Waiting for a solution to Europe’s crisis

The boost to sentiment following Germany’s approval of changes to the EFSF bailout fund was brief. Although the outcome of the vote was not particularly surprising political concerns were assuaged by the fact that Chancellor Merkel secured support from within her coalition. Markets were also helped by a bigger than expected drop in weekly US jobless claims but this also failed to provide a lasting impact.

The bottom line is that there is still a huge degree of scepticism on the ability of policymakers to resolve the crisis in the eurozone periphery while growth worries have not receded. Even the approved changed to the EFSF bailout fund are increasingly being seen as old news given the view that it will need deeper changes including ‘leveraging’ it up.

Consequently risk aversion remains at a highly elevated level and is showing no sign of easing. It may be difficult to turn sentiment around as we go into the final quarter of the year, especially as those investors registering profits for the year may want to capitalise on these profits rather than sit through continued volatility in the weeks ahead. Indeed the sharp drop in gold prices over the last couple of weeks even in an environment of elevated risk aversion may reflect this.

Similarly risk assets may struggle to recover over coming weeks unless there is a major improvement in the situation in Europe or in growth data. Markets will go into the end of this week looking ahead to key events next week including an Ecofin meeting at the beginning of next week, a European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and the US September jobs report.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European Finance Ministers on Monday especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop.

While the extent of short market positioning at the beginning of week left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering diminishes. Unless the Ecofin meeting delivers on expectations EUR/USD will likely re-test the 26 September low around 1.3363.

Euro supported by hope

Hope appears to be the overriding sentiment filtering through markets at present. Such hope includes expectations that the European authorities will be able to ring fence Greece and avoid much deeper and wider comtagion to other eurozone peripheral countries than has already taken place. This may involve a European version of the US Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Various other measures are being speculated on including covered bond purchases from the ECB, provision of 12 month liquidity by the ECB, a policy rate cut, banking sector recapitalization and a beefing up of the EFSF bailout fund.

The result of such speculation has been to provide some stability to the EUR and asset markets but there is a long way to go before hopes turn into action. The next few weeks will be critical to determine whether a firmer base to sentiment and the EUR can be established and markets will turn their attention to a meeting of eurozone finance ministers on October 3 and the European Central Bank on October 6. Meanwhile national votes on changes to the EFSF bailout fund will continue this week including Germany’s vote on Thursday. While the vote is likely to pass it may draw attention to divisions within Chancellor Merkel’s party.

One thing is certain. There is no room for any more disappointment especially given that the plans agreed by European officials in July have yet to be implemented. If there is no concrete action over coming weeks the EUR will come under renewed pressure and indeed the risk is still heavily skewed towards more EUR weakness given the various disagreements between officials. Nonetheless, the improved mood in the short term will likely help prevent the currency from sliding further for now and a base appears to be forming just under 1.35 against the USD.

Euro vulnerable to event risk

The USD is benefitting in the current environment of elevated risk aversion reflected in a jump in USD speculative positioning over recent weeks, with current IMM positioning currently at its highest since June 2010.

Admittedly there is still plenty of scope for risk aversion to intensify but what does this mean for the USD? The USD index is currently trading just over 78 but during the height of the financial crisis it rose to around 89, a further gain from current levels of around of around 14%.

The main obstacle to further USD strength in the event of the current crisis intensifying is if the Fed implements QE3 but as the Fed has indicated this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as “Operation Twist” gets underway.

Now that the Fed FOMC meeting is out of the way markets will also be less wary of buying USDs as the prospect of more QE has diminished for now. Data this week will likely be USD supportive too, with increases in consumer confidence, durable goods orders, an upward revision to Q2 GDP expected.

The EUR remains highly vulnerable to event risk this week. Various votes in eurozone countries to approve changes to the EFSF bailout fund will garner most attention in FX markets, with the German vote of particular interest although this should pass at the cost of opposition from within Chancellor Merkel’s own party.

The EUR may garner some support if there is some traction on reports of a three pronged approach to help solve the crisis which includes ‘leveraging’ the EFSF fund, large scale European bank recapitalisation and a managed default in Greece, but there has been no confirmation of such measures.

Meanwhile, the potential for negotiations between the Troika (EC, IMF, ECB) and the Greek government to deliver an agreement on the next loan tranche for the country has increased, which could also offer the EUR a boost this week, albeit a short lived one.

Speculation of a potential European Central Bank (ECB) rate cut has increased a factor that could undermine the EUR depending on whether markets see it as growth positive and thus EUR positive or as a factor that reduced the EUR’s yield attraction. There is also more speculation that the ECB will offer more liquidity in the form of a 1-year operation but once again there has been no confirmation.

A likely sharp drop in the German IFO survey today and weakness in business and economic confidence surveys on Thursday will support the case for a rate cut, while helping to maintain the downward pressure on the EUR.

Given the potential for rumours and events to result in sharp shifts in sentiment look for EUR/USD to remain volatile, with support seen around 1.3384 and resistance around 1.3605.

Fed does the Twist, markets do the Shake

Although it was widely expected the Federal Reserve’s decision to implement a fresh version of Operation Twist together with a downbeat assessment of the economy came as a disappointment to equities and risk assets in general. The only surprise was the larger size of the operation at $400 billion.

Moody’s downgrade of three US banks added to the malaise as US equities dropped sharply, commodities slid, longer term Treasuries rallied whilst shorter term bonds dropped. The USD registered broad gains both on the back of the fact that no more quantitative easing was announced and due to a shift away from risk assets. At least there was no more negative news out of the eurozone as talks between the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) and Greek officials continue on the next tranche of the bailout.

Markets will continue to digest the Fed’s outcome today and the negative tone will likely filter through markets today. There is little on the data front to result in a shift in this tone. In the US data includes weekly jobless claims while in Europe attention will be on manufacturing and service sector confidence measures.

While the potential for a positive outcome to talks in Greece may provide a short term boost to sentiment the overwhelming tone is likely to remain negative especially as Operation Twist is unlikely to change the dynamic of a weak growth trajectory for the US and developed economies over the coming months. Against this background, selling risk assets on rallies remains the preferred option.

The USD will continue to look firmest against high beta emerging market currencies in the current environment. Currencies in this group are those that have the highest correlations with risk (as m measured by my in house risk barometer) over the past 3 months including CAD, ZAR, TRY, INR, MXN, ARS & RUB. In contrast currencies that also have high correlations but actually strengthen as risk aversion increases are CNY and JPY.

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