Skittish Markets Amid Higher Yields

The US and to some extent global bond market rout over recent weeks has caused particular pain to crowded growth/momentum stocks.  US 10 year Treasury yields have now risen by around 50 basis points this year, bringing back memories of the 2013 Taper Tantrum and 2016 spike in US yields following the election of Donald Trump as President.  Improving data and falling virus cases have helped fuel the move higher in yields, with the rise in yields hitting equity markets globally and in particular technology stocks as investors focus on the cost of funding amid relatively high valuations in some growth/momentum stocks. 

US rates markets stabilised somewhat at the end of last week after taking a drubbing over much of the week. The rally in interest rate markets on Friday helped to buoy equities, albeit to a limited extent with the Nasdaq managing to eke out gains.  Commodity prices dropped sharply while the US dollar continued to firm up.  Even so market volatility measures such as the VIX (equity volatility) remain elevated.

Currency volatility measures have moved higher too, but not to the same degree as equities or rates.  Emerging markets (EM) FX volatility has reacted even less than developed market FX volatility.  Perhaps this is the next shoe to fall, but so far EM FX have looked relatively well composed despite the rout in rates markets, partly due to a more limited US dollar (USD) reaction than would be expected.  The sharp spike in US yields does not bode well for EM currencies, however.  Higher market volatility, pressure on yield differentials and a slide in growth/momentum stocks could hurt EM assets and it will be very hard for the USD to continue to ignore higher yields. 

While gains in US risk assets may help Asian markets at the beginning of this week any follow through will be dampened by the release of a weaker than expected China manufacturing and services purchasing managers index (PMI) data. The manufacturing PMI dropped to its weakest since May 2020 while the services PMI fell to its lowest since the Feb 2020 COVID related collapse.  I would however, be wary of over interpreting the data given the usual seasonal weakness around Chinese New Year holidays.  Services in particular was impacted by reduced travel over the holidays.  

Other high frequency indicators show that China’s growth momentum remains positive and growth this year is likely to be solid.  More information on the official outlook and forecasts will come from China’s National People’s Congress beginning Friday, which will present the annual work report for 2021 and the release of China’s 14th 5-year plan.  Once again, a growth target for this year will likely be excluded though targets for economic variables are likely while the annual average growth target is likely to be lowered, possibly down to around 5% from “over 6.5%” for the previous 5 years.  

Data on tap this week largely consists of a slew of February PMIs while in the US the February ISM manufacturing survey will be released, with confidence likely boosted optimism about COVID and fiscal stimulus.  Over the rest of the week key releases include US jobs data (Fri), Eurozone February CPI inflation (Tue), Turkey CPI (Wed), UK Spring Budget (Wed), Australia Q4 GDP (Wed) and monetary policy decisions in Australia (Tue), Malaysia (Wed) and Poland (Wed).  None of these central banks are expected to shift policy. 

Chinese Data Softens

It was a tough week for risk assets last week as stocks dropped, volatility increased and the battle between retail investors and hedge funds intensified, with the latter on the losing side. The end of the week saw US and European stocks drop.  Whether the decline in stocks is due to over extended valuations, vaccine variants, vaccine supply pressures, weak activity data or more likely a combination of all of these, asset markets go into this week on a more unstable footing, with risks skewed towards pull back extending further.  It’s hard to blame day traders for the drop given that most of activity from retail traders is buying of stocks, and now silver, with heavy short position, but they are likely contributing to the rise in volatility.  The US dollar (USD) could be a key beneficiary given the massive extent of short positioning in the currency.

Data in China is showing some softening in momentum.  China’s Jan official purchasing managers index (PMI) kicked off this week’s data and event schedule yesterday, with both the manufacturing and service sector PMIs disappointing expectations; the manufacturing PMI fell to 51.3 in Jan (consensus 51.6, last month 51.9) and services to 52.4 in Jan from 55.7 previously.  China’s softer PMI once again contrasted with a series of Asia manufacturing PMIs, released this morning. Later today the US Jan ISM manufacturing index is likely to register a modest decline (consensus: 60.0 from 60.7 previously). Also in focus today is India’s budget announcement, with the Fiscal Year 2021 budget deficit likely to be around 6-7% of GDP, much higher than the original 3.5% estimate.  

Over the rest of the week there are interest rate decisions in Australia (Tuesday), Thailand, Poland (both on Wednesday), UK (Thursday) and India (Friday).  Among these the Reserve Bank of India has the most potential for a surprise relative to market expectations, with a rate cut likely.  The highlight of the week is likely to be the US January jobs report at the end of this week (consensus 55k).  Deliberations on US fiscal stimulus will also be in focus, with a group of 10 Republican Senators writing to President Biden with a $600 billion stimulus proposal, well below the $1.9 trillion put forward by the administration.  Democrats have hinted that they may push through stimulus via reconciliation, which not require Republican support in the Senate, but such a move would likely sour any mood of cooperation in the Senate. 

Sell On Fact

It was a case of buy on rumour, sell on fact at the end of last week, with US equities falling the most in over a week on Friday in the wake of the much anticipated but largely priced in announcement of President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal plan.  While the amount of stimulus is significant the reality is that it will be difficult to pass through Congress even though Democrats will have control of Congress and the Presidency. Something in the region of $1 trillion fiscal stimulus could end up being the price tag that is eventually passed in Congress given Republican opposition to some of the measures in the stimulus plan.  This would likely be followed by a possible $2trn+ plan for infrastrucutre/green spending.

Note that a 60-vote supermajority will be required to pass the fiscal legislation in the Senate, meaning that several Republicans will need to support the bill given the 50/50 Senate split.  Hence, a likely lower than $1.9trn eventual stimulus bill will be what is eventually passed. However, Democrats can pass the spending bill via “reconciliation”, but they would have to remove unrelated measures such as the proposed increase in the minimum wage, which they will unlikely want to do. 

Treasuries and the US dollar (USD) benefited from a worsening in risk sentiment at the end of last week.  USD positioning is at extremely low level, suggesting scope for some short covering. The VIX equity volatility index ticked higher and continues to remain well above its pre-COVID lows.  Given that many key equity gauges were in overbought territory according to their relative strength index (RSIs) some pullback/consolidation could be on the cards though the glut of global liquidity suggests that there is still plenty of money ready to buy on dips.  Yesterday US markets were closed due to the Martin Luther King Holiday, but Canadian and European stocks ended higher and futures point to gains today. 

US data isn’t helping sentiment, with yet more evidence that the economy was under pressure at the end of 2020.  Retail sales fell for a third consecutive month, the New York Empire manufacturing index fell for a fourth consecutive month in January. Lastly, University of Michigan consumer sentiment fell modestly early January.  Market direction today will likely come from the release of China’s December data dump as well as Q4 GDP.  In contrast to weakening US data Chinese data yesterday highlighted that solid recovery was sustained into year end, with GDP beating expectations, rising by 6.5% y/y in Q4 2020.  

The rest of this week is a heavy one for central bank decisions, with China, Malaysia, Canada (Wed), Indonesia, Eurozone, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil (Thu) and Japan (Fri) on tap.  In terms of policy action Malaysia is likely to cut, Turkey will likely tighten but the rest will likely be on hold.   The main event of the week is Joe Biden’s inauguration as 46th President of the US on Wednesday, and attendant risks of renewed unrest.  US Q4 earnings releases will also be in focus in the days ahead, with earnings releases ramping up over coming days.

Rocky Road

Despite the rally in US stocks on Friday, led by the technology sector, US stocks have fallen for four straight weeks.  The jury is still out on whether equities and risk assets in general can rally in the face of a host of uncertainties in the weeks ahead including the potential for a contested US election, fading US economic momentum, lack of progress on “Phase 4” US fiscal stimulus and a resurgence in virus cases globally.  What is clear, is that the road ahead is a rocky one, reflected in the fact that equity volatility (VIX) remains elevated and G10 FX options implied volatility around the time of the US election has spiked. 

One of the main beneficiaries of this uncertainty has been the US dollar lately, much to the detriment of precious metals given their strong inverse correlation.  It wasn’t that long ago that most commentators were writing off the USDs prospects and it’s still not clear that its recovery can persist.  The USD has hit its highest level in 2 months but will likely struggle if equities can eke out further gains in the days ahead.  In contrast, gold is trading around its lowest levels in 2 months.  While these trends may persist in the very short term, technical indicators (eg Relative Strength Index) indicate approaching overbought USD and oversold gold levels. 

This week, the main focus will be on the first US Presidential debate on Tuesday and US September jobs report at the end of the week.  While the US jobs report will likely show a relatively strong (when compared to pre-covid levels) increase in hiring (consensus around 900k), the pace of hiring is likely to slow and employment is still likely to be at least 11 million lower compared to February.  The battle for the new US Supreme Court Justice adds another twist, with President Trump announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and the Senate moving ahead to vote on this nomination this side of the election.  This has changed the dynamics ahead of the election battle, energizing voters on both sides. 

In Asia, China’s September purchasing managers indices (PMIs) and monetary policy decisions in India and Philippines will garner most attention this week.  China’s economy is emerging from the Covid crisis in good shape, helped by resilient exports performance, with medical goods and electronics exports performing particularly well.  This is likely to be reflected in China’s PMIs this week, which are set to remain in expansion territory. Meanwhile US government pressure on Chinese technology companies continues to rise, with the US government reportedly sanctioning China’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC.  This may draw a retaliatory response from China, such as adding US companies to China’s “unreliable entities” list.  

India’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) monetary policy decision is likely to result in an unchanged outcome on Thursday.  While growth has been hit badly due to Covid-19, inflation has also spiked to well above the RBI’s target, leaving the central bank in a difficult position on policy.  Ultimately the RBI will have to ease monetary policy further, but it is unlikely to do so at its meeting on Thursday.  India’s economy is fast heading for a double-digit plunge in growth this year and unfortunately virus cases remain at very high levels.  The rupee has been resilient, however, and is unlikely to weak much further in the short term, even as the economy softens. 

Host Of Central Banks In Focus

Well, last week, tech stocks had their worst week since March, with stability far from returning.  While the jury is still out, most still view the pull back in tech stocks as a healthy correction following a prolonged period of gains, blaming increased options activity over recent months for the magnitude of the decline. The buy on dip mentality is likely to continue to prevail, though tech stocks have not yet show any sign of wanting to make a convincing pull back.   

Signs of nervousness are clear; equity volatility remains elevated, but many investors are still sitting on healthy gains over recent months.  Given the low cost of funding, low returns in government bonds, alongside continued strong demand for stay at home electronics and a vaccine that could still take months to arrive, it is hard to see the tech sector falling too far.   

The fall in the pound sterling has been quite dramatic over recent weeks, both against the US dollar and euro.  Fears over a collapse in trade talks with the European Union have intensified.  The sudden waking up of the market to these risks has been provoked by the prospects that the withdrawal agreement with the EU will be torn up, prompting threats of legal action by the EU.

Time is running out to get a deal on the table before the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year, but UK Prime Minister Johnson has said that the internal market bill is necessary to prevent “a foreign of international body from having the power to break up our country.” The new legislation is already facing a rebellion in parliament. Against this background its hard to see GBP rally, with the currency likely to be particularly volatile over the coming weeks.

Attention this week will turn to several central bank decisions, with monetary policy makers in Poland (Tue), US (Wed), Brazil (Wed), Japan (Thu), Indonesia (Thu), Taiwan (Thu), South Africa, (Thu), UK (Thu) and Russia (Fri) all scheduled to announce their decisions.  After months of policy easing globally, this week will look rather boring, with none of the above likely to ease further.   

The Fed FOMC meeting will likely capture most attention, but there is potential for disappointment if the Fed does not provide further details on its shift to average inflation targeting in its forward guidance, even as the accompanying statement and Chair Powell’s press conference are likely to sound dovish. The US dollar has continued to stabilize, aided by the drop in GBP, but a dovish Fed could limit further upside in the short term. 

Aside from central bank decisions attention will be on US election polls, which take on more importance as the election creeps closer.  US fiscal stimulus talks have hit a wall, with little chance of progress this week, while US pressure on China and Chinese companies is likely to continue to be unrelenting as elections approach.  On the political front the race to take over Japan’s prime minister following the resignation of Shinzo Abe will conclude this week (Wed).   

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