Euro still looks uglier than the dollar

Currency markets continue to vacillate between US debt ceiling concerns and eurozone peripheral debt worries. Despite a lack of agreement to raise the debt ceiling, with House Republicans failing to back a proposal by House speak Boehner, the USD actually strengthened towards the end of the week as eurozone peripheral issues shifted back into focus.

The resilience of the USD to the lack of progress in raising the debt ceiling is impressive and reveals that the EUR looks even uglier than the USD, in many investors’ eyes.

Much in terms of direction for the week ahead will depend on the magnitude of any increase in the debt ceiling and accompanying budget deficit reduction measures. Assuming that a deal is reached ahead of the August 2 deadline it is not obvious that the USD and risk currencies will enjoy a rally unless the debt ceiling deal is a solid and significant one.

Given the limited market follow through following the recent deal to provide Greece with a second bailout, the EUR remains wholly unable to capitalise on the USD’s woes.

A reminder that all is not rosy was the fact that Moody’s ratings agency placed Spain’s credit ratings on review for possible downgrade while reports that the Spanish parliament will be dissolved on September 26 for early elections on November 20 will hardly help sentiment for the EUR. Compounding the Spanish news doubts that the EFSF bailout fund will be ready to lend to Greece by the next tranche deadline in mid-September and whether Spain and Italy will participate, have grown.

Some key data releases and events will also likely to garner FX market attention, with attention likely to revert to central bank decisions including the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Reserve Bank of Australia and US July jobs report. None of the central banks are likely to shift policy rates, however.

The risk for the USD this week is not only that there is disappointing result to the debt ceiling discussions, but also that there is a weak outcome to the US July jobs report. An increase of around 100k in payrolls, with the unemployment rate remaining at 9.2%, will fixate market attention on weak growth and if this increases expectations for a fresh round of Fed asset purchases the USD could be left rather vulnerable.

The RBA is highly unlikely to raise interest rates but the tone of the accompanying statement is unlikely to be dovish. The RBA noted the strong emphasis on the Q2 CPI inflation data and in the event it came in higher than expected, a fact that supports my expectation that the Bank will hike policy rates at least once more by the end of this year.

Markets have largely priced out expectations of a rate cut but there is still scope for a more hawkish shift in Australian interest rate markets, which will give the AUD a boost. However, AUD remains vulnerable to developments in the US and Europe as well as overall risk aversion, and a preferable way to play a positive AUD view in the current environment is via the NZD.

US Dollar Under Broad Based Pressure

ThE USD has registered broad based losses over recent days and the longer the stalemate with regard to extending the US debt ceiling the bigger the problem for the currency. Indeed, it appears that the USD is taking the brunt of the pressure compared to other assets. For example, although US treasury yields have edged higher there is still no sense of panic in US bond markets.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling does not automatically imply a debt default but it will raise the prospect should an agreement not be reached in the weeks after. However, the impact on US bonds maybe countered by the increased potential for QE3 or safe haven flows in the event that no agreement is reached.

The worst case scenario for the USD remains no agreement on the debt ceiling ahead of the August 2 deadline but a short term solution that appears to be favored by some in the US Congress may not be that much better as it would effectively be seen as ‘kicking the can down the road’.

The better than hoped for agreement to help resolve Greece’s debt problems at the end of last week came as a blow to the USD given the almost perfect negative correlation between the USD and EUR over recent months. Moreover, the debt ceiling stalemeate is pouring salt into the wound. However, the situation is highly fluid and should officials pull a rabbit out of the hat and find agreement the USD could rally sharply.

All is not rosy for the EUR either and its gains have largely come by courtesy of a weaker USD rather than positive EUR sentiment. Economic news hardly bodes well for the EUR, with data in the eurozone looking somewhat downbeat. For instance, the Belgian July business confidence indicator dropped to a 9-month low in line with the weaker than expected outcome of the July German IFO survey last week.

Moreover, there are still several questions about last week’s second Greek bailout agreement and contagion containment measures including parliamentary approvals and lack of enlargement of the EFSF which could keep markets nervous until there are clear signs that implementation is taking place successfully.

A clear sign that the EU agreement has failed to inspire as much confidence as officials had hoped for is the lack of traction in terms of narrowing peripheral bond spreads, with the exception of Greece. This partly reflects a renewed ‘risk off’ tone to markets but this is not the sole reason.

EUR/USD has extended gains benefiting from USD weakness rather than any positive sentiment towards EUR, breaking above 1.4446, the strong multi-month corrective channel resistance, signalling a bullish move. The next level of technical resistance is around 1.4568 but direction will continue to come from the debt ceiling talks.

EU Deal Boosts Euro But Momentum To Fade

The European Union deal for Greece was clearly on the positive side of expectations and from that perspective helped to buoy sentiment for European assets. The fact that EU leaders managed to work over differences and emerge with a solid deal will help remove some of the uncertainty about Greece’s future and lower the risks of contagion.

To recap EU leaders announced a EUR 109 billion second aid package for Greece. Private bondholders will contribute a target of a further EUR 37 billion via bond swaps or rolling over existing debt for new bonds maturing in 30 years. Investors will have the option to exchange existing debt into four instruments. The aim is to obtain 90% participation from Greek bondholders.

Moreover, it appears that governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral until the country can return to the market. Effectively this means that even if ratings agencies declare a default rating on Greek debt, Greek banks may still be able to obtain funding from the European Central Bank (ECB) as the debt is guaranteed by national governments.

Greece, Portugal and Ireland will benefit from lower interest rates on loans and longer maturities. Moreover, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund will have a wider scope for bond buying directly from investors. This lets the ECB off the hook to avoid further use of its own bond purchase programme and removes any further impairing of its balance sheet. The idea of a tax on banks was removed, as criticism of the workability of such a plan increased.

The downside of the deal includes the fact that:
1) European tax payers are on the line for a potentially unlimited amount to guarantee defaulted Greek debt,
2) The bondholder programme is only limited to Greece, so there is no contingency should something similar be needed in other countries
3) The participation rate for private bondholders is yet to be known (but will most likely be high).
3) The deal will lead to a default on Greek debt given the programme amounts to a 21% drop in value but a credit event is unlikely to be triggered.
4) Greece still has a highly ambitious privatisation and austerity plan to implement which even some Greek officials have admitted is overly optimistic and at worst could turn into a fire sale of Greek assets.
5) EFSF bond purchases will need the “mutual agreement” of member states which is by no means guaranteed.
6) The fund size is not large enough should Italy and Spain need similar bailouts especially as leaders have stressed that the Greek package will not be replicated for other countries.

The EUR rallied on the outcome of the European talks. However, the EUR has plenty of other worries to deal with including divergence in growth across the eurozone, overly long EUR market positioning, EUR overvaluation, likely growth underperformance versus the US and a likely rebound in general for the USD over coming months especially if the Fed does not embark on QE3 and agrees a deal to raise the debt ceiling. EUR/USD is likely to remain supported in the near term, with near term resistance around 1.4467. I still suspect that the momentum will not last, with EUR/USD looking particularly rich at current levels.

Edging Towards A European Deal For Greece

The momentum towards some form of agreement at the Special EU Summit today is growing, with French and German leaders reaching a “joint position on Greece’s debt situation”. Details of this position are still unknown, however. EUR has found support as expectations of a positive outcome intensify.

However, given that positive news is increasingly being priced in, and the market is becoming increasingly long, upside EUR potential will be limited even in the wake of a comprehensive agreement. A break above EUR/USD resistance around 1.4282 would bring in sight the next key resistance level around 1.4375 but this where the rally in EUR/USD is set to be capped.

Prospects of a major US debt default or at the least a government shutdown appear to be receding as the US administration has indicated some willingness to opt for a short term increase in the US borrowing limit to give more time for a bigger deficit reduction deal to be passed by Congress. Meanwhile, there will be further news on the deficit reduction plans put forward by the “gang of six” US senators, with a press conference scheduled for later today.

Debt ceiling negotiations are likely to be the main focus of market attention, with the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and weekly jobless claims relegated to the background. A speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke is unlikely to deliver anything new today. The USD is likely to be on the back foot given expectations of a deal in Europe and improved risk appetite but we expect losses to be limited.

The JPY continues to defy my bearish expectations. Over recent days the US yield advantage over Japan in terms of 2Y bonds dropped to multi-year lows below 20bps. Given the high correlation between USD/JPY and yield differentials, this has corresponded with the fall below 80.00.

Expectations of JPY weakness versus USD is highly dependent on the US – Japan yield gap widening over coming months. For this to happen it will need concerns about the US economy and expectations of more Fed asset purchases to dissipate, something that may not happen quickly given the rash of disappointing US data releases lately.

GBP found itself on the front foot following the release of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee minutes, which were less dovish than anticipated. They also revealed that the BoE expects inflation to peak higher and sooner than previously expected. However, the fact that the overall tone was similar to the last set of minutes meant there was little follow through in terms of GBP.

Further direction will come from June retail sales data today and forecasts of a bounce in sales will likely help allay concerns about a downturn in consumer spending. Nonetheless, GBP is still likely to struggle to break through resistance around 1.6230 versus USD.

Risk Aversion to remain elevated

It remains a tumultuous time for markets, gripped by a cacophony of concerns ranging from the lack of resolution to the Eurozone debt crisis to the failure to reach agreement on raising the US debt ceiling and associated deficit reduction plans. Mingled among these is the growing evidence that economic growth is turning out weaker than expected. Meanwhile Europe’s crisis appears to be shifting from bad to worse, as reflected in a shift in attention towards the hitherto untouched Italy although Italian concerns have eased lately.

The release of the EU bank stress test results at the end of last week have not helped, with plenty of criticism about their severity and rigour following the failure of only 8 banks out of the 90 tested. Expectations centred on several more banks failing, with much more capital required than the EUR 2.5 billion shortfall revealed in the tests. Answering to this criticism officials note that there has already been a significant amount of capital raised over recent months by banks, but this will be insufficient to stem the growing disbelief over the results.

Attention is still very much focussed on Greece and reaching agreement on a second bailout for the country, with further discussions at the special EU summit on July 21. The contentious issue remains the extent of private sector participation in any debt restructuring. The decision to enhance the flexibility of the EFSF bailout fund to embark on debt buybacks has not helped. Consequently contagion risks to other countries in the Eurozone periphery are at a heightened state. Despite all of this the EUR has shown a degree of resilience, having failed to sustain its recent drop below 1.40 versus USD.

One explanation for the EUR’s ability to avoid a steeper decline is that the situation on the other side of the pond does not look much better. Hints of QE3 in the US and the impasse between Republicans and Democrats on budget deficit cutting measures tied to any increase in the debt ceiling are limiting the USD’s ability to benefit from Europe’s woes. Moreover, more weak data including a drop in the Empire manufacturing survey and a drop in the Michigan consumer sentiment index to a two-year low, have added to the worries about US recovery prospects.

Against this background risk aversion will remain elevated, supporting the likes of the CHF and JPY while the EUR and USD will continue to fight it out for the winner of the ugliest currency contest. Assuming that a deal will eventually be cobbled together to raise the US debt ceiling (albeit with less ambitious deficit cutting measures than initially hoped for) and that the Fed does not embark on QE3, the EUR will emerge as the most ugly currency, but there will be plenty of volatility in the meantime.

Data and events this week include more US Q2 earnings, June housing starts and existing home sales. While housing data are set to increase, the overall shape of the housing market remains very weak. In Europe, July business and investor surveys will be in focus, with a sharp fall in the German ZEW investor confidence survey likely and a further softening in July purchasing managers indices across the eurozone. The German IFO business confidence survey is also likely to decline in July but will still point to healthy growth in the country. In the UK Bank of England MPC minutes will confirm no bias for policy rate changes with a 7-2 vote likely, while June retail sales are likely to bounce back.

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