PIIGS fears fuelling risk aversion

Risk aversion has come back with a vengeance over the last 10 days driven by a host of concerns that continue to damage market sentiment. As has been evident over the past year the USD and JPY remain the best currency plays against the background of rising risk aversion and both currencies look well supported.

Market concerns are not going away quickly but some of the fears plaguing markets have at least receded especially on the US political front, with Obama’s State of the Union address, Geithner’s testimony on AIG and Bernanke’s reappointment all passing without too much incident, at least from a market perspective. I still believe that market fears are overblown but it is clearly evident that the market is not in the mood to concur. More pain is likely in the weeks ahead.

Euro-sovereign spreads continue to suffer from the ongoing Greek saga whilst the other major fear remains further monetary tightening in China. Rumours that China is about to imminently revalue the CNY are also running rife. The bigger than expected hike in the reserve ratio in India reflects the fact that Asia is on a faster track to tighten policy than Western economies.

As regular readers probably noticed, my articles on econometer.org have been sporadic recently. This is due to the fact that I have been on the road for the last two weeks giving client seminars across several countries in Asia. Without giving too much away it is evident that pessimism is pervasive and most investors I polled are looking for a “W” or “double dip” profile for economic growth in the G7 economies over coming months. Hardly anyone looked for a “V”.

The other casualty emanating from Greece’s woes, as well as worries that other European PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) face ratings downgrades, is the EUR. EUR/USD slipped below the psychologically important level of 1.40 this week and is showing no sign of turning around. Warnings by S&P ratings that Portugal faces challenges on the fiscal front show that these sovereign concerns will be with us for a long while yet.

After letting investors believe that the European Commission would offer no support for Greece, there appears to be a growing realization that Greece is not simply a local problem but a Euro wide problem, as noted by European Commission President Barroso. Whilst this may be good for Greek debt the path to recovery is still likely to be a massively painful one, and the EUR may gain little support from this news.

The UK has not escaped the clutches of ratings agencies and warnings by S&P that UK banks are no longer among the “most stable and low-risk” in the world highlights the headwinds faced by GBP at present. The weaker than expected out-turn for Q4 GDP (0.1%) highlights the fact that UK economic recovery is fragile, which in turn plays negatively for the banking sector. This news has put a break on GBP but there appears to be plenty of demand for GBP above 1.600 vs USD.

Optimism dissipates

Markets have been highly fickle so far this year. Optimism about strong recovery led by China – recall the fact that disappointment from the surprisingly weak US non-farm payrolls report in December was outweighed by strong Chinese trade data – has dissipated. Instead of rejoicing at China’s robust GDP report last week, which revealed a 10.7% rise in the fourth quarter of 2009, investors began to fret about whether China would have to move more aggressively to tighten monetary policy. Fuelling these fears was the release of Consumer price data which showed inflation rising above expectations to 1.9% YoY in China.

If such fears were not sufficient to hit risk appetite, US President Obama’s plan to limit the size and trading activities of financial institutions dealt another blow to financial stocks. The plan followed quickly after the Democrats lost the state of Massachusetts to the Republicans and managed to shake confidence in bank stocks whilst fuelling increased risk aversion. Meanwhile, rumblings about Greece continue to weigh on markets and Greek debt spreads continued to widen even as global bond markets rallied.

Following the US administration’s plans to restrict banks’ activities the fact that the rise in risk aversion was US led rather than broad based led to an eventual pull back in the dollar which helped EUR/USD to avoid a break below 1.40. Risk trades including the AUD came under pressure as risk appetite pulled back. A drop in commodity prices did not help. The AUD was also hit by news that Australia’s Henry Tax Review would look to tax miners in the country. As a result AUD/USD dropped below 0.90 though this level is likely to provide good buying levels for those wanted to take medium term AUD long positions. The one currency that did benefit was the JPY which managed to drop below sub 90 levels.

The aftermath of the “Volker Plan” will reverberate around markets this week keeping a lid on equity sentiment. Meanwhile Greece will be in the spotlight especially its bond syndication. A bad outcome could be the trigger for EUR/USD to sustain a move below 1.40 though it looks as though it may find a bottom around current levels, with strong support seen around 1.4029. The German IFO business survey for January will be important to provide some direction for EUR and could be a factor that weighs on the currency if as expected it reveals some loss of momentum in the economy.

Aside from the Fed the other G3 central bank to meet this week is the Bank of Japan but unless the Bank is seen to be serious about fighting deflation, USD/JPY may remain under downward pressure against the background of elevated risk aversion. Below 90.0 there does appear to be plenty of USD/JPY buyers however, suggesting that further upside for the JPY will be limited. USD/JPY will find strong support around 88.84.

Much will depend on the key events in the US this week including the Fed FOMC meeting and the President’s State of the Union speech. USD bulls will look for some indication that the US government is serious about cutting the burgeoning budget deficit. Also watch out for the confirmation vote on the renomination of Bernanke as Fed Chairman which could end up being close. There is a heavy slate of data to contend with including new and existing home sales, consumer confidence, durable goods orders, the first glance at Q4 GDP and Chicago PMI.

EUR under pressure

The EUR continues to struggle both due to the direct and indirect impact of Greece’s fiscal problems. The indirect impact was felt when the EUR dropped sharply following the release of the below consensus German ZEW survey, which dropped to 47.2 in January compared to consensus expectations of 50.0 and a reading of 50.4 in December. Investor sentiment as measured by the ZEW was dented by growing concerns about Greece outweighing any positive bias.

In terms of the direct impact on the EUR, concerns about the seriousness and/or ability of Greece to solve its problems are also weighing on the currency. The Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers this week inspired little confidence about the fate of the country. Officials noted that Greece would not receive help from its neighbours but said its problems are a concern for all of the eurozone. Officials urged Greece to take the necessary steps to reduce its burgeoning budget. In particular, officials called on Greece to detail “concrete” measures to achieve planned reforms.

The strength of the EUR was also discussed at the Ecofin meeting, with the EU’s Juncker stating that it should better represent European interests. The EUR is clearly overvalued and will act as yet another constraint to eurozone recovery so such concerns should be taken at face value but there is little that will likely be done about it. Intervention is certainly not much of a prospect at current levels. Greece’s problems may give some comfort on this front as it will likely keep the EUR under pressure but this benefit is small compared to the bigger cost that problems in Greece could have on the eurozone.

EUR/USD looks especially vulnerable below its 200-day moving average around 1.4298, the first time it has traded below the 200 day moving average since May 2009. Concerns about Greece will not go away quickly and will likely put further pressure on EUR/USD. EUR/USD 1.4250 will be an important level to watch and if a drop below this level is sustained on a closing basis a quick move towards 1.40 will beckon.

Going forward downside risks to the EUR may be limited by the general improvement in risk appetite as markets appear to be shaking off earnings disappointments, which in turn could put the USD under renewed pressure but for now the EUR will find it difficult to shake off the negativity surrounding the problems in Greece.

Q4 earnings and Chinese data

Since the start of the year the market has gyrated from “risk on” to “risk off” and back again. On balance the overall tone has been just about positive, with firmer economic data, most notably in China outweighing sovereign debt concerns in Greece and elsewhere. Although debt concerns are unlikely to dissipate quickly, especially given Greece’s inability to convince markets of its plans to cut its burgeoning budget deficit, the “risk on” tone is likely to win.

“Risk off” may be the tone at the start of the week however, as US equities ended the week on a negative note ahead of the Martin Luther King holidays. The holidays will likely keep trading slow. Data wise the main US events housing starts on Wednesday and the Philly Fed on Thursday. Q4 US earnings are likely to take a bigger share of market attention as the earnings season rolls on. Bank earnings will be a key focus, with Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, BoA, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs set to report this week.

Given the growing influence of Chinese data on markets the monthly data pack from China will capture more attention than usual on Thursday. In particular, GDP and inflation data will be of most interest. GDP data is likely to reveal an acceleration in growth in Q4 YoY to above 10% but given worries about over heating and following last week’s tightening in China’s monetary policy CPI data will be closely scrutinized. Inflation is likely to pick up further maintaining the pressure for further monetary tightening as well as a stronger CNY.

Elsewhere, in the eurozone the main event is the German ZEW survey tomorrow, which is likely to show further signs of flagging, due to Greek concerns. There is also an interest rate decision to contend with; the Bank of Canada is unlikely to surprise markets as it keeps policy unchanged tomorrow. The UK has a relatively heavier data slate, with CPI tomorrow, Bank of England minutes on Wednesday and retail sales at the end of the week.

The UK data kicked off on a positive note this week, with house prices rising 0.4% MoM in January and 4.1% YoY according to UK property website Rightmove, the biggest annual gain in over a year. Moreover, activity on Rightmove’s website reached a record high in the first full week of the year. The data as well as expectations that Kraft will raise its bid for Cadbury will likely help GBP in addition to other GBP positive M&A news. GBP/USD will look to test resistance around 1.6365 this week.

After a slightly firmer start helped by the weak close to US equity markets on Friday the USD is likely to generally trade on the back foot over the week. Speculative sentiment for the USD has definitely soured into the new-year as reflected in the CFTC IMM data which revealed a big jump in net short positions in the week ending 12 January 2010. Net aggregate USD positions shifted from +1.6k to -51.9k over the week, with the main beneficiaries being the EUR, and risk trades including AUD, NZD and CAD.

Not quite a Greek tragedy, but close

Not quite a Greek tragedy but getting there. Greece’s announcement of a three-year plan to reduce its burgeoning fiscal deficit has not convinced markets. Greece’s 5-year CDS widened out to around 333bps whilst 10-year sovereign spreads widened further. There has been some contagion in other European countries notably Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Poland etc.

The plan which aims to cut the budget deficit from 12.7% to 2.8% of GDP by the end of 2012 appears to be very optimistic if not unrealistic. One of the main problems is not related to the magnitude of deficit reduction but to the starting point of 12.7% of GDP which is more realistically around 14-15% of GDP.

The deficit is planned to be cut by 4% this year alone which seems tough given the likelihood that the economy will contract this year and thereby increase the cyclical portion of the deficit. However, the major concern is the ability of the Greek authorities to cut nominal wages and pensions and in areas where inefficiency and corruption are widespread, such hospital and defense spending.

Greece needs to convince the European Commission and if the negative reaction by markets is anything to go by it may need further revisions including more drastic spending cuts as well as concrete plans for structural reforms. Greece will also find it difficult to ignore the skeptical market reaction given that the country aims to raise around EUR 54 billion to fund its public debt.

Greek concerns and similar countries elsewhere in Europe will likely act as a major weight on the EUR in the days ahead. Interestingly GBP seems to be a beneficiary. The situation does not appear to have a happy ending in sight and more pain looks likely. Rumours/talk of a Eurozone break-up are likely to intensify, however unrealistic such an event may be. ECB President Trichet dampened speculation in his speech following the ECB meeting that Greece could exit the euro but also confirmed that there would be no special treatment for Greece.

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