Greek bailout edges closer

A semblance of calm appears to have returned into the weekend following a fit of nervousness about all things Greece.  For currency markets this means that the EUR has recovered some composure after hitting 2010 lows around 1.3115 but direction next week will largely depend on the much anticipated announcement from European officials over coming days on the size and conditionality of a loan package to the country.   In return Greece is reported to be planning a EUR 24 billion package of additional measures to cut its burgeoning fiscal deficit.

Over recent days the consensus on how much funding Greece will need has increased to EUR 120 billion from the initial EUR 45 billion announced just over a couple of weeks ago.   Presumably the jump in size of assistance will be sufficient to convince markets that Greece’s default risk will be minimal, not just in the coming year but over the next few years.   It may also help to prevent further credit ratings downgrades following the decision by S&P ratings agency to downgrade Greece to junk status.  Moody’s left Greece on review for a downgrade but may also cut its ratings to junk if the situation does not improve. 

There are still many obstacles to an improvement in confidence towards Greece, however including the willingness of Germany to contribute to any aid package ahead of regional elections on May 9th and the ability of the Greek government to push through austerity measures in the face of growing social unrest in the country.   Moreover, the task ahead for Greece which aims at cutting the budget deficit down to 2% by 2013 is enormous having never been achieved in modern history.  Given the outlook for much weaker growth in the months and years ahead as well as growing domestic resistance in Greece, it will be all the more difficult. 

The likely announcement of an aid package over coming days will keep market sentiment relatively well supported and as reflected in the narrowing in Greek debt spreads, which seem to be trading more like equities, it is already having a positive impact.  Nonetheless, the bounce to markets will be limited and whilst a EUR 100-120 billion package will help to shore up confidence, there is just too much uncertainty remaining.  This points to continued volatility in the weeks ahead and very limited upside for EUR/USD and more likely a test of technical support around 1.3091 in the short-term then down to 1.2885.

Some Respite For The Euro

Following several days in which confidence in Greece’s ability to weather the storm was deteriorating, news that Greece asked for EU/IMF help helped to boost global markets and the EUR.  Meanwhile strengthening economic and earnings news helped to provide an undercurrent of support for markets, which boosted the end week rally in risk appetite.  

A 27% jump in US new home sales in March, a firm durable goods orders report as well better than expected earnings, with around 80% of companies reporting first quarter earnings beating expectations, highlight that US economic recovery is becoming increasingly well entrenched.  This is likely to be confirmed by the release of US Q1 GDP this week, set to register over 3% annualised quarterly growth.  

In Europe the picture is far more divergent, with exporting countries such as Germany doing well as evidenced from surveys such as the IFO and ZEW surveys, but in contrast the club med countries are not doing so well.  The highlights of the data calendar this week are April confidence indicators and the flash reading of Eurozone CPI.  Confidence indicators are likely to reveal some improvement, but despite Friday’s EUR/USD bounce, the data will be insufficient to prevent EUR/USD continue to move lower, with 1.3150 still a firm target over coming weeks.  

The official request for aid from Greece from the EU/IMF begins a new chapter in the long running saga for the country.  Greece will officially detail the amount of aid needed in a letter to the European Commission and European Central Bank who will then decide whether to approve it.  

A few dates to note are the maturing of EUR 8.5 billion in bonds on May 19, the completion of discussion with the IMF, EU and ECB on May 6 and state elections in Germany on May 9, which could throw a spanner in any financial support from Germany for Greece.   Meanwhile Greek unions are threatening further strikes to protest against austerity measures that Greece needs to carry out to win any aid package.   

Aside from Greece, attention will continue to be focussed on earnings but the main event of the week will be the Fed FOMC meeting on 27/28 April. Whilst a no change outcome is highly likely, with interest rates set to be left at between 0-0.25%, there will be plenty of attention on whether the Fed removes the comment that policy rates will remain low for an “extended period”. If the comment is removed the statement will be taken in somewhat of a hawkish context, which would boost the USD.

Greek debt blows out, EUR takes a hit

In light of the continued blow out in Greek bond yields, CDS and spreads versus German bonds, here is a chart of what it means for the EUR.   Unfortunately it’s not good news as it implies that EUR/USD should be trading closer to 1.20.   

The Eurostat report that Greece’s public sector deficit to GFP in 2009 was bigger than initially thought (13.6% compared to the original Greek government estimate of 12.7%) has done further damage.  Moody’s ratings downgrade of Greece to A3 dealt a further blow.  

This means that any attempt to reduce the deficit is now more difficult whilst the probability of a debt restructuring is growing , with rumours speculating that the haircut on Greek debt could be as much as 50%. 

Ouch.

For A Few Dollars More…

…or should I say a few EUR more.   This is what the Greek authorities must be wondering.  Once again Greek worries weighed on equities and risk appetite as a whole.  Although the saga is turning into one big yawn, markets have not had their fill with the bad news coming from this small eurozone economy.  Talks between Greek officials, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union (EU) began yesterday but are expected to go on for several days or weeks until a joint text is issued on May 15, just days ahead of a EUR 8.5 billion bond redemption by Greece. 

The talks have done nothing to prevent Greece’s bond yields moving higher, with the yield on 10-year bonds pushing well over 8% whilst the spread with Germany debt also blew out to over 500bps.  The main fear in the market is that Greece will ultimately end up restructuring its debt.  Moreover, contagion fears have dealt a blow to southern European sovereign CDS especially Portugal.  It wasn’t plain sailing for German bonds either, with yesterday’s auction of EUR 3 billion of 30-year Bunds failing to sell the full amount. 

Another casualty of ongoing Greece concerns is the EUR, with the currency under performing other majors and still on its path towards EUR/USD 1.3300 in the near term and onto 1.3150 after.   EUR also looks vulnerable on the crosses and EUR/GBP in particular is one to watch, with the 28 January low around 0.86029 likely to be targeted over the near term.  UK employment data gave some relief to GBP yesterday, with further direction coming from retail sales data today and the next televised leaders’ debate.  

At some point the market will become fatigued with consensus beating earnings and the positive impact on equities will become less marked.  This point is approaching but we’re not quite there yet.  Apple, Morgan Stanley and Boeing did not disappoint, with earnings easily beating forecasts.  Boeing’s earnings in particular helped industrials to be the best performing sector on the S&P 500 although the overall index closed marginally lower.

Earnings today include Amazon.com, American Express, Credit Suisse, Microsoft, Nokia, and PepsiCo.  It is becoming plainly obvious that market expectations for earnings are too pessimistic but as noted above the positive market impact of good earnings is likely to wane. 

On the data front, highlights include March existing home sales, jobless claims and Producer Price Index (PPI).   There will be less focus on PPI given that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the month has already been released whilst claims are likely to resume a path lower following the jump over the past couple of weeks.   Existing home sales are likely to post an impressive gain as indicated by firm pending home sales data.   

Overall, it appears that risk appetite is creeping back into the market psyche but the ongoing battle between positive earnings/data versus European/Greek woes suggests that there will be no clear direction for markets.  Improving risk appetite will ultimately win but current conditions will leave currencies trading within well worn ranges, with the exception of the underperforming EUR. In contrast the USD index is likely to remain supported, taking solace from positive data releases.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

GOOD: Positive earnings. The biggest earnings news of the day was from Goldman Sachs reporting that profits almost doubled in Q1. Apple also beat estimates and its shares surged. 82% of US earnings have beaten expectation so far. There is still a long way to go in the earnings season but the growth/earnings story is helping to maintain the positive bias to risk trades. There will be plenty of attention on earnings, including AT&T, eBay, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks, Boeing and Wells Fargo.

Data releases remain upbeat, with the April German ZEW investor confidence survey beating consensus, whilst central banks delivered hawkish messages across the board including the Reserve Bank of Australia policy meeting minutes, which pointed to another interest rate hike in May. However, the biggest impact came from the Bank of Canada which unsurprisingly left rates at 0.25%, but removed the conditional commitment to keep policy on hold until the end of Q2, leaving a rate hike on June 1 very likely.

The CAD jumped on the back of the outcome, with USD/CAD dropping below parity. I continue to like CAD alongside the AUD and NZD and believe they will be the star performers over the coming months despite lofty valuations.    Near term targets for CAD, AUD and NZD vs USD are 0.9953, 0.9407, and 0.7195, respectively. 

BAD: Talks between Greek officials and the IMF, ECB and EU on the conditions for a EUR 45 billion bailout loan will also be of interest although completion of talks could take weeks and in the meantime the situation is unlikely to improve, with Greece needing around EUR 10 billion to cover obligations by end May. Greek bond yields jumped to fresh record highs around 7.84% yesterday whilst the spread over German bunds also widened. Moreover, although Greece’s sale of EUR 1.95 billion in 13-week paper yesterday was heavily oversubscribed the, the yield was high at 3.65% which was far higher than the 1.67% yield at a similar sale in January.

In contrast to the likes of the CAD, AUD and NZD, the EUR is set to continue to suffer and as reflected in the widening in Greek bond spreads and high funding costs, Greek woes will keep plenty of pressure on the currency, with EUR/USD set to fall to support around 1.3300 in the short-term.

UGLY: UK regulator FSA will conduct a formal investigation of Goldman Sachs. The FSA will work closely with the US Securities and Exchange Commission SEC, which has accused the bank of Fraud though this has vehemently denied by Goldman Sachs. Although the negative market impact of the fraud case has been outweighed by good earnings and data the fallout is spreading. Some European politicians have even called for governments to stop working with the bank.

Shaking Off The Bad News

Markets managed to shake off the initial shock of the SEC’s fraud case against Goldman Sachs following news that the charge was not approved unanimously, but with a 3-2 vote. This was interpreted by some to imply that there was more of a political rather than economic bias behind the charge, with two Democrats voting for and two Republicans voting against and SEC Chairman Schapiro siding with the Democrats.

Stronger than forecast earnings from Citigroup and a bigger than expected 1.4% jump in US March leading indicators also helped to calm market nerves, with US equities closing higher and the VIX volatility index reversing some of its spike higher. Attention is still firmly fixed on earnings and with 121 S&P 500 companies due to release earnings this week including Apple, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson and Yahoo today.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to see sentiment improve too much against the background of ongoing worries about Greece as reflected in the renewed widening in Greek debt spreads yesterday. Moreover, the negative economic impact of the spread of volcanic ash from Iceland, and potential for more lawsuits related to CDOs from regulators as well as investors, against banks, will continue to act as a drag on market risk appetite.

Earnings have been positive so far into the season and as seen overnight, this is helping to counter market negatives, giving risk appetite some support. In turn, this will give risk currencies some relief but given the gyrations between positive and negative news it is difficult to see most currencies breaking out of recent ranges.

My overall bias is for positive earnings and data to overcome the negatives this week, leaving the likes of the AUD, NZD and CAD as well Asian currencies firmer. The EUR and GBP are likely to remain the weakest links, with both currencies set to retrace lower and EUR/USD finding plenty of sellers above 1.3500.

What To Watch This Week

Well so much for a “risk on” week. Market sentiment soured at the end of last week following The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) civil action against Goldman Sachs, in which they accused the bank of fraud. The impact reverberated across markets and risk trades were pulled back as a consequence. Bulls shouldn’t be too downhearted though as the drop in risk trades followed several days of gains and part of the pullback could be attributed to profit taking.

Speculation of similar probes in Europe by financial regulators will cast a shadow over markets early this week. Nonetheless, direction will at least in part come from earnings. So far the run of earnings looks upbeat, with around 83% of the 48 S&P 500 companies reporting, beating analysts’ estimates. Overall profits are forecast to increase by around 30% from a year ago but are on track to easily beat this estimate. Bellwether names including IBM, Apple, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Microsoft, and AT&T report this week.

The meeting between Greek officials, ECB, IMF and EU has been delayed until Wednesday. There is little likelihood of Greece seeing any loan money soon as the need for parliamentary approval in some EU countries and upcoming regional elections in Germany on 9 May will put a spanner in the works. An issue of EUR 1.5bn of 3-month Greek debt tomorrow will act another test of market confidence but the recent widening in Greek debt spreads suggests a less positive reception than the previous sale.

There are also a few central bank meetings to contend with this week including Canada, Sweden, India, Philippines and Thailand. The only Bank likely to hike interest rates out of this bunch is the RBI in India with another hike expected, following closely on the heels of the March move. Canada and Sweden are unlikely to shift policy until at last after the end of Q2 whilst protests in Bangkok, Thailand, and the knock on impact on consumer confidence, have effectively sealed the case for no rate move there.

On the data front, attention will turn to US housing market activity. Markets will be able to gauge further clues to whether recovery in the housing market has stalled. An increase in both existing (Thu) and new home sales (Fri) in March is expected, which may allay some concerns although any improvement is likely to continue to fragile against the background of tight credit and high foreclosure levels.

In Europe, aside from the ongoing Greek sage, sentiment surveys will garner most attention, with the release of the German ZEW (Tue) and IFO (Fri) surveys as well as manufacturing and service sector purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across Europe. On the whole the surveys are likely to reveal some improvement as confidence.

Risk aversion will be slightly elevated at the beginning of this week but strong earnings and improving data will help to prevent too much damage. Consequently Risk currencies will start the week under pressure but any pullback will be limited. Given that speculative positioning in risk currencies such as the AUD, NZD and CAD is well above their three-month average according to the latest Commitment of Traders’ IMM data there will be some scope for profit taking. EUR speculative sentiment has seen some improvement but EUR/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back to technical support around 1.3302 this week.

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