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.

Covid-19 Economic Toll Worsening

Unease about the economic toll of Covid-19 is starting to dent the rebound in equity markets.  The disconnect between the strength of the rally in equities and the reality on the ground has become increasingly visible following recent earnings releases including from tech heavyweights Apple and Amazon, and dismal economic data which included sharp falls in US and Eurozone Q1 GDP data.  Q2 will look even worse as most of the economic damage was inflicted in April, suggesting that the pain is just beginning.

Meanwhile geopolitical tensions between the US and China are adding another layer of pressure on markets, with US President Trump stating that he had seen strong evidence that Covid-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.  Trump’s comments have raised the spectre of a renewed trade war between the two countries at a time when in any case it was looking increasingly difficult for China to live up to its end of the agreement to purchase a substantial amount of US goods in the wake of a Phase 1 deal.

Some of the economic pain emanating from the shutdowns will be on show this week, with the US April jobs report likely to reveal a sharp rise in the jobless rate and massive decline in non-farm payrolls, with markets looking for an increase to around 16% and a drop of 22 million, respectively.  Already jobless claims have risen to over 30 million, with the only silver lining being that the rate of increase in claims has declined over recent weeks.  The extremely sharp deterioration in job market conditions threatens to weigh heavily on recovery.

The US dollar fell towards the end of March due in part to month end rebalancing (given US equity and bond market outperformance over the month), but also due to a general improvement in risk sentiment, reducing any safe have demand for dollars.  If as is likely markets become increasingly nervous about the sustainability of the rally in risk assets, the USD is likely to move higher during the next few weeks. Even in an environment where global equities sell off, US assets are still better placed in terms of return potential than those elsewhere, implying US dollar outperformance.

In terms of data and events focus this will turn to the Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia policy meetings.  Neither are likely to cut interest rates further, but the BoE could announced a further increase in asset purchases, while conversely the RBA is likely to maintain its asset purchases tapering path.  Aside from the US jobs data noted above, the other piece of data globally that will be watched carefully is China’s April trade report.  A weak outcome is likely for sure, but the extent of deterioration in exports and imports, will have very negative global consequences.

Will The Risk Rally Endure?

There has been a definitive turnaround in risk sentiment this week, with equities rallying and bonds falling.  Whether it can be sustained is another question. I think it will be short-lived.

Markets are pinning their hopes on trade talks which have been agreed be US and Chinese officials to take place in October.  These would be the first official talks since July and follow an intensification of tariffs over recent weeks.  However, talks previously broke up due to a lack of progress on various structural issues and there is no guarantee that anything would be different this time around.  Nonetheless, such hopes may be sufficient to keep market sentiment buoyed in the short term.

Data overnight was bullish for risk sentiment, with the US August ADP employment report revealing private sector gains of +195k, which was higher than expected.  The US ISM non-manufacturing index was also stronger than expected, rising to 56.4 in August from 53.7 previously.  This contrasted with the slide in the manufacturing PMI, which slipped in contraction below 50, reported earlier this week.  The data sets up for a positive outcome for the US August jobs report to be released later today, where the consensus (Bloomberg) is for a 160k increase in payrolls and for the unemployment rate to remain at 3.7%.

As risk appetite has improved the US dollar has come under pressure, falling from its recent highs.  Nonetheless, the dollar remains at over two year highs despite speculation that the US authorities are on the verge of embarking on intervention to weaken the currency.  While I think such intervention is still very unlikely given that it would do little to change the factors driving the dollar higher, chatter about potential intervention may still keep dollar bulls wary.  While intervention is a risk, I don’t think this stop the USD from moving even higher in the weeks ahead.

Conversely China’s currency, the renminbi has reversed some of its recent losses, but this looks like a temporary retracement rather than a change in trend.  China’s economy continues to weaken as reflected in a series of weaker data releases and a weaker currency is still an effective way to alleviate some of the pressure on Chinese exporters. As long as the pace of decline is not too rapid and does incite a sharp increase in capital outflows, I expect the renminbi to continue to weaken.

A Host Of Global Risks

Last week was a tumultuous one to say the least.  It’s been a long time since so many risk factors have come together at the same time.  The list is a long one and includes the escalation of the US-China trade war, which last week saw President Trump announce further tariffs on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US that do not already have tariffs levied on them, a break of USDCNY 7.00 and the US officially naming China as a currency manipulator.

The list of risk factors afflicting sentiment also includes intensifying Japan-Korea trade tensions, growing potential for a no-deal Brexit, demonstrations in Hong Kong, risks of a fresh election in Italy, growing fears of another Argentina default, ongoing tensions with Iran and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

All of this is taking place against the background of weakening global growth, with officials globally cutting their growth forecasts and sharply lower yields in G10 bond markets.  The latest country to miss its growth estimates is Singapore, a highly trade driven economy and bellwether of global trade, which today slashed its GDP forecasts.

Central banks are reacting by easing policy.  Last week, the New Zealand’s RBNZ, cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 50 basis points, India cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 35 basis points and Thailand surprisingly cutting by 25 basis points.  More rate cuts/policy easing is in the pipeline globally in the weeks and months ahead, with all eyes on the next moves by the Fed.  Moving into focus in this respect will be the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium on 22/23 August and Fed FOMC minutes on 21 August.

After the abrupt and sharp depreciation in China’s currency CNY, last week and break of USDCNY 7.00 there is evidence that China wants to control/slow the pace of depreciation to avoid a repeat, even as the overall path of the currency remains a weaker one. Firstly, CNY fixings have been generally stronger than expected over recent days and secondly, the spread between CNY and CNH has widened sharply, with the former stronger than the latter by a wider margin than usual.  Thirdly, comments from Chinese officials suggest that they are no keen on sharp pace of depreciation.

Markets will remain on tenterhooks given all the factors above and it finally seems that equity markets are succumbing to pressure, with stocks broadly lower over the last month, even as gains for the year remain relatively healthy.  The US dollar has remained a beneficiary of higher risk aversion though safe havens including Japanese yen and Swiss Franc are the main gainers in line with the move into safe assets globally.  Unfortunately there is little chance of any turnaround anytime soon given the potential for any one or more of the above risk factors to worsen.

%d bloggers like this: