Risk Trends – Monitor Liquidity Closely
Sentiment is turning increasingly septic across the financial markets. This past week certainly wasn’t the first week that signs of trouble were starting to show. However, a clear capitulation by one of the favorite benchmarks of hold-out bulls – US indices – has undermined one of the few reliable backstops left. The S&P 500 and Dow have been in retreat through much of October after hitting their respective record highs. Up until this past week, the slip still fit the mold of a measured retreat for which the ‘buyers of the dip’ have flourished. Yet, the past five-day stretch added a troubling gut punch to the opportunists’ gut. The major American indices, paced by the S&P 500, crashed through their respective multi-year bull market trendlines. While Wednesday’s 3.0 percent tumble was particularly acute, it was Friday’s more restrained drop that was perhaps more remarkable technically and a record setter. The gap lower on the open was the biggest in almost exactly 10 years (2 days off during the height of the Great Financial Crisis) and the largest on record. Furthermore, it the move that would treat a former critical level of support as new resistance. With this symbolic risk leader removing its support, we may find one of the most critical contributors to keeping the peace allowing progress as we slide into deeper retreat.
As we keep track of this small sliver of the financial system, comparison to deeper and more productive retreat for global equities (VEU), emerging markets (EEM), junk bonds (HYG) and so many other important assets will act as a sort of speculative gravity. One of my favorite measures of genuine sentiment is to gauge correlation for these various risk assets as they commit to a clear and consistent trend. Yet, where that may indicate that sentiment is in control with a viable direction, the measures of intensity are different. Two crucial elements of a market that is tipping from controlled descent into relentless deleveraging are market positioning and liquidity. For market positioning, exposure can be assessed through open interest via derivatives like futures and ETFs. The net speculative futures position monitored by the CFTC (COT) is a significant medium-term evaluation – in contrast to the short-term readings from the DailyFX-IG sentiment data. That said, there are longer duration measures that we can utilize for trends. Total open interest in futures (for speculation and hedging signals), capital moving into and out of ETFs and leverage readings for different economic participants (investor, consumer, corporate and government) can all register the state of the financial system. As these readings start to reverse course and funds begin to prioritize safety over return, we begin to solidify a self-sustaining course. However, tipping the market into a true panic with all its important implications, we must monitor the liquidity behind the market.
An abundance of selling overwhelming bullish interests is one thing. Attempting to unload exposure but finding no market forcing a rapid drop in price to satisfy the offload is something completely different. There are many ways to measure the strain on the system, but not all are made the same. I find many of the government (Cleveland Fed) and bank (BofAML, Goldman) measures are lagging. Spreads between market and sovereign (TED spread) or risk premium (high yield fixed income over blue chip) is more timely. Given how exposed investors are up the risk curve, the natural rolling out of the tide from higher risk and thinner markets can trigger a cascading problem in the opposite direction towards the core of the market. It is worth noting that late this past week, Japan’s central bank, Finance Ministry and financial authority (FSA) held an unscheduled meeting to discuss the tumble in equity markets (15 percent down in October). We should keep a close eye on whether more such concerns are confirmed on other points across the globe.
Themes Versus Event Risk for Euro and Pound
There are already significant fundamental winds blowing for the European currencies, but the storm will start to foster confusing cross winds in in the coming week. In particular, traders will have to untangle the influence between scheduled event risk and more systemic themes. We have seen this many times before in different asset types and different regions. How many times have we seen a high profile event draw the market’s attention in its approach only to find its ultimately impact waylaid by an unresolved and overriding theme? For this week, least severely conflicted currencies (hardly an inspiring designation) is the Euro. On the docket, we have a range of economic releases including inflation to region-wide sentient surveys. As important as those figures are, there is far more fundamental charge from the likes of the Euro-area 3Q GDP figures and Italy’s specific data. Italy will report its own GDP update, its monthly budget and other various indicators. We care about this specific country for its systemic, thematic influence. The standoff between the European Union and one of its most indebted members has hit a critical stage.
Italy has made clear it has no intention of backing off of commitments to increase public spending to help spur growth through pensions, support for the poor and more. Yet the Union and other member countries’ leaders have demanded change to meet the previous government’s commitments and not run afoul of the Union’s restrictions. We were here before with Greece approximately 9 years ago. If this moves forward, the situation could prove far more severe as Italy is a core member rather than a small, fringe component to the healthy system. From the Pound, the fundamental conflict will be far more substantial. The ongoing drumbeat for the Sterling is the unresolved Brexit. This has been the general state of the market backdrop for over a year and a half. However, we are fast approaching a critical deadline which looms like a cliff. They have to start decelerating now to ensure they do not pitch over the ledge. Where it seemed last weekend a breakthrough was reached when it was suggested Prime Minister May was ready to compromise on the boarder, we saw late in the subsequent week that talks within her government had stalled over strong infighting yet again. We have few definitive dates to monitor for progress through the immediate future, so we have to rely on erratic headlines instead.
In the meantime, the Bank of England (BOE) rate decision on Thursday carries more weight than normal. While speculation of another hike by the MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) before the end of the year has dropped off sharply, focus on policy standings has ramped up considerably thanks to the Bank of Canada’s rate hike. What’s more, this is one of the nuanced meetings for the BOE as we are also expected the Quarterly Inflation Report and Governor Carney’s press conference – which is collectively referred to as Super Thursday. Expect volatility but question trend.
The Unique Signal on Risk from the Dollar, USDJPY and Aussie Dollar
As we attempt to untangle the commitment in risk trends – a worthwhile pursuit given how much potential lays underneath this evaluation – there are a few measures in the FX market that deserve closer attention for their unique readings. First in that is the US Dollar. The most liquid currency in the world, this asset is often considered a binary safe haven. It is true that the currency represents a good harbor to stormy financial markets, but there are shades of grey to sentiment and to this indicator’s signaling. In the event that we see a full-tilt deleveraging of risky exposure, there is no question that the Greenback will climb. This has less to do with the depth of the currency’s own market, and relies far more on the international appetite for US Treasuries and money markets when the walls are falling down around us. When capital is fleeing to such safety, it first must cross the exchange rate barrier. However, short of the extreme measures capital shift, the Dollar’s status comes with significant caveats. This is a currency that has also drawn significant interest as a carry currency over the past few years owing to the Fed’s unmatched path of policy normalization. That hasn’t always afforded the USD lift, but it has factored in nonetheless.
If we are in risk aversion that sees the Dollar drop, it is less likely to be the type that is systemic and associated to ‘panic’; while a USD surge would indicate something very different. This ambiguous picture of the Dollar can be extended to a specific currency pair as well: USDJPY. Both the Dollar and Japanese Yen respond to market sentiment as safe havens. The Yen is more appropriately ‘safe haven adjacent’ however as it is a funding currency that facilitates carry trade appetite. As confidence gives way to fear, a deleveraging of carry nevertheless sees the Yen appreciate and signals a change in course. Yet, what if the intensity picks up? The Dollar’s carry status would facilitate a drop in the exchange rate, but an extreme tempo would likely designate a more appropriate harbor from extreme fear. If it is difficult to evaluate confidence from the USD alone or via the correlation between assets, use the USDJPY as a barometer. We have done a lot of ‘preparing for the worst’. What if sentiment stabilizes and there is a rebound in risk appetite? First, it is important for me to qualify that I would not consider a bounce in risk appetite to signal a lasting trend. There are still deep, unresolved inequities between risk assets prices and their values.
I would look instead for short-term opportunities. One such opportunity may come with the Australian Dollar and/or New Zealand Dollar. Both are carry currencies that have lost all appeal for their carry. They further have exposure to China which is troubling and host their own domestic issues (such as housing tension). Yet, if risk trends stabilize, there is deeper discount here than more confused outlets such as the Dollar or the Yen crosses. Further, these currencies have not dropped in recent weeks’ sentiment slump, which denotes a bias that can reduce risk and leverage potential under favorable conditions. There is still key event risk to monitor ahead such as Australia’s 3Q GDP and CPI, but we shouldn’t underestimate the opportunity should the course be set.