Inflation fears haunt the markets

The week ahead sees a busy data calendar, especially in the United States, which has the release of the monthly employment data as well as the latest inflation report scheduled.

Gross Domestic Product is the major release in the UK, whilst Europe sees inflation and sentiment indicators released. Of course, geopolitical events will dominate, and hopefully, we will see some forward momentum in the peace process between Ukraine and Russia and risk sentiment will improve. Although not affecting the markets yet, there is a Presidential Election in France during April and soaring Covid infections in Europe factors that may soon concern investors. Closer to home, the markets will continue to digest Rishi Sunak’s budget whilst the ramifications from Brexit are never far from the front page. Finally, the week ahead may see some volatility midweek as we approach quarter-end and the rebalancing of portfolios after an extraordinary period of bond and equity price movement.

Relative calm returned to the currency market last week, with all the major currencies trading within a narrow range. Overall the direction of the G3 currencies followed risk sentiment when it improved sterling, and the euro rallied, and when it worsened, they drifted lower. The war in Ukraine played out in the background but had less impact on the currencies than the speeches of policymakers from the Federal Reserve. With the Federal Reserve sounding increasingly hawkish over the fight to control inflation, the derivative markets are giving a .5% upward move in interest rates after the next Fed meeting a better than 75% chance. The US bond markets also subscribe to this theory and ended a very volatile week with yields sharply higher. The Bank of England may also now be reassessing the timing and size of its next move after the disappointingly high inflation report published Wednesday. With the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve both looking to tighten policy, the odd one out remains the European Central Bank, limiting the euro’s upside potential for the time being.

The Bank of England, politicians, and the public had their worst fears confirmed last Wednesday with the publication of the UK’s inflation readings. As we are sure you know, the headline rate was the highest since March 1992, and worryingly it is yet to peak. With energy prices still yet to fully hit the indexes, it is not beyond reason to expect a double-digit headline figure over the coming months. The uptick places more pressure on the Bank of England, who have to explain in writing to Parliament when inflation tops 2%. With the inflation rate starting to run away, speculation is increasing that the Old Lady will hike rates more aggressively than they have recently, possibly by as much as .5% in line with expectations of the Federal Reserve’s moves. With rising interest rates, sterling should stay in demand against the euro; however, it feels like it is capped at its recent highs. This week looks set to be a quiet one for the data docket, with the main event being the release of the final reading of the Fourth Quarter Gross Domestic Product on Thursday. Also released will be Markit’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) on Friday. Several luminaries from the Bank of England are scheduled to give speeches this week including Governor Bailey later today and Ben Broadbent on Wednesday.

The euro is likely to stay under pressure from sterling and, in particular, the dollar until the European Central Bank signals that it is shifting policy to being less accommodative. This change is unlikely to happen whilst the bloc’s economies remain vulnerable to further energy price shocks due to the war in Ukraine. The single currency is also at risk of the side effects of a Russian default as several of its banks are deeply entrenched in the country. However, the euro is generally holding its ground, and it may be benefitting from all the bad news already being discounted. As we said earlier, geopolitics will drive sentiment this week, and we all hope that they take a turn for the better. It’s a quiet start to the week on the data front. The first interesting release is not scheduled until Wednesday when Business Confidence and Sentiment Indicators for the eurozone are released and Germany’s Consumer Price Index. Thursday sees German Retail Sales and Unemployment on the agenda, as well as the bloc’s Unemployment level. The week closes on a busy note with Eurozone Inflation published and Markit’s PMIs for Manufacturing. It is also a busy week for speakers from the European Central Bank, with Christine Lagarde and Fabio Panetta on the roster for Wednesday, followed by Phillip Lane on Thursday and Isabel Schnabel on Friday.

The Federal Reserve is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the level of inflation in the United States. With it now touching 40-year highs and yet to peak, the language has become increasingly punchy, and many now believe that the Fed will hike the cost of borrowing by .5% at both their May and June meetings. On Thursday, the US will publish its Personal Consumption and Income reports which may lend even more traction to the argument for aggressive hiking of rates. Last week saw the lowest ever level of job seekers confirming that the economy is in rude health. In reality, there are millions of jobs unfilled in the economy. Unlike most other developed nations, this is a concern due to its potential impact on wages, leading to an inflationary spiral. The week ahead sees no less than three employment reports starting on Wednesday with ADP’s private-sector report, followed on Thursday by the weekly jobless number. As usual, the first Friday of the month heralds the publication of the latest US employment figures in the guise of the Non-Farm Payroll report. Also scheduled is Consumer Confidence tomorrow, Q4 GDP on Wednesday and ISM Manufacturing PMIs on Friday. Finally, just in case you didn’t miss that extra hour in bed on Sunday morning, a reminder that the US is back to being 5 hours behind Europe from today.

A tale of two central banks

After the diversion of the central bank meetings last week, the week ahead is likely to be dominated by the geopolitical situation and the ramifications of the war in Ukraine.

Currencies will remain susceptible to sudden shifts in risk sentiment, which tend to benefit the dollar and will also be vulnerable to violent moves in the commodity markets. After breaching $130 a barrel, Oil has dropped back to lower levels; however, it is far from guaranteed that it will stay suppressed. Its moves will potentially impact energy importing currencies, particularly the euro. There are also potential shocks to the financial system as the sanctions on Russia continue to reverberate. So far, Russia has managed to make all the payments due on their dollar-denominated bonds, but there remains a risk of a sovereign default the like of which the markets have not witnessed before.

The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England unsurprisingly hogged the financial headlines last week. Analysts and the currency markets initially speculated on what the central banks would do and subsequently digested their actions. First up was the US Federal Reserve, which, as expected, raised interest rates by .25%, but what was a little surprising against the backdrop of the uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine was how hawkish their tone was. The market is now expecting at least another six hikes in US rates this year. The Bank of England also raised rates by .25%, but they adopted a cautious tone in contrast to their fellow bankers across the Atlantic. The simple fact that one member of the rate-setting committee in the US voted to raise rates by .5% whilst one member of the equivalent in the UK voted to leave rates unchanged highlighted the different directions that the central banks are taking. Unsurprisingly the dollar ended higher over the week against sterling, and the euro also gained as investors started to doubt how much further UK rates would rise.

As we said previously, the Bank of England’s tone and actions were fundamentally cautious following its Monetary Policy Committee meeting last week. With so much uncertainty surrounding Eastern Europe and its effects on inflation and the economy, the Old Lady is understandably circumspect. Fewer rate increases are now expected, and the terminal base rate expectation has dropped to 2%. Consequently, sterling has fallen against the euro as the potential interest rate differential narrows and indeed, the European Central Bank approaches its own tightening cycle. This week, investors will assess whether the Bank of England is too timid when the latest inflation data is released on Wednesday with the Consumer Price Index, Producer Price Index, and Retail Price Index scheduled. Rishi Sunak delivers his Spring budget to Parliament on Thursday, and the preliminary, or flash, Purchasing Manager’s Indexes are released. A busy week for data concludes on Friday with February’s Retail Sales and the GfK Consumer Confidence report. It is also likely that Andrew Bailey or some of his fellow policy setters from the Bank of England will speak during the week.

The European Central Bank (ECB) sat on the side-lines last week and watched its peers raise rates by .25%. The ECB is caught between wishing to raise rates to contain inflation whilst worrying about a possible slowdown in the eurozone recovery. Last week most of the council members from the ECB aired their views, and it is starting to become apparent that they are also worried by the weakness of the euro, particularly against the dollar. Indeed Dutch central bank governor Klaas Knot, a council member of the ECB, said that further EUR/USD weakness would be unwelcome as Europe deals with an energy supply shock. He also suggested that interest rates may rise in the bloc towards the end of the year as he attempted to give the single currency a fillip. He was the most outspoken member of the council, but others also expressed their concerns. Tomorrow’s data docket is the EU Trade Balance, which will show the impact of the war on the bloc. On Thursday, Markit will release its flash Purchasing Managers Indexes for the eurozone and its constituent countries. We can also expect to hear more from ECB council members during the week.

The Federal Reserve and its Chairman Jerome Powell probably had the most straightforward job of the major central bankers last week as the US is essentially the least affected by any commodity shortages caused by the war. Compared to its peers in the UK and the eurozone, the US economy is also in better shape, with unemployment at historically low levels whilst 10 million vacancies exist. However, inflation is a problem, and last week’s interest rate rise was only the first of what potentially will be further increases at every FOMC meeting this year. No less than 15 speakers from the Federal Reserve are scheduled this week to explain their rationale against the backdrop of the ongoing geopolitical crisis, starting with Jerome Powell this afternoon. Data wise, there are Housing reports on Wednesday that rarely move the markets, but the following day has a full schedule, including Markit’s Flash PMIs, Weekly Jobless total and Durable Goods. The data week draws to a close on Friday with the release of the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Indicator. Finally, a friendly reminder that the time difference between the UK and the US remains at an hour less than usual till next weekend when we move our clocks forward.

Upward moves in interest rates ahead

This week we will see the response to the continuing rise in inflation from both the Federal Reserve in the US and the Bank of England closer to home, at their monthly meetings.

Both are expected to raise interest rates in what economists believe will be the start of a series of increases in the cost of borrowing as they attempt to put the inflation genie back in the bottle. However, both face the problem of second-guessing the impact of the war in Ukraine on economies. As oil prices rise, fears of a recession increase, and economists now have concerns that we could all now face a period of inflation and recession combined – so-called stagflation. Of course, overshadowing Central Bank meetings in London and Washington is the dreadful situation in Ukraine, and again this will dominate the markets, and we can only hope that some optimism returns soon.

Sadly, the financial markets were again dominated by the headlines coming from Ukraine. As risk sentiment ebbed and flowed, so did the currencies, with sterling falling as it soured and bouncing back when it improved. With the volumes traded in the GBPUSD generally less than in  EURUSD, sterling tends to move especially dramatically against the euro when volatility is elevated. The last week was no exception, and sterling ended the week lower against the euro as the single currency recovered against the dollar. The euro was helped by the European Central Bank adopting a more hawkish tone than anticipated after its monthly meeting. Increasing worries over the rise in inflation, set to be exacerbated by the continuing jump in energy prices, was behind the change in the ECB’s rhetoric. Inflation also dominated US markets towards the end of the week after another rise in the Consumer Price Index to a forty-year high of 7.9%.

GBP: With the war in Ukraine showing little sign of having a peaceful resolution, the dollar will continue to stay in demand for its safe-haven status, keeping downside pressure on the pound. Conversely, if any sign of escalation becomes apparent, sterling could be one of the beneficiaries as it remains fundamentally underpinned by the prospect of rising interest rates. The Bank of England is likely to reinforce sterling’s underlying strength at its monthly meeting of its Monetary Policy Committee this coming Thursday. The Old Lady was expected to raise the cost of borrowing before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine pushed energy prices higher. Whether accelerating inflation will overrule fears of a recession will give the Bank pause for thought is unclear. The currency markets expect another .25% hike, the third in quick succession. After February’s meeting, it was revealed that four out of the nine committee members had voted for a .5% move. Consequently, there is speculation that we may see such a move this month. Following the MPC meeting, Andrew Bailey will hold a press conference to expand on the reasoning behind the Bank’s actions. Ahead of the MPC meeting, the most recent employment figures are released on Tuesday and following it, on Friday, February’s Inflation data is released.

EUR: As we said previously, the European Central Bank took the markets somewhat by surprise with its hawkishness after its meeting last week. The euro recovered some of its poise after the meeting; however, in the race to tighten policy, the ECB lags behind the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, leaving it at risk. With both the BoE and the Federal Reserve set to move rates upwards this week, the single currency could face a tough time made worse by the bloc’s proximity to the war in Ukraine. The only data due out in the Eurozone this week is  Industrial Production data on Tuesday. But, with so much uncertainty over the cost of energy and its impact on industry, it’s unlikely that the data will move the market from being driven by geopolitical events.

USD: The Federal Reserve is the first of the two major central banks to host its monthly meeting this week when its members meet on Wednesday. The consensus seems to be for a 0.25% move upwards in the Fed Funds rate, although there remains the possibility, as in the UK, of a .5% move. Last week’s inflation print was close to 8%, and with it set to rise higher still, there will almost certainly be members of the committee who will favour the larger increase. Investors will also be watching out for the latest dot plot diagram detailing how Fed committee members see the course of interest rates in the coming year. The derivative markets predict six hikes in the coming year and will watch with interest to see if the Fed is in sync. As would be expected in these difficult times, Chairman Jerome Powell’s press conference will be significant in setting the tone for the markets. The week also sees the release of Retail Sales on Wednesday and February’s Industrial Production, and the weekly employment data on Thursday.

Choppy and volatile markets in prospect

The week ahead looks sadly familiar on the geopolitical front, and we can only hope for some form of de-escalation in the conflict as soon as possible.

Understandably the markets will be driven by headlines and rumour again this week, with economic data taking a back seat. However, there are some notable points on the calendar this week that should catch the currency market’s attention, even if only momentarily. The most significant events scheduled are the meeting of the European Central Bank and the US Consumer Price Index, both scheduled for Thursday. We have a very quiet week on the data docket in the UK until Friday, when Gross Domestic Product is released.

Last week was one of the most volatile weeks in the financial markets in living memory. As the geopolitical news worsened and sanctions increased on Russia, risk sentiment and financial instruments gyrated wildly. Over the week, unsurprisingly, due to it being seen as a safe haven currency, the dollar appreciated against nearly all of its peers and, in particular, against the euro. This morning sterling has opened lower again against the greenback but has climbed against the euro. On Friday, sterling finally breached the top of its trading range against the euro that has held since the Brexit referendum in 2016. The euro has suffered in particular due to its proximity to the conflict and its reliance on Russia for energy. With the war worsening, there looks to be little relief to the choppy intraday movements that we have seen recently in the currency markets.

Sterling unsurprisingly fell against the dollar last week, ending up nearly a cent and a half lower after what was very volatile trading. As we said earlier, with geopolitical headlines dominating traders’ thoughts, the intraday movements were choppy, and this is, of course, will remain the way of things in the foreseeable future. Against the euro, sterling finally appears to have broken upwards through the technical resistance level that, as we said previously, has held for nearly six years. The only data set released this week that is likely to impact the markets is January’s Gross Domestic Product number. After a slight decline in December, a modest uptick is expected, reflecting the return of the consumer in the New Year. Speculation, of course, will continue over the next Bank of England meeting next week with expectations of a further base rate rise helping to underpin sterling.

The euro has endured a torrid time recently, seemingly being hit with bad news from every direction. The European Central Bank meets this coming Thursday, which, politics aside, is the major economic event this side of the Atlantic. Last Thursday’s release of the minutes from their previous meeting revealed a central bank that was more hawkish than had been anticipated. With inflation being pushed higher in the bloc by the war in Ukraine, the pressure is on the ECB to move towards normalising policy. But with a conflict on its doorstep with unknown consequences, the ECB may err on the side of caution. With this in mind, the markets expect the bank to stick broadly to its asset purchase programmes, winding down the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme this month March whilst increasing the Asset Purchase Programme. As important as any tinkering to policy will be Christine Lagarde’s messages at her press conference following the meeting.

Jerome Powell and his colleagues have recently reinforced the case for a .25% rate rise at the next Federal Open Market Committee meeting on the 16th of March. After a particularly strong Non-Farm Payroll number, last week’s employment data strengthened the belief that the economy is now running on all cylinders. The concern for the Fed is how to tame inflation without killing the economy. At present, the rate of price increase is at levels last seen when President Reagan was in power some forty years ago when interest rates were raised to an incredible 21.5% to combat it. During his testimony on Capitol Hill last week, Jerome Powell argued that war has brought more uncertainty and that the Fed needed to be “nimble”. Derivative markets continue to price the prospect of six further rate hikes for the year whilst ignoring the threat of an oil-induced recession. Whether the necessity for such an aggressive series of rate hikes is needed will become clearer after the release of the latest inflation data on Thursday. Analysts are forecasting that the annual rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) will rise to near 8%, which would be the highest rate of inflation since January 1981. There are no speakers from the Federal Reserve scheduled as they are in blackout now till their next meeting. Apart from Thursday’s CPI print, the only notable data releases are the weekly jobless total on the same day and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment surveys on Friday.