Market angst remains

The same themes continue to worry markets, with Ukraine and China cited on a daily basis as the main causes of market angst. Additionally there is a growing feeling that US equity indices may have topped out given the lack of additional impetus from earnings or economic data.

There is not much on the data front today that will change this dynamic for markets and what there is will be unimpressive, with US retail sales set to have remained soft in February (consensus 0.2%) as bad weather hit spending.

The main market movers overnight have been commodity prices which continue to weaken, with the CRB commodities index falling while the Baltic Dry Index also took a tumble. Gold continues to outshine hitting a high of $1375 per ounce, benefitting from the continued rise in risk aversion while in contrast copper prices dropped to a four year low around $6495 before rebounding slightly.

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Safe havens in demand

Risk aversion increased further overnight, as reflected in the VIX “fear gauge and my Risk Aversion Barometer, both of which moved higher. Risk assets in general slipped, with US equities closing lower, while safe havens including JPY and gold were in demand.

Ukraine tensions have intensified, with diplomatic efforts yielding no success and Russia stating that it would recognise the results of the referendum in Crimea. Wheat prices are feeling the direct impact of these tensions, with prices rising to a 13 week high while in contrast copper prices continue to be hit by China growth worries.

The outlook today is not a positive one, with a negative follow through expected in the trading session. There is little on the data front of note, aside from Eurozone industrial production which is unlikely to be a market mover.

Ukraine fallout

So far most of the damage from the escalating crisis in the Ukraine and growing tensions between the West and Russia has been inflicted on Russian markets but global asset markets are also feeling increasing pain from the fallout. The most recent developments highlight that tensions have worsened further.

Equity markets in Europe were next in line for selling pressure, with sharp declines registered while US stock also dropped, but to a lesser degree. Commodity prices have also felt the shock, with European natural gas prices rising sharply and oil also higher. Gold has been a major beneficiary extending gains to around USD 1350.

US Treasury yields settled around 2.6% while the USD bounced as risk aversion spiked. My Risk Aversion Barometer rose over 3% while the VIX “fear gauge” jumped. Asian markets are likely to feel some pressure today although the impact is likely to be much less significant than elsewhere. Nonetheless, the lack of first tier data releases means that most attention will be focussed on developments in Ukraine over today’s trading session.

Geopolitical tensions to weigh on risk assets

There continues to be a disconnection between rising geopolitical risks as tensions between Russia and Ukraine intensify, and the performance of equity markets. US equities ended the week on a high note despite a bigger than expected downward revision to US Q4 GDP and risk sentiment overall remained supported according to our risk barometer. Other data were helpful for markets as February Chicago manufacturing confidence (PMI) and Michigan consumer confidence came in better than expected. The firmer tone to risk assets will not last, with risk aversion set to intensify today.

Markets continue to give US economic data the benefit of the doubt, downplaying the harsh weather impact on economic data. This is set to continue this week, with the release of a plethora of US data including January personal income and spending and February ISM manufacturing confidence, February vehicle sales, the Fed’s Beige Book, January trade balance and last but not least February non farm payrolls at the end of the week. All of the data will be hit by recent unseasonable US weather and therefore will look weak on balance, but markets will once again not fret a great deal.

There are several other key events this week that will garner market attention including central bank decisions from the Reserve Bank of Australia tomorrow, Bank of England, and European Central Bank on Thursday. Hopes that the ECB will easy monetary policy were dashed somewhat by a higher than expected reading for Eurozone HICP February inflation although there is still a possibility that some easing in liquidity conditions are announced. The RBA and BoE are not expected to change monetary policy settings this week.

It’s all about the weather

Fed Chairman Yellen helped allay concerns that something more sinister than bad weather was impacting the US economy in her speech to the Senate Banking Committee yesterday. While highlighting that tapering will go on unabated and likely end by the fall, the comments gave hope that the poor run of US data will come to end soon, once the weather impact reverses.

Risk assets liked what they heard, with US equities closing at record highs and the VIX “fear gauge” edging lower. Reduced safe haven demand helped US Treasury yields to move lower undermining the USD in the process. Against this background markets will ignore a likely downward revision of US Q4 GDP today, which will be seen as largely backward looking.

The relief from Yellen’s comments was sufficient to outweigh the increasingly precarious situation in the Ukraine where the regional parliament in the largely Russian speaking region of Crimea was overtaken by armed gunmen hoisting the Russian flag. Subsequently Crimea has now set a referendum to decide whether to opt for sovereignty for the region.

Given the increased jawboning by Russia and military exercises along the border with Ukraine, together with warnings by Western nations for Russia not to get involved in the situation, the risk of a further escalation of tensions are high. Indeed, the scenario increasingly resembles the type of stand off taking place during the “cold war” and markets may be underestimating the potential impact.

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