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.

Spain downgraded

Pressure on Spain has intensified in the wake of a two notch downgrade to the country’s debt to just one notch above junk at BBB-. S&P cited “the significant risks to Spain’s economic growth and budgetary performance, and the lack of a clear direction in euro-zone policy”. The slow progress towards a sovereign bailout for Spain will have likely played a role in the decision, a factor that is also weighing on general market sentiment. The debt downgrade may on the margin increase the pressure on the Spanish government to request a formal bailout.

Nonetheless, risk assets including peripheral Eurozone bonds do not appear particularly stressed although it may only be a matter of time before pressure escalates. Italian bond supply today may give some further direction on this front. US Q3 earnings will have some bearing on sentiment too as concerns have grown that they will disappoint. With little on the data front (highlights include Eurozone country September inflation and US trade data) attention will focus on comments from the IMF meetings against the background of growing global growth worries.

Against this background the EUR is likely to continue to drift lower, with the currency set to test support just under the 1.2800 level AUD will have got a boost from the relatively positive September jobs report released this morning, which revealed a 14.5k increase in employment. The positive impact may slightly be mitigated by a rise in the unemployment rate to 5.4% from 5.3%, which also gives further evidence supporting the RBA’s recent rate cut. The data will at least help to alleviate some of the concerns about the jobs market following last month’s surprise drop in employment. My preference is to play AUD via going long positions versus EUR.

More Bad News In Europe

Several pieces of bad news soured sentiment at the end of last week undoing much of the good news since the beginning of the year and dashing hopes of a relatively swift resolution to Eurozone’s ills. S&P ratings agency downgraded nine Eurozone countries’ credit ratings leaving 14 on negative outlook. In particular France and Austria, which lost their triple AAA status while not particularly surprising, comes as a major blow to efforts to resolve the crisis. The downgrade puts at risk the EUR 180 billion in credit guarantees underpinning the EUR 440 EFSF bailout fund.

Separately the breakdown of talks on Greek debt restructuring and criticism by the Euuropean Central Bank (ECB) on a new draft of a treaty to ensure fiscal discipline added to the malaise, with the ECB noting that proposed revisions amount to a “a substantial watering down”. Such criticism will likely be an obstacle to the ECB stepping up its peripheral debt buying potentially threatening any decline in bond yields. It is difficult to see sentiment improving this week, with risk aversion set to remain elevated as Eurozone leaders attempt to restore confidence. In contrast, US data continues to support evidence of economic recovery, albeit gradual and this week’s releases including industrial production and manufacturing surveys will likely add to this.

The EUR slid further at the end of last week reversing earlier gains, as the bad news mounted in the Eurozone. Ratings downgrades, breakdown of Greek debt talks and ECB criticism over watered down fiscal rules, combined to make a dangerous concoction of negative headlines. The news put an end to the EUR’s short covering rally, leaving the currency vulnerable too further declines this week. Speculative sentiment according to IMM data reached another all time low last week (-155k net positions), suggesting that any good news could lead to a strong bounce as short positions are covered.

However, it is difficult to see where such news will come from and even a small expected bounce in the German January ZEW investor confidence survey this week will do little to detract from the negative news on the policy front. A meeting between Merkel, Monti and Sarkozy will be eyed closely as they prepare for a meeting of European Union (EU) Finance Ministers and markets will be looking for aggressive action to turn confidence around. Debt sales in In the meantime EUR/USD will continue to languish but strong technical support is seen around 1.2588.

High Hopes for the EU Summit

Following the knock to the EUR from the S&P ratings news on Eurozone countries yesterday the currency has managed to regain a semblance of stability ahead of the European Union Summit beginning tomorrow. Expectations that the Franco-German deal announced late Monday (Fiscal compact etc) will be rubber stamped at the summit are high and the warning shot by S&P suggests that the stakes are even higher should there be no further progress this week.

Aside from putting the ratings of 15 Eurozone countries on negative watch S&P stated overnight that the EFSF bailout fund could be downgraded too. The EUR however, looks supported ahead of the summit and European Central Bank (ECB) meeting tomorrow, with news of discussions to beef up the bailout fund to two separate entities likely to further underpin the currency. EUR/USD short term support is seen around 1.3330.

The cut in the Reserve Bank Australia (RBA) cash rate piled on the pressure on the AUD, especially as a rate cut was not fully priced in although its weakness was limited by the relatively neutral RBA policy statement. The statement did not support expectations of more significant easing in the months ahead and data this morning in the form of a much stronger than expected Q3 GDP reading reinforced our view that markets are too dovish on Australian interest rate expectations.

Next it’s the turn of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) but unlike the RBA we do not expect an interest rate cut. The room for policy easing in New Zealand is limited, especially given that inflation is above the Bank’s 1-3% target band. Both the AUD and NZD are highly correlated with interest rate differentials and therefore any shift in rate expectations will have an important bearing. AUD and NZD have benefitted from a widening in yield differentials with the US and are likely to find garner some resilience from this fact over coming sessions.

EUR/GBP has continued to grind lower over recent months while GBP/USD appears to have settled into a range. GBP sentiment has clearly worsened over recent weeks as reflected in the deterioration in speculative positioning in the currency, with the market becoming increasingly short. Data releases have not been particularly helpful, with data yesterday revealing that UK house prices fell in November and retail sales dropped more than expected.

There will be more disappointment, with October industrial production likely to drop today. Our forecast of a 0.8% monthly highlights the downside risks to consensus expectations and in turn to GBP today. The data releases will if anything add to pressure on the Bank of England to embark on more quantitative easing, which will be another factor that restrains GBP over coming weeks. We continue to look for more GBP strength versus EUR but weakness against the USD over the short term. A move to support around GBP/USD 1.5469 is on the cards over the near term.

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