HOPE BOLSTERS MARKETS, BUT CAN IT LAST?
• Financial market sentiment has proven far more upbeat than expected in early 2012, supported by reduced risks of a systemic banking crisis in Europe and better-than-anticipated U.S. economic data.
• This improved sentiment and market trends have led to an upward revision to our long-term government bond yield forecasts, with Canadian 10-year bond yield to reach 2.85% by year-end. We have also increased our near-term commodity price forecasts.
• Given all of the positive news factored into the current strength of the Canadian dollar, there is risk of a near-term pullback. Nevertheless, the loonie should trade broadly in a 5 cent range above and below parity over the medium term.
• The positive financial sentiment belies the continued risk-filled environment. We continue to see risks from the European fiscal crisis, the slowdown in emerging market economies, and now from high oil prices. Volatility is likely to increase in the coming months.
With two months of 2012 now under our belts, the mood on global financial markets is decidedly calmer than we had anticipated. The S&P/TSX has rallied so far this year, and measures of market volatility have returned to more normal levels (see chart). Markets seem far more confident that European leaders will be able to manage their sovereign debt crisis without triggering global contagion. Particularly, the European Central Bank's (ECB) first injection of liquidity to the banking sector back in December helped to dramatically ease liquidity pressures in the financial system. Expectations are high for the take-up on the next opportunity for financial institutions to tap cheap three-year loans from the ECB, on February 28th. Consensus expectations are for around €470 billion Euros of loans to be extended, which is just shy of the amount loaned in December. While the increased liquidity to the banking system is unquestionably positive, it does not address the fiscal challenges facing European governments.
Last week, leaders also managed to agree on a second bailout package for Greece, hopefully averting a disorderly default in March. Now Greece must solicit participation from private sector bond holders for a debt swap at less than half of the par value of current Greek bonds. Unfortunately, we suspect that the current bail out package will ultimately prove insufficient to put Greek debt on a sustainable path. The Greek economy is in a rapid downward spiral that will deeply impair fiscal improvement. So, while markets are calm for now, the Greece crisis is bound to cause renewed financial market volatility in the future.
U.S. economy: hope, with a side of caution
Apart from markets stepping back from the precipice of impeding euro-driven doom, the rally seen in equities also has its roots in the more upbeat U.S. economic data so far in 2012. Both businesses and consumer confidence has improved from the lows seen last fall. And greater optimism in manufacturing is being born out in the hard production data, which continues to grow at a steady pace. Durable goods orders also point to continued strength ahead and corporate balance sheets also remain very healthy.
Perhaps the best news is that U.S. job growth has been accelerating out of its mid-2011 soft patch. Maintaining the current pace of 200,000 new jobs per month is just what is needed to sustain spending growth and help repair household balance sheets. The other good news is that the housing market is showing some signs of improvement; existing home sales and housing starts are rising, and residential investment is starting to contribute to economic growth. Auto sales also got off to a very strong start to the year.
However, just as the European risks decline, a new threat in the form of rising oil prices is rearing its head once again. Resurgent gasoline prices are making it feel like 2011 all over again. Just when just as the U.S. seems to be picking up steam, rising gasoline prices – already above $4 per gallon in California – start to bite at consumers' purchasing power. Moreover, recent increases in crude prices suggest gasoline is headed higher in the coming weeks (see chart). Tensions surrounding Iran have built a large risk premium into the price of oil, and if crude prices come down somewhat (see forecast pages 3), consumers should get some relief. But considering rising gas prices have preceded every major U.S. economic slowdown in the past 40 years, it is a risk that bears close watching.
So what does all this mean for our outlook for markets? With the ECB backstopping the European banking system with cheap liquidity, a lower chance now that Greece will imminently default on its debt, and a stronger economic picture emerging from the U.S., we no longer expect a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) by the Federal Reserve. That scenario is now a risk to our outlook in the event of a worse-case outcome in Europe, or more signs the U.S. growth is faltering.
That has led us to raise our forecasts for longer-dated bond yield forecasts both in the U.S. and Canada (see table page 3). However, unlike the U.S., there has been little to cheer about in the Canadian economic data of late. That has led us to raise our year-end Canadian bond yield targets relatively less than Treasuries. Rosier market sentiment has meant commodity prices have remained firmer, and oil prices continue to rise, so we have raised our near-term crude price target accordingly, but our longer-term targets unchanged.
Our forecast for the Canadian dollar, however, has remained unchanged. With the price of oil vulnerable to a giveback if geopolitical tensions don't play out as feared, and the potential for a deterioration in market sentiment if all does not go smoothly in Europe, we still see near-term weakness in the Canadian dollar (Strong Canadian Dollar Ahead, But Mind The Potholes). Moreover, removing QE3 from our base-case outlook is a plus for the U.S. dollar, and another headwind for the loonie. But beyond that we continue to expect relatively strong macroeconomic fundamentals to support a Canadian dollar in a 5-cent range above or below parity with the U.S. dollar over the medium term.
While our pessimism of late 2011 has not been borne out, the changes to the forecast are generally positive, so they are ones we are happy to make. Now we all have to keep our fingers crossed that these new hopes aren't dashed by a continued spike in oil prices, renewed problems in Europe or a hard-landing by emerging market economies.