Equities in retreat as Covid-19 cases advance, oil drops

Morning Note

Equity markets have come under pressure again as a spike in new Covid cases across the US has investors worried, whilst the IMF drastically cut its growth forecasts for the year. Major equity indices have retreated towards the lower end of the range traded in June but have yet to make fresh lows for the month – when they do it will get very interesting and could call for another leg lower.

Stocks in Europe were down 3% on Wednesday, whilst Wall Street dropped 2.6%. European markets opened lower again Thursday, with a risk-off trade seeing all sectors in the red and telcos, healthcare and utilities declining the least.

Investors are pulling their heads in a little as the surge in cases raises concerns about how quickly the US economy can emerge from the ashes. There are also clusters in Germany of course but the focus is on the divergence between the European and US experience.  The FTSE 100 retreated close to 6,000 round number but found support around the 23.6% retracement at 6,066.

The S&P 500 closed at 3,050, on the 38.2% retracement. With softness on the open in Europe and futures indicating a lower open, we may see SPX test its 23.6% level on the 3,000 round number. A retest of the June lows looks increasingly likely.

IMF cuts global outlook, US-EU trade tensions simmer

Meanwhile the IMF lowered its 2020 outlook, warning the global economy would shrink a lot more this year than it had forecast in April. Global output is forecast at –4.9%, vs –3% in April. The UK and EU will decline 10%, whilst the US economy will shrink 8%. Tellingly, the IMF also lowered its 2021 bounce-back forecast – growth globally is expected to rally 5.4%, vs the 5.8% forecast in April.

In other words, the decline will be deeper and the recovery slower; that is, no V-shaped recovery. We can also add US-EU trade tensions into the mix hitting stock market sentiment, as the White House has threatened fresh tariffs. I’d also suggest that the closer we get to the election and the more polls show Biden leading Trump, the greater the risk of a Democrat clean sweep, which will need to be priced into equity markets.

Improved virus response, central bank stimulus lowers risk to equities

Although we see clear headline risk around spikes in Covid cases for equity markets, any second wave is not going to result in the same level of lockdown restrictions endured in the first wave: it’s just too costly economically and because we have learned a lot in how to cope with this virus, both in terms of treatment and prevention. This means any further pullback we see, whilst potentially quite sharp, is unlikely to see a retest of the lows in March.

Meanwhile central bank stimulus is still strong. The Fed has shifted materially – it now has a $7tn balance sheet, setting a floor under the bond market that pushes up equities. The risk to equities comes later in the year when we get a real insight into both the pace of economic recovery and, by extension, corporate earnings – does the S&P 500 still justify x23 forward PE, or should it start to trade at more like x19? The current forward PE of around x23 suggests hope of a bounce back in earnings next year that may not come to fruition.

US weekly jobless claims in focus

On the pace of economic recovery, today’s weekly jobless claims report will be of great significance. Last week’s underwhelmed. Following the surprisingly strong nonfarm payrolls report, the weekly numbers didn’t follow through with conviction – initial claims were down just 58k to 1.5m, whilst continuing claims only fell by 62k to 20.5m. The slowing in the rate of change was the main concern – hiring not really outpacing firing at a fast-enough pace to be confident of a decent recovery. I would like to see a greater improvement given the reopening of businesses, and it suggests more permanent scarring to the labour market.

Gold eases back as dollar recovers

Gold eased back off 8-year highs as the US dollar gained on the risk-off trade, but at $1765 in early European trade had bounced off lows around $1753 struck overnight. Short-term we see a stronger dollar exerting some pressure on gold prices; longer term the focus is on US real rates, which have just risen a touch off the lows. 10yr Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) eased away from 7-year lows at –0.66 to –0.64, providing another little headwind to gold prices in the near term. 

Oil slides on rising stockpiles

Crude oil declined with the broader risk-off trade. Rising US stockpiles – which hit a record high for the straight week – have also started to spook traders. Crude inventories climbed 1.44m barrels in the week to June 19th, to 540.7 million barrels. Gasoline stocks were down 1.7m barrels, giving encouraging signals about driving demand. US crude oil refinery inputs rose 239,000 bpd to 13.8m bpd. Total US production rose 500,000 bpd to 11m bpd due to the return of Gulf of Mexico output following Tropical Storm Cristobal. 

WTI (Aug) retreated off the $40 level to trade just above $37 – as suggested whilst the fundamentals have started to build in favour of stronger pricing, the market will not be immune to a technical pullback on overbought conditions and/or a decline in sentiment among traders due to rising US cases. The emerging double top is less nascent than it was and increasingly calls for the $35 neckline to be touched. A breach here calls for $31.50, the swing lows touched in the second half of May.

In FX, we can see a downwards channel for GBPUSD. The cross has pulled back to 1.24 as the dollar found bid, before paring losses a little this morning. Bulls need to clear the swing high at 1.2540 to break the downtrend, but trend resistance appears around 1.25 first. Bears can eye a pullback to under the Jun 21st low around 1.2334, with the channel suggesting we may see a 1.22 handle should the bulls fail to break 1.25 next.

Bank of England wheels for fresh charge

Morning Note

Central banks need to be marshalled like cavalry and stimulus like charges. If your stimulus doesn’t rout the enemy immediately, you can easily get bogged down in a melee in which you lose your advantage. The Federal Reserve keeps wheeling around and managing to rally troops for fresh charges – the corporate bond buying announcement this week was a fine example.

But increasingly the cavalry is wearying and the more this drags on the less impact the Fed’s repeated charges will have against the twin enemies of deflation and unemployment. Investors are clinging on to central bank stimulus like the Gordon Highlanders gripped the stirrups of the Scots Greys, as they rode down the French columns at Waterloo.

BoE preview: more QE on the way

The Bank of England will mount a fresh charge at the enemy formations today. Coordination is the name of the game: it needs to keep on top of the huge amount of issuance – borrowing – by the UK government. Wartime levels of debt means the BoE must expand the envelope to hoover it up or risk yields starting to rise and spreads widening.

So, the BoE is expected to increase QE by at least £100bn, but I think it may well opt for £200bn, or even more, given that even £100bn would only last it until the end of the summer and the real long-term economic problems are going to emerge later in the autumn. Interest rates will stay at 0.1% and expectations firmly anchored for the near future with forward guidance repeating that the Bank will do whatever it takes.

In order to achieve this, the government and central bank will need to coordinate throwing more money at the problem. Indications suggest furlough has been costly but only delayed a lot of the pain – a looming unemployment crisis will require further central bank support, which means more QE is likely.  And don’t talk about negative interest rates – Andrew Bailey mentioned it once, but I think he got away with it. Once you go negative, it’s very hard to get back to normal.

Whilst fresh forecasts are not due until August, the Bank will likely set a more defensive tone in terms of its expectations for the recovery. As noted here on May 7th (BoE: for illustrative purposes only) the Bank’s assumptions on economic recovery seem rather optimistic.

Sterling was steady ahead of the decision. GBPUSD held around the middle of its trading range, sitting on the 38.2% retracement of the bottom-to-top rally from the May low to the Jun high. Monday’s test of the 1.2450 (50% level) remains the support whilst the upside seems well guarded by the 200-day moving average just above 1.2690 that sparked the run lower since Tuesday.

Stocks on the back foot on fears of second Covid-19 wave

Wall Street stocks fell yesterday, except for tech, whilst European markets are on the back foot this morning as investors parse new cases in the US and China. The bulls lost energy as new hospitalisations in Texas due to Covid-19 rose 11% in the space of 24hrs. Several other US states are seeing rising cases that are a worry, albeit the kind of mass lockdown seen earlier this year appears an unlikely course of action. The economic damage is too high, and we are generally better equipped to handle it.

Worries about China are also important – markets had largely not bet on a second lockdown in the world’s second largest economy.

Overall, the market swings now suggest investors are reacting to various headlines about recovery, stimulus and new cases without much clear direction as to what it all means as a bigger picture. The major indices are right in the middle of recent trading ranges, sitting around the 50-60% retracements of the move from the multi-month highs at the start of last week to the swing lows this week.

Elsewhere, the US pulled out of talks with Europe over a global digital services tax, which raises the risk of individual countries taking their own steps, in turn sparking a fresh wave of US-EU tensions. An escalation of dormant trade wars is not out of the question if EU nations and the UK decide to tax US tech giants aggressively.

This comes of course after the EU launched an anti-trust probe into Amazon. In Europe, Germany passed additional fiscal stimulus to combat the pandemic costs. This morning Angela Merkel called on the EU to agree to the Covid fund before the summer break.

Crude steady on EIA inventories data

Crude prices were steady as they hold within the consolidation pattern printed since the start of June. WTI for August was holding around the $38 marker after the EIA inventories rose 1.2m barrels, vs expectations for a draw.

This matched the API data (+3.9m) and suggests there are more supply-side pressures at present, but OPEC data indicated demand not falling as much as previously expected in the second half of the year. Meanwhile it seems Iraq is working its way towards complying with OPEC+ cuts.

Fed rides to the rescue

Morning Note

Yesterday, I noted that policymakers would be forced to chuck even more money at pandemic relief as second waves of cases and a painful and incomplete economic recovery bit. Right on cue, the Federal Reserve announced it would start buying individual corporate bonds, building on the existing purchases of ETFs. The Fed ‘will purchase corporate bonds to create a corporate bond portfolio that is based on a broad, diversified market index of U.S. corporate bonds’, the central bank said.

The Fed is stepping things up after its statement last week left investors more than a little concerned about the pace of recovery. The move suggests that the Fed, as was clear last week, is worried about the economy enduring a protracted downturn. Meanwhile the White House is again said to be mulling a $1tn infrastructure plan to stimulate the economy. The two horsemen of risk sentiment recovery – monetary and fiscal stimulus – riding to the rescue again.

US stocks erased losses, Europe pushes higher on the open

US equities bounced strongly off the lows of the day. The S&P 500 closed up 0.83% at 3,066, a full 100 points above its low of the day. The Dow scrubbed out a 760-point drop to finish up 157 points. European equities closed lower but well off the lows. Things had looked a little dicey as the major indices tested some key support, but the ‘plunge protection team’ arrived right on time. The Vix swung from a high close to 45 to close under 35 – the Fed made clear it’s got this.

Today the major bourses have taken their cue from Wall Street and opened higher. Asian markets rose. The FTSE 100 rose more than 2% to back above 6,200 and test the 100-day line resistance, while European counterparts rose by similar amounts. Ashtead Group rose c15% in early trade after it maintained its dividend despite a halving in profits. The infrastructure stimulus touted by the White House would be a massive boost for the construction equipment company.

Geopolitical tensions lurk as Korea tensions rise, Chinese and Indian forces clash

Reports circulating close to the market open of North Korea blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong near the border need to be monitored but we have yet not seen any major market response. There are also reports of an ‘incident’, between Chinese and Indian forces on the border later described as a ‘violent face-off’ in which at least three Indian soldiers were killed. So, a little geopolitical shenanigans to add to the mix this morning but thus far nothing overly significant for the market.

Support for risk assets helped lift crude prices, with WTI for August climbing back above $37 around the middle of the range of the consolidation over the past month. Support is holding around $35 but the 200-hour moving average at $37.70.

GBP/USD bounces off lows, tests 200-day SMA

FX markets remain broadly steady with majors holding within ranges, with risk currencies supported this morning. GBPUSD has bounced firmly off yesterday’s lows at 1.2450 to test the 200-day SMA at 1.2690, which has acted as resistance and the pair has nestled back on the old comfort around 1.2630. EURUSD traded above 1.13 again as the long-term 23.6% level at 1.1230 starts to look like meaningful support to act as a base for the next leg higher.

Chart: FTSE recovery looks to get back into the channel and recover both the old 50% retracement and the 100-day simple moving average, which after last Thursday is starting to act as near-term resistance. Thursday’s cash market opening high at 6,329 needs to be cleared to resume the uptrend.

Chart: SPX tested the old 61.8% retracement and 100-day SMA at 2936, which held. Thursday’s cash opening high at 3,123 needs to be cleared to resume the uptrend.

Stocks extend last week’s losses on second wave fears

Morning Note

European stocks plunged and US futures tumbled on Monday as equity markets extended last week’s losses amid fears of a second wave to the pandemic. We are seeing pockets of cases in Beijing suddenly – the first in 50 days, whilst Alabama, Florida and South Carolina have reported record numbers of new cases for three days straight.

The dreaded second wave will weigh on equity markets – it is already sparking a wave of selling – and force policymakers to chuck even more money at this. Markets just need to think things are heading in the right direction to go up; it’s the rate of change that matters, so fresh waves of cases are taken as a sell signal.  Equity markets had also clearly become overstretched and overbought.

Stocks dumped on fears of Covid-19 second wave

The FTSE 100 slumped under 6,000 to test the 50-day moving average around 5950, potentially heading for the key support region at 5900. If this goes we can easily see a retreat to the Apr swing lows around 5641 and 5575. BP shares slumped 5% as it wrote off $13.5bn-$17bn of asset values due to lower forecast oil prices – this will only raise speculation that the board will be forced into cutting the dividend sooner or later.

Asia was broadly weaker overnight, with sentiment also being affected by Chinese industrial production, fixed-asset investment and retail sales all falling short of expectations. Futures indicate the S&P 500 open around 2950, a little above the 100-day and 50-day moving averages, having broken beneath its 200-day line. Look especially at 2936/8, where the 100-day and the old 61.8% retracement of the March rout converge.

Bulls fought a rear-guard action on Friday, but that rather hard-fought rally looks capitulation and the path back to 2800 is open. What could change this? You’d need to see a drop in cases and the rebound in the economy as stimulus works its way through to consumers spending with confidence again.

As discussed last week, S&P 500 valuations are very rich and first the Covid-economy trade and now the first reopening trade are all but over, so investors need to find new reasons to buy. Second wave fears are dominating, and the Fed has killed off any last thoughts of a V-shaped recovery.

Bank of England, Brexit in focus this week for UK assets

The Bank of England will this week need to stump up another £100bn-£200bn in QE but should leave rates unchanged. It’s been painting a rather optimistic view of recovery but will need to lower expectations this week for how soon the economy gets back to normal.

On the Brexit front, Boris Johnson will hold a call with EC boss Ursula von der Leyen today in what could be a moment that injects talks with new vigour. The PM will likely threaten no-deal, but it’s hoped this will focus the attention of the EU on delivering a compromise. GBP will be exposed to significant headline risk and may partially explain the currency’s fall this morning.

FX was in risk-off mode too, with the dollar finding fresh bid. GBPUSD broke down through the 1.25 region and was last at the lows of the day with the 50-day moving average around 1.2410 in sight. EURUSD was holding at 1.1230. Crude prices were weaker as risk sentiment soured, with WTI for August trading under $35.

Chart: SPX eyes path back to 2800

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