Trader’s thoughts – story changing, but result remains the same

Traders are currently operating within a volatility trap – and there are few indications this will soon end.

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Friday session:

Friday capped off another horror week for Wall Street. It was US equities’ worst week since March. Traders are currently operating within a volatility trap – and there are few indications this will soon end. The VIX is elevated, above 23 at the last reading, but occupied time above the 25-mark at stages during the week. Volatility is an active trader’s friend, and for the most part the opportunities it has thrown have been relished. Liquidity is becoming thin though, and there is a sense that the risk-reward dynamics in certain asset classes have changed. For perennial bulls, or those who have long term investments in equities space, there is undoubtedly a lot of pain being experienced. If the activity across equity markets on Friday is any guide, this is something that is set to last.

Shifting narratives:

The narrative has definitively shifted. It might even be said for the bulls that it has gone from bad to worse. On the surface, since October, downside risks have manifested and grown in global equities. For many-a trader, whatever the root cause of this dynamic is secondary to being able to play the trend. But something interesting has happened recently, and it’s worth knowing to appreciate the way the market has changed. The initial stages of this market correction were precipitated by the fear an (over)active US Fed would hike rates to a point that would sink the global stocks. In some way, the effects of such a phenomenon played-out in markets just by way of virtue of the pricing in of those expectations. US Treasuries were rallying, the US Dollar trended higher, and growth-stocks plunged on the belief solid economic data would justify interest rate hikes.

The “real” economy:

But this isn’t the case anymore; this isn’t about shifts in intermarket behaviour, contained primarily to financial markets. The concerns now relate to the prospects for the real economy. To repeat: October and November were about adjusting to a Hawkish Fed. December has so far been about slower global economic growth. It’s a problem with Main Street, perhaps more than Wall Street, that traders are worried about. The bond market is king, no matter how much attention stock markets get. The best information comes from reading into what is occurring in bond markets – especially US Treasuries. As has been discussed a-plenty, the US Treasury Yield curve is exhibiting signs of inverting. Traders are telling us they think growth in the medium term will be soft.

US Inflation expectations:

There is another useful indicator to use in the fixed income market: the TIPS spread. More-or-less: the spread is a crude measure of future inflation. When traders were stressing-out about an over-zealous Fed, it was primarily due to fears that some (albeit modest) outbreak inflation was upon us. Interest rate hikes would be the necessary and mandated response. At this time, the TIPS spread (on equivalent 10-year securities) was about 2.20% -- that is, future inflation was tipped to be around 2.20%. Flash forward to its most recent reading, and that indicator has fallen to 1.95%. Inflation-risk is being priced out of the markets, along with the prospects of healthy economic growth. Ergo, interest rate traders have called-out the Fed and demanded the central bank “Say Uncle!”.

US Non-Farm Payrolls:

Whether this reaction proves justified will be fascinating. Markets are forward looking, so current economic data is only good as far as it can be used to extrapolate answers about the future. Nevertheless, the data coming out of the US is (generally) satisfactory. The latest Non-Farm Payrolls release came out on Friday, and the numbers were okay: the US unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent, and annualized wages growth held at 3.1 per cent. The jobs-added figure was a big miss, coming in at 155,000 – also, although respectable, the wages component did print below expectations. However, stripping-out the highly charged emotions in financial markets at-the-moment, the figures produced by Non-Farm Payrolls were objectively solid. The picture it painted of the US economy was good.

Friday’s price action:

But that doesn’t matter in this market. The bears are winning, and the bulls are looking for any excuse to sell. Wall Street experienced another poleaxing on Friday night, backing on from a mixed day in Europe: the Nasdaq was down over 3 per cent again, while the Dow Jones and S&P500 were down nearly 2-and-a-half per cent. Rates and bonds didn’t respond well to the Non-Farms data: the yield on the US 2 Year Treasury fell to 2.71 per cent, while the yield on the US 10 Year note fell to 2.85 percent, taking the spread there to 14 basis points. The US Dollar took a dive, breaking upward trend support, launching gold through resistance to $US1249 per ounce. The EUR and Yen naturally benefitted from the weaker greenback, but the AUD is still struggling, unaided by a fall in iron ore, which fell despite climbs in other commodities.

ASX, and the week ahead:

The last price on the SPI futures contract is indicating a 30-point drop for the ASX 200 this Monday. This comes on the back of a relatively uneventful, but solid day for the index on Friday, which managed to eke out a 0.4 per cent gain. This week is filled with a litany of risk events. The first market to watch might be the oil market, after OPEC+ agreed over the weekend to cut production to stabilize falling prices. The trade war and the developments in it relating to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wan Zhou will be curious. US CPI, PPI and Retail Sales data will be closely watched too, as traders gauge US economic health.

The week may well prove to be more about Europe, though. There is a stack of event risk coming up. It may well not go ahead, but Brexit is scheduled to vote on UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit bill. The Cable is worth watching ahead of that event. ECB President Mario Draghi speaks, and the ECB meets, with his commentary to be perused for signals that the Europe’s central bank might be stepping away from its potential rate hikes. Whatever is said by Draghi will be assessed against a slew of PMI figures. And finally, the Italian fiscal crisis will probably continue to be a soap-opera, though hopes are rising that the Italians are going to play ball.

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