2011 Predictions: The Economy, The Ashes And The World Series

I was recently interviewed by Sital Ruparelia for his website dedicated to “Career & Talent Management Solutions“, on my 2011 predictions. In the Q&A Sital asked me on my views on a variety of topics ranging from the economic outlook to the Baseball World Series.

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

Sital: “Mitul, as 2010 draws to a close how would you sum up the year? What have been the highs and lows from an economic viewpoint?”

Mitul: “Sital, 2010 was a tumultuous year to say the least, but the worst period for markets and economies was definitely Q2 when concerns about Europe were at their most extreme.

Market volatility and uncertainty rose significantly during this time and many were talking of an imminent break-up of Europe. Greece’s crisis shook markets but worries quickly spread over the year to other countries including Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

On the other side of the coin, economic conditions globally continued to improve even if Southern Europe suffered. 2010 was a year when there was a clear shift in growth dynamics between developed and developing countries.

Whilst the US, Japan and Europe recovered only slowly from crisis, emerging economies especially in Asia, led global economic activity and provided the high points for economic growth over the year.”

Please click on the this link to read the rest…

Risk on mood prevails

The end of the year looks as though it will finish in a firmly risk on mood. Equity volatility in the form of the VIX index at its lowest since July 2007. FX volatility remains relatively low. A lack of market participants and thinning volumes may explain this but perhaps after a tumultuous year, there is a certain degree of lethargy into year end.

Whether 2011 kicks off in similar mood is debatable given the many and varied worries remaining unresolved, not the least of which is the peripheral sovereign debt concerns in the eurozone. It is no surprise that the one currency still under pressure is the EUR and even talk that China offered to buy Portuguese sovereign bonds has done little to arrest its decline.

Reports of officials bids may give some support to EUR/USD just below 1.31 but the various downgrades to ratings and outlooks from ratings agencies over the past week has soured sentiment for the currency. The latest move came from Fitch ratings agency which placed Greece’s major banks on negative ratings watch following the move to place the country’s ratings on review for a possible downgrade.

The USD proved resilient to weaker than forecast data including a smaller than forecast 5.6% gain in existing home sales in November. The FHFA house price index recorded a surprise gain of 0.7% in October, which mitigated some of the damage. The revised estimate of US Q3 GDP revealed a smaller than expected revision higher to 2.6% QoQ annualized from a previous reading of 2.5%. Moreover, the core PCE was very soft at 0.5% QoQ, supporting the view that the Fed has plenty of room to keep policy very accommodative.

Despite the soft core PCE reading Philadelphia Fed President Plosser who will vote on the FOMC next year indicated that if the economy continues to strengthen he will look for the Fed to cut back on completing the $600 billion quantitative easing (QE) program. Although the tax deal passed by Congress will likely reduce the need for QE3, persistently high unemployment and soft core inflation will likely see the full $600 billion program completed. Today marks the heaviest day for US data this week, with attention turning to November durable goods orders, personal income and spending, jobless claims, final reading of Michigan confidence and November new home sales.

Overall the busy US data slate will likely maintain an encouraging pattern, with healthy gains in income and spending, a rebound in new home sales and the final reading of Michigan confidence likely to hold its gains in December. Meanwhile jobless claims are forecast to match the 420k reading last week, which should see the 4-week average around the 425k mark. This will be around the lowest since August 2008, signifying ongoing improvement in payrolls. The data should maintain the upward pressure on US bond yields, which in turn will keep the USD supported.

Please note that this will be the last post on Econometer.org this year. Seasons greatings and best wishes for the new year to all Econometer readers.

Ratings rampage hits Euro

Both the data flow and market liquidity will be thin over the last couple of weeks of the year. After a bashing over much of H2 2010 it looks as though the USD will end the year in strong form having risen by over 6% since its early November low. In contrast the EUR is struggling having found no support from the meeting of European Union officials at the end of last week in which they agreed to a permanent sovereign debt resolution after 2013 but failed to agree on expanding the size of the bailout fund (EFSF). Similarly there was no traction towards a common euro bond. EUR/USD is now verging on its 200-day moving average around 1.3102, a break of which could see a drop to around 1.2960.

The failure to enlarge the size of the EFSF was disappointing given worries that it is perceived to be insufficient to cope with the bailout of larger eurozone countries if needed. It also highlight that the burden on the European Central Bank (ECB) to prop up eurozone bond markets until confidence improves. The increase in the size of ECB capital from EUR 5.8 billion to EUR 10.8 billion will help in this respect. Such support was clearly needed last week following the rampage across Europe by ratings agencies culminating in Moody’s five notch downgrade of Ireland’s credit ratings, surprising because of its severity rather than the downgrade itself. Ireland’s ratings are now just two notches above junk status and the negative outlook could mean more to come.

It was not just Ireland’s ratings that came under scrutiny. Ireland’s multi notch downgrade followed Moody’s decision to place Greece and Spain on review for a possible downgrade whilst S&P revised Belgium’s outlook to negative. Unsurprisingly peripheral debt markets came under renewed pressure as a result outweighing positive news in the form of strong flash eurozone PMI readings and firm German IFO business confidence survey. EUR did not escape and sentiment for the currency remains weak, with CFTC IMM speculative positioning data revealing a fourth straight week of net EUR short positioning in the week to 14th December.

In contrast, sentiment for the US economy continues to improve. Congress’ swift passage of President Obama’s fiscal plan will help to shore up confidence in US recovery. Data this week will be broadly positive too. On Wednesday, US Q3 GDP data is likely to be upwardly revised to a 2.8% QoQ annualized rate. Durable goods orders excluding transportation are set to increase by a healthy 2.0% (Thu) whilst both existing (Wed) and new (Thu) home sales will reveal rebounds in November following a drop in the previous month.

In the UK the main highlight is the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes. Another three way split is expected but this should not cause more than a ripple in FX markets. GBP/USD has slipped over recent days but there appears to be little other than general USD strength responsible for this. The currency pair looks vulnerable to a drop below 1.5500, with 1.5405 seen as the next support level. On balance, the USD will be in good form this week although the drop in US bond yields at the end of last week may take some of the wind out of its sails.

Euro support unwinding

The USD is set to end the year in firm form aided by rising US bond yields. Yesterday’s data supported this trend. The Empire manufacturing survey beat expectations rebounding nearly 22 points in December and industrial production rose 0.4% in November although there was a downward revision to the previous month. This was against the background of soft inflation, with headline and core CPI rising 0.1%, indicating that the Fed will remain committed to its $600 billion program of asset purchases.

EUR/USD dropped below support around 1.3280, weighed down by various pieces of negative news. Moodys downgrade of Spain’s credit ratings outlook dented sentiment but the bigger sell off in EUR followed the move in US bond yields. The prospect of EUR recovery over the short term looks limited. The issue of finding agreement on a permanent debt resolution fund continues to fuel uncertainty and will likely come to a head at the EU summit starting today.

Added to this Ireland’s main opposition party which will likely play a part in forming a new government early next year wants some of the debt burden shared with senior bank debt holders. The good news in Europe was few and far between but at least Ireland’s parliament backed the EU/IMF bailout for the country. Of course the backing could be derailed following elections in January. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the move in EUR is that it’s not weaker. The next support level for EUR/USD is around 1.3160.

The divergence between the US and Europe on policy is stark, with loose fiscal and monetary policy in the US providing a significant prop to the US economy, whilst the much tighter fiscal stance and less loose monetary policy threatens to result in more pressure on eurozone growth especially against the background of an overvalued EUR. This divergence will manifest itself next year in the form of US growth outperformance and stronger USD vs. EUR.

The resilience of the UK consumer continues to surprise, with the CBI distributive trades survey coming in strong and rising further to +56 in December. The only problem with the survey data is that is has not tracked official data. November retail sales data today will give further clues to the strength of spending heading into Christmas. More worryingly from the Bank of England’s perspective is the fact that inflation continues to rise despite assurances that the increase in inflation is temporary. At the least the likelihood of more quantitative easing QE from the BoE has evaporated though it is still a long way off before interest rates are hiked. In the meantime GBP continues to underperform both EUR and USD though GBP/USD will find strong support around 1.5512.

Upward pressure on US yields and the USD us unlikely be derailed US data releases today. Housing starts are set to bounce back in November, with a 6% gain expected, whilst the trend in jobless claims will likely continue to move lower. The Philly Fed manufacturing survey is set to lose a little momentum reversing some of November’s sharp gain but will still remain at a healthy level.

The Week Ahead

As markets make the last strides towards year end it appears that currencies at least are becoming increasingly resigned to trading in ranges. Even the beleaguered EUR has not traded far from the 1.3200 level despite significant bond market gyrations. Even news that inflation in China came in well above expectations in November (5.1% YoY) and increased prospects of a rate hike is likely to prompt a limited reaction from a lethargic market.

At the tail end of last week US data provided further support to the growing pool of evidence indicating strengthening US economic conditions, with the trade deficit surprisingly narrowing in October, a fact that will add to Q4 GDP growth, whilst the Michigan measure of consumer confidence registered a bigger than expected increase in November to its highest level since June.

The jump in consumer confidence bodes well for retail spending and highlights the prospects that US November retail sales tomorrow are set to reveal solid gains both headline and ex-autos sales driven by sales and promotions over the holiday season. Other data too, will paint an encouraging picture, with November industrial production (Wed) set to reveal a healthy gain helped by a bounce in utility output. Manufacturing surveys will be mixed with a rebound in the Empire manufacturing survey in December likely but in contrast a drop in the Philly Fed expected.

The main event this week is the FOMC decision tomorrow the Fed is expected to deliver few surprises. The Fed funds rate is expected to remain “exceptionally low for an extended period”. Despite some recent encouraging data recovery remains slow and the fact that core inflation continues to decelerate (CPI inflation data on Wednesday is set to reveal a benign outcome with core CPI at 0.6%) whilst the unemployment rate has moved higher means that the Fed is no rush to alter policy including its commitment to buy $600 billion in Treasuries including $105 billion between now and January 11.

In Europe there are also some key releases that will garner plenty of attention including the December German ZEW and IFO investor and manufacturing confidence surveys and flash purchasing managers indices (PMI) readings. The data are set to remain reasonably healthy and may keep market attention from straying to ongoing problems in the eurozone periphery but this will prove temporary at least until the markets are convinced that European Union leaders are shifting away from “piecemeal” solutions to ending the crisis. The EU leaders’ summit at the end of the week will be important in this respect. A Spanish debt auction on Thursday will also be in focus.

Assuming the forecasts for US data prove correct it is likely that US bond markets will remain under pressure unless the Fed says something that fuels a further decline in yield such as highlighting prospects for more quantitative easing (QE). However, following the tax compromise agreement last week this seems unlikely. Higher relative US bond yields will keep the USD supported, and as I have previously noted, the most sensitive currencies will be the AUD, EUR and JPY, all of which are likely to remain under varying degrees of downward pressure in the short term. The AUD will also be particularly sensitive to prospects of further Chinese monetary tightening.

FX sensitivity to yield

It’s all about yield. The back up in US bond yields in reaction to the US tax compromise from the Obama administration has been particularly sharp. US 10 year bond yields jumped around 35bps this week prior to a small correction in yields overnight whilst 2s were up 21bps. US bond yields are now back where they were in June, a fact that makes a mockery out of the Fed’s attempts to drive bond yields lower via quantitative easing (QE). Yields elsewhere increased too but by a smaller degree whilst equity market sentiment has been dampened by the rise in global yields although US stocks still ended higher overnight.

There is plenty of commentary discussing the impact on currencies of the move in bond yields so it’s worth looking in more detail how sensitive FX markets have been to yield. The most sensitive currencies i.e. those with the highest 3-month correlations with relative bond yield differentials (2 year) are the AUD/USD, EUR/USD, and of course USD/JPY. However, there is less sensitivity to gyrations in 10 year yields with no currency pair registering a statistically significant correlation with 10-year bond yield differentials over the past 3-months.

Assuming that US bond yields continue to push higher into 2011, with much lager increases in both nominal and yields expected, this means that AUD, EUR and JPY will face the most pressure relative to the USD. Moreover, the stimulus measures agreed by the US administration will likely lead to many analysts penciling in higher growth forecasts over 2011 whilst reducing the prospects of QE3 from taking place, all of which is USD positive. I still retain a degree of caution in Q1 2011, especially with regard to a potential bounce in EUR, especially if the ECB becomes more aggressive in its bond buying, but even so, any EUR rally is likely to prove termporary.

The impact of higher US yields on the AUD may be more limited however, despite the high correlation with relative bond yields, as Australian bond yields are also likely to rise somewhat given the resilience of its economy. This was clearly demonstrated by Australian November employment data released overnight revealing yet another consensus beating outcome of +54.6k, with all the gains coming from full time employment. Against the background of a generally firm USD, the best way to play AUD resilience is via the NZD, with the currency pair likely break through resistance around 1.3220 (21 October high).

US bonds sell off, USD rallies

US Treasuries didn’t like it but the compromise agreement to extend Bush era tax cuts, as well as a 13-month unfunded extension of long term unemployment benefits and a $120 billion payroll tax holiday will provide the US economy with further support and likely to lead to some upgrading of US growth forecasts. The agreement changes the dynamic of fiscal support for the US economy and means that the US is the only major country not tightening fiscal policy. It also implies less heavy lifting needed from the Federal Reserve.

Whilst some US taxpayers will not now face tax increases following the end of the year, the longer term question of fiscal adjustment and reform appears to have been postponed. US bond yields jumped on the news as the agreement effectively adds $1 trillion to US debt over the next couple of years. The contrasting fiscal stance with Europe could eventually haunt US markets as focus eventually return to US fiscal issues, with negative implications for the country’s credit ratings. However, at present, attention remains firmly fixed on European sovereign risk rather than US deficit fears.

There has been some relief to European debt markets, albeit temporarily, with debt markets ignoring the news that European Finance Ministers have not agreed to extend the size of the support fund (EFSF) and have also failed to agree on the introduction of recently touted “E-bonds”. ECB buying of peripheral bonds has given some support whilst the passage of the first votes of the Irish budget has eased tensions in its bond markets. Nonetheless as highlighted by the IMF, Europe’s ”piecemeal” response to the debt crisis in the region is insufficient to stem the crisis, suggesting that the current easing in pressure could prove short-lived.

The jump in US bond yields has given the USD some support but I wouldn’t overplay the impact on the USD of bond yields at present. Correlations reflecting the sensitivity of bond yields to various currencies remain relatively low suggesting that the influence of yield on FX is still limited. That said, the correlation is likely to increase over coming months as US yields move higher. The impact on USD/JPY is likely to be particularly sharp, with the currency pair likely to move higher over coming months. The USD has likely rallied due to the likelihood that the tax cut extensions will mean prospects of less quantitative easing by the Fed and prospects of relatively firmer US growth.

An ongoing concern for markets is the prospects of higher interest rates in China. As regular readers of Econometer many note, my blog posts have been a bit sporadic lately. This is not down to laziness but the fact that I have been on the road quite a bit travelling in Asia (and UK) visiting clients. One of the clear concerns that I have heard often repeated is the potential for China’s measures to curb real estate speculation, rising inflation, and lending, to slow China’s growth sharply and cause problems for the rest of the world. This is the topic of another post for another day, but against the background of such concerns the AUD and other high beta currencies are likely to fail to make much headway.

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