India’s Covid Worsening, Central Banks and US Data

A number of holidays this week points to quieter week for markets.  However, as I note below, there are still a number of risk events on the horizon. 

A growing focus is the divergent trend in the path of Covid in emerging markets and in developed economies, with the former especially in some parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, seeing a significant worsening, which will likely result in delayed recoveries and lead to some EM asset market underperformance. 

India’s Covid situation worsens dramatically

As all the headlines show, India’s Covid situation has become particularly dire though a lack of large-scale lockdowns has led to only a limited mark down in growth forecasts there even as risks intensify.  Already there has been a political cost, with Indian PM Modi’s BJP party losing a key state election in West Bengal and losing ground in other state elections.  Virus cases are still on the rise and sadly the picture will worsen before there are any signs of improvement.  

Covid cases in India have been trending higher since February and hit record highs this weekend, above 400,000. The number of cases is approaching 20 million, with over 215k deaths, while the country has administered 157.2 million vaccine doses.  However, at the current rate of vaccination of 2.26 million per day, it will take 2.2 years to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine. 

US dollar consolidating

After losing ground in April (the USD index DXY fell close to 3% over the month) the US dollar (USD) looks likely to consolidate this month.  USD positioning has already improved over recent months, suggesting limited scope for short covering.  Seasonal factors are unlikely to be particularly influential this month.  However, I am cognizant that cross asset market volatility has eased significantly, while risk assets are already priced for a lot of good news.  Nonetheless, risk factors are increasingly rising, especially increasing Covid cases in many emerging markets as noted above.  This leaves the market prone to bouts of risk aversion, which could result in some bouts of USD strength amid an overall backdrop of consolidation.

Key data and events

This week is an important one for both data and events.  There are several central bank decisions including in Australia (Tue), Thailand and Poland (Wed), Malaysia, UK, Turkey, and Brazil (Thu).  None of the central banks are expected to change policy settings except Brazil, with the consensus looking for a 75bp hike there.  In the UK, there is uncertainty over the future path of QE and whether the Bank of England extends asset purchases or takes the first steps to bringing asset purchases to an end echoing the Bank of Canada by announcing tapering. 

On the data front, the main highlights include the US ISM surveys (today and Wed), US April jobs report (Fri) and China trade data.  Both the US ISM surveys and payrolls are likely to reveal robust readings.  Fiscal stimulus and easing Covid likely helped to boost US jobs growth in April while the unemployment rate likely fell.  Meanwhile the ISM surveys will likely remain around historical highs for similar reasons.  Overall, the data will continue to paint a picture of strengthening US economic recovery. Meanwhile China trade data is likely to reveal strong exports and imports growth, though much of this will likely be due to base effects.

US Fiscal And UK/EU Brexit Discussions

The worse than expected US jobs report on Friday failed to stop the S&P 500 from registering another record high, but it does put even more pressure on US legislators to agree on a fiscal stimulus deal.  US November non-farm payrolls came in at 245,000, below the 460,000 consensus expectations and while the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7% from 6.9% previously this was all due a drop in the participation rate.  In other words the fact there are less people registering as actively looking for jobs has flattered the unemployment rate. Payrolls growth has slowed sharply and there are still 9.8 million more unemployed compared to February while further COVID restrictions point to more weakness in jobs ahead.  The good news is that some form of compromise is emerging on Capitol Hill, with a bipartisan proposal of $908 billion gaining traction, though frictions remain over aid to states and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

This week is crucial for Brexit transition deal discussions. The weekend phone call between UK PM Johnson and European Commission president von del Leyen made little progress on outstanding issues including fishing rights and level playing field.  Irish PM Martin noted that talks were on “a knife-edge”. European Union leaders are looking for a deal to be agreed upon before the European Council meeting on Thursday though time is running out.  The lack of progress is weighing on the pound (GBP), which took an initial dive this morning before recovering somewhat.  As it stands, the UK will leave the EU on December 31 with or without a deal.   Further complicating matters the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which gives ministers power to rewrite parts of the original Brexit divorce deal, will return to parliament today.

This week’s data and event slate is likely to kick off with upbeat Chinese November trade data; both exports and imports are likely to record healthy increases (Bloomberg consensus: exports 12.0% y/y, imports 7.3% y/y). The data is likely to bode well for risk sentiment, and for Chinese and Asian markets today.  Policy rates decisions in Canada and Europe will be of interest, especially with the European Central Bank (ECB) (Thu) likely to deliver a further easing.  Bank of Canada (Wed) is unlikely to reveal any major changes to policy.  Inflation data in China (Wed) and the US (Thu) are likely to reflect the disinflationary impact of COVID. Finally, the EU Leaders’ Summit may sign off on any Brexit agreement assuming there is one by then while an agreement on the EU Recovery Fund is unlikely to be reached.  

Finally, Back To The Economy

The election of President Elect Biden marks a new dawn for the US and the world.  The world had held its breath since Tuesday’s US election, wondering whether there would be four more years of the same or change.  A new Democratic President elect together with a split Congress, is arguably one of the best outcomes that markets could have hoped for, notwithstanding the fact that President Trump refuses to accept defeat. 

While the Senate is still up for grabs it seems more likely than not to stay in Republican hands; the Georgia run offs on 5 January could result in 50-50 in the Senate and effective Democrat control via Vice President elect Harris, but the probability of this is small.  As such, there seems little prospect that a Republican led Senate -– will be pliable to President elect Biden’s biding. 

Why is this good for markets?  It means that policies and members of Biden’s cabinet will likely veer towards more centrist as opposed to leftish aims.  It will for example, be difficult for Biden to hike taxes, which will take out some of the sting from a likely smaller fiscal package than Democrats had hoped for. And limited fiscal spending may keep the onus on the Fed to provide liquidity, underpinning markets further.  

Now that the Presidency has been decided, attention will turn at least in part, back to Covid and the economy.  Neither look encouraging.  Covid cases in the US have reached record levels.  US October jobs data released at the end of last week revealed an above consensus 638,000 increase in non- farm payrolls though the level of payrolls is still down a sizable 10.1mn from the level in February and the fading CARES Act spending alongside surge in Covid cases indicates risks to any further improvement going forward.

Top tier data is limited this week in the US, with inflation (CPI) as the main release on tap (Thurday).  Nonetheless, risk assets/equities are likely to continue to take on a positive tone in the wake of the election outcome. The USD is likely to remain under pressure as risk assets rally. 

A Biden presidency, split Congress bodes well for Asia.  The US stance on China would likely be more nuanced and US stance on trade would likely be more supportive.  As revealed in China’s October trade data over the weekend, exports are holding up particularly well even ahead of a Biden presidency; exports rose by a very healthy 11.4% y/y in October.  

The USD is likely to depreciate in the months ahead in the wake of a Biden win/split Congress, while US rates are likely to remain suppressed, which all point to Asian FX strength.  Fundamentals also point positively for Asia. Much of the region is recovering well from Covid related weakness, led by China, which now appears to be firing on all cylinders.

Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

US-China tensions – Risks of a body blow to markets

Tensions between the US and China are once again escalating, resulting in growing nervousness in markets and raising concerns of a further deterioration in global trade at a time when the world is increasingly reeling from the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.   As many countries open up their economies hopes that activity can finally begin to resume, has strengthened.  However, the economic cost is still mounting and as revealed in awful economic data globally over recent weeks the picture is a horrible one.

It will be a fine balancing act for the US administration between imposing more trade tariffs and in turn hurting US importers on the one hand and punishing China for accusations of concealing information about spreading Covid-19 on the other.  President Trump recently threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China, which threatens the “Phase 1” trade deal reached at the beginning of this year.   Recent moves by the US administration include instructing a federal pensions fund to shift some investments in Chinese stocks and tightening export controls on Chinese telecoms company Huawei and its suppliers, which the US administrations says are contrary to US national security.

However, the White House may want to keep trade separate from other measures including tighter export controls and investment restrictions.  Indeed recent talks between senior US and Chinese officials on implementing the Phase 1 deal appeared to be cordial and constructive while Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council said on Friday that the trade deal is continuing.  This is logical.  Renewed tariffs on imports from China would hurt the US consumer, while likely retaliation from China would mean any chance of China increasing its purchases of US goods as part of the Phase 1 deal would disappear, inflicting more pain on the US economy.

One other major consequence of a new round of US tariffs on China would likely be a weaker Chinese currency.  So far China has avoided weakening the yuan, which could also provoke increased capital outflows from China (as it did in Jan 2015 and mid 2016) and a drain on FX reserves at a time when Chinese growth is slowing sharply.  However, China may yet opt for a sharp depreciation/devaluation of the yuan to retaliate against fresh tariffs and to support its exporters as it did when the US first imposed tariffs on the country.  Although this comes with risks for China as noted above, if it was sold as a one off move and was well controlled, it need not fuel an increase in capital outflows from China. This is something that the US will wish to avoid.

Although the US may want to avoid trade as the primary target of any pressure on China, this does not mean that tensions will not increase.  In fact it is highly likely that the relationship between the US and China will worsen ahead of US elections in November, especially as it is one issue which garners broad support among the US electorate. As such, US measures will likely skirt trade restrictions but will most probably involve a whole host of other measures including tightening export controls, student visa restrictions, investment restrictions, and other such measures.  Markets hardly need a reason to be nervous, but after a multi week rally, this is an issue that could prove to be a major body blow to risk assets.

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