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.

 

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A world of lower yields

This is yet another important week for Brexit deliberations as UK Prime Minister May, under pressure to resign, may bring her Brexit deal agreed with European Union back to Parliament.   Parliament could vote on different Brexit options in a series of indicative votes as early as Wednesday, including possible options of a soft Brexit or second referendum.  MPs will decide today whether to take control of the parliamentary agenda.  GBP meanwhile continues its two steps forward, one step back trajectory, but appears to be finding solid demand on any down step.

Also in focus this week will be a number of Fed speakers who will speak at a time when bond yields are sliding globally.  Markets were roiled by growth worries at the end of last week following a sharp drop in German manufacturing confidence (The Markit/BME PMI fell to 44.7 in March from 47.6 in February), which dampened hopes that weakness in the Eurozone economy would be temporary.   Taken together with dovish comments from G10 central bankers, the net result was an inversion of the yield curve and German bond yields turned negative.  Such signs have in the past been associated with the onset of a recession.

Despite a host of factors including lower US yields, a more dovish Fed stance, markets shifting towards pricing in US rate cuts, and restrained USD, emerging market (EM) assets have not benefitted greatly.  EM assets are torn between these factors on the one hand and global growth concerns on the other.  A host of idiosyncratic factors, whether it is political noise and pension reform in Brazil, or the impending Moodys’ review of South Africa this week, Thai elections etc, etc, are also resulting in more discriminatory investing.

US –China trade talks will also continue to be in focus this week, with the US administration’s Lighthizer and Mnuchin schedule to be in Beijing on March on Thursday and Friday to meet with China’s Lie He, who is planned to travel to Washington in the week after.  Structural issues such as technology transfers, state subsidies and intellectual property and the removal of all tariffs, have been stumbling blocks so far.  Latest reports reveal that China is refusing to back down on US demands that it eases restrictions on digital trades.   The absence of progress on trade talks are yet another reason for markets to trade under a shadow.

 

Chinese renminbi (CNY) set to stay firm amid trade talks

Since the beginning of November, the onshore CNY and offshore CNH have strengthened by around 3.5% versus USD. Both are now trading at pivotal levels close to their 200 day moving averages. Their appreciation cannot be solely attributed to USD weakness, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index appreciating by around 1.8% over same period. In other words China’s currency has outperformed many of its trading partners.

The relative strength of the CNY may be an effort by China to placate the US authorities ahead of trade talks. Indeed according to my estimate China has been selling USDCNY over the last few months, albeit not in large amounts. Interestingly China has not used the counter cyclical factor to push CNY lower as fixings have been stronger than market estimates only around 50% of the time over the last 3 months.

Much of the strengthening in the CNY move came after the US administration announced a pause in the trade war at the start of December, with a delay in the planned increase in tariffs from 10% to 25% on around half of Chinese exports to the US. The implication is that China does not want to antagonise the US administration with CNY weakness, despite the fact that recent Chinese trade numbers have been awful.

China had given itself some room to allow CNY appreciation by previously letting the currency fall by around 5.8% in trade weighted terms (from around 19 June 18 to end July 18) in the wake of the imposition of US tariffs. Its appreciation over recent weeks looks modest set against this background. As such CNY is likely to maintain a firm tone around the trade talks this week.

Positive Start To The Week

Markets start this week on a positive note in the wake of 1) the strong US December jobs report, which revealed a larger than expected increase in non-farm payrolls of 312k and decent growth in average hourly earnings of 0.4% m/m, 2) positive comments by Fed Chairman Powell on the US economy, while noting that the Fed will be patient if needed and 3) the 1% banks’ reserve requirement (RRR) cut by the PBoC in China.   Powell’s comments will also weigh on the USD this week against the background of long USD positioning, helping EM currencies.  He speaks again on Thursday.

Events this week will be key in determining the tone for markets further out, however.  In the UK parliament returns after its holiday break, with debate on the “meaningful vote” taking place over the week and markets will watch for any sign that May’s proposed deal gains traction.  The FT reports that she is facing a fresh challenge, with senior MPs signing up to block the government from implementing no-deal measures with parliament’s consent. x

China’s RRR cut (announced on Friday) will help to put a floor under risk sentiment.  The total 1% easing will release RMB 800 bn of liquidity, according to the PBoC, ahead of the Chinese New Year. A cut was widely expected in the wake of weak data and strongly hinted at by Premier Li prior to the PBoC announcement. The PBoC already cut the RRRs four times in 2018, and more should be expected to come, including MLF and other targeted easing.

Focus will centre on trade talks between US and Chinese officials beginning today.   Both sides are under pressure to arrive at a deal in the wake of pressure on US asset markets and weakening Chinese growth, but the differences between the two sides remain large. The US delegation will be led by Jeff Gerrish, the deputy trade representative and he is joined by officials from the agriculture, energy and treasury departments, suggesting that talks will centre on more detailed content.

Central Banks Galore

Although markets are quietening down and liquidity is thinning ahead of the holidays there are still a few important and potentially market moving events this week.   These include several central bank meetings, with the Fed FOMC at the top of the pile on Wednesday.  The Fed is widely expected to hike by 25bp to between 2.25% and 2.50% and remove any remaining forward guidance.

A few weeks ago there was little doubt that the Fed would hike rates this month, but since then it has looked like less of a done deal.  Dovish comments from Fed officials suggest that there will be a lot of attention on Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, especially following his recent comments that interest rates are “just below neutral”.   Although the Fed is likely to hike, it is likely to be seen as a dovish hike, which ought to leave the USD without much support.

In Asia there are three central bank meetings in focus.  On Wednesday the Bank of Thailand (BoT) is likely to hike its benchmark by 25bps to 1.75%, largely due to financial imbalances (household debt and bad loans) rather than inflation concerns.  On Thursday Taiwan’s central bank meeting (CBC) is likely to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1.375%, with low and declining inflation, suggesting the long held status quo will be maintained.

Also on Thursday I expect no change in policy by Bank Indonesia. Inflation is clearly non-threatening from BI’s perspective and unless the IDR weakens anew, BI will increasingly be in a position to keep its powder dry. Elsewhere in Asia, the Bank of Japan will be in focus.  No change in policy is widely expected on Thursday, with the central bank still well away from any tightening in policy given still low inflation.

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

Calm after the storm

After yesterday’s carnage, global equity markets have recovered some of their poise. Whether this is a pause before another wave of pressure or something more sustainable is debatable. It appears that US equities are finally succumbing to a plethora of bad news.  Higher US yields have driven the equity risk premium lower.  Also there’s probably a degree of profit taking ahead of the onset of the Q3 US earnings season.

At the same time valuations have become increasingly stretched.  For example, the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is around 6% higher than its 5 year average while almost all emerging market price/earnings ratios are well below their 5 year averages.  While strong US growth prospects may justify some or even all of this differential, the gap with emerging markets has widened significantly.

While US President Trump blames an “out of control” US Federal Reserve, it would have been hard for the Fed to do anything else but raise policy rates at its last meeting.  If the Fed didn’t hike at the end of September, bond yields would like have moved even higher than the 3.26% reached on the 10 year US Treasury yield earlier this week as markets would have believed the Fed is falling behind the curve.   However, as US yields rise and the equity risk premium reacts, the opportunity cost of investing in equities rises too.

In the FX world the US dollar could succumb to more pressure if US equities fall further but as we saw yesterday, USD weakness may mainly be expressed versus other major currencies (EUR etc).  Emerging market currencies continue to face too many headwinds including higher US rates and tightening USD liquidity, as well as trade tariffs.  The fact that emerging market growth indicators are slowing, led by China, also does not bode well for EM assets.  Unfortunately that means that emerging market assets will not benefit for the time being from any rout in US assets despite their valuation differences.

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