Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

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. 

Reflation Trade Is Back

A much softer than expected US January jobs report didn’t prevent US equities from closing higher at the end of last week as the reflation trade kicked back in.  One of the biggest driving forces for markets was the growing prospects that much of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plan will be passed, albeit via a process of reconciliation, which allows Democrats to circumvent the need to gain the support of at least 10 republicans. This contrasts with prior expectations that the final stimulus was going to be less than $1 trillion. 

Pushing stimulus through this way highlights Biden’s urgency to inject more spending into the economy but could come at the cost of hurting bipartisan policy efforts. The impact of expectations of increased fiscal stimulus is particularly apparent in the US rates market, with US Treasuries selling off and bear steepening of the curve.  Although higher US Treasury yields failed to give support to the US dollar (USD) there is still scope for a short covering rally, which could still help give the USD relief.     

At the beginning of the year the US jobs market took a hit from renewed lockdowns and surge in COVID cases; US January non-farm payrolls increased 49k, and December was revised to -227k from -140k while more positively the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7% though this was flattered by a drop in the participation rate as less people were looking for work.  According to the payrolls report there are still 9.9 million more unemployed compared to pre-COVID levels.  As such, the weak jobs data added more support to Biden’s fiscal stimulus proposals.   

This week focus will likely turn more to President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate than economic data.  Key data/events this week include China’s credit and monetary aggregates (9-15 Feb), central bank decisions in Sweden (Wed), Philippines, Mexico (Thu) and Russia (Fri).  Among these the consensus is for only Mexico to cut its policy rate. Also in focus are inflation readings in China (Wed), US (Wed) and India (Fri).  UK GDP (Fri) and US Michigan sentiment (Fri) will also garner attention. 

The return of the reflation trade, rally in risk assets and decline in cross-asset volatility bodes well for emerging markets (EM) assets.  However, there are definitely various cross currents impacting asset markets at present especially with US Treasury yields rising, which could potentially support the USD and pressure EM local bond rates markets.  EM assets were clearly favoured towards the end of last year, and while the positive story has not dissipated, EM assets may take a pause for breath before pushing higher again.  

In Asia, the Chinese-new-year holidays this week may dampen activity while China’s PBoC also appears to be limiting liquidity injections around the holidays, which could limit some of the gains in Chinese and impact China linked assets.  Chinese authorities have re-focussed attention on preventing an excessive build-up of leverage and credit metrics have peaked as a result.  As such, they may be less keen to inject a lot of liquidity into markets at present. 

Are Recession Risks Rising?

It is incredible that just a few months ago most analysts were expecting at least two if not three interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.  How quickly things change.  Markets are pricing in at least a couple of rate cuts by the FOMC while US Treasury yields have fallen sharply as growth concerns have intensified, even as the hard economic has not yet turned that bad.  Recession risks are once again being actively talked about as trade fears intensify, with President Trump threatening increased tariffs on both Mexico and China.  As I noted earlier this week, trade tensions have escalated.

Reflecting this, core bond markets have rallied sharply, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 60bps so far this year, while bund yields are negative out to 10 years.  Historically such a plunge would be associated with a sharp weakening in growth expectations and onset of recession.  However, equity markets are holding up better; the US S&P 500 has dropped around 6.8% from its highs but is still up close to 10% for the year.  Even Chinese equities are up close to 20% this year despite falling close to 13% from their highs.  Equities could be the last shoe to fall.

In currency markets the US dollar has come under pressure recently but is still stronger versus most currencies this year except notably Japanese and Canadian dollar among major currencies and the likes of Russian rouble and Thai baht among emerging market currencies.  On the other end of the spectrum Turkish lira and Argentine peso have fallen most, but their weakness has largely been idiosyncratic.  In a weaker growth environment, and one in which global trade is hit hard, it would be particularly negative for trade orientated EM economies and currencies.

The US dollar has a natural advantage compared to most major currencies at present in that it has a relatively higher yield. Anyone wishing to sell or go short would need to pay away this yield.  However, if the market is increasingly pricing in rate cuts, the USD looks like a much less attractive proposition and this is what appears to be happening now as investors offload long USD positions build up over past months.  Further USD weakness is likely at least in the short term, but it always hard to write the USDs resilience off.

Going forward much will of course depend on tariffs.  If President Trump implements tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese exports to the US as he has threatened this would hurt global growth as would tariffs on Mexico.  Neither is guaranteed and could still be averted.  Even if these tariffs are implemented fears of recession still appear to be overdone.  Growth will certainly slow in the months ahead as indicated by forward looking indicators such manufacturing purchasing managers’ indices, but there is little in terms of data yet to suggest that recession is on the cards.

 

US data this week

Despite a softer tone to US equity markets at the end of last week market tensions appear to be easing, with news over the weekend of the ousting of Ukraine’s President helping in this respect. Although US equities ended the week slightly lower the overall tone to risk appetite was firm.

The G20 meeting proved to be a non event in terms of immediate market impact although the aim to lift GDP by more than $2 trillion over the next five years appears to be ambitious to say the least. However, at least focus has shifted from austerity to growth in terms of G20 thinking.

Last week’s release of the February Markit US PMI manufacturing survey which revealed a stronger than expected reading helped to allay some concerns afflicting markets over the pace of US growth giving markets reason for optimism. Indeed, in general markets have attributed recent weakness in US economic data to adverse weather conditions rather than a shift in growth trajectory.

Unfortunately this week’s US data releases are unlikely to be particularly helpful in shaking off growth worries. Although February consumer confidence is likely to be unchanged at a relatively high reading (tomorrow) declines in new homes sales (Wednesday) and durable goods orders (Thursday) in January will not bode well while a revision lower to US Q4 GDP (Friday) will highlight a slower pace of growth momentum at the end of last year than previously recorded.

The US data is likely to be bond friendly helping to cap gains in Treasury yields as well as restraining the USD. Nonetheless, the message from a plethora of Fed speakers on tap this week will likely be one of continued willingness to maintain the current pace of tapering, with recent and current weakness in economic data being shaken off as bad weather related.

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