The new year is still young, but the week ahead may be one of the most important weeks of the year. The divergence that the market has been anticipating will materialize. The Federal Reserve will most likely hike by 25 bp on Wednesday, followed by half-point moves by the European Central Bank and the Bank of England the following day. On Friday, February 3, the US will report its January employment situation. It could be the slowest job creation since the end of 2020. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also will release the preliminary estimate of its annual benchmark revisions.
The markets' reaction may be less a function of what is done than what is communicated. The challenge for Fed Chair Powell is to slow the pace of hiking while pushing against the premature easing of financial conditions. In December, ECB President Lagarde pre-committed to a 50 bp hike in February and hinted that another half-point move was possible in March. With the hawks showing their talons in recent days, will she pre-commit again? Amid a historic cost-of-living squeeze that has already kneecapped households, can Bank of England Governor Bailey deliver another 50 bp rate hike and sell the idea that it is for the good of Britain, for which the central bank does not expect growth to return until next year?
United States: The Federal Reserve has a nuanced message to convey. It wants to slow the pace of hikes, as even the hawkish Governor Waller endorsed, but at the same time, persuade the market that tighter financial conditions are necessary to ensure a times convergence of price pressures to the target. Indeed, Fed Chair Powell may warn investors that if it continues to undo the Fed's work, more tightening may be necessary. The market has heard this essentially before and is not impressed. Financial conditions have eased. Consider that the 2-year yield is down 20 bp this year, and the 10-year yield has fallen twice as much. The trade-weighted dollar is off by more than 1.5%. The S&P 500 is up 4.6% after a 7% rally in Q4 22. The Russell 200 has gained nearly 7% this month, on top of the 5.8% in the last three months of 2022.
Last year, Powell drew attention to the 18-month forward of the three-month T-bill yield compared to the cash 3-month bill as a recession tell. It has been inverted for over two months and traded below -100 bp last week, the most inverted since the tech bubble popped over two decades ago. The market seems more convinced that inflation will fall sharply in the coming months. The monetary variables and real economy data, including retail sales, industrial production, and the leading economic indicators, suggest a dramatic weakening of the economy. Yet just like most looked through the contraction in H1 22, seeing it as primarily a quirk of inventory and trade, the 2.9% growth reported in Q4 22 does not change many minds that the US economy is still headed for weaker growth, leaving aside the fuzzy definition of a recession.
The median forecast in Bloomberg's survey is for a 188k rise in January nonfarm payrolls. If accurate, it would be seen as concrete evidence that the jobs market is slowing. This is also clear by looking at averages for this volatile series. For example, in the last three months of 2022, the US created an average of 247k jobs a month. In the first nine months of the year, nonfarm payrolls rose by an average of 418k a month. Average hourly earnings growth also is moderating. A 0.3% rise on the month will see the year-over-year pace slow to 4.3%. That matches the slowest since June 2021. The decline in the work week in December to 34.3 hours spurred narratives about how businesses, hoarding labor, would cut hours before headcount. Yet, we suspect it was partly weather-related, and that the average work week returned to 34.4 hours, which is around where it was pre-Covid.
Benchmark revisions are usually of more interest to economists than the market, but last month's report by the Philadelphia Fed raised the stakes. It looked more closely at the April-June 2022 jobs data. After adjusting for updated data from the Quarterly Census on Employment and Wages, it concluded that job growth was nearly flat in Q2 22. It estimated that only 10,500 net new jobs were created, a far cry from the 1.05 mln jobs estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Business Employment Dynamics Summary (released last week) was starker still. It points to a job loss of nearly 290k. Lastly, we note that US auto sales are expected to have recovered from the unexpected almost 6% decline (SAAR) in December. However, the 14.1 mln unit pace would still represent a 6% decline from January 2022, when sales spiked to 15.04 mln.
The Dollar Index continues to hover around 102, corresponding to the (50%) retracement of the rally recorded from January 2021 through September 2022. It has not closed above the 20-day moving average (now ~102.80) since January 3. It remains in the range set on January 18, when it was reported that December retail sales and manufacturing output fell by more than 1%. That range was about 101.50-102.90. Although we are more inclined to see it as a base, the prolonged sideways movement last month saw new lows this month. That said, the next retracement target (61.8%) is near 99.00.
Eurozone: The ECB rarely pre-commits to a policy move, precisely what ECB President Lagarde did last month. Apparently, as part of the compromise with members who at first advocated another 75 bp hike in December, an agreement to raise rates by 50 bp was accompanied by an agreement to hike by another 50 on February 2 and explicitly not rule out another half-point move in March. There was a weak effort to soften the March forward guidance, but the hawks pushed back firmly. The swaps market has about a 70% chance of a 50 bp hike in March rather than a 25 bp move.
The ECB's deposit rate stands at 2.00%, and the swaps market is pricing 125 bp of hikes in the first half of the year. In contrast, the Fed is expected to raise the Fed funds target range by 50 bp. This has been reflected in the two-year interest rate differential between the US and Germany, falling from about 275 bp last August to around 160 bp now. We had anticipated the US premium would peak before the dollar, and there is a lag of almost two months. The direction and change of the interest rate differential often seem more important than the level. In late 2019, before Covid struck, the US premium was near 220 bp, and the euro was a little below $1.12.
There has been a significant shift in sentiment toward the eurozone. The downside risks that seemed so dominant have been reduced. A milder-than-anticipated winter, the drop in natural gas prices, and successful conservation and conversion (to other energy sources) lifted the outlook. Some hopeful economists now think that the recession that seemed inevitable may be avoided. The preliminary January CPI will be published a day before the ECB meets. The monthly pace fell in both November and December. The year-over-year rate is expected to ease to 5.1% from 5.2%, while the core rate slips to 5.1% from 5.2%. The base effect suggests a sharp decline is likely here in Q1, but divergences may become more evident in the euro area. This could see a reversal of the narrowing of core-periphery interest rate spreads.
The EU's ban on refined Russian oil products (e.g., diesel and fuel oil) will be implemented on February 5. It is considering imposing a price cap as it did with crude oil. Diesel trades at a premium to crude, while fuel oil sells at a discount. There have been reports of European utilities boosting purchases from Russia ahead of the embargo. Separately, reports suggest that the EU was still the largest importer of Russian oil in December when pipeline and oil products were included. However, at the end of December, Germany stopped importing Russia's oil delivered through pipelines. This does not count oil and refined producers that first go to a third country, such as India, before being shipped to Europe.
Pullbacks in the euro have been shallow and brief. Most pullbacks since the low was recorded last September, except the first, have mostly been less than two cents. That would suggest a pullback toward the $1.0730 area, but buyers may re-emerge in front of that, maybe around $1.0775. On the top side, the $1.0940 is the (50%) retracement of the euro's losses since January 2021. The euro rose marginally last week, even though it slipped by around 0.2% in the last two session. It has risen in eight of the past 10 weeks.
UK: Without some forward guidance that stopped short of a pre-commitment, the market is nearly as confident that the Bank of England will deliver another half-point hike in the cycle to lift the base rate to 4.0%. The BOE was among the first of the G10 countries to begin the interest rate normalization process and raised the base rate in December 2021 from the 0.10% it had been reduced to during the pandemic. The swaps market projects the peak between 4.25% and 4.50%, with the lower rate seen as slightly more likely.
High inflation readings and strong wage growth appear to outweigh the economic slump. The BOE's forecasts see the economy contracting 1.5% year-over-year this year and output falling another 1% in 2024. The market is not as pessimistic. The monthly Bloomberg survey (51 economists) founds a median forecast for a 0.9% contraction this year and an expansion of the same magnitude next year. The survey now sees only a 0.2% quarterly contraction in Q4 22 rather than -0.4% in the previous survey. The median forecast for the current quarter was unchanged at -0.4%.
Sterling continues to encounter resistance in front of $1.2450, which it first approached in mid-December. Although marginal new highs have been recorded, like the euro, it has been mainly confined to the range set on January 18 (~$1.2255-$1.2435). We are inclined to see this sideways movement as a topping pattern rather than a base, but it likely requires a break of the 1.2225 area to confirm.
Japan: After contracting in Q3 22, the Japanese economy is expected to have rebounded in Q4 (~3.0% annualized pace). Reports on last month's labor market, retail sales, and industrial production will help fine-tune expectations. This month's rise in the flash composite PMI moved back above 50, pointing to some momentum. Still, Tokyo's higher-than-expected January CPI warns of upside risk to the national figure due offers good insight into the national figure, which may draw the most attention. We expect Japanese inflation to peak soon. The combination of government subsidies, the decline in energy prices, including the natural gas it gets from Russia, and the stronger yen (which bottomed in October) will help dampen price pressures. We look for a peak here in Q1 23.
Last week, the dollar moved broadly sideways against the yen as it continued to straddle the JPY130 area. It repeatedly toyed with the 20-day moving average (~130.40) last week but has yet to close above this moving average for more than two months. Rising US and European yields may encourage the market to challenge the 50 bp cap on Japan's 10-year bond. A break of the JPY128.80 area may spur a test on the JPY128.00 area. However, the market seems to lack near-term conviction.
China: Mainland markets re-open after the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. There may be two drivers. The first is catch-up. Equity markets in the region rose. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index rose every session last week and moved higher for the fifth consecutive week. The JP Morgan Emerging Market Currency Index rose about 0.40% last week and is trading near its best level since mid-2022. The euro and yen were little changed last week (+/- <0.20%). The second driver is new news--about Covid and holiday consumption. The PMI is due on January 31, and the median forecast in the Bloomberg survey is for improvement. It has the manufacturing PMI rising to 49.9 from 47.0 and the service PMI jumping to 51.5 from 41.6. The offshore yuan edged up 0.3% last week, suggesting an upside bias to the onshore yuan, against which the dollar settled at CNY6.7845 ahead of the holiday.
Canada: After the Bank of Canada's decision last week, the FOMC meeting, and US employment data in the days ahead, Canada is out of the limelight. It reports November GDP figures and the January manufacturing PMI. Neither are likely to be market movers. The Bank of Canada is the first of the G7 central banks to announce a pause (conditional on the economy evolving like the central bank anticipates) with a target rate of 4.50%. The central bank sees the economy expanding by 1% this year and 1.8% next. It suggests that the underlying inflation rate has peaked and, by the end of the year, may slow to around 2.6%. The swaps market has 50 bp of cut discounted in the second half of the year.
The Canadian dollar held its own last week, rising by about 0.5%, which was second only to the high-flying Australian dollar. The greenback approached CAD1.3300, its lowest level since last November when it traded around CAD1.3225. Quietly, the Canadian dollar has strung together a six-week advance, and since its start in mid-December, it has been the third-best performer in the G10 behind the yen (~6.2%) and the Australian dollar (~6.1%). We are more inclined to see the greenback bounce toward CAD1.3400 before those November lows are re-tested.
Australia: The market's optimism about China recovering from the Covid surge, with the help of government support and attempts to help the property market, has been reflected in the strength of the Australian dollar, which leads the G10 currencies with around a 4.4% gain this year. Yet, changes in the exchange rate and Chinese stocks are not highly correlated in the short- or medium-term. The surge of inflation at the end of last year, reported last week, lent greater credence to our view that the Reserve Bank of Australia will lift the cash target rate by 25 bp when it meets on February 7. In the week ahead, Australia reports December retail sales, private sector credit, and some housing sector data, along with the final PMI readings. The momentum indicators are stretched after a 2.5-cent rally from the low on January 19. It is at risk of a pullback and suggests a break of $0.7080 may be the first indication that it is at hand. We see potential initially toward $0.7000-$0.7040.
Mexico: After falling by nearly 5.25% in the first part of the month against the Mexican peso, the dollar is consolidating. The underlying case for peso exposure remains, but there are two mitigating conditions. First, surveys of real money accounts suggest many are already overweight. Second, the dollar met key target levels in it late-2019 (~MXN18.80), even if not to the February 2020 low (slightly below MXN18.53). On January 31, Mexico reports Q4 GDP. The economy is expected to have expanded by 0.5% after 0.9% quarter-over-quarter growth in Q3 22. Growth is expected to slow further in Q1 23 before grinding to a halt in the middle two quarters. The following day, Mexico reports December worker remittances. These have been a strong source of capital inflows in Mexico. Remittances have a strong seasonal pattern of rising in December from November, which sees remittances slow. However, after surging for the last couple of years, they appear to have begun stabilizing. Also, the optimism around China is understood to be more supportive of Brazil and Chile, for example, than Mexico.
We do not have a very satisfying explanation for the two-day jump in the dollar from about MXN18.5670 to MXN19.11 (January 18-19) outside of market positioning and the possibility of some large hedge working its way through. Still, it seemed like a transaction-related flow rather than a change in the underlying situation. The greenback has trended lower since then and has fallen in five of the last six sessions. It fell to nearly MXN18.7165 ahead of the weekend. Latam currencies, in general, did well, with the top two emerging market currencies coming from there (Brazil and Chile). The Mexican peso rose about 0.4% last week. Last week, the Argentine peso's loss of almost 1.2% gave it the dubious honor of the worst performer among emerging market currencies. It is now off nearly 4.6% for this month. Mexican stocks and bonds extended their rallies. A firmer dollar ahead of the February 1 conclusion of the FOMC meeting may see the peso consolidate its recent gains.