds including higher US rates and tightening USD liquidity, as well as trade tariffs.  The fact that emerging market growth indicators are slowing, led by China, also does not bode well for EM assets.  Unfortunately that means that emerging market assets will not benefit for the time being from any rout in US assets despite their valuation differences.

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