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.

Italy downgrade adds to EUR woes

The USD index remains firm but it remains unlikely that the USD is being bought on its own merits but rather on disappointments in the eurozone. Nonetheless, speculative USD sentiment has turned positive for the first time since June 2010 according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting a major shift in appetite for the currency. Clearly there are risks to the USD including the potential for more QE3 being announced at this week’s FOMC meeting but this risk is likely to be small.

In contrast, the reversal in speculative sentiment for the EUR has been just as dramatic but in the opposite direction as the net short EUR position has increased over recent weeks, with positioning now at its lowest since June 2010. Sentiment is likely to have soured further overnight following news that Italy’s credit rating was cut by S&P to A from A+ despite the recent passage of an austerity package.

This outweighed any boost to sentiment from what was noted by the Greek Finance Minister as “productive” talks yesterday. Another conference call today is scheduled but the longer markets wait for approval of the next loan tranche the bigger the risk to the EUR. In addition Greek and Spanish T-bill auctions and European Central Bank (ECB) cash operations will be in focus. The EUR remains vulnerable to a test of support around 1.3500.

GBP has continued to slide over recent weeks, having fallen by around 5% since its high just above 1.66 a month ago. However, it has managed to hold its own against the EUR which looks in even more of a sorry state than the pound. The fact that GBP has been unable to capitalise on the EUR’s woes is largely attributable to growing expectations of further UK quantitative easing.

The minutes of the last Bank of England meeting on September 8 to be released on Wednesday will give more clues as to the support within the Monetary Policy Committee for further QE but its likely that the MPC will want to see the next Quarterly Inflation Report in November before committing itself to any further easing. In the meantime, GBP will find it difficult to sustain any recovery, with its drop against the USD likely to extend to around 1.5583 in the short term.

Japan returns from its Respect for the Aged holiday today but local market participants will have missed little action on the JPY, with the currency remaining confined to a very tight range. The inability of USD/JPY to move higher despite the general bounce in the USD index reflects 1) the fact that USD/JPY is very highly correlated with 2 year bond yield differentials and 2) the fact that US yields continue to be compressed relative to Japan. Additionally, risk aversion continues to favour the JPY and combined, these factors suggest little prospect of any drop in the JPY versus USD soon.

Euro fails too hold on to gains

Any improvement in sentiment following the USD liquidity support announcement by various central banks last week is already filtering away against the background of European Union (EU) officials’ failure to make any headway at the Ecofin meeting over the weekend, a delay in the approval of the next bailout tranche for Greece and ongoing collateral dispute between Greece and Finland. On top of all of this German Chancellor Merkel suffered a further setback in regional elections over the weekend.

Greece will remain in focus this week and markets will look for signs that the country is back on track on its austerity plans and its next loan tranche. Prime Minister Papandreou cancelled a trip to the US while the Greek cabinet are apparently deciding on new fiscal measures. Attention will turn to a teleconference today from the Greek Finance Minister with EU and IMF officials.

Speculative sentiment for the EUR has already soured further and according to the latest CFTC IMM report, positioning in EUR is at its lowest since the end of June 2010. EUR/USD will continue to look very vulnerable having already dropped sharply from a high of around 1.3899 in Asian morning trading as the bad weekend news hit the currency. EUR/USD will find some technical support just below 1.3500 this week but any upside is set to prove limited unless some concrete announcements are delivered relating to Greece over coming days.

In contrast to the EUR, USD speculative appetite has turned net long for the first time since July 2010. The extended Fed FOMC meeting will help to dictate USD sentiment as markets wait for further measures to stimulate the economy. The Federal Reserve has already committed to hold rates steady until at least mid 2013 and the extended two day meeting this week will likely discuss further options. However, more quantitative easing (QE3) appears unlikely at this stage while an ‘Operation Twist’ type approach is more probable. The USD will benefit from a lack of further quantitative easing but this is largely already priced in.

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