Egypt Unrest Hits Risk Trades

Recent weeks have seen a real contrast in policy and growth across various economies. A case in point was the surprise drop in UK GDP in Q4 contrasting sharply with the solid (albeit less than forecast) rise in US Q4 2010 GDP. The resilience of the US consumer was particularly evident in the data. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) hawkish slant as reflected in comments from President Trichet compared to the dovish pitch of the Fed FOMC is another clear contrast for markets to ponder.

The ECB’s hawkish tone gave the EUR a lift but expectations of an early Eurozone rate hike looks premature. Although Eurozone inflation data (Monday) will reveal a further rise in CPI above the ECB’s target, to around 2.4% in January, this will not equate to a policy rate hike anytime soon. This message is likely to be echoed at this week’s ECB meeting where policy will be characterised as “appropriate”.

Whilst monetary tightening expectations look overdone in the Eurozone the same can be said for hopes of an expansion in the EU bailout fund (EFSF). Indeed, the fact that EU Commissioner Rehn appeared to pour cold water over an expansion in the size of the fund could hit the EUR and the currency may find itself struggling to extend gains over coming weeks especially if interest rate expectations return to reality too, with a move to EUR/USD 1.4000 looking far harder to achieve than it did only a few days ago.

It’s worth noting that a renewed widening in peripheral debt spreads will also send an ominous signal for the EUR. Against this background the EU Council meeting on February 4 will be in focus but any expectation of a unified policy resolution will be disappointed.

However, markets perhaps should not solely focus on peripheral Europe as the downgrading of Japan’s credit ratings last week highlights. Warnings about US credit ratings also demonstrate that the US authorities will need to get their act together to find a solution to reversing the unsustainable path of the US fiscal deficit, something that was not particularly apparent in last week’s State of the Union Address.

Last week ended with a risk off tone filtering through markets as unrest in Egypt provoked a sell-off in risk assets whilst worries about oil supplies saw oil prices spike. Gold surged on safe haven demand too. This week, markets will focus on events in the Middle East but there will be thinner trading conditions as Chinese New Year holidays result in a shortened trading week in various countries in Asia.

The main release of the week is the US January jobs report at the end of the week. Regional job market indicators and the trend in jobless claims point to a 160k gain in January although the unemployment rate will likely edge higher. Final clues to the payrolls outcome will be deemed from the ISM manufacturing confidence survey and ADP private sector jobs report this week. Whilst the January jobs report is unlikely to alter expectations for Fed policy (given the elevated unemployment rate) the USD may continue to benefit from rising risk aversion.

Interest rate and FX gyrations

Following a brief rally at the start of the year the USD has found itself under growing pressure in the wake of widening interest rate differentials versus many other currencies. In particular, the contrasting stance between the hawkish rhetoric (bias for tighter monetary conditions) from European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet and the relatively dovish US Federal Reserve stance as highlighted in the 26th January FOMC statement has provided more fuel to the widening in interest rate expectations between the US and eurozone. Since the end of last year interest rate differentials have widened by around 31 basis points in favour of the EUR (second general interest rate futures contract).

The Fed remains committed to carrying out its full $600 billion of asset purchases by end Q2 2011 whilst the ECB appears to be priming the market for a scaling back of its liquidity operations. Whilst there may be more juice in EUR over the short term based on the move in interest rate differentials as well as improved sentiment towards the eurozone periphery the upside potential for EUR/USD is looking increasingly limited. Even European officials are beginning to inject a dose of caution, with the ECB’s Nowotny stating that markets are too euphoric over a potential enlargement of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund. Indeed, it is highly likely that the euphoria fades quickly once it becomes apparent that enlarging the bailout fund is by no means a panacea to the region’s ailments.

GBP is another currency that has undergone sharp gyrations over recent days in the wake of a shift in interest rate expectations. A surprise 0.5% quarterly drop in UK Q4 GDP (which could not all be blamed on poor weather) set the cat amongst the pigeons and gave a GBP a thrashing but much of this was reversed following the release of Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes which revealed a hawkish shift within the MPC, with two dissenters voting for a rate hike and most members agreeing that the risks to inflation has probably shifted higher.

Does this imply an imminent rate hike? No, a policy rate hike closer to the end of the year appears more likely. BoE Governor King provided support to this view, in a speech that was interpreted as dovish, with the governor once again highlighting the temporary nature of the current rise in inflation pressure. Consequently UK interest rate expectations have shifted back and forth over recent days, but still remain wider relative to the US since the start of the year. GBP/USD has of course benefitted, but given worries about growth and the dovish message from King, it is unlikely that rate differentials will widen much further. Consequently GBP/USD is unlikely to make much if any headway above 1.6000.

Asian Currency Differentiation

Asian currencies have started the year in mixed form, but it would be wrong to generalize the performance of Asian currencies as weak. There have been marginal gains recorded year to date vs. USD in the KRW, TWD, MYR and SGD, reflecting strong capital equity inflows. This contrasts with losses in the IDR, INR, PHP and THB versus USD. Compared to the beginning of 2010 equity capital flows have been far weaker overall, with India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, recording outflows, matching the performance of their currencies.

Clearly investors are discriminating more at the turn of 2011. For example Taiwan has recorded solid equity inflows over recent weeks (over $2 billion year-to-date), matching the strength of inflows registered at the beginning of 2010. It appears that Taiwan stocks have started the year as the Asian favorite, helped by growing expectations of further door opening to mainland investment and tourism. Korean equities have also registered inflows helping to support the KRW, which looks to be good buy over the short term above 1120.

This contrast with outflows registered in other Asian equity markets. A major concern responsible for some of the weakness in capital flows to Asia is the threat of inflation. For example, the selling of stocks in India appears to be closely related to inflation concerns and the hawkish rhetoric of the Reserve Bank of India, which is continuing its tightening path this year. Similarly, the PHP may be vulnerable over the short term following a failed T-bill auction on Monday. Inflation worries have clearly led to a push for higher yields but the bids were labeled as “unreasonable” by the government.

Over coming weeks, further EUR strength will likely give Asian currencies more support as the USD succumbs to further pressure. Continued strengthening in the CNY will also support other Asian currencies given that the CNY fixing has reached its highest level since the July 2005 revaluation.

Euro Sentiment Jumps, USD Sentiment Dives

The bounce in the EUR against a broad range of currencies as well as a shift in speculative positioning highlights a sharp improvement in eurozone sentiment. Indeed, the CFTC IMM data reveals that net speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time since mid-November. A rise in the German IFO business confidence survey last week, reasonable success in peripheral bond auctions (albeit at unsustainable yields), hawkish ECB comments and talk of more German support for eurozone peripheral countries, have helped.

A big driver for EUR at present appears to be interest rate differentials. In the wake of recent commentary from Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet following the last ECB meeting there has been a sharp move in interest rate differentials between the US and eurozone. This week’s European data releases are unlikely to reverse this move, with firm readings from the flash eurozone country purchasing managers indices (PMI) today and January eurozone economic sentiment gauges expected.

Two big events will dictate US market activity alongside more Q4 earnings reports. President Obama’s State of The Union address is likely to pay particular attention on the US budget outlook. Although the recent fiscal agreement to extend the Bush era tax cuts is positive for the path of the economy this year the lack of a medium to long term solution to an expanding budget deficit could come back to haunt the USD and US bonds.

The Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will likely keep markets treading water over the early part of the week. The Fed will maintain its commitment to its $600 billion asset purchase program. Although there is plenty of debate about the effectiveness of QE2 the program is set to be fully implemented by the end of Q2 2011. The FOMC statement will likely note some improvement in the economy whilst retaining a cautious tone. Markets will also be able to gauge the effects of the rotation of FOMC members, with new member Plosser possibly another dissenter.

These events will likely overshadow US data releases including Q4 real GDP, Jan consumer confidence, new home sales, and durable goods orders. GDP is likely to have accelerated in Q4, confidence is set to have improved, but at a low level, housing market activity will remain burdened by high inventories and durable goods orders will be boosted by transport orders. Overall, the encouraging tone of US data will likely continue but markets will also keep one eye on earnings. Unfortunately for the USD, firm US data are being overshadowed by rising inflation concerns elsewhere.

Against the background of intensifying inflation tensions several rate decisions this week will be of interest including the RBNZ in New Zealand, Norges Bank in Norway and the Bank of Japan. All three are likely to keep policy rates on hold. There will also be plenty of attention on the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes to determine their reaction to rising inflation pressures, with a slightly more hawkish voting pattern likely as MPC member Posen could have dropped his call for more quantitative easing (QE). There will also be more clues to RBA policy, with the release of Q4 inflation data tomorrow.

Both the EUR and GBP have benefitted from a widening in interest rate futures differentials. In contrast USD sentiment has clearly deteriorated over recent weeks as highlighted in the shift in IMM positioning, with net short positions increasing sharply. It is difficult to see this trend reversing over the short-term, especially as the Fed will likely maintain its dovish stance at its FOMC meeting this week. This suggests that the USD will remain on the back foot.

Talk but no action

The eurozone periphery remains in the eye of the storm but markets may have to wait before any concrete action is taken. The possibility of increasing the size of the bailout fund (EFSF), preparation of new European bank stress tests and/or allowing the EFSF to purchase eurozone government debt are all on the table but so far agreement has been lacking. Ministers apparently rejected the idea of increasing the size of the fund from EUR 440 billion to EUR 750 billion whilst disagreement over stricter criteria may also be hampering any progress.

Nonetheless, the EUR has found renewed support, helped by the firm German IFO investor confidence survey and news that Russia is looking to buy EFSF bonds. EUR/USD upside may be face a hurdle around 1.3500 over the short term and gains above this level are likely to be difficult to sustain given the ongoing uncertainties about the EFSF none of which are likely to be resolved anytime soon. The bottom line is that talk but not action will not be sufficient to keep the EUR supported.

GBP is also doing well, partly on the coat tails of a firmer EUR but also in the wake of an acceleration in UK CPI inflation which came in at 3.7% YoY a two year high, surpassing the Bank of England’s (BoE) ceiling for the 10th straight month. Inflation is likely to remain elevated pushing closer to 4% due to the VAT hike to 20% which came into effect at the beginning of this year. The data puts the BoE in a difficult situation testing the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) expectation that the jump in inflation will prove temporary. However, the market is increasing taking the stance that a rate hike is going to take placer sooner rather than later, with a growing probability of a rate hike.

Since the end of last year there has been a 25bps spread widening (between 2nd contract rate futures) as markets have become more hawkish on UK interest rate expectations. This has coincided with an increasing correlation with GBP/USD resulting in the currency pair cracking above the psychologically important 1.60 level. Much will depend on whether the BoE’s predictions come true. If inflation remains sticky on the upside the Bank may be forced into an earlier tightening. Whether this is good news for GBP will depend on the economy. The worst case scenario is premature monetary tightening just as austerity measures start to bite.

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