Global Outlook: Markets Anticipate Turbulent US Election as COVID Crisis Continues

When we wrote our last quarterly around mid-year, we had turned bearish on the dollar due to a confluence of drivers.  Since then, the dollar is down significantly across the board against the majors. The ultra-dovish Fed set the tone back in March, but the game-changer for us was the failure to control the virus here in the US. Large swathes of the economy were unable to reopen and this had knock-on effects to the wider economy and labor market. At that time, we saw near-term dollar weakness but penciled in a possible dollar bottom in Q4. That is no longer the case and see continued dollar weakness into 2021. Why?

The virus rages on. Infections are rising to record highs in nearly half the states. The good news is that the death rates are well below what we saw earlier this year.  The resurgence, however, is already leading to renewed restrictions in parts of the nation and further delays to reopening in other parts. All of this will be a chilling effect on economic activity.

More importantly, it now appears that talks on the next round of fiscal stimulus are dead in the water. Failure to pass a stimulus package before the election means that any potential aid won't be seen until late 2020 or more likely early 2021. Airlines and other major industries are likely to resume furloughs and layoffs, further damaging an already weak US labor market.  That's a huge headwind for the US economy in Q4 and we assume most analysts are already marking down their growth forecasts as such for this quarter. 

To us, US economic underperformance translates into dollar underperformance in Q4. While there had been a chance that the dollar might begin carving out a bottom in Q4, we think that has been pushed out to Q1 2021 now. Whether it is this congress or the next, more fiscal stimulus will be needed. Whether it is this president or the next, more efforts to control the virus will be needed. If (and this is a big if) both matters can be addressed in 2021, the US economy and the dollar could start to perform better.

In this quarterly, we start to look beyond Q4. We will focus on the different possible outcomes for the US elections. Each outcome has different implications for different asset classes, and we put likelihoods on each outcome.

US Outlook 

The US election November 3 is likely to be the dominant market driver for Q4. We lay out the possible election outcomes in this piece, as well as their implications for financial markets. It seems safe to assume that volatility will remain elevated through this period, and might not subside until well after November 3 given the risk of a delayed or even disputed result.

US Political Outlook

A delayed result is very likely. There will be a record number of mail-in ballots and final results may not be available on election night for some key states. If the results are close enough, it may go all the way to the Supreme Court. The good news is that, unlike the Florida 2000 situation, everyone knows about risk beforehand.

The makeup of Congress is crucial to the outlook. The Republicans have little chance of taking back the House, so we won’t even discuss this scenario. The Senate is very much in play.  Republicans are defending 23 seats and the Democrats 12, which is a reversal of the 2018 midterm elections when it was the other way around (9 vs. 26). Republican Senators Collins (Maine), McSally (Arizona), Gardner (Colorado), and Tillis (North Carolina) are vulnerable.  Astoundingly, some Republican seats that were previously thought safe are now in play. These include Graham (South Carolina), Ernst (Iowa), and Loeffler (Georgia). Of the Democrats, only Jones (Alabama) is likely to lose his race. Three net pick-ups are needed for a Democratic majority if Biden wins, since Vice President Harris would cast any tie-breaking votes.

This chart shows the betting odds of Republican vs Democratic Senate Control. As of September 2020, the chart shows a widening gap of a 65% chance that the Democratic party controls the senate.

This chart shows the overwhelming betting odds of the House, with Democrats commanding an 85% chance of keeping control of the house.

Potential Outcomes

Democrats sweep (50%) – Negative for bonds, negative for the dollar, sector rotation for equities. By controlling both houses of Congress, the Democrats will likely push through aggressive fiscal stimulus. Perhaps even two rounds. This will lead to massive UST issuance to fund these programs. With the Fed anchoring the short end, we think this would lead to a steepening of the US curve. The Fed would likely have to step up its asset purchases to help prevent US yields from rising too much, and that would boost its balance sheet to new record highs. This would of course be dollar-negative. The equity outlook, however, is not as clear-cut.  Stimulus would boost economic growth and earnings, but much of Trump’s corporate tax cuts would be reversed. But we expect ESG-related sectors to do very well under this scenario, possibly to the loss of the tech sector. Lastly, Senator Warren may get a senior economic post in the cabinet (Commerce seems likely, not Treasury)

Democrats win presidency, Republicans hang on to Senate (25%) – Positive for bonds, negative for the dollar, uncertain for equities.  In this scenario, the Republican Senate will likely act as a spoiler and prevent any significant legislative initiatives by the Democrats. Efforts at another round or two of fiscal stimulus will likely be stymied. That is positive for bonds (less issuance) but negative for the dollar (the economy underperforms). The equity outlook is not clear-cut here either, but for opposite reasons. Lack of stimulus would hurt economic growth and earnings, but Trump’s corporate tax cuts would be maintained. Biden could try to push through some initiatives by executive order, but like Trump’s efforts to do the same, these orders would likely be challenged and tied up in the courts.

Republicans win presidency and hang on to Senate (15%) – Neutral for bonds, negative for the dollar, uncertain for equities. This is the status quo result and so current policy settings would be maintained just as Senate Republicans would likely stymie any significant legislative initiatives by the House Democrats, so too would the reverse. That is positive for bonds (less issuance) but negative for the dollar (the economy underperforms). The equity outlook is not clear-cut here either. Lack of stimulus would hurt economic growth and earnings, but Trump’s corporate tax cuts would be maintained. Trump could also try to push through some initiatives by executive order.

Republicans win presidency, Democrats win Senate (10%) – Negative for bonds, negative for the dollar, uncertain for equities. This is likely to be equivalent to the status quo result and so current policy settings would be maintained. Why?  Democrats controlling both houses of Congress would likely lead to some aggressive legislative efforts. However, it seems highly unlikely that the Democrats will win veto-proof majorities in either house. As such, President Trump could play the spoiler here and veto everything. Any thoughts of another impeachment effort are also doomed to fail if the Democrats fall short of a super-majority. While the House needs to impeach by a simple majority, two thirds of the Senate must vote to convict.  All in all, this effective status quo result is positive for bonds (less issuance) but negative for the dollar (the economy underperforms). The equity outlook is not clear-cut here either. Lack of stimulus would hurt economic growth and earnings, but Trump’s corporate tax cuts would be maintained.  Trump could also try to push through some initiatives by executive order.

Republicans sweep (<1%) – Negative for bonds, negative for the dollar, positive for equities.  While very unlikely, such a result would likely lead to more tax cuts (both corporate and high income individuals). This would increase the deficit and boost UST issuance, which would still be negative for the dollar. The tax cuts here are another form of fiscal stimulus that would be unequivocally positive for equities. 

The US curve continues to steepen as markets seem to be pricing in greater odds of a Democratic sweep. The 10-year yield of 78 basis points is the highest since August 28. Break above that level would set up a test of the June 5 high near 96 basis points. The 30-year yield is leading the move, as it has already broken above its August 28 high near 1.57% and is on track to test its June 5 high near 1.76%. As noted previously, this fits in with our view that markets are pricing in greater odds of a Democratic sweep. Massive fiscal stimulus and increased UST issuance would fit into this reflation trade. We think most would also agree that such an outcome would likely be dollar-negative, with the Fed forced to expand its balance sheet further to help absorb the new UST issuance.

US Economic Outlook

As we move into Q4, the US recovery is clearly losing momentum. The loss of enhanced unemployment at the end of July has had a chilling effect on income and consumption. With no further stimulus expected until after the election, that suggests that growth this quarter is likely to be constrained. Another headwind will come from the impact of rising virus numbers here in the US. That impact will come directly from renewed restrictions and voluntary changes in behavior, and indirectly from the potential loss of employment and income resulting from curtailed activity.

Q3 GDP data will be reported at the end of October.  Bloomberg consensus sees 25.3% SAAR vs. -31.4% in Q2. This compares to the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model, which estimates Q3 growth at 34.6%. The New York Fed’s Nowcast model has Q3 growth at 14.04% and Q4 growth at 4.77%. These numbers look impressive, but extrapolating out consensus growth forecasts shows that real GDP won’t surpass the pre-pandemic peak until Q1 2022. And the lost output is massive.

This chart illustrates the rise of US real GDP from 2012 to Q12021. The chart shows a pronounced dip in March as the COVID-19 crisis dropped GDP by nearly $2 trillion.

The September jobs report was the last one to be seen before the November 3 election. It fit our slowing narrative to a tee, with the smaller than expected 661k gain in nonfarm payrolls, the smallest since the recovery from the pandemic started. Permanent job losses are rising, and since the survey week in mid-September, more major US firms have announced layoffs and furloughs.

The Fed’s new policy framework unveiled in August at Jackson Hole will not be tested for years. At the September meeting, the Fed tweaked its forward guidance to reflect this new framework. "The Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and expects it will be appropriate to maintain this target range until labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee's assessments of maximum employment and inflation has risen to 2% and is on track to moderately exceed 2% for some time." This is about as explicit as outcome-based forward guidance can get and yet it still leaves the Fed with a lot of wiggle room. The phrases "moderately exceed" for "some time" are suitably vague and so it's not a mechanical Taylor Rule by any stretch. 

Yet the underlying message is clear: rates will stay lower for longer. The current Dot Plots show no hikes are expected through 2023. Of course, it’s worth noting that the Dot Plots are a forecasts, not a pledge, and represent a snapshot in time around what is known at that particular FOMC meeting. For now, we believe the Fed is on hold. Chairman Powell has pleaded for more fiscal stimulus and until that is seen, we do not think the Fed will do anything in order to keep pressure on Congress to act.

Major Market Global Overview

Eurozone Outlook

The second wave of viral infections will weigh on Q4 economic activity across much of Europe.  We are already seeing the impact in the PMI readings, particularly in Spain and France and to a lesser extent Italy. Unlike the US, Europe has already shown its ability to control the virus and so we are confident it can do so again. Yet it will have a chilling effect on the economy and comes even as deflationary forces are building. Headline CPI fell -0.3% year-over-year in September, the worst reading since April 2016. More worrisome was the sharp deceleration in core inflation to 0.2% year-over-year, the lowest on record. The trend seems to be for further restrictive measures, which will weigh in forthcoming data, but we still believe that governments will refrain from national-level measures.

his chart illustrates the stringency index composed of US, UK, Germany, France, and Spain. As of October 2020, the UK measures the highest on the index, followed by the US, Spain, France, and Germany.

The European Central Bank is widely expected to increase its PEPP in Q4.  We look for the European Central Bank (ECB) to add stimulus at its December 10 meeting, when new macro projections are released. There are reports of some resistance within the Governing Council but we do not think it is enough to prevent the ECB from delivering another round of stimulus. We firmly believe that the ECB will not take rates more negative – in line with what’s being priced in. It may, however, continue to tinker with its pandemic longer-term refinancing operations (PELTROs) and targeted longer-term refinancing options (TLTROs) in order to shield banks from the harmful impact of negative rates by basically pay banks to take funding from the ECB and lend it out to households and businesses.

This chart illustrates the enormous balance sheet growth this year of the Fed, ECB, BOJ, and BOE. In 2020, balance sheet growth has nearly doubled for all major central banks due to the crisis.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, but the European Recovery Fund should be approved in Q4. The so-called “rule of law” findings are likely to delay its passage but in the end, we suspect Germany and the larger powers will agree to dilute the language by enough to get Hungary and Poland to sign on but not by too much that support from the “frugal” countries is eroded. As it always to be in Europe, policymakers will walk a tightrope until a compromise is finally reached. And despite the dilution of the “rule of law,” this is yet another step towards a more unified Europe.

Much ink has been spilled over whether the ECB will take any action to prevent excessive euro strength.  At the most recent policy meeting in September, ECB President Lagarde initially took a nonchalant attitude to the strong euro, which at the time was testing the $1.20 area.  Other ECB officials quickly asserted that the ECB does take the exchange rate into account when setting policy, signaling a level of greater concern. Lagarde later walked back her remarks.  That said, jawboning cannot turn the tide by itself. Underlying monetary policy stances and economic growth differentials are still the primary drivers for exchange rates and in that regard, we think the eurozone has an advantage over the US, at least for now. The easing by the ECB mentioned above is already priced in, we believe, so it would take a dovish surprise to put the euro in the backfoot.

UK Outlook

The ongoing COVID crisis and the expiration of some government support programs will both weigh on Q4 economic activity. Chancellor Sunak is under great pressure to extend the government’s job furlough program, which expires at the end of October. He is trying to come up with ways to modify the scheme, but most alternatives being discussed would still likely lead to the loss of millions of UK jobs. Sunak’s reluctance to continue spending is understandable, as debt has already risen above 100% of GDP. However, the hard political realities argue for more stimulus, not less. But the Johnson government has been strongly criticized for their restrained approach during the first wave of the virus, which may make it biased towards stronger preemptive action this time around.

A no deal Brexit is also a downside risk. As of this writing, talks are entering their final phase and clinching a deal remains difficult. The long-standing fishing dispute has come up again as one of the main obstacles for an agreement. We find it difficult to imagine that this issue will prove decisive given the small shares of the UK and French economies it represents. State aid and the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which are still unresolved, seem like much more difficult obstacles to overcome. If enough progress is made in all these areas, the best-case scenario sees the two sides enter the so-called “tunnel” where the final language is hammered out in private. 

The October 15-16 EU summit is widely regarded as a potential deadline.  However, we suspect talks can be extended beyond this if a deal is within reach.  Instead, many believe early November is the true deadline in order to have enough time to prepare for the December 31 transition.  The December 10-11 EU summit may see the finalized agreement or an announcement of a no-deal Brexit. The outcome is binary and we put the odds at basically 50-50. 

No wonder the Bank of England (BOE) is widely expected to increase its asset purchases in Q4.  We look for the BOE to add stimulus at its November 5 meeting, when new macro forecasts are released in its quarterly Monetary Policy Report. The debate about negative rates continue to rage but we do not see that happening in Q4.  Indeed, we view that option as a last-ditch option, even though the BOE appears to be setting the table for such an outcome. Much of the UK curve remains in negative territory as a result of negative rate talk. 

Sterling remains subject to mood swings regarding Brexit talks.  With such a binary outcome, it’s no wonder that sterling volatility (both actual and implied) has risen steadily since July.  With talks entering their final stage, investors should be prepared for a protracted period of even higher headline-based volatility. And Brexit risks come just as the UK economy is facing greater headwinds.  We expect sterling to benefit from the weak dollar backdrop but it is likely to underperform the euro.  As such, the EUR/GBP cross is likely to trade with an upward bias.

Japan Outlook

There is an element of political uncertainty but nothing that should impact markets. There is increased speculation that new Prime Minister Suga will call snap elections in late 2020 or early 2021 to consolidate his hold on power. Fresh elections are not due until October 2021, and the ruling liberal democratic party (LDP) is widely expected to win.  Ahead of any elections, we expect Suga and his cabinet to deliver another round of fiscal stimulus in order to help cement its popularity. 

The Japanese economy is underperforming. While the recovery is in place, it remains uneven and weak. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) recently upgraded its assessment to “severe” from “extremely severe” previously, and its latest Tankan survey shows Japanese firms remain pessimistic about the outlook.  Deflationary pressures are rising and it’s clear that the BOJ will miss its inflation target for several more years.  Its macro projections will be updated in its Outlook Report for the October 29 meeting.  Currently, the BOJ sees core inflation (ex-fresh food) staying below its 2% target at least until FY2023, coming  in at -0.5% in FY2020, 0.3% in FY2021, and 0.7% in FY2022. 

Yet the Bank of Japan is widely expected to remain on hold in Q4. Really, it may have reached the limits of what it can do beyond its current expansive settings. Here too, we think there is little appetite to take rates more negative. Its yield curve control policy is working, with required asset purchases pinning the 10-year JGB yield close to 0%. While the official target is 0% +/- 20 basis points, the 10-year yield has rarely deviated that much, trading largely within a +/- 5 bp range for much of this year. We see no need to deviate from its current  policy settings anytime soon.

The strong yen is doing the Japanese economy no favors. After testing the 110 area in June, USD/JPY has since retreated and largely traded in the 104-108 range for most of Q3. As Q4 begins, the pair is trading near the middle of that range but feels heavy.  With the weak dollar backdrop in place, we believe USD/JPY will down to trade in a new 102-106 range for the rest of this year. Indeed, we cannot rule out a test of the March low near 101.20.

Emerging Markets

Our current views on emerging markets (EM) emanate from two major themes: US elections and the risk of policy anchors (fiscal and monetary) weakening in the post-pandemic future. Broadly speaking, we remain negative on EM FX and local rates, positive on external debt, and selective in the equity space. In the medium term, however, we wonder whether EM central banks will start surprising on the hawkish side once weakening currencies and rising inflation risks start becoming a problem.

US ELECTIONS

At the time of writing, a democratic sweep looks like the most probable outcome, which would be a mixed bag for EM, with Russia the clearest causality. Russian CDS perhaps offers the best risk reward for a pre-election strategic trade. At around 125 basis points (bps), the downside is limited but there is a lot of room for an upwards repricing. To be clear, we don’t expect Russia to face troubles replaying its sovereign external debt, but a Democratic controlled US government would warrant a re-thinking of the country’s risk premium. Not only will Democrats be looking for a payback for perceived wrongdoing by Putin, possibly tapping into a similar trend in Europe (especially Germany) following the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and the events in Belarus. On top of this, Democrats would be more forceful in pushing a green agenda thus accelerating the move to renewable resources.

The relationship with China in the post elections is less straightforward. A Biden victory would pivot the tension in the conflict from trade policy to human rights and would reduce the erratic (and often market moving) news flow on the matter. This is positive for markets, at least in the near term. But stand firm on the view that the two nations are in an irremediable process of distancing on all spheres with wide-ranging consequences for markets and the global order. The Pew Research poll on opinions towards China is an easy way to see why the US-China conflict will remain a centerpiece of US foreign policy no matter who wins the Whitehouse — it’s an issue of rare bi-partisan agreement. This means that the process of re-drawing supply chains and technological divide will continue, benefiting outsource alternative countries such as Vietnam and Mexico who are well position to collect the spoils.

This chart illustrates the favorability ratings for China from a poll of US adults. 72% of republicans have an unfavorable view of China, followed by 62% of Democrats.

CHINA’S RECOVERY STRATEGY

China’s recovery strategy has been driven, at first, by the industrial sector, with consumption measures coming second. One (albeit imperfect) way to observe the effect is to compare the slump in industrial data (such as IP and manufacturing PMI) with measures that reflect more domestic demand (such as retail sales and non-manufacturing PMI).The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated a fiscal expenditure of around 4.5% of GDP in reaction to the crisis, on top of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) easing and numerous measures to counter tightening financial conditions. At this point, it looks as of the PBoC is reluctant to continue adding stimulus, and rightfully so, in our view. The pandemic forced a pause (if not a backtracking) of their efforts to deleverage parts of the financial system. But with the recovery well underway, the balance of risk has shifted: more stimulus might do more to inflate asset bubbles than to drive lending to productive sectors.

This chart shows the drop in industrial production and retail sales in China during the COVID crisis. The chart shows a V-shaped recovery and is almost near pre-COVID levels.

This chart shows the drop in industrial production and retail sales in China during the COVID crisis. The chart shows a V-shaped recovery and is almost near pre-COVID levels.

More recently, however, the government has started to shift towards a “dual circulation” approach. This means policymaking will seek to rebalance away from external engines of growth to domestic ones. The change in emphasis is not just a response to the new stage in the pandemic, but a reaction to the continued process of economic decoupling from the US and re-organization of the global supply chains.

There has been abundant evidence that the process of economic normalization in China has been progressing well – and better than many other countries. In one recent example, the Ministry of Culture reported internal tourism during the Golden Week (start of October) was nearly 80% of last year’s level (about 450 million travelers). Looking at the University of Oxford’s stringency tracker, we can see how China went from having one of the strictest approaches to containing the virus to a quick relaxation.

his chart illustrates the stringency index composed of US, UK, Germany, France, and Spain. As of October 2020, the UK measures the highest on the index, followed by the US, Spain, France, and Germany.

CREDIBILITY

As we discussed in the last quarterly, EMs behaved in a similar way to DM (cutting rates and expanding fiscal deficits), but this does not mean the outcomes will be the same in the medium term. The most obvious concern is the growing fiscal deficits from the pandemic efforts. The budget deficits for 2020 are expected to come in around 15% for South Africa and Brazil, 10% for India, and between 5-8% for several other large EMs. The expected increase in supply and difficulty funding is already being priced into local curves (steep shape) and some governments are having to shorten the maturity of their issuance. In other words, markets are already pricing in the weakening of these countries fiscal anchors.

his chart illustrates the selected local EM sovereign curves. South Africa leads, Brazil, Mexico, India, and Indonesia with a 9% curve.

The other side of the problem is central bank credibility, and the more extreme case of them losing institutional independence. As we discussed in our EM Central Bank Independence Piece, we expect to see more blurring of the lines between fiscal and monetary policy, along with more discussion about unorthodox policies. The ongoing conversations in the US and other parts of the developed world about modern monetary theory (MMT) and helicopter money will only give legitimacy to these arguments. In some cases, such as Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil, the legal aspect of central bank independence my come in question.

Similar to developed markets, we think many of these issues will become truly problematic once inflation starts picking up. We are not yet seeing this, but the fiscal efforts, extremely low interest rates and strong currency depreciation seen in some countries will eventually lead to inflation pass-through. When this happens, governments might be tempted to let inflation run hot – again, perhaps with the intellectual backing of the Fed’s new average inflation framework. But we doubt it will end well for EM (we’re not even sure it will end well for the Fed!). At varying paces, we think EM central banks will be backed into hiking rates or signaling a more hawkish tone, perhaps a lot sooner than markets expect.

This chart shows the average Emerging Market CPI year-over-year. As of May 2020, the average CPI is approximately 2.5% down from its peak of 4% in 2011.

This chart illustrates the favorability ratings for China from a poll of US adults. 72% of republicans have an unfavorable view of China, followed by 62% of Democrats.

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used as a generic term to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally. This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented. This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. Pursuant to information regarding the provision of applicable services or products by BBH, please note the following: Brown Brothers Harriman Fund Administration Services (Ireland) Limited and Brown Brothers Harriman Trustee Services (Ireland) Limited are regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland, Brown Brothers Harriman Investor Services Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, Brown Brothers Harriman (Luxembourg) S.C.A. is regulated by the Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. ©Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2020. All rights reserved. IS-06665-2020-10-13