Friday, March 21, 2014

Market Week Wrap-up  Weekly Market UpdateJanet Yellen's World

- This was the week that Janet Yellen put her stamp on global markets. The Fed tapered again in Wednesday's rate decision and dropped its 6.5% unemployment threshold, surprising nobody. But during the post-decision press conference, Yellen suggested the Fed would consider hiking rates as soon as six months after the end of QE3. Under a strict interpretation, if asset purchases end in November of this year as expected, rate hikes would arrive in the second quarter of 2015. Global markets were very choppy in the remainder of the week as participants recalibrated positions and worked out the implications of Yellen's verbal guidance. In other news, Russia absorbed Crimea and incurred retaliatory sanctions from the US and EU. In China, the PBoC widened the daily yuan trading band to 2% from 1% and appeared to continue its campaign to halt hot money inflows. The impact of data reports was pretty muted overall. For the week, the DJIA gained 1.4%, the Nasdaq rose 0.7%, and the S&P500 added 1.3%, touching a fresh record level on Friday before retreating from highs.

- In the statement accompanying Wednesday's rate decision, the FOMC formally dropped the 6.5% unemployment threshold. In its place, the FOMC said that in determining how long to maintain ultra-low rates, assessment of progress "will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments." Many observers seemed to believe that Yellen's six-month comment was a slip of the tongue and was not intended to reshape forward guidance, especially after the Fed just dropped its quantitative unemployment threshold. Moreover, Yellen was emphatic that markets should not make strict interpretations and reiterated what all of her colleagues and former chair Bernanke have repeated again and again: the first rate hike is highly data-dependent and will reflect a "balanced judgment" about prospects both for labor market slack and inflation pressure.

- Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota was the sole dissenter to the FOMC decision. Kocherlakota has tended toward the dovish end of the spectrum and his dissent was rooted in concerns about the labor market. He warned that the new guidance weakened the Fed's commitment to its 2% inflation target and does not provide any information on the speed at which the Fed wants to reach full employment. St. Louis Fed President Bullard said that Yellen's comments on the timing of rate hikes was not a change in policy and was simply referring to market expectations about what was meant by a "considerable period."

- US bond traders reacted to the Fed statement swiftly by aggressively selling the middle and short end of the US curve. Ultimately the Fed offered up very little in the way of new information regardless, expectations have crept in for a little tighter policy next year; 2015 fed fund futures are now fully pricing in at least a 50 basis point rise in rates to begin by mid-summer. Previously traders had seen a greater likelihood of only 25 basis point hike to come sometime in the middle part of the second half. The 5-year/30-year spread has compressed to its flattest level since the summer of 2012. For the week the rate on the 30-year has climbed only marginally and the 10-year continues to hold near 2.75%, backing up a modest 10 basis points, while the 5-year is up some 20 basis points. Supply looms next week: $96B in 2-, 5- and 7-year notes could be challenging and keep pressure on the belly of the curve. Note that spot gold sank in the second half of the week, giving up 3.5% after the FOMC decision.

- The Fed released the first component - stress test results - of its Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) this week. Twenty nine of 30 banks passed the severely adverse scenario, which included a 4% jump in the unemployment rate, 4.75% negative GDP growth, a 50% decline in equity prices and a 25% decline in real estate prices. Zions Bancorp was the only institution that would not remain well-capitalized with Tier 1 common equity ratios of at least 5.0% under the stress scenario. The second component of CCAR, including the Fed's evaluation of each firm's capital plans, dividends and buybacks, will be disclosed Wednesday, March 26. Thanks to CCAR and higher rate expectations, both regional and tier-one banks saw robust gains this week, with the exception of Zions, whose shares lost nearly 5% on Friday.

- Russia formally absorbed Crimea this week, drawing US sanctions against various high-level Russian officials and a few selected institutions, most notably Bank Rossiya, a key firm used by the Putin regime and Geneva-based Gunvor, the world's No. 4 oil trading company. The European Union discussed possible sanction options but has taken little concrete action against Russia besides freezing military ties and sanctioning a few individuals. The EU also signed the political sections of the association agreement with Ukraine. Both S&P and Fitch have cut their sovereign outlooks on Russia to negative.

- FedEx missed earnings and revenue expectations in its third quarter report, and like so many firms before it blamed the weather. FedEx's CEO stated that "historically severe winter weather significantly affected our third quarter earnings. On days when the weather was closer to normal seasonal conditions, our volumes were solid and service levels were high." Nike reported very good third quarter results, but made troubling comments during its conference call, warning that FX headwinds would continue to reduce EPS in Q4 and into 2015, and would reduce FY15 earnings. Oracle missed top- and bottom-line expectations slightly in its third quarter and its fourth quarter outlook was also a bit soft. Analysts highlight the firm's high spending levels to catch up with a horde of cloud computing rivals.

- Ahead of March quarter earnings season, AK Steel and Nucor both offered their customary pre-earnings guidance statement. Both firms warned that EPS would be well below expectations, citing extreme weather that has disrupted customer demand. AK also cited a planned blast furnace outage and legal settlement charges.

- EUR/USD made a few last stabs at 1.3950 early this week before the FOMC decision reversed sentiment and strengthened the greenback. The pair hit two-week lows around 1.3750 on Thursday. The yen weakened in a more restrained fashion after the FOMC, rising from 101.60 to around 102.60 before strengthening a bit through week's end.

- The Chinese Yuan has now given back all of its 2013 gains as the PBoC lets the currency weaken further to curb hot money inflows. Last weekend, the PBoC widened its daily yuan trading band from 1% to 2%. USD/CNY spent most of the week above 6.20, raising concerns about a specialized financial product, originally used to hedge foreign exchange risk, called a trade redemption forward contract (RFC). The contract pays investors if the yuan remains strong and will start costing dearly as USD/CNY weakens past 6.20. In a report out recently, Morgan Stanley wrote there had been $350 billion RFCs sold since the beginning of 2013 and $150 billion might still be outstanding.

- Japan announced another trade deficit which was wider than expected but still smaller than the past three months on adjusted basis. Both exports and imports were up in high-single digits, for a 12th and 16th consecutive rise, respectively. Trade components also showed some improvement, with double-digit y/y exports increase to Asia, China, and Europe as well as a 6.4% drop in the bill for crude oil imports.