Franklin Templeton’s Notes from the Trading Desk offer a weekly overview of what our professional traders and analysts are watching in the markets. The European desk is manned by eight professionals based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with an average of 15 years of experience whose job it is to monitor the markets around the world. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.
Markets were in a muted state for most of last week before being awoken on Friday morning by the rather sudden re-escalation in political tension between the United States and Iran. It was a holiday-shortened week with all major indices closed on Wednesday for New Year’s Day, and most in Europe closed or partially closed on Tuesday as well. In terms of moves, the S&P 500 Index and the Eurostoxx 600 ended down, whilst the MSCI Asia Pacific outperformed, up modestly.
Unites States/ Iran
What appeared to be a rather positive start in 2020 for global equity markets upon their return to trading after the New Year’s Day holiday break was reversed early on Friday with the news that the United States had killed the head of Iran’s elite Quds Forces, General Qassim Soleimani, via an airstrike in Baghdad. There were immediate fears of a rather extreme re-escalation in political tensions between the United States and Iran, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warning of “severe retaliation”. President Donald Trump’s order to strike also received criticism in Washington, with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying the action was taken without consulting Congress.
Trump tried to justify the move by tweeting on Saturday that Soleimani was a “terrorist leader” who “was already attacking our embassy and preparing for additional hits in other locations”. Despite this, the New York Times reported that two US officials had noted any evidence that further attacks were planned by Soleimani was “razor thin”.
Soleimani has had a fractious relationship with the United States for a number of decades, more recently as an unlikely bedfellow in the fight against Daesh. Critically, on Sunday, Iranian officials stated that they had officially pulled out of their 2015 commitments with regards to restrictions on their development of nuclear weapons.
Market reaction to the developments with Iran was risk-off, but also one of trepidation on Friday. Equities in Europe and the United States lost all of Thursday’s gains, with the Eurostoxx 600 Index closing the day down 0.3% whilst the S&P 500 Index later closed down 0.7% on the day. However, so-called “safe havens” were well-bid, with gains seen in gold, the Japanese yen and US Treasuries.
The starkest move was seen in the oil space, with West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude oil both rallying more than 4% on Friday morning. As we saw in 2019, oil prices are always volatile around these types of events, with investors trying to establish what any rise in geopolitical tension does for supply out of the Middle East. Whilst the market may have sufficient reserves at present, we did see a tightening through the fourth quarter, meaning any supply shock is likely to have a more pronounced impact on inventories.
We also must consider the broader impact of an extensive and sustained rally in oil prices upon global economic growth.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts global gross domestic product (GDP) growth to recover this year to 3.4% from 3.0% last year (assuming Brent prices around $58 per barrel).Therefore, should the rally in oil prices be prolonged by a continuous heightening of geopolitical tension in the Middle East then we can expect the IMF to re-think its expectations. Currently, Brent is trading around the $69 level.
Therefore, from a market perspective, the impact of a rise in geopolitical tension is far-reaching and is looking increasingly likely to be a key focus for markets through the first quarter, with such forecasts possibly subject to early revisions.
Asian equities were helped through the latter part of last week with the news that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) had cut the Reserve Requirement Ratio (RRR) by 50 basis points.In our view, this move should be of benefit to the economy, as it reduces the rate to which banks will lend money to businesses in the country. The head of the PBOC’s Statistics and Analysis Department did note that China’s RRR remained high compared to other global leaders and left them sufficient room to lower further should it be required. The change was expected, but the news nonetheless buoyed equities, with the Shanghai Composite up as much as 1.5% in the early session on Thursday.
It looks as if a new government is finally set to take office in Spain after acting leader Pedro Sanchez persuaded a Catalan separatist party, the ERC, to abstain from an important vote.
Despite a confidence vote over the weekend yielding no solution (Sanchez only received 166 of the 176 votes required, with 165 against and 18 abstentions), the follow-up vote on Tuesday—which is a binary “yes” or “no”—is likely to give Sanchez victory. It has been reported that in return for their abstention, Sanchez has promised to open up dialogue with Catalan parties regarding holding a citizens’ vote on secession.
Markets usually respond well to more certainty, but the increased probability of Catalan separation from Spain will undoubtedly spook investors. Also, the new government’s plan around corporate tax rates will likely be another concern to investors. Spain’s IBEX Index was down slightly on Friday, not helped by broader market moves.
We received some December economic data last week which garnered some investor attention. There was an improvement in the Chinese manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) which came in at 50.2, slightly higher than what the market had been expecting. There was also a notable rise in new export orders to 50.3, vs. 48.8 expected.
Eurozone macro also improved, with manufacturing PMIs revised higher. German and French consumer price indices were better than expected too, showing stronger-than-expected inflation of +1.5% vs. +1.2% previously in Germany, and +1.6% vs. +1.2% previously in France.
UK macro data was soft, however, with both manufacturing and construction PMIs missing estimates. The report showed the UK manufacturing and construction PMIs lower than anticipated (coming in at 47.5 and 44.4, respectively) as Brexit uncertainty continued to bite through December.
The key release this week will likely be US monthly employment report on Friday, but we also get the following, with investors looking for an improvement in euro-area macro (releases in focus highlighted):
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