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Crispin Murray: What’s driving the ASX this week

Here are the main factors driving the ASX this week according to our head of equities Crispin Murray. Reported by portfolio specialist Chris Adams.

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JULY’S more positive tone was tested last week by a combination of:

  1. US Fed officials rolling back a perceived “pivot” signal from Chair Powell the previous week
  2. Strong US employment data (which is ironically poor news in the current environment)
  3. China-Taiwan tensions

The first two points saw bond yields gain 34bp at the short end and 18bp for 10-year Treasuries. The yield curve is now more negative than it was in 2007 and the US dollar has started rallying again.

Despite this, equities ground out small gains, led again by growth stocks.

The S&P 500 rose 0.4% and S&P/ASX 300 gained 1.1%.

This resilience is surprising. We suspect it has as much to do with the market’s previous negative positioning and sentiment as any fundamentals.

The recovery has prompted some breaks in the previous bearish consensus.

We have seen a highly rated US technical analyst turn positive on the premise that the oil price and bond yields have peaked.

Energy is critical to the outlook.

A bounce-back in the oil price would kick-start stagflation concerns; a continued fall would help drive bond yields lower.

Locally, the focus will shift to stock specifics as reporting season kicks off this week.

US economics

US payroll data and household survey came in well ahead of expectations.

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This suggests the job market remains strong despite weakening lead indicators, a technical “recession” signal and headlines about tech companies laying off workers:

  • The US economy is averaging more than 400,000 new jobs a month over three and six months. The three-month average has fallen from 600,000 — though it needs to come down to 50,000-75,000 to be consistent with looser wage pressure. 
  • Total US payrolls are back to pre-pandemic levels, though leisure and hospitality roles are 7% lower. The overall unemployment rate is at its lowest since 1969.
  • Three-month average wage growth (measured by average hourly earnings) has ticked up and remains stuck with a 5-handle. This needs to fall back to the 3% range to help inflation back to 2%.
  • The participation rate was down month on month and remains stubbornly low versus pre-pandemic. Older workers are still showing reluctance to return to work. 

There are early signs that the ratio of job openings to the number of unemployed is rolling over. But we have a long way to go to normalise and reduce pressure on wages.

These are all co-incident or lagging indicators.

It’s highly likely a weakening economy will start to flow into jobs in the next few months.

But the starting point is higher and the amount of slack needed is rising. This makes the Fed’s job harder.

Fed speak

Some outer members of the Fed worked this week to rectify the interpretation of Powell’s press conference, re-iterating the priority of fighting inflation.

Combined with the employment data this moved the short end of the yield curve in particular.

The market is back to pricing an implied 67bp rate hike for September.

The Fed’s initial plan is to slow growth below trend — which should loosen the job market, leading to lower wage growth and inflation.

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It’s important to remember that equity markets form part of the overall total financial conditions index, which has an impact on the pace of economic growth.

The Fed had shifted this sufficiently to be consistent with 1% GDP growth — in line with the aim of a soft landing.

However the reaction to Powell’s press conference last week meant total financial conditions were beginning to ease.

The Fed needed to check that move to keep conditions conducive to below-trend growth.

US Inflation Reduction Act

This US$430 billion bill — intended to fight climate change, lower drug prices and raise some corporate taxes — has been further amended and is now highly likely to be passed in next few weeks.

The most relevant component is an emphasis on clean-energy investments, including increased subsidies for electric vehicles.

This is tied to requirements that companies source components from countries with free-trade agreements with the US, to prevent reliance on China. This should be a boon for the Korean battery industry.

It remains to be seen whether the capacity to deliver this exists. But for the moment sentiment towards electric vehicles and battery materials has improved.

Bank of England

The UK highlights the policy conundrum that emerges as stagflation takes hold.

The Bank of England now predicts five quarters of recession with inflation peaking above 13% this year and remaining above 9% next year.

The need to quash inflation takes precedence, so the BOE raised rates 50bps despite predicting recession.

The UK is facing a crisis in power prices, which is not the case in the US or Australia.

This is a reminder that energy prices are a critical factor in determining where all markets go.

Taiwan

Markets remained relatively sanguine around the tensions attached to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The view among most geopolitical experts is that Beijing is not confident in the success of any invasion and will not yet start to impose a blockade — the likely first step.

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That said, there is a widespread view among western military experts that neither Taiwan nor the US is sufficiently prepared for any cross-Strait attack.

This is quite different to the preparation that had been happening in Ukraine for the past few years.

Pelosi’s visit and the Chinese reaction may be a catalyst for action to rectify this — which may also trigger Beijing to act before those preparations are in place.

This remains the single biggest long-term geopolitical risk for markets.

Markets

The big debate is whether the market’s rebound is a bear market rally or whether we have put in the lows for this cycle.

At this point the rebound is almost bang on the average bear market rally (in terms of rebound and length) in the S&P 500 since 1950.

The market breadth of the rally is not yet consistent with a change in trend.

The rule of thumb is you need to see 90% of stocks above the 50-day moving average to signal a change in market direction. We are at 73%. However this could continue to climb.

The yield curve is also sending a negative signal.

Its inversion is signalling recession, which would lead to a decline in earnings and pull the markets lower.

The challenge to this perspective is the unusual speed and scale of the increases and the market’s current confidence that inflation will be brought back down, which is reflected in long bond yields.

The bull case for equity markets is:

  1. They have bounced off long-term technical support levels
  2. Oil prices have peaked, with demand weakening
  3. Bond yields have peaked, helped by lower commodity prices

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The importance of oil

The positive case is underpinned by the view that oil prices won’t bounce back.

We see this as a potential negative surprise for markets. There are several reasons why oil could behave differently in this cycle:

  1. Inventories are low, despite tapping the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The latter probably has capacity for three more months of contributions to supply, with the run rate falling in that time.
  2. Spare capacity is very limited, as shown by OPEC increasing output by only 100,000 barrels per day for September. There is no buffer for demand recovery or for any geopolitical shock.
  3. Europe plans to tighten sanctions on Russian oil in December, which could limit access to 0.01 to 1.5m bpd
  4. China at some point will re-open its economy, increasing oil demand by 500K to 1m bpd
  5. Oil demand may surprise on the upside due to fuel oil. This is the first downturn where alternate fuel prices (notably gas and coal) are far higher than oil. This is likely to see some substitution to oil — not away from it as is normally the case. The US gas market has remained surprisingly tight despite the closure of the Freeport LNG export facility.

This may not play out for a few more months, given US SPR is still being released, China is set to run with zero covid for another few months and the global economy is slowing.

For time being the weaker oil/lower bond signal could remain in place, but it is something to watch.

Australia

The S&P/ASX 300 is now down only 4.1% in 2022. This followed a US rotation to tech, away from energy last week.

Defensive sectors such as staples continue to perform as cash is put into market reluctantly.

We continue to see a bounce-back in small-cap performance which appears correlated to market direction.


About Crispin Murray and Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund

Crispin Murray is Pendal’s Head of Equities. He has more than 27 years of investment experience and leads one of the largest equities teams in Australia. Crispin’s Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund has beaten the benchmark in 12 years of its 16-year history (after fees), across a range of market conditions.

Pendal is an independent, global investment management business focused on delivering superior investment returns for our clients through active management. 

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This information has been prepared by Pendal Fund Services Limited (PFSL) ABN 13 161 249 332, AFSL No 431426 and is current as at August 8, 2022. PFSL is the responsible entity and issuer of units in the Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund (Fund) ARSN: 113 232 812. A product disclosure statement (PDS) is available for the Fund and can be obtained by calling 1300 346 821 or visiting www.pendalgroup.com. The Target Market Determination (TMD) for the Fund is available at www.pendalgroup.com/ddo. You should obtain and consider the PDS and the TMD before deciding whether to acquire, continue to hold or dispose of units in the Fund. An investment in the Fund or any of the funds referred to in this web page is subject to investment risk, including possible delays in repayment of withdrawal proceeds and loss of income and principal invested. This information is for general purposes only, should not be considered as a comprehensive statement on any matter and should not be relied upon as such. It has been prepared without taking into account any recipient’s personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Because of this, recipients should, before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness having regard to their individual objectives, financial situation and needs. This information is not to be regarded as a securities recommendation. The information may contain material provided by third parties, is given in good faith and has been derived from sources believed to be accurate as at its issue date. While such material is published with necessary permission, and while all reasonable care has been taken to ensure that the information is complete and correct, to the maximum extent permitted by law neither PFSL nor any company in the Pendal group accepts any responsibility or liability for the accuracy or completeness of this information. Performance figures are calculated in accordance with the Financial Services Council (FSC) standards. Performance data (post-fee) assumes reinvestment of distributions and is calculated using exit prices, net of management costs. Performance data (pre-fee) is calculated by adding back management costs to the post-fee performance. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any projections are predictive only and should not be relied upon when making an investment decision or recommendation. Whilst we have used every effort to ensure that the assumptions on which the projections are based are reasonable, the projections may be based on incorrect assumptions or may not take into account known or unknown risks and uncertainties. The actual results may differ materially from these projections. For more information, please call Customer Relations on 1300 346 821 8am to 6pm (Sydney time) or visit our website www.pendalgroup.com

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