Franklin Templeton’s Notes from the Trading Desk offers a weekly overview of what their 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.
Last week was quiet for equity markets with the second-quarter (Q2) 2020 earnings season now behind us and many market participants on holiday. European markets’ weekly volumes were the lowest of the year last week, and conviction was low. The MSCI World Index finished the week up +0.3%. US equities outperformed, with the S&P 500 Index up 0.7% and the technology giants once again market leaders. Elsewhere, both the STOXX Europe 600 Index and markets in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region closed the week lower.
It was notable that as US equity markets made fresh all-time highs, much has been made of the narrow breadth of this recovery from March lows, with a small group of technology stocks accounting for much of the rally.
Since March, the top five companies in the S&P 500 Index (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook) have led the way and have seen their market capitalisation grow disproportionately.
For example, Apple’s market cap of US$2 trillion is almost equivalent to the entire UK FTSE 100 Index, which currently sits at US$2.2 trillion. The top five companies now account for more than a fifth of the S&P 500 Index, the biggest weighting for the top five securities since 1980. There has been much discussion around what is fuelling these gains; they are beneficiaries of the new “stay-at-home” norm, a tsunami of fiscal and monetary stimulus has kept government bond yields low, and the technology names have had strong balance sheet and cash-flow generation.
The question now is whether this trend will continue. The fate of tech stocks will likely be a key driver for equity markets globally into year-end. What we don’t know is whether the US presidential election in November will dent enthusiasm for these names, or how impactful the ongoing US-China trade dispute will be going forwards.
The latest round of Brexit talks ended on Friday and it was met with pessimism over the likelihood of a deal being struck in the next two months. Last week’s negotiations between the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, were the latest attempt to bridge the longstanding chasm. However, progress was limited. According to reports, two of the key differences that remain relate to the so-called “level playing field” with regards to competition post-Brexit and EU access to British fishing waters.
In an attempt to speed up negotiations, the United Kingdom delivered a draft agreement to the EU to set out its version of a deal, but it appeared to be resoundingly rejected. On Friday, Barnier said it felt like progress on the negotiations were going “backwards, more than forwards”.
There are two more weeks left of negotiations in September before the EU Summit in October. The EU has noted that a deal must be ratified by the EU Summit deadline. Given last Friday’s comments, many observers see the true likelihood of a no-deal “hard” Brexit as increasing. This was reflected in the UK sterling, which finished last Friday down 90 basis points (bps) against the US dollar. UK equity performance was also mixed on Friday, with the domestically focused FTSE 250 Index up 0.2%, buoyed by the stronger-than-expected Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) report. Meanwhile, the exporter-heavy FTSE 100 Index was down 0.2%.
UK equities remain a global underperformer year-to-date, with both the FTSE 100 Index and FTSE 250 Index down 20% amid COVID-19 concerns and Brexit negotiations, which continue to weigh on sentiment. Comparatively, the STOXX Europe 600 Index is down just over 12% year-to-date.
Despite current bearishness around the United Kingdom, should a Brexit deal be struck and data continue to improve dramatically in the coming months (especially versus European peers), then sentiment towards UK equities should improve.
European equities drifted lower on lacklustre summer volumes last week, with the STOXX Europe 600 Index closing lower. Sector performance showed some defensive rotation, with health care, real estate and food and beverage outperforming. Cyclicals underperformed, with banks, energy and automobiles the week’s losers. The “risk-off” skew was also evident in bond yields, which were lower across the region. German 10-year yields, for example, closed the week towards record lows.
Thursday’s European Central Bank (ECB) minutes were a talking point and suggested there was uncertainty over the economic outlook at the most recent meeting. The ECB did highlight risks are skewed to the downside, however, saying that “the breadth and scale of the recovery remained uneven and partial”. The upcoming September meeting will be important—it was implied that the central bank should have some more clarity at that point, suggesting that we may see policy changes at that time.
The key data points last week came on Friday in the form of (flash) European and UK PMIs. The European composite readings were lower in August and the services figures suggest that recovery in this area is stalling after a strong performance in May, June and July. The releases hit the euro, although this was not much of a surprise given the weaker tourism season and re-introduction of social distancing measures following the recent surges in COVID-19 cases.
We are also seeing households trying to save more given the ongoing risks to the job market. That said, the German services figure came in at a disappointing 50.8, which is a particular blow as the country had cut its value-added tax by 3% in July and tourist trade didn’t deal as hard a blow as in other countries.
Meanwhile, the French manufacturing figure unexpectedly fell into contraction at 49 and the pace of job cuts also increased again in August in France.
The eurozone manufacturing PMI did come in below estimates, but still held steady. It is also less worrying than the services PMI as forward-looking indicators continue to trend higher, with new export orders recovering. There was a particularly bright spot in German manufacturing output, which continued to move higher, helped by strong exports to China and Turkey.
Whilst the European data disappointed, the UK release looked strong, even with a similar picture of rising cases and local lockdowns. The composite reading came in at 60.3, led by the services sector as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “Eat out to Help Out” scheme provided a boost in August (although likely a temporary one).
Equities in the APAC region were also mostly lower last week, with the Shanghai Composite the bright spot as the only major index in the green. The Japanese Nikkei lost 1.6% as its second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) release showed that all growth since 2011 had been wiped out, starkly illustrating the impact of the pandemic on the economy.
The recovery in China remains uneven, with Beijing having focused on infrastructure and production rather than transferring funds to consumers. The effects of the pandemic have exacerbated the wealth gap in China, with unemployment among low to middle-income adults now estimated to be more than twice the national average of 5.7%. This demographic has also been hit harder by a drop in disposable income, whilst high income households earned more on average in Q2 year-on-year.
With this, consumer confidence in the lower income brackets remains low, whilst luxury brands have staged an impressive recovery in China. More than a dozen luxury Western brands reported double-digit revenue growth in China in Q2 (vs Q2 2019), whilst sales in other regions were hit dramatically. The spending of the higher income bracket is not enough to offset lower consumer spending in the rest of the population, however, and China’s retail sales have fallen for five consecutive months since the pandemic spread in February.
Tensions remain between China and the United States. The US broadened its sanctions, adding 38 new affiliates of Huawei to its economic blacklist in order to try to push Huawei out of the American technology supply chain, limiting the adoption of its 5G technology. Over the weekend, there were reports that Huawei and ZTE have now slowed down their 5G base station installation in the country, implying that US attempts to quash China’s technology ambitions appear to be working.
US equities outperformed their global peers last week with the S&P Index hitting new all-time highs, led by the technology giants. The S&P Index 500 Index finished up 0.7%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished flat on the week and the Nasdaq Composite closed up 3.5%. The variance in performance was quite stark.
US sector performance was interesting last week, with everything pointing to momentum. As noted, technology, the year-to-date outperformer, led the way once again, followed by consumer discretionary and communication services. It was the same at the other end, with the year-to-date laggard, energy, once again bottom of the pile, followed by financials and utilities.
Interestingly, the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s (CBOE) Volatility Index (commonly called the “fear index”) rose last week despite the gains in the major indexes. CNN’s Fear and Greed Index has also moved in recent months, with sentiment around equity markets creeping back towards Extreme Greed.
Last week’s July Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes were largely a non-event.
There was a slight sentiment shift with regards to optimism around US economic growth in the second half of 2020, pointing to a highly uncertain path for the virus through autumn and winter. It is worth noting that uncertainty would be all the more impactful on the US economy if there is no progress on fiscal stimulus talks between the Democrats and the Republicans. With that, the desire of the Democrats to get a full deal agreed so close to the election has been questioned as any such deal may be seen to prop up support for the existing administration. The two sides are still locked in an impasse at the moment.
In terms of last week’s data, it started mixed, with the Empire Manufacturing Index for August missing expectations. However, homebuilder sentiment matched a record high. On Tuesday, data on housing starts and building permits came in ahead of expectations and are now back around pre-pandemic levels. On Friday, PMIs surprised to the upside as business activity improved dramatically. The composite figure came in at 54.7, which is the highest since February 2019, and points to a further recovery in economic growth from July’s figure of 50.3.
It is likely to be another quiet week. Focus in the United States will be on a the Federal Reserve’s virtual gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the Republican Party convention.
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