BT shares leap as European equities trade higher

Morning Note

Still no love for Europe? Equity indices in Europe dropped last week as risk appetite waned into the weekend, whilst US stocks closed Friday at record highs, albeit the rally since the March lows has been very uneven – all the chatter over the weekend was about a K-shaped recovery.

Can beaten down value stocks catch up? With Europe lacking a lot of the high-quality tech and growth names, it may struggle until there is a vaccine, the pandemic is over, and dividends are reinstated. Short-term the price action in stock indices seems more down to the individual narrative of the day or week.

Stocks up as markets focus on Covid-19 treatment and vaccine news

Today it’s positive. European equities took the cue from a strong Asian session and pushed higher on Monday morning, with the narrative centring on treatment and vaccine news. Donald Trump is said to be mulling fast-tracking AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate, whilst the FDA issued an emergency use authorisation for using plasma from recovered patients to treat Covid-19. Shares in AstraZeneca rose 2% in early trade.

Meanwhile, the US and EU have struck a ‘mini’ deal to cut tariffs on a range of items, which marks an important de-escalation of trade tensions that has dogged relations for many months.

BT surges as it readies takeover defence

BT shares leapt 7% after reports it is seeking to bolster its defences against a possible takeover. At a valuation of £10bn, the group has become a definite target. And whilst BT has a lot of legacy baggage – notably £18bn in net debt and a major pension deficit – it’s also got the Openreach crown jewel, which would be worth considerably more on its own than the group is valued today.

Of course, there is no formal offer, but shares could jump further if one emerges. Deutsche Telekom, which owns 12% in BT, is seen as a likely candidate. The question is whether there could be more bombed out UK-listed stocks that could be taken out by a timely takeover…perennial rumour-favourite ITV, for instance?

Deadlocked Brexit talks weigh on Sterling

Elsewhere, sterling made a push higher last week, but the dollar came back. Brexit talks did not go very well and there was virtually zero progress on some key elements. The failure to break the long-term weekly trend resistance makes GBPUSD susceptible to further pull backs, with a gravestone doji weekly candle also a bearish indicator. Support kicked in at 1.3060 on Friday and offers the near-term test for bears.

Bulls will require a weekly close above the trend line to be confident. EURUSD failed to overcome 1.1960 and pulled back to 1.1760 where it has found support. A further rise in EUR net long positions to almost 200k contracts evident in Friday’s COT report from the CFTC indicates extremely bullish positioning that may be too crowded and liable to a squeeze lower. GBP speculative positioning turned net long from net short for the first time since April.

What we’re watching this week:

Republican convention fires campaign starting pistol

The Democrats seem to have got through their set-piece without a hiccup. Now over to Trump and co for the Republican convention, which will not only mark the starting pistol for this year’s presidential run, but also the race for the 2024 GOP candidate. Market attention will increasingly come around to the November presidential race with barely over two months left until polling day.

Vix futures indicate investors are starting to position for more volatility as the election approaches and we should be prepared for a decent nudge higher in volatility and swing lower for stocks over the next two months. This is will be the last major set piece event before the first presidential debate on September 29th.

Jackson Hole

A confusion of central bankers convene in Wyoming online for the annual Jackson Hole Symposium. This year’s virtual theme is “Navigating the Decade Ahead: Implications for Monetary Policy”. I could answer that in one sentence: lower for longer, outright debt monetization, force inflation up to clear debts. But I’m not a central banker, although I would go to Jackson Hole for the trout fishing.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell speaks on Thursday just a few moments before the US cash equity on Wall Street. Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem follows and Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey speaks on the Friday. Given the way the minutes of the Fed’s July meeting rocked risk appetite and checked the bulls’ progress, this will offer a chance to catch up on where the Fed one month on with its mid-September FOMC meeting in focus.

Economic data to watch

There is a lot of economic data to get through this week, notably some Q2 GDP second estimates for the US among others. On Tuesday we are looking at the US CB consumer confidence report.  Wednesday sees the weekly crude oil inventories report as well as US durable goods orders and Australian construction activity. On Thursday the US weekly initial jobless claims number gets released, after last week’s disappointing print of 1.1m. Look also at the pending home sales and preliminary (second estimate) GDP numbers.

More US data rounds out the week on Friday with the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the core PCE price index; personal spending; University of Michigan consumer sentiment; and the Chicago PMI on the slate.

Earnings to watch

Ad titan WPP reports it interim results for the six months ended June 30th on Thursday. The advertising giant is a useful barometer of economic confidence. Big brands have slashed marketing budgets to cope with pandemic and WPP has warned of the hit it will take this year.

But rival Publicis reported a 13-% drop in second quarter like-for-like sales, which was well ahead of the –20% anticipated. Shares in WPP are down over 40% this year – could Publicis offer a clue as whether the stock may find a new course? Does WPP see ad spend picking up? How has the Facebook boycott impacted it?

We are also interested in recruiter Hays – which reports finals on Thursday and is often a great indicator as to the overall health of the labour market globally. Salesforce.com(CRM) is expected to deliver earnings and revenue growth when it reports numbers for the quarter ended July on Tuesday. EPS is seen at $0.7 on revenues of $4.9bn.

European markets tumble in catchup trade, Trump bashes China

Morning Note

On the plus side, the UK is sketching out how it plans to end the lockdown. On the minus side, it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal. This, in a nutshell, is the problem facing the global economy and it is one reason why equity markets are not finding a straight line back to where they were pre-crisis.

Indices on mainland Europe are catching up with the losses sustained in London and New York today, having been shut Friday. The DAX retreated 3% on the open to take a look again at 10,500, whilst the FTSE 100 extended losses to trade about 20 points lower. Hong Kong turned sharply lower ahead of its GDP report.

Whilst monetary and fiscal stimulus sustained a strong rally through April – the best monthly gain for Wall Street since 1987 – it’s harder to see how it can continue to spur gains for equity markets. Moreover, US-China tensions are resurfacing as a result of the outbreak, which is weighing on sentiment. Donald Trump spoke of a ‘very conclusive’ report on China – the demand for reparations will grow, and trade will suffer as the easiest policy lever for the White House to pull. This is an election year so I’d expect Trump to beat on the Chinese as hard as he can without actually going to war. Trade Wars 2.0 will be worse than the original.

And as I pointed out in yesterday’s note, equity indices are showing signs of a potential reversal with the gravestone doji formations on the weekly candle charts looking ominous.

Warren Buffet doesn’t see anything worth investing in. Berkshire Hathaway has $137bn in cash but the Oracle of Omaha hasn’t found anything attractive, he said on Sunday’s shareholder meeting. His advice: buy an index fund and stop paying for advice.

In FX, today’s slate is rather bare but there are some European manufacturing PMIs likely to print at the low end. The US dollar is finding bid as risk appetite weakens, favouring further downside for major peers. EURUSD retreated further having bounced off the 100-day SMA just above 1.10 to find support around 1.09250. GBPUSD has further pulled away from 1.25 to 1.2460.

Front month WTI retreated further away from $20. CFTC figures show speculative long trades in WTI jumped 35% – the worry is traders are trying to pick this market and the physical market is still not able to catch up with the speculators. The move in speculative positioning and price action raises concerns about volatility in the front month contract heading into the rest of May.

BT Group shares dropped more than 3% on reports it’s looking to cut its dividend this week. Quite frankly they ought to have cut it months ago. I rehash what I said in January: Newish CEO Philip Jansen should have done a kitchen sink job and cut the dividend from the start. The cost of investment in 5G and fibre is crippling, despite the cutbacks and cost savings. Net debt ballooned to more than £18.2bn – up £7.2bn from March 31st 2019. How can BT justify paying over £1bn in dividends when it needs to sort this debt out, get a grip on the pension deficit and do the kind of capex needed for 5G and mass fibre rollout? Given the current environment, a dividend cut seems assured.

What to watch this week

NFP – Friday’s nonfarm payrolls release is likely to be a history-making event. Last month’s -701k didn’t reflect many days of lockdown, so the coming month’s print will be seismic. However, this is backward looking data – we know that in the last initial jobless claims have totalled around 30m in six weeks – the NFP number could be as high as 22m according to forecasts. The unemployment rate will soar to 16-17%. The main focus remains on exiting lockdown and finding a cure.

BOE – The Bank of England may well choose this meeting to expand its QE programme by another £200bn, but equally it may choose to sit it out and simply say that it stands ready to do more etc. The Bank will update forecasts in the latest Monetary Policy Report, with the main focus likely to be on how bad they think Q2 will be. Estimates vary, but NIESR said Thursday the contraction will be 15-25%.

RBA – The Australian dollar is our best risk proxy right now. The collapse in AUDJPY on Thursday back to 68.5 after it failed to break 70 was a proxy for equity market sentiment. We will wait to see whether the Reserve Bank of Australia meeting on Tuesday gives any fresh direction to AUD, however there is not going to be a change in policy.

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