Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Traders brace for volatility with US debt deal still elusive

Traders brace for volatility with US debt deal still elusive
From left: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, US President Joe Biden, and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walk to a flower wreath laying ceremony at the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims in the Peace Memorial Park as part of the G7 Hiroshima Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, 19 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/FRANCK ROBICHON / POOL)

Investors are girding for spikes in currency volatility and losses in equities as the US struggles to clinch a debt-limit deal.

The dollar edged lower against most major peers in Asia trading on Monday as traders evaluated the latest developments. President Joe Biden said a call with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy “went well”, and the two are set to meet on Monday afternoon. 

The debt-ceiling debate has become an unwelcome sideshow for investors already dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the Federal Reserve’s next policy decision in June. Strategists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley have warned that an impasse threatens the outlook for equity markets, while traders have also piled into swaps and options for major currencies to hedge their portfolios. 

“Despite encouraging headlines, history suggests lawmakers will take things down to the wire, which will add to market volatility,” said Carol Kong, strategist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney. “If, and once, an agreement is reached, focus will quickly shift back to economic data and the FOMC, which I think will lead to further modest dollar gains.”

European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde appealed to US politicians to resolve the standoff in a TV interview aired Sunday. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the US is unlikely to reach mid-June and still be able to pay its bills.

The back-and-forth between legislators has Wall Street preparing for the worst, with executives in trading, corporate and consumer banking in the nation’s three biggest lenders trying to predict how the government’s failure to pay bills would cascade through markets. Some are looking back to 2011, when a similar episode led to massive price swings across asset classes.

Still, investors may be underprepared. Some 71% of respondents to a recent Bank of America survey expect a resolution before the so-called X-date, the point at which the government exhausts options to fund itself, though without necessarily entering a default.

The S&P 500 Index rose last week on hopes that a resolution is close. A gauge of the dollar’s strength touched a two-month high, boosted by haven demand and stronger expectations for Fed hikes.

Yen, stocks bets

In addition to US assets, the yen, commodity currencies and emerging-market equities that are sensitive to swings in risk sentiment are also under close scrutiny. The yen was little changed versus the dollar in early Asian trading while commodity currencies were quoted mixed against the greenback.

Goldman Sachs Group says the looming US debt ceiling is a “plausible catalyst” for hits to economic growth and stock markets. 

“The EM template is fairly straightforward: large export markets, such as Korea, Mexico, and Taiwan, tend to underperform the most,” strategists including Caesar Maasry wrote in a note. DM

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