Relief For Risk Assets, But How Long Will It Last?

Last week was one of considerable relief for risk assets; US equities recorded solid gains, with the S&P and Nasdaq up 6.2% and 8.2% respectively.  Conversely, oil (Brent) dropped by over 4% and the US dollar index dropped by around 1%.  Reflecting the improvement in sentiment, the VIX “fear gauge” has now dropped by around a third over the last couple of weeks to settle below 25.0.  The MOVE index of interest rates volatility has also fallen sharply.  All of this in a week when the Federal Reserve hiked policy rates by a quarter percent and promised more to come in a hawkish meeting. 

A lot of the bad news was clearly in the price including the pricing of several Fed rate hikes, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, peace talks appearing to make little progress, stagflation fears intensifying and a renewed rise in COVID cases in many countries due to a new variant (BA.2), we’re still very far from an all clear signal for risk assets.  Separately, the US administration appears no closer to persuading China into supporting a stronger stance against Russia; no statement was issued after the call between Presidents Biden and Xi at the end of last week.

China’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine still poses risks to its markets as indicated by the sharp outflows of foreign portfolio capital over recent weeks.  After pledges made by the authorities to provide much needed stability to China’s economy and markets, the coming weeks will be scrutinised for follow up action.  On this note, China’s Loan Prime Rates (LPR) outcome today was in focus.  There was a small chance that China’s Banks would lower their fixings but after the unchanged Medium Term Lending Facility (MLF) outcome last week, the prospects of a cut had lessened. Nonetheless despite no change in policy today, recent official pledges of support suggest its only a matter of time before there is a cut in the policy rate.

Over the rest of the week there will be several other central bank decisions in focus, mostly in emerging markets, including in Hungary (Tue), Philippines, Norway, South Africa and Mexico (all on Thu).  Most are expected to hike rates. A 25bp hike in Norway is likely, 50bp hike in Mexico, 25bp hike in South Africa and 150bp hike in Hungary.  There will also be several Federal Reserve speakers on tap this week including Chair Powell (Tue), as well as Williams, Bostic, Daly, Mester and Evans.  They are likely to provide more colour following last week’s Fed rate hike, with focus on comments on balance sheet reduction and the pace of further tightening ahead.  

Debate Over Fed Tightening Rages On

After receiving a major beating over recent weeks this week has seen a ‘risk on’ tone permeate through markets as dip buyers emerge.  COVID is increasingly taking a back seat though risks from simmering geopolitical tensions over Russia/Ukraine continue to act as a threat to markets.  Nonetheless, equity volatility has fallen, with the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropping sharply over recent sessions.  In contrast, interest rate volatility remains elevated as debate over a potential 50 basis point hike from the Federal Reserve and/or policy hikes at successive FOMC meetings continues.  Fed speakers this week including St. Louis Fed President Bullard and Philadelphia Fed President Harker in comments yesterday appear to have dampened expectations of a 50 basis point hike, but this has unlikely put an end to such speculation.

Overall market uncertainty is likely to persist in the weeks ahead setting the scene for renewed bouts of volatility.  The debate over Fed rate hikes both in terms of magnitude and timing is far from over, with analysts ramping up expectations of multiple hikes this year.  There is a strong chance that the Fed will announce tightening at each of the next three meetings including beginning quantitative tightening (QT).  Markets are pricing in five quarter point hikes in the next year and there may be scope for even more aggressive tightening.  Given likely persistently high inflation readings in the months ahead it is not likely the time to push back against markets tightening expectations. 

Much of Asia has been closed for part or all of this week though China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) data for January released last weekend highlighted a loss of economic momentum.  Although official stimulus measures will likely help to avoid a sharp slowing in economic growth, sentiment is unlikely to get back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon. China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID means that even small outbreaks will lead to lockdowns, likely dampening services sentiment and travel. Meanwhile, manufacturing pressure may find some support from fiscal policy measures as policy is front loaded, and likely further monetary easing ahead, with at least another 10 basis point easing in the Loan Prime Rate and 50bp cut in the RRR likely in the weeks ahead. However, the overall trajectory of activity remains downwards.

Monetary policy decisions in the Euro area (Thu) and UK (Thu) will be among the highlights this week in addition to US Jan jobs (Fri).  The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left policy unchanged as expected but revealed a relatively dovish statement even as it formally announced an end to quantitative easing (QE). There is likely to be a contrasting stance between the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB), with the former likely to hike by 25 basis point on concerns about rising inflation expectations while we the latter is likely in cruise control for H1 2022. In the US there are risks of a worse than consensus outcome for US non-farm payrolls due to a surge in Omicron cases (consensus 175k).  Separately, in emerging markets, focus will be on Brazil, where the central bank, BCB is expected to hike rates by 150bp (Thu).

State Of Shock

Equity markets are in a state of shock.  After a stellar year last year equities have started the year in terrible shape. The rout extended further at the end of last week, capping off the worst week in over a year for US stocks.  Tech continued to lead losses, with the Nasdaq down 7.6% over the week.  Notably global equities were impacted less than the US, reflecting the fact that most equity markets outside of the US are less tech orientated.  Anything with leverage and consisting of highly speculative investment such as Crypto are bearing the brunt of the pressure.  Volumes of equity put options on the S&P 500 have also risen sharply as investors try to hedge further losses on US stocks. 

The main cause of market pressure remains the build-up of expectations of Fed tightening, with Fed officials sounding increasingly hawkish and speculation growing of a 50 basis point Fed rate hike in March as well as several more hikes over the course of this year, with four hikes already priced in for this year.   It’s hard to see such pressure abating soon. Indeed, technical indicators on the S&P 500 look poor, with the index having closed below its 200 day moving average level.  However, with market pricing for US rate hikes already so aggressive, a lot of the pain may already have been inflicted unless the Fed really does hike at every meeting this year.  

Wednesday’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting will give further clues US interest rate policy, with the Fed likely to give signals that a March rate hike is in the offing.  However, this should not be surprising given that Fed officials have over recent weeks already strongly hinted at a March rate hike.  What will be scrutinised is any clues on Fed balance sheet reduction (quantitative tightening) as well as the path of the funds rate after March.  It’s unlikely that the Fed provides any firm indications, but nonetheless the press conference could prove more interesting.

Other policy meetings this week include the Bank of Canada meeting (Wednesday). It’s a close call but strong domestic data points to a 25-basis points policy rate hike, kicking off a likely cycle of hikes in the months ahead.  Separately, rate hikes in Hungary (tomorrow) and South Africa (Thursday) are also likely.   Following unchanged outcomes from Malaysia and Indonesia and a policy cut in China last week, there is little on the data and events front in Asia this week.  

Political and geopolitical developments will garner plenty of attention this week.  In the UK the Sue Gray report on “Partygate” will be released.  In Italy, the path for Draghi to be elected President appears to have become easier, with Berlusconi pulling out of the running though it is by no means a clear cut process.  Meanwhile, the situation with regard to Ukraine is on tenterhooks, with Russia reportedly continuing to build up troops on the border, and risks of “significant military action” rising.

Currency markets have been largely spared the carnage seen in equity markets. Speculative positioning data suggests the market remains heavily long the dollar index (DXY). Higher US real rates and continued tightening of Fed rate expectations suggests any pull back in the USD will be limited and the currency remains a buy on dips. Notably, GBP positioning has remained firm, ignoring the potential for a no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Asian currencies also remain relatively resilient, with the Chinese currency likely to continue outperforming.

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.

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.

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