Markets Firm Despite Weak Data and Political Mayhem

Following an eventful (to put it mildly) week in US politics, the main thrust for markets is that the prospects of another sizeable US fiscal stimulus package has increased as Democrats will now take the Senate following the Georgia run-off elections as well as the House and Presidency.  The Blue sweep effectively gives Democrats more potential to pass policies without the constraints of requiring Republican support in the Senate.  That said, the Senate may not be willing to pass significantly more progressive measures given that the seats will be 50/50 for Republicans and Democrats, with the deciding vote coming from VP-elect Harris.

The data/markets dichotomy was once again clear from the weakness in the US December payrolls data on Friday, which revealed a 140,000 drop (consensus +50, 000) as Covid restrictions severely impacted leisure and hospitality jobs.  If anything, this will just add to pressure for more fiscal stimulus. US markets don’t care about soft data or are at least looking past it, with key indices reaching record highs last week led by tech stocks. Stocks and risk assets overall registered a stellar first trading week of the year amid a glut of liquidity even as US Treasury yields pushed higher.  

The US dollar also finally strengthened, gaining some respite amid a market positioned short and despite very negative sentiment.  More gains are likely if the USDs positive relationship with US yields continues to re-establish itself, assuming US Treasury 10 year yields push higher amid further bear steepening as expectations of more fiscal stimulus grow. The same cannot be said for gold prices, which tanked 4% at the end of last week as gold’s negative correlation with US Treasury yields took effect.  Asian currencies and local currency bonds will likely also face headwinds in the near term as the USD consolidates further. 

Aside from steps in the US House towards impeaching President Trump for a second time and any measures announced by the US administration in its final days, markets will focus on US (Wed) and Chinese inflation (tomorrow) data this week.  Both releases are unlikely to provoke any concern about inflation pressures even as market inflation expectations push higher.  Australia (Nov) and US retail sales data (Dec) (both tomorrow) will give some colour on how the consumer is faring.  In this respect US data will likely disappoint.  Other key data and events this week include China trade data (Thu) and rate decisions in Poland (Wed) and Korea (Fri). Chinese trade data is likely to reveal another strong reading for both exports and imports while Poland and Korea policy rates are likely to remain unchanged.


EUR/JPY ascent shows no sign of stopping

Data releases globally continue to show that economic conditions are strengthening. The latest indicator to lend support to this view was the January US jobs report, which taken together with past revisions revealed that job market conditions were better than previously thought over recent months. The report labelled as a “goldilocks” outcome also revealed a slight rise in the unemployment report, implying that there is little chance of any consequent shift in the Fed’s highly accommodative stance.

More broadly global manufacturing confidence indices also revealed gains (albeit with some divergence in Europe) and point to expansion in output in the months ahead in many countries. The data also suggest that weakening in economic indicators in Q4 last year including the surprise drop in US Q4 GDP was merely a setback rather than a renewed slide into recession. All of this leaves markets in rather buoyant mood as reflected in the ongoing gains in risk assets over the past few weeks and positive end to last week.

All is not rosy however, and politicians may yet ruin the day as political frictions in the US over spending cuts and a new budget have yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, elections in Italy on 24/25 February will provoke more nervousness as they approach. The EU Summit on 7/8 February will also be in focus as politicians attempt to salvage a deal on the EU budget after talks broke down in November 2012.

A light data calendar this week will mean that central bank decisions will garner most attention over coming days although I expect no change in policy from the European Central Bank, Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia. Risk assets will therefore not find any support from central banks this week. In particular the ECB’s stance of contracting its balance sheet continues to run counter to the more aggressive easing from other central banks, with the pain on an already weak Eurozone economy accentuated by a stronger EUR. Indeed, commercial banks’ LTRO repayments to the ECB may have helped to propel the EUR even higher.

Despite the ongoing upward momentum of USD/JPY the USD looks set to remain under downward pressure in general although there was notably some short covering according to the latest CFTC IMM report. The JPY shows no sign of reversing its losses as a combination of official rhetoric, improving risk appetite and growing use as a funding currency intensify the pressure on the currency. In particular, EUR/JPY’s ascent shows not sign of stalling into this week, with speculative longs in this currency pair at their highest level since May 2007.

US dollar on the front foot

Worries about earnings have resulted in a lacklustre performance for equity markets and a gradual increase in risk aversion over recent days. Nonetheless, economic data especially in the US continues to be encouraging as revealed by a spate of recent releases culminating in the October US jobs report which revealed a 171k increase in payrolls and upward revisions to previous months. Although the unemployment rate ticked higher to 7.9%, the trend is one of gradual but unspectacular improvement.

This has provided some support to the USD but notably US bond yields have not reacted much, leaving the USD a little vulnerable to any slippage. Commodity prices continue to be pressured, with a firmer USD and better US data fuelling further downside. The trend is set to continue over coming days especially if the data releases result in reduced expectations for more US quantitative easing.

The USD is likely to remain firm benefitting from weaker economic data elsewhere and a lack of progress with regard to Greece and Spain. Missed debt and deficit targets in Greece highlight the tough task ahead although Greek officials appear to be hopeful that they will receive the votes needed in votes on Wednesday and Sunday to pass reforms and budget cuts demanded by lenders.

This week there will of course be plenty of attention on US elections and various permutations of the outcome and its impact on markets. Polls show that the Presidential race is too close to call although the House and Senate races look like delivering the status quo. The worst case scenario for markets is for a prolonged period of uncertainty if the results produce no clear cut result which could ultimately undermine the USD.

Aside from the elections central bank decisions from the European Central Bank, Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia will also garner attention. While an unchanged outcome from the ECB is likely, both the BoE and RBA are set to ease policy further, the former in the form of a GBP 25 billion increase in quantitative easing and the latter with a 25bps policy rate cut. In Europe, the 8 November Eurogroup meeting will also be in focus as officials discuss progress on Greece’s next loan tranche.

All Eyes On US Jobs Data

Happy New Year!

2010 ended on a sour note especially for eurozone equity markets (and the Australian cricket team) where there has yet to be a resolution to ongoing growth/fiscal/debt tensions.  The EUR strengthened into year end but this looked more like position adjustment than a shift in sentiment and EUR/USD is likely to face stiff resistance around the 1.3500 level this week, with a drop back towards 1.3000 more likely.  In the US there was some disappointment in the form of a surprise drop in December consumer confidence data but pending home sales and the Chicago PMI beat expectations, with the overall tone of US data remaining positive.

There will be plenty to chew on this week in terms of data and events which will provide some much needed direction at the beginning of the year.  The main event is the December US jobs report at the end of the week.   Ahead of this there will be clues from various other job market indicators including the Challenger jobs survey, ADP employment report, and the ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys.  The data will reflect a modest improvement in job market conditions and the preliminary forecast for December payrolls is for a 135k increase, with private payrolls set to rise by 145k and the unemployment rate likely to fall slightly to 9.7%.

The minutes of the 14 December Fed FOMC meeting (Tue) will also come under scrutiny against the background of rising US bond yields.  In addition, Fed Chairman Bernanke will speak on the monetary and fiscal outlook as well as the US economy to the Senate Budget Panel.   Bernanke will once again defend the use of quantitative easing whilst keeping his options open to extend it if needed.  However, the changing composition of the FOMC with four new members added in 2011 suggests a more hawkish tinge, which will likely make it more difficult to agree on further QE.   In any case, the tax/payroll holiday package agreed by the US administration means that more QE will not be necessary. 

It’s probably not the most auspicious time for new member Estonia to be joining the eurozone especially as much of the speculation last year focussed on a potential break up.  The beginning of the year will likely see ongoing attention on the tribulations of Ireland after its bailout, with looming elections in the country.  Portugal and Spain will also remain in focus as the “two-speed” recovery in 2011 takes shape.  Data releases this week include monetary data in the form of the eurozone December CPI estimate and M3 money supply.  Inflation will tick up to 2% but this ought to be of little concern for the ECB.  Final PMI data and confidence indices will likely paint a picture of slight moderation.   

The USD ended the year on a soft note, with year lows against the CHF and multi year lows vs. AUD registered, but its weakness is unlikely to extend much further.  The key driver will remain relative bond yields and on this front given the prospects for relative US yields to move higher, the USD will likely gain support.  There maybe a soft spot for the USD in Q1 2011 but for most of the rest of the year the USD is set to strengthen especially against the EUR which will increasingly comer under pressure as peripheral tensions and growth divergence weigh on the currency.

Sell Risk Trades On Rallies

It seems that every time there is a bounce in risk appetite it quickly dissipates as worries about growth, fiscal deficits, sovereign debt, etc, return to dent sentiment. This was again the case overnight as markets sold off late in the US session, with an early bounce in sentiment proving too fragile to last. This pattern of trading is set to persist for a long while yet, with the overall tone of selling risk trades on rallies remaining in place.

Fears over a double dip global recession have increased since the release of Friday’s disappointing US jobs report even if it is too early to pass judgment based on the basis of one month’s data. Coupled with worries about slowing growth momentum in China, hopes that slower growth in the eurozone could be counterbalanced by firm growth elsewhere are being dashed. The problem is that despite a strong quarter of growth for most economies in Q2 2010 the outlook for the second half of the year is far more uncertain.

European Union officials sought to calm worries about the potential for renewed fiscal crises in the future by agreeing to monitor national budgets more closely and at an earlier stage whilst introducing a wider range of sanctions on excessive deficits. Unfortunately this is akin to the idiom about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The steps aren’t going to help resolve the current crisis. Evidence of implementation, execution and results on the deficit cutting front will help however, but this is a process that will take months rather than days or weeks.

A couple of factors may have prevented the EUR from extending losses overnight. 1) Germany announced EUR 80 billion in spending cuts along with 15,000 public sector job cuts. Germany also is pushing for a financial transactions tax on tap of the bank levy. 2) European finance ministers finalised details of the EUR 440 bn Financial Stability Facility which aims to sell AAA rated bonds to make loans to eurozone countries. The only question is the approval process. The statement on the funds operations only said that “national legal procedures to participate in the facility are well on track”. EUR/USD is likely to range between 1.1826 and 1.2110 over the short-term.

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