Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.

US payrolls clues

Most investors will be glad to see the back of August, a month that marked the biggest monthly decline in US stocks in nine years. The main imponderable is whether September will be any better. A series of manufacturing surveys globally today will do little to restore confidence although there was some good news in a slight increase in China’s official August purchasing managers index (PMI) as well a stronger than forecast increase in Australian Q2 GDP, which will likely provide some short-term relief for risk trades.

There was also some slight solace for markets in terms of US data at least from the point of view that the data was not as disappointing as many recent releases. Although the August Chicago PMI slipped (to 56.7) consumer confidence increased (to 53.5) though admittedly confidence remains at a relatively low level. The job market situation detailed within the consumer confidence report was more pessimistic in August than the previous month, however, with those reporting jobs hard to get moving higher. This sends a negative signal for Friday’s payrolls data.

There will be more clues to Friday’s US jobs report today which will enable any fine tuning of forecasts to take place in the wake of the August ADP employment report and ISM manufacturing survey. Consensus forecasts centre on a 15k increase in private jobs. Despite the slight increase in the Empire manufacturing survey in August, the falls in other manufacturing surveys point to some downside risks to the ISM today, with a simple average of the three pointing to the ISM closer to the 50 mark, which will highlight a loss in US manufacturing momentum.

Manufacturing surveys elsewhere will also be in focus, with the final PMI readings scheduled to be released for the eurozone and UK. There is likely to be confirmation of the slight drop in the eurozone PMI to 55.0 in August while the UK PMI is likely to drop to around 57.0 over the month. Both surveys remain at a relatively high level but it is clear that activity is moderating in H2 2010 from a healthy level in H2. The data will give little support to the EUR but the currency has found a degree of stability over the last couple of days. Nonetheless, a further downward move is in prospect.

The Fed FOMC minutes provided little for markets to get excited about. The minutes noted concerns about large scale asset purchases from some Fed officials, indicating resilience to increasing quantitative easing despite acknowledging increased downside risks to the growth and inflation outlook. It is unclear exactly what will be the trigger for further QE as acknowledged by Fed Chairman Bernanke last week.

The minutes will do little to help market confidence given the hesitancy to pursue further QE and provide further stimulus to the economy but the USD is likely to benefit from the fact that the Fed may not be as eager to expand its balance sheet further. Other currencies that remain beneficiaries in the current risk averse environment are the JPY and CHF. The JPY may find further upside more difficult given ongoing intervention fears but the trend remains for a lower USD/JPY in the coming weeks.

Economic reality check supports dollar

The US dollar appears to be making a tentative recovery of sorts at least when taking a look at the performance of the US dollar index.  Much of this can be attributable to a softer tone to equities. The S&P 500 registered its biggest back to back quarterly rally since 1975 over Q3 and either through profit taking or renewed economic doubts, stocks may be in for shakier ground into Q4. 

This increase in equity pressure/risk aversion is being triggered by weaker data. Since the Fed FOMC on 24th September the run of US data has generally disappointed expectations; in addition to the ISM survey, existing and new home sales, durable goods orders, consumer confidence and ADP jobs data all failed to match forecasts.   This list was joined by the September jobs data which revealed a bigger than expected 263k drop in payrolls.  Consequently doubts about the pace of recovery have intensified as markets face up to a reality check.

The dollar’s firmer tone is not just being helped by weaker stocks but also by plenty of official speakers discussing currency moves. Although this is potentially a dangerous game considering the recent turnaround in Japanese official comments on the Japanese yen the net effect is to support the dollar.  In particular, Treasury Secretary Geithner stressed the importance of a strong dollar, whilst European officials including Trichet, Almunia and Junker appear to have become more concerned with the strength of the euro. 

In the current environment such comments will contribute to putting further pressure on the euro which in any case has lagged the strengthening in other currencies against the dollar over recent months.   Although ECB President Trichet highlighted “excess volatility” in his comments about currencies overnight implied FX volatility is actually relatively low having dropped significantly over recent months.  The real reason for European official FX concerns is quite simply the fact that the eurozone remains highly export dependent and that recovery will be slower the stronger the euro becomes.  

It’s not just G10 officials that are becoming concerned about currency strength against the dollar as Asian central banks have not only been jawboning but also intervening to prevent their currencies from strengthening against the dollar.   A firmer dollar tone is likely to put Asian currencies on the back foot helping to alleviate some of the upward pressure over the short term but the overall direction for Asian FX is still upwards.

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