Nervousness Creeping Back – US dollar firmer

Last week ended on a sour note as concerns over second round virus cases intensified; Apple’s decision to close some US stores in states where cases are escalating added to such concerns. This overshadowed earlier news that China would maintain its commitment to buying US agricultural goods.  Although on the whole, equity markets had a positive week there is no doubt that nervousness is creeping back into the market psyche.  Indeed it is notable that the VIX equity volatility “fear gauge” ticked back up and is still at levels higher than seen over most of May.

Economic recovery is continuing, as reflected in less negative data globally, but hopes of a “V” shape recovery continue to look unrealistic.  In this respect the battle between fundamentals and liquidity continues to rage.  Economic data has clearly turned around, but the pace of improvement is proving gradual.  For example, last week’s US jobless claims data continued to trend lower, but at a slower pace than hoped for.  A second round of virus cases in several US states including Florida, Arizona and the Carolinas also suggest that while renewed lockdowns are unlikely, a return to normality will be a very slow process, with social distancing measures likely to remain in place.  Geopolitical tensions add another layer of tension for markets.  Whether its tensions between US/China, North/South Korea, India/China or the many other hot spots globally, geopolitical risks to markets are rising.

The USD has benefitted from increased market nervousness, and from US data outperformance, with US data surprises (according to the Citi economic surprise index) at around the highest on record.  JPY has bucked the trend amid higher risk aversion as it has regained some of its safe haven status. GBP was badly beaten last week selling off from technically overbought levels, amid fresh economic concerns and a dawning reality that a Brexit trade deal with the EU may be unreachable by year end.  EUR looks as though it is increasingly joining the club on its way down. Asian currencies with the highest sensitivities to USD gyrations such as KRW are most vulnerable to further USD upside in Asia.

Data highlights this week include the May US PCE Report (Fri) which is likely to reveal a bounce in personal spending, Eurozone flash June purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Tue) which are likely to record broad increases, European Central Bank meeting minutes (Thu), which are likely to reflect a dovish stance, and several central bank decisions including Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), New Zealand (Wed),  Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu).   The room for central banks to ease policy is reducing but Turkey, Philippines and Mexico are likely to cut policy rates this week.

 

 

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.

Low volatility unsustainable

There seems to be a real disconnection between the problems / tensions in China, Ukraine, Turkey, Thailand etc and market sentiment.

Even in the US the market has happily swallowed Yellen’s speech that data weakness is all related to bad weather (US equities rose to record highs overnight while the VIX index has edged lower). Well once the weather improves the data had better improve too otherwise that theory will be shot to pieces and markets will be hit.

In particular there really does appear to be a surprisingly degree of complacency towards events in Ukraine (see earlier comments). On that note even if the Ukraine avoids default via money from US/Europe/IMF tensions with Russia remain a major issue.

In terms of FX reaction JPY and CHF could face more upward pressure while the EUR is looking increasingly exposed. High beta FX EM FX will look increasingly vulnerable against this background.

What is surprising is that both major FX and EM FX implied volatility indices (1m, 3m) are tracking below their historical vol indices. The low level of volatility in both FX and equity markets looks unsustainable.

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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