What Stress?

Fed Chairman Bernanke has inadvertently fuelled an increase in risk aversion in the wake of his testimony to the Senate. Although Bernanke noted that he did not see the prospects of a double-dip as a high probability event he stated that the economic outlook is “unusually uncertain”. Nonetheless, although such measures would be implemented if the situation deteriorated further, the Fed was not planning on extending its non-traditional policy options in the near term.
USD benefits as Bernanke does not indicate more quantitative easing.

A combination of caution about growth prospects and disappointment that Bernanke stopped short of indicating that the Fed would embark on further non-conventional policy measures left equities weaker, but the USD was stronger, both due to higher risk aversion as well as less risk of the Fed turning the USD printing press back on again. Bernanke is back at Congress today, with a speech to the House Panel. Although this is effectively a repeat of yesterday’s testimony, the Q&A session may throw up additional clues to Fed thinking and potential for extending quantitative easing but I suspect the USD will retain its firmer tone.

In Europe, most attention remains on the upcoming release of EU bank stress test results. Leaks suggest most banks will likely pass the EU bank stress tests, with the notable exceptions of a few Spanish Cajas and German Landesbanks. Already governments in Germany, France, Greece and Belgium have said their banks are likely to pass. We should all be bracing ourselves for relief to flow through European financial markets, but somehow this does not feel like an environment that will welcome such a result. More likely questions will be asked about why did so few banks fail and why the tests were not rigorous enough?

For example, the test for “sovereign shock” is said to affect only the value of government bonds that banks mark to market, but what about the far larger proportion of government debt that is held in banking books? There are also question marks over the capital hurdle, with the most adverse scenario that banks need to reach a maximum Tier 1 capital ratio of at least 6% by end 2011. Moreover, there have also been reported divisions within European Union (EU) members about how much information to divulge. EUR has also ready lost ground over recent days but the currency could face much more selling pressure into next week if the tests are found to lack credibility.

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Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

EUR strength is overdone

The latest in a long line of disappointing US data was released on Friday. University of Michigan consumer confidence sent an alarming signal about the propensity of the US consumer to contribute to economic recovery. Confidence dropped much more than expected, to its lowest level since August 2009, fuelling yet more angst about a double-dip in growth.

The Fed’s relatively dovish FOMC minutes last week contributed to the malaise and undermined the USD in the process as attention switched from the timing of exit strategies to whether the Fed will expand quantitative easing. Friday’s benign June CPI report left no doubt that the Fed has plenty of room on its hands, with core inflation remaining below 1% and likely to decelerate further over the coming months. Against this background Fed Chairman Bernanke’s semi-annual testimony to the US Congress (Wed/Thu) will be a particular focus, especially if he hints at potential for further QE, a possibility that appears remote, but could harm the USD.

Arguably the biggest event of the week is the European bank stress test results on Friday. Although several European governments have suggested that the banks in their countries will pass the tests there is still a considerable event risk surrounding the announcement. 91 banks are being tested and much will depend on how rigorous the tests are perceived to be. Should they be seen not to be sufficiently thorough, for instance in determining a realistic haircut on sovereign debt holdings, the potential for pressure on the EUR to increase once again will be high. Similarly debt auctions across Europe this week will also garner interest but similar success to last week’s Spanish auction cannot be guaranteed.

The big question in FX markets is whether the EUR can hold onto its recent gains and whether the USD will be punished further amidst growing double-dip worries. Interestingly the USD’s reaction on Friday to the soft consumer confidence data was not as negative as has been the case recently, with higher risk aversion once again outweighing negative cyclical influences. Various risk currencies actually came under pressure against the USD and this is likely to extend into this week. Despite a threat to the USD from any QE hints by Bernanke, speculative positioning has turned net short USD once again suggesting potential for less USD selling.

The bigger risk this week is to the EUR, which could face pressure on any disappointment from the bank stress test results. The EUR was strong against most major currencies last week, suggesting that the strengthening in EUR/USD is less to do with USD weakness, but more related to EUR strength. This strength in the EUR is hard to tally with the worsening economic outlook in the eurozone and the fact that a stronger EUR from an already overvalued level will crimp eurozone growth further. The latest CFTC IMM data has revealed a further covering of short positions, but this is likely to be close to running its course. Technically EUR/USD has broken above its ‘thick’ Ichimoku cloud, and the weekly MACD is turning above its signal line from oversold levels suggesting a period of further strength but its gains are set to be short-lived.

Unloved US Dollar

The USD index is now at its lowest level since May 3 and is showing little sign of turning around. The bulk of USD index weakness overnight came via the EUR and GBP, both of which rose sharply against the USD, with EUR/USD breaching its 90 day moving, hitting a high of 1.2955 and GBP/USD on its way to testing its 200 day moving average, reaching a high of 1.5472. Commodity currencies fared far less positively, perhaps feeling the after effects of the weaker Chinese data this week, with the NZD also dented by weaker than expected inflation data in Q2.

The USD was once again hit by US growth worries. To recap, the US data slate revealed a soft reading for PPI, whilst the July Empire manufacturing index dropped 14.5 points, a far bigger drop than forecast. The Philly Fed index also dropped further in July despite expectations of a small gain. In contrast, June industrial production edged higher, but manufacturing output actually fell. There was a bit of good news in the fact that weekly jobless claims fell more than forecast.

The releases extended the run of weak US data, keeping double-dip fears very much alive. The data have acted to validate the Fed’s cautious growth outlook expressed in the latest FOMC minutes but a double-dip is unlikely. Today’s releases include June CPI, May TIC securities flows, and July Michigan confidence. Another benign inflation report is expected. Consumer confidence is set to slip further against the background of soft data and volatility in equity markets whilst TICS data is forecast to reveal that long term securities flows declined in May compared to the $83 billion inflows registered in April.

The move in the EUR is a making a mockery out of forecasts including my own that had expected renewed downside. The relatively successful Spanish bond auction yesterday helped to ease eurozone sovereign debt concerns further, with a likely strong element of Asian participation. I have still not given up on my EUR negative view given the likelihood of a deteriorating economic outlook in the eurozone and outperfomance of the US economy, but over the short-term the EUR short squeeze may have further to go, with EUR/USD resistance seen at 1.3077.

Equity markets were saved from too much of a beating following the release of better than expected earnings from JP Morgan, a $550mn agreement between Goldman Sachs and the SEC to settle a regulatory case, and news from BP that it has temporarily stemmed the flow of oil from the leak from its Gulf well. Agreement on the US financial reform bill, passed by the Senate yesterday and likely to be signed into law by US President Obama next week, likely helped too.

The tone of the market is likely to be mixed today, with US growth concerns casting a shadow on risk trades. Earnings remain in focus and the big name releases today include BoA, GE and Citigroup but early direction could be negative following news after the US close that Google Inc. profits came in below analysts’ expectations. Data in the US today is unlikely to help sentiment given expectations of more weak outcomes, leaving the USD vulnerable to further selling pressure.

Follow The Oracle

Many investors are probably wishing they had the psychic abilities of Paul the octopus. The mollusc once again gave the correct prediction, by picking Spain to beat the Netherlands to become the winner of the World Cup. This ability would have been particularly useful for currency forecasters, many of which have been wrong footed by the move higher in EUR/USD over recent weeks.

Confidence appeared to return to markets over the past week helped by a string of rate hikes in Asia from India, South Korea and Malaysia, and firm data including yet another consensus beating jobs report in Australia. An upward revision to global growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also helped, with the net result being an easing in double-dip growth concerns.

The good news culminated in a much stronger than forecast June trade surplus in China. However, China’s trade numbers will likely keep the pressure on for further CNY appreciation, and notably US Senators are still pushing ahead with legislation on China’s FX policy despite the US Treasury decision not to name China as a currency manipulator.

Political uncertainty on the rise again in Japan following the loss of control of the upper house of parliament by the ruling DPJ party. The JPY has taken a softer tone following the election and will likely remain under pressure. CFTC IMM speculative JPY positioning has increased but this has been met with significant selling interest by Japanese margin accounts who hold their biggest net long USD/JPY position since October 2009 according to Tokyo Financial Exchange (TFX) data.

In the absence of the prodigious abilities of an “oracle octopus” data and events this week will continue to show slowing momentum in G3 country growth indicators but not enough to warrant renewed double-dip concerns. Direction will be largely driven by US Q2 earnings. S&P 500 company earnings are expected to have increased 27% from a year ago according to Thomson Reuters.

There are several data releases of interest in the US this week but the main release is the retail sales report for June which is likely to record another drop over the month. Data and events in Europe include the Eurogroup finance ministers meeting, with markets looking for further insight into bank stress tests across the region. Early indications are positive but the scope of the tests remains the main concern. The July German ZEW survey will garner some interest and is likely to show a further slight decline in economic sentiment.

EUR/USD gains looked increasingly stretched towards the end of last week, as it slipped back from a high of around 1.2722. Technical resistance around 1.2740 will prove to be tough level to crack over coming days, with a pullback to support around 1.2479 more likely. CFTC IMM data reveals that short covering in EUR has been particularly sharp in the last week, with net short positions cut by over half, highlighting that the scope for further short covering is becoming more limited.

Conversely aggregate net USD long positions have fallen by over half in the last week as USD sentiment has soured, with longs at close to a three-month low. The scope for a further reduction in USD positioning is less significant, suggesting that selling pressure may abate.

Q2 Economic Review: Double-Dip Recession or Prolonged Recovery?

I was recently interviewed by Sital Ruparelia for his website dedicated to “Career & Talent Management Solutions“, on my views on my view on the Q2 Economic Review: Double-Dip Recession or Prolonged Recovery?

Sital is a regular guest on BBC Radio offering career advice and job search tips to listeners. Being a regular contributor and specialist for several leading on line resources including eFinancial Careers and Career Hub (voted number 1 blog by ‘HR World’), Sital’s career advice has also been featured in BusinessWeek online.

Please see below to read my article

Since we last discussed the economic outlook at the end of quarter 1, much has happened and unfortunately there has not been a great deal of positive news. I retained a cautiously optimistic outlook for economic recovery for the Q1 Economic Review: elections, recovery and underemployment discussion article, but highlighted that recovery would be a long and drawn-out process, with western economies underperforming Asian economies.

The obstacles to recovery discussed then continue to apply now, including consumers paying down debt, high unemployment, tight credit conditions and weak confidence.

Click here to read the rest…

ECB, BoE and RBA in the spotlight

Double-dip fears are the pervading influence on market psychology at present even as European sovereign concerns appear to be easing. Friday’s release of the June US jobs report did little to alleviate such concerns but the headline payrolls number was less negative than the indications provided by other jobs data.

Growth fears have in particular been centred on the US in the wake of a run of disappointing data, These new found concerns have somewhat tarnished the USD’s ability to benefit from safe haven buying as risk aversion increases, as reflected in the 4.5% drop in the USD index since its high on 7th June. The prospects for the USD do not look too much better this week, but the drop is more likely a correction rather than a renewed weakening trend.

Having navigated its way through the European Central Bank’s (ECB) 12-month liquidity payback, various debt auctions, and Germany’s presidential election last week the EUR may find itself with less obstruction in its path but will nonetheless, likely struggle to make much headway this week. EUR speculative positioning, as indicated by the CFTC IMM data, reveals that there has been little short covering over the last couple of weeks, suggesting speculative sentiment remains negative.

Nonetheless, the rebound in EUR/USD has been impressive since its low around 1.1876 about a month ago and not just against the USD, with EUR making up ground on various crosses too including CHF and GBP. Easing sovereign concerns will have helped but there are plenty of downside risks ahead as austerity measures begin to bite and growth divergence becomes more apparent.

The ECB council meeting on Thursday is unlikely to give much direction for the EUR, with the meeting likely to pass with an unchanged rate decision and no change in economic assessment. There will be more attention on whether EUR/USD can maintain a toe hold above the psychologically important 1.2500 level, which I suspect may prove tough to hold this week.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also announces its rate decision (Tuesday) and will likely pause in tightening cycle. Recent data have remained positive, especially with regard to the labour market. The RBA will wait for the Q2 CPI data on July 28th before deciding on the next policy move, with jobs data on Thursday also likely to provide further clues. AUD/USD may struggle in the current environment where growth worries are prevalent, and the currency is likely to find it tough going over the coming weeks.

Finally, the Bank of England (BoE) meets this week too but like the ECB and RBA no change is likely. Although we will have to wait a couple of weeks for the minutes of the meeting it seems highly unlikely that MPC members will vote for a hike aside from Sentance who has espoused a more hawkish stance. Notably GBP speculative short positions have been scaled back over recent weeks as sentiment for the currency turns less negative but GBP gains against the USD will be more limited this week, with renewed GBP upside against the EUR more likely.

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