Fed’s high-for-longer message is now being taken seriously
The September FOMC meeting was not precisely a pivot point for the Fed, but more so for the markets which finally understood the Fed’s message on inflation. The dot plot, particularly, conveyed two key messages as listed below. Even though the accuracy of the dot plot remains in doubt, given a very weak correlation with what actually transpired previously, it is a great signalling tool to understand the intentions of the FOMC members.
- Terminal rate is seen at ~4.6%, which was above what Fed funds futures were pricing in before the meeting. Even slower growth and higher unemployment levels, as conveyed by the Fed’s projections, would not deter the central bank from hiking rates
- There was some pushback on premature easing, with the dot plot showing a 4.5-5.0% rate even at the end of December 2023.
Alongside that commitment to tighten, the Fed is now at the full pace of its quantitative tightening program, which is sucking liquidity out of financial markets at a rapid pace. The aim is to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet by $95bn a month — double the August pace. While quantitative tightening strongly influences liquidity conditions and asset markets, it is less useful in directly impacting inflation. While systemic risks from QT may remain contained, it ramps up the rise in Treasury yields as the Fed’s balance sheet shrinks and the amount of Treasuries in private hands increases.
Trussonomics pushing UK to an emerging market status
Sterling has fallen close to 10% on a trade-weighted basis in a little under two months, and has surpassed the Japanese yen to be the weakest against the US dollar year-to-date. An immediate response from the Bank of England may have saved some face, but remember that last week’s BOE decision was a pretty split vote as well with two members voting for 75bps rate hike and one calling for a smaller 25bps rate hike as well. So, it remains hard to expect a prudent policy response from the BOE, and a parity for GBPUSD in that case may not prove to be the floor. UK’s net forex reserves of $100bn are also enough to only cover two months of imports, or roughly equal to 3% of GDP as compared to Japan’s 20% and Switzerland’s 115%. But it’s not just about the sterling crisis in the UK, but more generally a crisis of confidence. Not to forget, inflation forecasts for end of the year are already at 10%+ levels and the market is now pricing in over 200bps of rate hikes by the end of the year, with two meetings left. The central bank will need to deliver this massive tightening simply to keep the sterling where it currently is and that won’t reverse the impact of the government’s decisions on UK markets. The scale and speed of the hikes could also do significant damage to the economy. The iShares MSCI United Kingdom ETF (EWU:arcx) traded lower by another 1.8% on Monday and is now down 7.3% over the last one week.
Bank of Japan’s patience will keep getting tested
We wrote earlier about what will need to change to call it a top in the US dollar, and nothing seems to be in order yet except some of the non-US officials starting to get concerned about currency weakness. Still, the intervention from Bank of Japan didn’t have long lasting effects on USDJPY, even as it helped to strengthen the yen against some of the other currencies such as the EUR, GBP or AUD. It may have also helped to stop some speculative shorts. But a coordinated intervention in the yen still remains a far cry, with the weakness in the Japanese yen being BoJ's own-doing due to the yield curve control policy. Japanese government bonds will likely continue to test the patience of Bank of Japan with its yield curve control policy. Downside for Japanese government bonds (JGB1c1) will potentially spike exponentially if the BOJ pivots at some point.
Earnings pressure may be next
While the Q2 earnings season proved to be more resilient than expectations, intensifying inflation concerns have turned corporates more cautious on the outlook and less optimistic for the near-term earnings performances. We have seen some downward revision of EPS estimates for the third quarter in July and August, and we still cannot rule out further grim outlook and margin pressures. Estimates for S&P 500 earnings in 2022 stood at $226.15 per share as of August 31, according to FactSet. This is down 1.5% from the $229.60 per share estimate as of June 30. For 2023, analysts now expect EPS of $243.68, down 2.8% from the June estimate of $250.61. So far, companies dealt with rising inflation by passing on increased costs to consumers, given the pandemic-era fiscal support measures underpinned strength in the consumer side. These increased pass-through was also visible in higher CPI prints. But with the economic outlook getting duller by the day, there is bound to be some pushback from the consumers and that will likely show up in the earnings report card. From a sectoral perspective, tech stocks will likely be battered as tight corporate budgets weigh and the US 10-year yields are in close sights of 4%. Semiconductors, a barometer of global economic health, could also face further pressure. Meanwhile, the oil and gas sector was the saviour of the Q2 earnings season, but would also likely see some pressure in Q3, unless the outlook starts to look slightly more upbeat with improving capex plans.
Dollar pivot is the next key catalyst to watch
The majority of the market downfall we have seen so far has come from a rapid shift in cost of capital and correcting peak valuation. The next leg, as discussed above could be the earnings recession. Still, economic recession risks remain and history suggests that the market lows do not come until after the recession begins (see chart below).
Still, with the US 10-year yields approaching 4% - which maybe a likely ceiling – the focus turns to a reversal in the US dollar as the next pivot, not the Fed. Testing those key levels could mean a short-term bounce in equities which may be favourable for building new short positions as the trend still remains down. Alternatively, for investors, it would rather be optimal to look for signs of selling exhaustion to accumulate long positions, such as VIX above 40. Historically, a decline in stocks of the order of 20% makes it buying stocks after they have been down 20% from record highs has been a good risk/reward proposition for longer-term investors.