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.

What QE2 means for currencies

The sweeping gains for the Republican party in the US mid term elections has sharply changed the political dynamic in the US, with the prospects of further fiscal stimulus looking even slimmer than before although the chances of the Bush tax cuts being extended have likely increased.

The onus is on monetary policy to do the heavy lifting and the Fed delivered on its end of the bargain, with the announcement of $600 billion of purchases of long-term securities over 8-months through June 2011.

Given the likelihood that the economic impact of the asset purchases is likely to be limited and with little help on the fiscal front the Fed has got a major job on its hands and $600 billion may end up being a minimum amount of purchases necessary for the Fed to fulfil its mandate.

The decline in the USD following the Fed decision is unlikely to mark the beginning of a more rapid pace of USD decline though further weakness over coming months remains likely. The USD remains a sell on rallies for now and an overshoot on the downside is highly probable as the Fed begins its asset purchases.

The bottom line is that the Fed’s program of asset purchases implies more USD supply and in simple economic terms more supply without an increase in demand implies a lower price. The USD will remain weak for some months to come and the Fed’s actions will prevent any USD recovery as the USD solidifies its position as the ultimate funding currency.

Nonetheless, with market positioning close to extreme levels, US bond yields unlikely to drop much further, and the USD already having sold off sharply in anticipation of QE2, (USD index has dropped by around 14% since June) those looking for a further sharp drop in the USD to be sustained are likely to be disappointed.

It is difficult however, to fight the likely further weakness in the USD even if turns out not to be a rapid decline. The path of least resistance to some likely USD weakness will be via the likes of the commodity currencies, scandies and emerging market currencies. There will be less marked appreciation in GBP, CHF and JPY against the USD.

The Fed’s actions will continue to fuel a rush of liquidity into emerging markets, particularly into Asia. This means more upward pressure on Asian currencies but will likely prompt a variety of responses including stronger FX intervention as well as measures to restrict and control such flows.

There have been various comments from central banks in the region warning about the Fed’s actions prompting further “hot money” flows into the region and even talk of a coordinated response to combat such flows.

This suggests more tensions ahead of the upcoming G20 meeting in Seoul. Assuming that at least some part of the additional USD liquidity flows into Asia, the implications of potentially greater FX intervention by Asian central banks to prevent Asian currencies from strengthening, will have a significant impact on major currencies.

Already it is apparent that central banks in Asia have been strongly using the accumulated USDs from FX intervention to diversify into EUR and other currencies including AUD and even JPY. Perversely this could end up exacerbating USD weakness against major currencies.

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