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Activity lifts to end last week: APAC brief - 21 Mar

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Activity lifts to end last week: A risk laden week has ended with a pop. Asian and European trade was solid, albeit dull. However, it was a clear-cut-case of risk-on during the North American session. The new fuel to the S&P500s fire came as US earnings season kicked-off in earnest. JP Morgan, and a handful of America’s other big-banks, reported and generally surprised to the upside. The catalyst served two purposes: one, it supported (granted prematurely) the view that assumed earnings growth across US equities may be too low; and two, it pushed the S&P500 above key technical levels – notably, psychological resistance at 2900.

Traders are US earnings focused: That milestone, which has been clocked on three occasions in less than 18 months now, triggered a lift in trading volume that had otherwise alluded US stocks last week. As its been stated before: this is a stock-market primarily concerned now with earnings growth, before anything else. And the reasoning is logical: whether right or wrong, markets have priced in a dovish Fed, and something of a bottoming in global growth. Now what’s needed is a validation in the earnings outlook; less one that applies to the current earnings season, and more those of which to follow in quarters ahead.

Market internals validate momentum: The first signs of that were delivered on Friday evening, so markets flicked the risk-switch. Once again: there was a marked increase in trading volumes during Wall Street trade, providing a very short-term confirmation signal that substance exists behind the market’s latest foray higher. Intra-day breadth was also solid, with 76 per cent of stocks, and 10-out-of-11 sectors, gaining for the session. This adds to the already bullish breadth signals in other, deeper measures of market internals. For one: the NYSE advanced-decline measure has remained, and again turned positively, to the upside, reveal solid momentum in the market.

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Fear-falling; but anxiety remains: Thus, with 2900 broken on the S&P500, barring any external shocks, the rest of the earnings season on Wall Street will probably end-up a day-to-day countdown to a new record-high for the S&P500. With all the excitement that captured market-participants on Friday, the VIX has plunged to new year-to-date lows. While the drop in the “fear-index” can easily be explained away, it probably doesn’t reflect the true-trepidation in the market at-the-moment. The rationale for very subdued implied volatility is very comprehensible. Nevertheless, memories are crystal-clear of what happened the last couple of times the S&P500 traded this high with volatility so-low.

The bears are still hungry: Vol-canos, vol-pocalypses: they were two of the portmanteau floating around after big-spikes in the VIX last year following short periods of suppressed implied volatility. Hence, although US stocks sit nominally less than 40-points from new records, historical memory, mixed with market-fundamentals that are less favourable to those that supported previous record highs, has this latest record-run viewed through jaded-eyes. Despite constantly being proven wrong, the necessary pull-back in US stocks during Wall Street’s big V-shaped recovery still ought to be upon us, according to bears. Market participants’ complacency, as betrayed by the VIX, will only contribute to another correction and volatility break-out in time.

The missing agitator: It’s true that the S&P500 is edging towards overbought levels when looking at a medium-term time frame. However, although the global economy is lacking the fecundity present in previous record-breaking rallies, a few ingredients that were present in recent sell-offs are missing. First of all, price-to-earnings ratios aren’t as stretched as they were in October and February last year. But more importantly, the key impetus for those two sell-offs will probably remain absent this time around: discount rates, although edging higher on Friday, are unlikely to rain-on-the-parade, with the US Federal Reserve all-but locked into keeping interest rates on hold.

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The ASX’s loose relationship: So: with this in mind, entering the week, and a period of high-impact corporate data, risk-assets sit cautiously on the precipice. The gravitational centre of financial markets is Wall Street, and consequently, its internal dynamics will be a large determinant of how markets trade this week – and for a little while yet. Of course, its influence will be of varying significance depending on the market in question. For one, the ASX200 is an index that has recently moved in relation to the S&P500 like Pluto does to the Sun. Today, even despite Wall Street’s bullishness, SPI Futures point to a flat start for the ASX.

Written by Kyle Rodda - IG Australia

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