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. 

Watching US Yields

Risk assets struggled to make headway last week, with technology stocks stumbling in particular.  Nonetheless, inflows into equities remain strong as more and more retail money is drawn in (perhaps signs of a near term peak).  Asian stocks started the week in positive mood despite last week’s nervousness, but equity investors will continue to keep one eye on the move in US yields.

US Treasuries continued to remain under pressure and the curve continued to bear steepen.  A combination of US fiscal stimulus hopes/expectations, vaccine progress and reduction in COVID cases, appear to be pressuring bonds. President Biden is likely to pass his $1.9 tn stimulus package in the weeks ahead, with a House vote likely this week, while the Fed continues to dampen down of any tapering talk, helping to push inflation expectations as reflected in break-evens, higher.  Indeed, this will likely be the message from a number of Fed speeches this week including Chair Powell testifying before Congress (Tue and Wed). 

Despite higher US nominal and real yields and visibly more nervous equities, the US dollar (USD) continues to struggle, failing to find a trigger to much covering of the massive short USD position still present.  We note that non-commercial FX futures positioning data (CFTC IMM) revealed only a limited reduction in aggregate USD short positions (as a % of open interest) in the latest week. Antipodean currencies led the way at the end of last week, but pound sterling (GBP) speculative positions have seen the biggest bounce over the last couple of weeks. 

Despite the USDs reluctance to rally lately, the short-term bias could shift to a firmer USD sooner rather than later, including against Asian emerging market currencies.  Indeed, several Asian currencies lost ground last week, with the Philippines peso (PHP) and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) leading the way lower.  The Asia USD index (ADXY) appears to have peaked and looks vulnerable to more short-term downside.

US economic data at the end of last week revealed that the flash estimates for the February purchasing managers indices (PMIs) stayed at fairly strong levels for both the manufacturing and services sectors.  Separately, US existing home sales posted stronger-than-expected numbers for January.

Attention this week will be on progress of passage on US fiscal stimulus as well as a number of central bank decisions beginning with China (today), New Zealand (Wed,) Hungary (Wed), and South Korea (Fri).  No policy changes from these central banks are likely.  Also of interest will be the UK’s announcement on exit plans from the current lockdown (today) and Germany’s Feb IFO survey, which is forecast to edge higher. 

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.

US dollar slips as yields pull back

Market sentiment deteriorated overnight as equity markets in the US and Europe declined while commodity prices also dropped. US yields slipped which undermined the USD. Growth downgrades by the IMF and OECD did not help especially given the weaker growth trajectory for some emerging market countries.

Meanwhile, two central banks did not follow the now usual pattern of easing, with the Bank of Canada leaving policy on hold and Brazil’s central bank hiking policy rates although Thailand cut interest rates. A lack of first tier data releases today will limit activity although the tone will likely remain relatively downbeat.

Having failed to take break through 1.3250 at the beginning of the month the EUR/USD will end the month on a softer note. EUR/USD in particular has been very sensitive to yield differentials and the widening in the US Treasury yield advantage over German bunds has been consistent with a drop in the currency pair. In this respect further direction will come from bond markets.

While Eurozone data releases are becoming less negative as reflected in manufacturing confidence data earlier this week and likely to be seen in various economic and business confidence indices today this is in stark contrast to US data releases which highlight strengthening in recovery notwithstanding a likely downward revision to US Q1 GDP today. Consequently it is difficult to envisage EUR/USD strengthening much from current levels, with 1.3030 seen as a strong resistance level.

A narrowing in Australia’s yield advantage, declining terms of trade, weaker China data and a relatively firm USD index have all contributed to AUD weakness. Additionally weak domestic data have fuelled expectations that the RBA will cut interest rates. However, a rate cut at next week’s policy meeting is unlikely especially as the drop in AUD will help ease financial conditions allowing the Reserve Bank of Australia to wait to examine further data before cutting rates again sometime in Q3 2013.

The AUD may find some short term stability around current levels, with support around AUD/USD 0.9528. While technical indicators remain bearish a lot of bad news is already in the price. Further out, I expect the AUD to rebound as reflected by the fact that my quantitative model shows that the AUD/USD is oversold relative to its short term fair value while short speculative positioning is reaching extreme levels.

GBP is another currency that has been battered by a strong USD but while it has lost ground versus the USD over recent weeks it has held up against other major currencies. GBP/USD has rallied overnight as US yields have pulled back but this may prove temporary, with the currency pair vulnerable to a drop below 1.5000 over coming days.

Against the EUR the picture looks more constructive. My quantitative model shows that GBP looks particularly good value against the EUR, with the model producing a “strong sell” signal for EUR/GBP. Limited data releases in the UK this week will mean that GBP takes its cue from gyrations in the USD and EUR while markets look ahead to next week’s manufacturing purchasing managers’ index and the Bank of England policy decision

Pressure, panic and carnage

Pressure, panic and carnage doesn’t even begin to describe the volatility and movements in markets last week. If worries about global economic growth and the eurozone debt crisis were not enough to roil markets the downgrade of the US sovereign credit rating after the market close on Friday sets the background for a very shaky coming few days. All of this at a time when many top policy makers are on holiday and market liquidity has thinned over the summer holiday period.

The downgrade of US credit ratings from the top AAA rating should not be entirely surprising. After all, S&P have warned of a possible downgrade for months and the smaller than hoped for $2.1 trillion planned cuts in the US fiscal deficit effectively opened the door for a ratings downgrade. Some solace will come from the fact that the other two main ratings agencies Moody’s and Fitch have so far maintained the top tier rating for the US although Fitch will make it’s decision by the end of the month.

Comparisons to 2008 are being made but there is a clear difference time this time around. While in 2008 policy makers were able to switch on the monetary and fiscal taps the ammunition has all but finished. The room for more government spending in western economies has now been totally used up while interest rates are already at rock bottom. Admittedly the US Federal Reserve could embark on another round of asset purchases but the efficacy of more quantitative easing is arguably very limited.

Confidence is shattered so what can be done to turn things around? European policy makers had hoped that their agreement to provide a second bailout for Greece and beef up the EFSF bailout fund would have stemmed the bleeding but given the failure to prevent the spreading of contagion to Italy and Spain it is difficult to see what else they can do to stem the crisis.

Current attempts can be likened to sticking a plaster on a grevious wound. Although I still do not believe that the eurozone will fall apart (more for political rather than economic reasons) eventually there may have to be sizeable fiscal transfers from the richer countries to the more highly indebted eurozone countries otherwise the whole of the region will be dragged even further down.

Where does this leave FX markets? The USD will probably take a hit on the US credit ratings downgrade but I suspect that risk aversion will play a strong counter-balancing role, limiting any USD fallout. I also don’t believe that there will be a major impact on US Treasury yields which if anything may drop further given growth worries and elevated risk aversion. It is difficult for EUR to take advantage of the USDs woes given that it has its own problems to deal with.

Despite last week’s actions by the Swiss and Japanese authorities to weaken their respective currencies, CHF and JPY will remain in strong demand. Any attempt to weaken these currencies is doomed to failure at a time when risk aversion remains highly elevated, a factor that is highly supportive for such safe haven currencies. From a medium term perspective both currencies are a sell but I wouldn’t initiate short positions just yet.

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