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Weekly market update - 15th of December 2020

Written and accurate as at: Dec 15, 2020 Current Stats & Facts

There was an unsurprising consolidation in equity markets last week following a strong run. The local bourse gained 0.15%, while the US S&P 500 fell 0.82%.

As we move into the holiday period, we are monitoring seven key issues in the coming days and weeks:

1. Will the global economy continues to surprise on the upside?

The global economy continues to run hot by aggregate measures of GDP and other indicators. However, this is driven largely by industrial production.  Stimulus measures have held up consumer spending but there has been a shift from services to goods. As a result, production is running hard as depleted inventories are restocked. This is evident in commodity prices and activity data such as US railcar loadings and trucking stats.  There are signs of weaker consumer activity in the US under the current wave of Covid. This has been felt most in areas such as dining and entertainment. Retail spending remains strong although growth has slowed.  The jobs front in the US remains reasonable. Continuing jobless claims – probably the best real-time measure – are slowly but surely continuing to trend down.  The impact of the latest northern hemisphere Covid wave needs to be watched — but at this point, the economic situation remains solid. This is also reflected in credit markets, which are signalling a benign view.

2. Will the US see harder lockdowns?

Covid case data has re-accelerated in the US as post-Thanksgiving reporting flows through. The potential for harder lock-downs poses a risk to the current economic situation.  Localised restrictions have been enacted in some areas – particularly in California last week.  Hospitalisations and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admissions remain the key factors to monitor. Hospitalisations are up 7% week-on-week. The rolling seven-day average of net new daily hospitalisations is around 1000 patients. This is down from 2000 in mid-November, but the next week or two will tell if this re-accelerates due to the Thanksgiving lag.  Overall, ICU occupancy continues to sit at high levels but has not deteriorated. Average ICU occupancy in metro areas is running at about 75%, while 14% of metro areas are running at 90% or greater and a quarter are at 80% or greater. This is the same as last week but bears watching. We are moving into a period where traditional flu cases rise dramatically. So far this has not happened – but it could also be an important variable in pressure on the medical system.

3. Will new vaccine trial data identify any material issues?

Following initial positive news on high efficacy rates for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, subsequent news flow has raised some questions about health impact at the margin. For example, data released on the Pfizer trial has shown an incidence of Bell’s Palsy, lymphatic swelling and even appendicitis are all higher in trial groups taking the vaccine.  The Moderna trial will release more data this week while the UK vaccine roll-out could see other issues identified. Something to watch out for in coming weeks.

4. Ability to deliver an effective vaccine on the necessary scale

The market seems quite jumpy at any noise regarding the availability of vaccines. It’s important to remain aware of any issues regarding the supply chain. We also need to watch how effectively Moderna is able to handle its distribution.  At this point, surveys suggest people’s propensity to take a vaccine continues to rise. However, this is closely linked to views on its efficacy. This may become an issue in Australia given our agreements with AstraZeneca and Novavax – and lack of agreement with Moderna.

5. Policy updates

Policy support remains the single greatest factor supporting the recovery in markets. Any signal from central banks that questions this support would be negative. We are not seeing any sign of this at the moment.  The Fed meets this week and at the moment consensus is 50/50 on whether it will announce a lengthening of the maturity of the bonds they are willing to buy, with a view to containing the current sell-off in bonds.  Last week the European Central Bank extended the length of its current bond-buying program, without adding to its intensity. The ECB struck a cautious tone, offering no comment on how much it planned to buy each month, saying only it would respond to conditions. This suggests there is greater push-back on the level of the stimulus within Europe.

On the fiscal side, the odds of a near-term deal are also around 50% — and have probably deteriorated in recent days.  The tide of liquidity supporting the market is manifesting in several interesting ways. Equity market valuations look very high by historical standards in the US. Although the relative yield between equities and other asset classes is also at high levels, which is supportive.

6. Georgia Senate runoffs

Runoff elections due to take place in the US state of Georgia on January 5 have the potential to move markets. Recent polls suggest a close-fought race. If the Democrats ended up with control of Congress, it would shift expectation on a fiscal package, prompting a further sell-off in bonds and rotation to value within equity markets.

7. Brexit

A potential wildcard. The situation remains fluid, and it seems negotiators have bought themselves more time overnight.

Markets outlook

Bond yields fell 8bps (US 10-year sovereigns) on concerns on the impact of lockdowns in the US. There will be a lot of focus on the Fed meeting this week, to see if it extends the duration of the bonds they are will willing to buy, to keep yields under control.  In commodities, iron ore continued higher on end-of-year restocking, as well as concerns that recommendations on the government inquest into the Juukan Gorge incident may have some impact on supply.  The Australian dollar broke higher, up 1.4% against the USD, on the back of good domestic economic indicators and higher commodity prices. It is sitting at 75c and may strengthen – an aspect to watch for some stocks.

The Australian equity market was led last week by Resources (+2.45%). There was some rotation back to growth and defensives following a couple of weeks of under-performance. Information Technology gained 2.76% and Consumer Staples was up 1.5%.

Appen (APX, -14.46%) was the weakest in the ASX100, following a large downgrade driven by the impact of Covid on offshore customers.  Other US dollar earners with large exposure to the impact of potential US lockdowns also lagged. This included Cochlear (COH, -7.12%) and Aristocrat (ALL, -5.40%).  Gold also underperformed. Gold ETFs are experiencing outflows as investors see a reduced need for portfolio insurance, weighing on names such as Northern Star (NST, -3.45%) and Evolution (EVN, -3.17%).  Resource stocks dominated the best performers, led by Fortescue Metals (FMG, +11.35%). Growth stocks Afterpay (APT, +6.89%) and Xero (XRO, +6.34%) also caught a bid.

Metcash (MTS, +7.45%) delivered a well-received half-yearly result. The supermarket side continues to do well, with stronger sales than its larger competitors. Work-from-home accelerated sales in neighbourhood-style shopping, helping IGA. The benefits seem to have persisted even as restrictions are eased.  The bigger surprise was on the hardware side, where recent acquisitions are doing much better than expected. The bigger exposure to trade – as opposed to retail – means they are well-positioned to capture a surge in renovations accompanying the trend to more working from home.  MTS also saw strong cash flow as franchisees paid back some of the emergency funding from earlier this year faster than expected.  

Viva Energy (VEA, +9.23%) rose on expectations of a more attractive refinery deal with the government, coming through sooner than expected. More broadly, VEA continues to demonstrate the ability to offset weaker fuel volumes via good management of margins. 

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