US Elections Take Yet More Twists & Turns

Amidst mixed messages from the White House about President’s Trump’s health and a growing circle of US administration officials and Senate Republicans infected with Covid-19, markets will kick of this week with many questions about the running of government, prospects for fresh fiscal stimulus and the nomination of the new Supreme Court Justice. President Trump pushed for stimulus in tweet while in hospital but obstacles in the Senate remain, including the fact that the Senate has adjourned until Oct 19, a factor that will also delay the Supreme Court confirmation process. 

In what was already an election fraught with various issues, President Trump’s Covid infection has added another layer of uncertainty.  The fact that several of his campaign aides have tested positive also complicates his ability to campaign to try to close the gap with ex- VP Biden.  There is also the question of whether the President will be well enough to take part in the second Presidential debate scheduled for October 15.  Markets initial sharp negative reaction to the news that Trump had contracted the virus, on Friday was tempered by the end of the session suggesting some calm.  However, every piece of news on Trump’s health will be closely scrutinized in the days ahead.  

The US dollar ended last week firm and this trend is likely to continue given the uncertainty about events in the weeks ahead, which despite the fact that much of this uncertainty is US led, will still likely lead to some safe haven dollar demand. 

A weaker than consensus US September jobs report didn’t help markets at the end of last week, with non-farm payrolls coming at 661k (consensus 859k) while a 0.5% drop in the unemployment rate was due a drop in the participation rate.  US non-farm payrolls are still down 10.7 million from the levels seen in February, highlighting the still significant pressure on the US labour market despite the job gains over recent months. 

Attention this week will focus on Federal Reserve Chair Powell’s speech on Tuesday and Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday, which will be scrutinised for details on how the Fed will implement average inflation targeting.  Also on tap is the US Vice Presidential debate on Wed between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, which hopefully will not be a fractious as the debate between President Trump and ex-Vice President Biden.  

Monetary Policy rate decisions in Australia (consensus 0.25%) on Tuesday and in Poland (consensus 0.1%) on Wednesday as well as the Australian Federal budget on Tuesday will also garner attention this week. 

Tough Times for the US Dollar

The US dollar had an awful July, with the USD index dropping by around 5% over the month, its worst monthly performance in 10 years. A range of factors can be cited for USD weakness including an asset allocation shift to assets outside of the US, worsening news on US Covid cases over recent weeks, improved risk appetite, US election concerns, lower real yields and fiscal cliff worries, among other factors.  Gold has been a particularly strong beneficiary of the malaise in the USD and declining real yield yields.  The Fed’s pledge to keep on aggressively supporting the economy and likely strengthening of forward guidance in the months ahead suggest that any increase in US interest rates could be years off.

It is still difficult to see the recent weakness in the USD resulting in a deterioration in its dominant reserve currency status though the longer the factors noted above remain in place, the bigger the danger to longer term confidence in the USD. As a reminder of such risks Fitch ratings downgraded US AAA credit rating to a negative outlook.  I do not expect markets and the USD to be impacted by the move, but it does highlight a worsening in US fundamentals.  While other currencies are still a long away from displacing the USD dominance in FX reserves, financial flows, FX trading and trade, the longer term risks to the USD are clear.

That said, the USD caught a bid at the end of last week resulting in a sharp retreat in the euro (EUR) from heavily overbought technical levels.  It is unlikely to be a coincide that this occurred as US Covid cases showed signs of peaking while cases in many parts of Europe began to accelerate, resulting in delays to opening up or renewed tightening of social distancing measures there.  US stocks have also continued to perform well, despite much discussion of a rotation to value stocks.  Solid earnings from US tech heavyweights solidified their position as leaders of the pack.  It is too early to say that this is the beginning of a USD turnaround, but the currency is heavily oversold in terms of positioning and technicals, which point to room for some respite.

Turning to the week ahead attention will be on July global Purchasing Managers Indices (PMI) data beginning with China’s private sector Caixin PMI (consensus 51.1), and the US ISM survey (consensus 53.6) tomorrow.  Central bank decisions include the Reserve Bank of Australia (Tue), Bank of England (Thu), Reserve Bank of India (Thu) and Bank of Thailand (Wed).  No change is likely from the RBA, BoE and BoT, but expect a 25bp cut from RBI.  At the end of the week two pieces of data will take precedence; US July jobs data and China July trade data.  US-China tensions will come under further scrutiny after President Trump vowed to ban TikTok in the US while pouring cold water on a sale to a third party.

 

US Dollar Sliding, Gold At Record Highs

Risk sentiment has turned south and the US stock rotation out of tech into value has gathered pace, with the Nasdaq ending down for a second straight week.  Gold is turning into a star performer, registering a record high today, while the US dollar continues to lose ground.  Economic activity is slowing, second round virus cases are accelerating in places that had previously flattened the curve, while US- China tensions are heating up.  Attention this week will centre on US fiscal discussions while US-China tensions remain a key focal point.

Reports suggest that Senate Republicans and the US administration have agreed on a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package.  This will be the opening offer in discussions with Democrats (who had passed a $3 trillion package in House in May), with less than a week before unemployment benefits expire.  Whether the $1 trillion on the table will be sufficient to satisfy Democrats is debatable and a figure of around $1.5 trillion looks plausible. Time is running out and pressure to reach a compromise is growing.   Further uncertainty will likely weigh on US markets in the days ahead.

US-China tensions remain a key focus for markets. Worries about a dismantling of the Phase 1 trade deal still looks premature even as China has fallen behind in terms of purchasing US imports.  The closure of the US consulate in Chengdu following the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston will be seen as a proportionate move, that is unlikely to escalate matters.  Nonetheless, a further escalation is inevitable ahead of US elections in November, with a broad array of US administration officials becoming more aggressive in their rhetoric against China.  As such, further sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies could be on the cards.

The week could prove critical for the US dollar given that it is breaching key technical levels against a host of currencies, with the currency failing to benefit from rising risk aversion recently. While not a game changer the European Union “recovery fund” is perceived as a key step forward for the EU, a factor underpinning the euro.  Key data and events over the week include the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed), US (Thu) and Eurozone Q2 GDP (Fri) and China purchasing managers indices (PMI) (Fri).  US Q2 earnings remain in focus too.  Before these data releases, today attention turns to the German IFO survey (consensus 89.3) and US durable goods orders (consensus 6.8%).

 

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.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

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