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. 

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. 

Waiting for a solution to Europe’s crisis

The boost to sentiment following Germany’s approval of changes to the EFSF bailout fund was brief. Although the outcome of the vote was not particularly surprising political concerns were assuaged by the fact that Chancellor Merkel secured support from within her coalition. Markets were also helped by a bigger than expected drop in weekly US jobless claims but this also failed to provide a lasting impact.

The bottom line is that there is still a huge degree of scepticism on the ability of policymakers to resolve the crisis in the eurozone periphery while growth worries have not receded. Even the approved changed to the EFSF bailout fund are increasingly being seen as old news given the view that it will need deeper changes including ‘leveraging’ it up.

Consequently risk aversion remains at a highly elevated level and is showing no sign of easing. It may be difficult to turn sentiment around as we go into the final quarter of the year, especially as those investors registering profits for the year may want to capitalise on these profits rather than sit through continued volatility in the weeks ahead. Indeed the sharp drop in gold prices over the last couple of weeks even in an environment of elevated risk aversion may reflect this.

Similarly risk assets may struggle to recover over coming weeks unless there is a major improvement in the situation in Europe or in growth data. Markets will go into the end of this week looking ahead to key events next week including an Ecofin meeting at the beginning of next week, a European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and the US September jobs report.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European Finance Ministers on Monday especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop.

While the extent of short market positioning at the beginning of week left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering diminishes. Unless the Ecofin meeting delivers on expectations EUR/USD will likely re-test the 26 September low around 1.3363.

Japan FX Measures Underwhelm

Currencies continue to show remarkable stability in the face of elevated risk aversion which has prompted huge volatility in other asset markets. Although FX volatility has risen over recent weeks its rise is nothing compared to the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ equity volatility measure. FX markets are in some form of limbo where there are conflicting forces at play and where there is no obvious currency to play. The lack of clarity in markets suggests that this situation will not change quickly.

The USD (index) is trading at the lower end of its recent ranges and verging on a retest of its July 27 low around 73.421, with the currency perhaps suffering from expectations that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce a desire to embark on more quantitative easing at Friday’s Jackson Hole symposium. Its losses could quickly reverse as such expectations are quickly dashed.

Indeed, while Bernanke will likely keep all options open any hint at QE3 is unlikely as the Fed maintains a high hurdle before any prospect of further quantitative easing is entertained. One option on the table is ‘sterilised’ large scale asset purchases which would not result in an increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. This would be far less negative for the USD than a fresh round of QE and may even prompt a rally in the currency as markets shift away from the idea of QE3.

The USD will benefit from high risk aversion except against safe havens such as the CHF and JPY. In this respect the USD remains a better bet than the EUR which has failed to garner much benefit from renewed ECB peripheral bond buying. Nonetheless, data yesterday failed to feed into negative EUR sentiment despite mixed manufacturing surveys and a sharp drop in the German ZEW investor confidence survey. EUR/USD remains trapped in a broad 1.42-1.45 range.

News that Moody’s ratings agency has downgraded Japan’s sovereign ratings by one notch to Aa3 is unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. Moody’s left the outlook stable while unlike the US and Europe around 95% of Japanese debt is held domestically, suggesting little FX and JGB impact. USD/JPY continues to garner some influence from yield differentials and given that the US bond yield advantage versus Japan has continued to narrow, USD/JPY continues to face downward pressure.

Japan announced measures to deal with JPY strength including the creation of a $100 billion emergency credit facility. However, the main impact on the JPY could come from increased monitoring of FX transactions with firms having to report on FX positions held by dealers. The statement made no comment on FX intervention and this is where there will be most disappointment for JPY bears. Overall, the actions are somewhat underwhelming and are unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. If anything, the JPY may actually strengthen given the lack of comment on FX intervention. USD/JPY downside could face strong technical support around 75.93, however.

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