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Markets and politics: It's an unhappy relationship and not likely to improve

An image of a Wall Street trader holding his head after a bad day.
Politics often drive markets nuts and the relationship is set deteriorate further.

Reuters: Arko Datta

At 2.19pm on Friday the ASX main board turned to a sea of red as traders and computer bots started selling.

This week:

  • President Trump is expected to announce a replacement for Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen
  • ASX should open strongly ahead of NAB full-year results
  • Retail sales should rebound after a shock slump in August

Moments before, wire services carried the scantest details about five of the Citizenship Seven — including deputy PM Barnaby Joyce — being declared ineligible to sit in Parliament by the High Court.

Traders did not see that coming, but it was no flash crash. More like a zip dip.

Peak to trough it was about 1 per cent.

The market picked itself up and limped on for the remaining 90 minutes of trading, regaining around half of the stumble.

Nothing too serious, apart from an embarrassing trip which ended the chance of the fifth straight week of gains on a market that has been struggling for any momentum this year.

If it shows one thing, it is that markets just don't get politics. They are poor at gauging the inherent risks and the potential for change.

And that is a worry given the unstable state of politics at the moment, both locally and globally — with the exception of China where President Xi is now established as one of the strongest leaders since the 1949 revolution.

Gossamer-like majorities and votes for change are the new normal.

The Brexit vote is one manifestation. Jacinda Ardern's Labour-led coalition in New Zealand is another. Presidents Trump and Macron in the US and France, cut from entirely different cloth but stitched together by the same thread of disgruntlement.

Justin Trudeau from the left in Canada and from the right Sebastian Kurz in Austria, the list goes on. The electorate wants change, markets less so.

Perhaps the exception there is the US where Wall Street has been punting on Donald Trump delivering massive change — slashing taxes, splurging on infrastructure, balancing budgets and draining political swamps.

Despite not having exactly the same form line as Cox Plate winner Winx, the market has laid out a massive bet on President Trump to win the Reflation Stakes.

To stretch the metaphor further, it is bit like backing a maiden sprinter from the bush winning the Grand National at Aintree having watched it crash into the first few obstacles it tried to jump.

Politics will continue to be a brake on the economy

Back home Deutsche Bank's Adam Boyton made the observation that much broader points are being lost in the citizenship intrigue that played out in the High Court this week.

Basically, it is another example of the tortured policy inertia that the nation has endured for some time over a number of administrations from both sides of the political divide.

"Governments with very small majorities are typically somewhat more prone to volatility," Mr Boyton said.

For Mr Boyton's team at Deutsche Bank, which offers trading insights on bonds and exchange rates, the "citizenship crisis" does not make Australia any more prone to political risk than it has been since the outcome of the July 2016 election.

"The citizenship crisis is simply the symptom," he said.

"The underlying issue is that the tightness of a number of recent elections, the short tenure of prime ministers since the 2007 election, the lack of support for serious productivity enhancing reform in that environment and in many instances a back-sliding on past achievements — often the cost of keeping minor parties and cross benchers happy — is likely to conspire to further entrench Australia's weak productivity performance," he noted glumly.

Be careful what you wish for

There is another twist in this sorry tale.

If politicians get the gumption — and numbers — to deliver on the policies they espouse, market markets will probably hate it.

Electorates across the globe have become increasingly capricious in response to perceptions of increased inequality and disenfranchisement.

"Many of the economic trends behind rising voter disgruntlement are the same trends that have been beneficial for investors through the past few decades," global strategist Gerard Minack pointed out.

"The political shift now underway is, in many cases, a response to the trends that have been particularly beneficial for investors through the past few decades.

Put another way, years of near zero interest rates and central bank money printing have been a boon for anyone with the money to plough into shares.

While workers have seen wages flatline, profits have well and truly outpaced economic growth.

"In short, equity investors benefitted from two trends: a rise in valuation as yield fell, and above-average profit growth," Mr Minack said.

So if the central banks get the their not entirely unreasonable wish of returning interest rates to somewhere near "normal", as the global economy emerges from a decade of stagnation, it may not be great for investors.

So what are the consequences of returning to normal?

For a start investors in fixed income assets could take an absolute hammering as the bond super-cycle reverses and equity valuations may return to "normal", according to Mr Minack.

"US equity prices are now 35-45 per cent above long-run averages for most absolute valuation metrics. Good policy outcomes will not lead to good investment outcomes."

So what is going to happen out of all of this political uncertainty?

"The problem for investors is that the change is likely to be dictated by politics and politics is hard to forecast," Mr Minack noted.

"It is also obvious that markets today are not pricing these future risks."

ASX set for a strong opening

Certainly futures traders over the weekend were blithely unaware about any looming problems as they bid the ASXSPI index up by 0.6 per cent, pointing to a very robust opening.

Markets on Friday's close:

  • ASX SPI 200 futures +0.6pc at 5,921, ASX 200 (Friday's close) -0.2pc at 5,903
  • AUD: 76.76 US cents, 66.10 euro cents, 58.47 British pence, 87.24 Japanese yen, $NZ1.12
  • US: Dow Jones +0.1pc at 23,434, S&P500 +0.8pc at 2,581 NASDAQ +2.2pc at 6,701
  • Europe: FTSE +0.3 at 7,505 DAX +0.6pc at 13,218 Eurostoxx50 +0.4pc at 3,652
  • Commodities: Brent oil +1.9pc at $US60.44/barrel, Gold +0.5pc at $US1,373/ounce, Iron ore -1.2pc at $US61.47

The mood was buoyed by a strong run on the Nasdaq, which closed up more than 2 per cent on Friday.

How this good fortune for Amazon, Microsoft, Google et al translates positively into the tech-wasteland that is the ASX is anyone's guess, but there you go.

It was perhaps the better-than-expected US GDP growth — up 3 per cent year-on-year in the September quarter — that did the trick.

A deeper look into the figures would show that domestic demand was not too flash, but the market was happy enough with good gains on the S&P500 and Dow Jones.

A report that President Trump was leaning towards an incumbent Federal Reserve governor, Jerome Powell, to replace chair Janet Yellen was greeted with a wave of buying as well.

Mr Powell represents the status quo, as opposed to his model-driven university-based rival John Taylor, who is seen as an agent of a rapid rise in rates.

That said President Trump has shown a remarkable capacity to wrong foot Wall Street.

We are likely to see whether he will deliver a Halloween trick or treat at the Fed this week.

Oil rises, iron ore sinks

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Oil enjoyed another strong week, with the global benchmark Brent Crude rising above $US60 a barrel for the first time since 2015.

Both Brent and US crude rose almost 5 per cent over the week as reports filtered out that Saudi Arabia and Russia would extend the deal to cut supplies for another nine months.

The news for iron ore producers was not so good.

Futures trading in China on Friday saw prices slump 4 per cent to $US65.41 a tonne — a two-week low.

The spot price slipped 1.2 per cent to $US61.47.

NAB profit to edge up to $6.6b

ANZ's opening $6.4 billion opening salvo in the banking reporting season wasn't exactly "shock and awe" stuff.

Yup, OK bottom line, margins a bit disappointing, it's in transition, take a bit of profit on it [yawn], was the considered reaction of the market.

NAB is up next on Thursday and is likely to deliver a solid, not spectacular $6.6 billion profit — up about 2.5 per cent on the previous year.

Most of the revenue growth is expected to come from the benefits of jacking up investor mortgage rates.

If ANZ is any guide, margins may have tightened which the market won't like. Already low bad debts may edge lower again as the likes of Arrium and NZ dairy problems are not as worrisome as six months ago.

Retail, building and trade data

It is a busy week for economic wonks with important releases covering a broad swathe of the local economy.

September retail sales (Friday) is perhaps the most interesting given recent weakness and the fact that consumers underwrite around 60 per cent of the economy.

Sales are expected to rebound if for no other reason than August's contraction was so big. The tip is for 0.7 per cent growth, taking annualised growth to a hardly startling 2.2 per cent.

A repeat of August's contraction would be bad.

Trade also disappointed in August. September's figures should also rebound when released on Thursday.

A pick-up in both coal and iron exports could see the surplus expand out towards $1.5 billion, although the market expects something more modest.

House prices (Wednesday) may well be flat, while industry data suggests building approvals (Thursday) may buck recent trends and pick up in September.

Private sector credit (Tuesday) has been pretty steady for a while, but most economists would like to see business lending picking up.

BoE to finally lift rates

Along with the announcement of a new boss at the Fed, the Bank of England is likely to make a bit of central banking history this week, raising rates for the first time since the GFC.

It is likely to ratchet up the Bank rate by 25 basis points to 0.5 per cent. Hooray. But that may well be it for some time.

The forecast is there will only be a couple of hikes over the next two-to-three years and that is assuming Brexit goes smoothly. That is a bold assumption.

The US is expected to see job growth at a booming 300,000 new jobs in October (Friday) after things were temporally blown off course by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The Fed will meet (Wednesday) and do very little, bar a cut and paste job on the previous meeting's statement. The next hike is likely to be in December.

Australia

Date Event Forecast

Monday

30/10/2017

Tuesday

31/10/2017

Private sector credit Sep: Steady growth at around 5.6pc, a pick-up in business lending would be handy
New home sales Sep: HIA series, could become increasingly important barometer of the market and building cycle

Wednesday

1/11/2017

Manufacturing index Oct: AiG series, activity expanding solidly
House prices Oct: CoreLogic series, has been cooling, except in Hobart

Thursday

2/11/2017

NAB FY result A net profit of $6.6b expected, up 2.5 pc on last year
Trade balance Sep: Surplus likely to expand to about $1.2b after a surprise contraction
Building approvals Sep: Very volatile. The trend is approvals are slowing but may go against the the trend and pick up this time

Friday

3/11/2017

Retails sales Sep: A solid rebound of 0.7 per cent is expected after a poor August

Overseas

Date Event Forecast

Monday

30/10/2017

US: PCE core inflation Sep: Market expects another 1.3pc YoY growth

Tuesday

31/10/2017

CH: Manufacturing PMI Nov: Official reading of factory activity has been expanding faster than private readings
EU: Inflation Oct: Still very weak pulse, core inflation was 1.1pc last month
EU: GDP Q3: 2nd estimate, should be about 2.3pc YoY
EU: Unemployment Sep: Coming down, but still around 9pc
JP: BoJ decision No change expected

Wednesday

1/11/2017

CH: Caixin PMI Nov: Noticeably slower activity in small to medium enterprises than official survey
US: Rate decision No change, the hike is expected in December
US: ADP employment Oct: Should rebound with close to 200,000 new jobs

Thursday

2/11/2017

US: Manufacturing PMI Oct: Should be continued growth
EU: Manufacturing PMI Oct: Activity expanding solidly
UK: BoE decision Market has a rate hike priced in

Friday

3/11/2017

US: Non-farm payrolls Oct: A big post-hurricane rebound of 300,000 new jobs expected, but wages still flat
US: Trade balance Sep: Defict or around $US45b tipped