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. 

Summers’ departs Fed race, risk assets supported

Another weaker than forecast US economic release, namely August retail sales has obscured the picture ahead of the mid week Fed FOMC meeting. Moreover, the data alongside news that one of the leading candidates to take over as Fed Chairman, Lawrence Summers, has withdrawn his candidacy has helped to undermine the USD. Summers is perceived as relatively hawkish and less in favour of quantitative easing than the other leading contender Janet Yellen.

Summer’s departure from the Fed race will help to buoy risk assets and cap US bond yields. His candidacy faced increased resistance from both sides of the political spectrum, with an “acrimonious” confirmation ahead of him. Yellen is now the clear front runner in the race although she may still face competition from former vice-chairman Donald Kohn.

Ahead of the FOMC meeting there is likely to be little directional bias for markets, with the Fed expected to announce USD 10 billion in tapering in an even split between Treasuries and mortgage backed securities. Additionally the Fed is set to strengthen its forward bias in order to soothe markets and this ought to alleviate some of the impact some of the potential pressure on risk assets from the announcement of tapering.

In Europe politics will be in focus, with Senate hearings on the Berlusconi case in Italy continuing, heightening cross party tensions and maintaining the threat of a government collapse. Meanwhile in Germany Chancellor Merkel gained some momentum ahead of national elections as her ally, the CSU took an absolute majority in Bavaria.

However, the fact that her Federal government partner the Free Domocrats failed to reach the 5% threshold to enter the Bavarian parliament, means that Merkel still faces the prospect of having to enter into a grand coalition if they record a similar performance in national elections. EUR may face some restrain given the uncertainty around political events in Europe.

In Asia currencies are likely to find further support from the news that Summer’s has pulled out of the Fed race. Already over recent weeks there was strong evidence of a resumption of equity capital inflows to the region, helping to steady many Asian currencies. If the Fed attempts to counter any pressure from tapering news with reinforced forward guidance it ought to leave Asian currencies supported in the near term.

The INR has been the outperformer so far this month and will benefit further over the short term although the Reserve Bank of India policy meeting under new governor Rajan this week will give further clues on the direction of the currency.

Resisting Asian FX Appreciation

The upward momentum in Asian currencies has continued unabated over recent weeks the gyrations in risk appetite. Most Asian currencies have registered gains against the USD over 2010 with the notable exception of one of last year’s star performers, KRW which after gaining by close to 9% last year has weakened slightly this year. Last year’s best performer the IDR which raked in close to 20% gains over 2009 versus USD has continued to strengthen this year, albeit to a smaller degree. Another currency that has extended gains this year has been the THB, which is on track to beat last year’s 4% appreciation against the USD.

The strength in Asian currencies has in part reflected robust inflows into Asian equity markets. For example Indonesia has been the recipient of around $1.7 billion in equity inflows so far this year. However, India and Korea have registered even larger inflows into their respective equity markets, at around $13 billion and $7.7, respectively, yet both the INR and KRW have underperformed other Asian currencies. The explanation for this is largely due to deteriorating current account positions in both countries. Further deterioration is likely.

The fact that equity flows have had only a small impact on the INR and KRW is reflected in their low correlations with their respective equity market performance. For most other Asian currencies the correlation with equity performance has been quite high, with the THB and MYR having the strongest correlations with their respective equity market indices over the past 3-months although the SGD, PHP and IDR have also maintained statistically significant correlations.

Clearly, for many but not all Asian currencies equity market gyrations are important drivers but at a time when growth is slowing more than many had expected in the US and governments in the eurozone are implementing austerity measures which will likely result in slowing growth and a worsening trade picture in the region, central banks in Asia will become increasingly wary of allowing their currencies from strengthening too quickly.

Increasingly Asian currency strength is being met with intervention by central banks in the region buying USDs against a host of Asian currencies. Over recent weeks this intervention appears to have become more aggressive. Nonetheless, any FX intervention led weakness in Asian FX is likely to prove short lived, with renewed appreciation likely over the coming months unless risk aversion increases dramatically. In other words a drop in Asian currencies will provide better opportunities to go long.

The CNY will play an important role on the pace and pattern of Asian currency movements. Investors in the region will also have one eye on developments on the visit of US National Economic Council director Larry Summers to Beijing. The CNY has firmed over recent days but this appears to be the usual pattern when a senior US official is in town and ahead of a G20 meeting. The fact is however, that the lack of CNY appreciation since the June CNY de-pegging remains a highly sensitive issue.

China is unlikely to yield to US pressure and is set to continue to act at its own pace and comments from officials in China over the past couple of days suggest no shift in FX stance. Although the CNY has not appreciated by as much as many had hoped for or expected since the June de-pegging the path is likely to be upwards, albeit at a gradual pace. For Asian currencies a slow pace of CNY appreciation implies further reluctance to allow a fast pace of appreciation so expect plenty of FX intervention in the weeks and months ahead.

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