Watching US Yields

Risk assets struggled to make headway last week, with technology stocks stumbling in particular.  Nonetheless, inflows into equities remain strong as more and more retail money is drawn in (perhaps signs of a near term peak).  Asian stocks started the week in positive mood despite last week’s nervousness, but equity investors will continue to keep one eye on the move in US yields.

US Treasuries continued to remain under pressure and the curve continued to bear steepen.  A combination of US fiscal stimulus hopes/expectations, vaccine progress and reduction in COVID cases, appear to be pressuring bonds. President Biden is likely to pass his $1.9 tn stimulus package in the weeks ahead, with a House vote likely this week, while the Fed continues to dampen down of any tapering talk, helping to push inflation expectations as reflected in break-evens, higher.  Indeed, this will likely be the message from a number of Fed speeches this week including Chair Powell testifying before Congress (Tue and Wed). 

Despite higher US nominal and real yields and visibly more nervous equities, the US dollar (USD) continues to struggle, failing to find a trigger to much covering of the massive short USD position still present.  We note that non-commercial FX futures positioning data (CFTC IMM) revealed only a limited reduction in aggregate USD short positions (as a % of open interest) in the latest week. Antipodean currencies led the way at the end of last week, but pound sterling (GBP) speculative positions have seen the biggest bounce over the last couple of weeks. 

Despite the USDs reluctance to rally lately, the short-term bias could shift to a firmer USD sooner rather than later, including against Asian emerging market currencies.  Indeed, several Asian currencies lost ground last week, with the Philippines peso (PHP) and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) leading the way lower.  The Asia USD index (ADXY) appears to have peaked and looks vulnerable to more short-term downside.

US economic data at the end of last week revealed that the flash estimates for the February purchasing managers indices (PMIs) stayed at fairly strong levels for both the manufacturing and services sectors.  Separately, US existing home sales posted stronger-than-expected numbers for January.

Attention this week will be on progress of passage on US fiscal stimulus as well as a number of central bank decisions beginning with China (today), New Zealand (Wed,) Hungary (Wed), and South Korea (Fri).  No policy changes from these central banks are likely.  Also of interest will be the UK’s announcement on exit plans from the current lockdown (today) and Germany’s Feb IFO survey, which is forecast to edge higher. 

Risk assets under growing pressure

The growing turmoil in emerging markets is inflicting damage on risk assets across the board and no let up is expected in the near term. Even the rally in US Treasuries has failed to provide any relief to risk assets given the weight of negative sentient. Whether triggered by concerns about a slowing in Chinese growth, Argentina’s letting go of its currency support, and/or political tensions elsewhere such as in Thailand and Ukraine or a combination of all of these, the picture looks increasingly volatile.

Additionally, earnings and valuation concerns are acting to restrain equity markets. Finally, lurking in the background as another weight on asset markets is Fed tapering, with a further USD 10 billion reduction in asset purchases expected to be announced by the Fed this week (Wednesday). The combination of the above spells more bad news in the days ahead, with risk assets set to remain under pressure this week.

Amid the growing gloom in global markets there are still some key data releases and events that will garner some attention this week. In the US as noted the Fed FOMC meeting is the main event, but December new home sales today, January consumer confidence tomorrow and Q4 GDP on Thursday will also be important. However, the former two releases are set to record declines implying a mixed slate of US releases this week.

In Europe, coming off the back of some encouraging flash purchasing managers’ indices the January German IFO business climate index will record its third consecutive gain, while Spanish GDP is set to record its second consecutive quarterly gain. A slight rebound in January inflation is unlikely to stand in the way of a further reinforcement of forward guidance by the European Central Bank.

In Japan Trade data reported today revealed an 18th straight month of deficit while inflation data will reveal that the Bank of Japan still has a lot of work to do to reach its 2% inflation target implying that there will be some discomfort with the recent rebound in the JPY. Finally, expect no change from the RBNZ at its policy meeting on Wednesday, which will leave the NZD under further pressure.

Fed pulls the trigger

The guessing game is finally over as the US Federal Reserve took a major step away from the extremely easy policy conditions implemented since the financial crisis by tapering its asset purchases by USD 10 billion, split equally by reduced Treasury and mortgage backed securities purchases. Indeed the Fed finally put markets out of their misery but successfully massaged the market reaction.

The Fed is set to gradually reduce asset purchases over coming months, likely ending its QE program by late 2014. The decision was supported by most Fed officials but to soften the blow the Fed strengthened its forward guidance, helping equity markets to rally while encouraging the short end of the curve.

Conversely Treasuries came under pressure and yields rose, giving a boost to the USD. Markets are likely to digest the news well in the Asian session following the lead from US markets. Nonetheless, while the Fed decision was predicated on stronger growth, the decision will presage a competition for capital especially among emerging markets.

The biggest FX reaction unsurprisingly (given its greater sensitivity to US yields) came from USD/JPY, with the currency breezing past the 104 level. However, given that US yields have not pushed significantly higher in the wake of the Fed tapering decision the boost to the USD will be limited in the short term. Indeed, FX markets will likely digest the Fed news will little reaction both in major and emerging market currencies in the short term.

Further out, the prospects for contrasting policy stances between the Fed, ECB and BoJ imply that the USD will forge higher against the EUR and JPY as well as other major currencies. Meanwhile, highly correlated currencies with US Treasury yields, in particular in the emerging markets spectrum, including INR, TRY, and BRL, will be the most sensitive to an expected rise in US yields over the coming months.

What will the Fed do?

Any market action today will be both tentative in terms of risk taking and limited in terms of direction, ahead of the Fed FOMC decision. Equities pulled back overnight while US Treasuries rose as markets tried to second guess what the Fed will do at its policy meeting. The USD meanwhile appears to have benefitted from some, albeit limited pre FOMC short covering amid thinning year end liquidity. Firmer data, especially in the US jobs market over recent weeks and the recent budget deal have raised the odds of tapering being announced tonight although a move in January still looks more likely.

Whether the Fed takes its foot off the QE pedal tonight or in January is probably a moot point however, as the bottom line is that tapering is very much going to happen and markets will need to adjust sooner rather than later. Ahead of the Fed decision there are some useful data releases on tap which may at least provide some direction including the December German IFO survey which is set to improve slightly, UK jobs data and the Bank of England MPC minutes. No change is likely to be revealed in terms of voting in the MPC minutes.

A lot to get through before year end

As the end of the year nears markets will still need to get through a heavy week in terms of events and data releases before winding down. The main event is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday and trading direction is likely to be limited ahead of this. There remains a considerable degree of uncertainty about the timing of Fed tapering, with most market participants split between this week and January 30th. We see a one in three chance of Fed tapering beginning this week, with our bet on a January move.

There are also plenty of US data releases on tap including the December Empire manufacturing and Philly Fed surveys, industrial production, CPI inflation, Q3 current account balance, housing starts, existing home sales and Q3 GDP this week. The data will be mixed with manufacturing surveys showing little improvement, home sales declining while in contrast GDP will be revised higher and industrial production will reveal a decent gain.

In Europe there is also plenty to digest amid thinning market liquidity. The final EU summit of the year on 19-20 December will focus on the steps towards banking union while Eurozone flash manufacturing and confidence purchasing managers confidence indices to be released today will show some, albeit limited improvement. Further gains in the German ZEW investor confidence and IFO business confidence surveys are likely to be recorded in December although the surveys are unlikely to match the pace of recent gains.

The UK will also reveal further economic clues in the form of the CPI inflation, jobs data and Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes. In particular, the minutes are unlikely to reveal any urgency to change policy despite the faster than anticipated drop in the unemployment rate. In terms of central banks the Bank of Japan is set to leave policy unchanged given recent the progress on inflation while the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) minutes will reveal further focus on the strength of the AUD.

The intense focus on the Fed means that there will very limited market movements until after the outcome of the meeting. It is unclear whether the recent slippage in US equities has been due to renewed nervousness about Fed tapering or simply year end profit taking. Either way, a delay in Fed tapering may provide some, albeit limited relief to risk assets.

The USD will benefit if tapering is announced this week, but much will depend on what US bond yields do. Recent moves in currency markets are looking increasingly stretched, with EUR and GBP failing to build on their recent gains, while USD/JPY is also struggling to move higher. This may continue over coming days as FX market activity thins further.

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