Stocks off a little at month end, US-China tensions rise

Morning Note

What did they do just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said “We’d better accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative”

Stocks are ending May on a slightly downbeat note, but investors have definitely been accentuating the positive this week and for the whole of May.

Thank goodness, Covid-19 is getting bumped off the headlines; trouble is it’s not for good news. At last though we are seeing some caution displayed in the markets over China’s decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong and the ensuing ramp up in US-China tensions.

US stock markets close in the red, Trump to give press conference on China

US stocks were positive for most of Thursday before sharply reversing in the last hour and closing in the red, after the White House announced that Donald Trump would hold a press conference on China on Friday. ‘We are not happy with China. We are not happy with what’s happened’, he said. The UK, which signed a joint statement condemning China for its actions with Australia, Canada and the US, is opening the door to citizenship for 300,000 Hong Kong residents.

Given how stretched valuations have become, worries about US-China tensions don’t seem fairly priced in. As previously noted, investors need to be prepared for things to get worse from here, particularly given the back drop of a looming election for a second term, the worst recession in memory and 100,000 deaths from Covid – blamed on China – and the trade war, which is still rumbling on.

The pressure on Donald Trump at home is high. The press conference today will likely see Trump increase the war of words with China but he could go further an announce further sanctions on individuals associated with law, or revoke Hong Kong’s special status with the US on trade.

The S&P 500 was up most of the session but closed 6 points lower at the death, whilst the Dow fell 0.6% to 25,400, crumbling 300 points in the last 45 minutes of trading on the news of the White House presser.

Overnight, shares in Hong Kong fell again. European equities followed suit on Friday, declining by around 1% after a decent run in the previous session. The FTSE 100 faded off the 6200 handle reclaimed on Thursday. Hong Kong and China focused HSBC was down another 2.5%. But the FTSE was still headed for a roughly 200-point gain this week. European equities are still firmly higher this week as investors rotated somewhat away from the Covid/tech/quality play and back into cyclicals as economies reopen without undue rises in cases.

The Nasdaq, which has notably outperformed on a year to date basis, has markedly underperformed benchmarks this week. Remember it’s the last day of the month of May – it’s been a solid week and month for equities so investors may seek to take a little risk off the table going into the weekend and into June. The Hong Kong/US/China situation is all the excuse needed.

Data continues to show the dire economic impact of Covid-19

The economic data still stinks. 1 in 4 Americans have lost their jobs since Covid hit. US initial jobless claims rose another 2m to top 40m. But it’s slowing, with the weekly count down again for the 8th straight week. Moreover, continuing claims fell 3.9m to 21.1m, which indicates the labour force is returning – hiring is beating firing again, but it will be a long slow process to recover the 40.8m jobs lost, far longer than it took to lose them. A portion will be lost forever.

The US economy slowed more than previously thought, with the second GDP print for Q1 at -5%, vs 4.8% on the initial print. The Atlanta Fed GDPNow model forecasts Q2 GDP down 40.8%.

French GDP in the first quarter was down just 5.3% vs the 5.8% initially printed. Retail sales and industrial production in Japan both declined by more than 9%. Retail sales in Germany dropped 5.3% in April, not as bad as the -12% forecast – spendthrifts! Meanwhile those frugal French consumers spent even less than forecast, with spending down more than 20% vs a 15% declined expected. France is though reopening its culturally vital bars, restaurants and cafes from next week, so that should get consumers parting with a few more sous.

Dollar offered despite risk-off trade in equities

Despite the risk-off to trade in equities the dollar was offered into the month end. The euro extended its rally after breaking the 200-day moving average yesterday, with EURUSD pushing up to 2-month highs at 1.11. The March peak at 1.1150 is the next target. Sterling was also firmer against the buck, with GBPUSD recovering the 1.23 handle, trying to hold the 50-day line as support.

Shares in Twitter declined by more than 4% as Donald Trump signed an executive order that paves the way for legislation to tighten rules for social media platforms around third party content liability. It’s probably all a lot of hot air and distraction as he pursues a personal vendetta following the fact check warning on a couple of his tweets. Nevertheless, we have consistently warned that social media companies will need to face up to more and more scrutiny and tighter regulation around content distribution and the use of personal data.

Oil first fell but since recovered after EIA figures showed a build in crude oil inventories. Crude stocks rose 7.9m barrels, though inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma, declined by 3.4m. WTI (Aug) was hovering around $33 at send time, just about slap in the middle of its consolidation range.