EUR slips, Yen gains

There has been good and bad news in Europe, with leaders’ rubber stamping the permanent bailout mechanism (ESM) and 25 out of 27 EU countries agreeing on the fiscal discipline treaty. Finally, EU leaders agreed that it was not all about austerity, with growth orientated policies as yet undefined, also required.

The bad news is that there has still been no final agreement on Greek debt restructuring and in turn a second Greek aid package said to total around EUR 130 billion while Portugal is increasingly moving into focus as the next casualty. Unsurprisingly the EUR has lost steam so far this week but markets remain short and any downside looks limited at technical support around 1.3077.

A cautious tone will prevail today, with risk assets likely to remain under mild pressure. Developments in Greece and the Eurozone will continue to garner most attention although US data in the form of the January Chicago PMI manufacturing survey and consumer confidence data will also be in focus.

Both surveys will reveal further improvement in confidence as the US economy continues to show signs of gradual recovery. This was supported overnight by a relatively positive Federal Loan Officers survey which revealed an increase in demand for business loans at banks in Q4 2011. Although the USD has been somewhat restrained by a dovish Fed stance the risk off tone to markets will likely bode well for the currency over the short term.

JPY is benefiting from the risk off market tone despite comments by Japanese Finance Minister Azumi who warned about action being taken to combat JPY strength. The JPY has benefited from the Fed’s dovish tone last week which has weighed on US bond yields relative to Japan. While FX intervention risks have increased, officials will remain wary given the underlying upward pressure on the JPY. The near term risk is for USD/JPY to retest the 2011 low around 75.38.

Speculators still short Euro

Since I wrote “Beware of EUR short covering” EUR/USD has gained around 4%. EUR/USD is trying to gain a foothold above 1.3200 but failed overnight. Further gains will be more gradual. Helping the EUR is the fact that short positions hit an all time high according to IMM data for last week. However, data releases are unlikely to provide much impetus to the EUR, with most attention on the monthly series of PMI manufacturing confidence indices as consumer confidence readings.

At best the data will show some stabilisation but market will focus instead on the EU Summit beginning today and ongoing Greek debt talks as well as Italian debt auctions today. Greek debt talks are expected to be finalised this week including writedowns of around 70% but tensions over a German proposal to create a “budget commissioner” could yet hit the EUR.

The major release of the week in the UK is the January PMI manufacturing survey although there will also be attention on housing data including mortgage approvals and house price surveys from the Nationwide and Halifax. Overall the data will do little to dispel fears about the UK economy following the contraction in Q4 GDP revealed last week.

GBP will likely remain resilient to any bad economic news however, but its gains look limited especially given the revelation in the BoE MPC minutes that some members thought that more quantitative easing will be required. Having strengthened against the USD but weakened against the EUR over recent days, GBP continues to trade in a middle of the road manner. GBP/USD sellers will likely emerge around the 1.5870 resistance level while EUR/GBP is set to consolidate around 0.8350.

US dollar remains under pressure

Hopes of progress on the Eurozone debt crisis and encouraging data in the US have helped boost market confidence. However, the slightly disappointing US Q4 GDP report (2.8% Qoq annualised growth) revealed the markets continued vulnerability while Fitch’s downgrade of six Eurozone countries’ sovereign ratings brought a dose of reality back to the region.

Nonetheless, the Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) unlimited 3-year loans to banks and Fed hints at quantitative easing (QE3) have provided markets with a fillip and will help underpin risk assets over coming weeks. If Greek debt talks are wrapped up this week markets will take further solace but the European Union (EU) Summit beginning today will need to deliver on rubber stamping recent agreements for positive sentiment to be maintained.

This is a big week for US data releases and in turn the USD. Heavy weight data including January non-farm payrolls, ISM manufacturing confidence and consumer confidence readings are on tap over coming days. Although payrolls will not be as strong as in December the trend of data releases will continue to be one of improvement as likely to be revealed in the forward looking confidence surveys this week.

The USD may not benefit as much as it would otherwise have done given that the Fed has committed to easy monetary policy for a long while to come to end 2014. It is becoming increasingly clear that firmer activity data may still not prevent a further round of quantitative easing and attendant USD downside risks. Against this background a cautious stance on the USD over coming days is warranted, with the USD index likely to remain under near term pressure.

Australian and NZ Dollar Outperform

The boost to EUR following the dovish tone of the Fed FOMC statement on Wednesday has faded although the EUR looks well supported against the USD, JPY and GBP. Further gains against the USD will however, be limited to around 1.3201 (21 December 2011 high and 61.8% retracement from its 1.3553 high).

Reports overnight that Greek private lenders were willing to accept a coupon rate below 4% helped to boost confidence of an imminent deal with regard to Greek debt restructruing. Ahead of next week’s EU Summit the EUR will consolidate its gains, with attention focussing on a meeting between German Chancellor Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Monti, and French President Sarkozy on Monday.

USD/JPY has become insensitive to moves in most of its usual drivers. Bond yield differentials have lost influence over recent months despite a very strong relationship in the past. Similarly USD/JPY is also not particularly sensitive to moves in the USD index or risk aversion, with these relationships also breaking down lately according to my correlation calculations. Net foreign portfolio flows should in theory be playing negative for the JPY with outflows from bond and equity flows recorded in 8 of the last 10 weeks.

However, the reality is that USD/JPY remains stubbornly entrenched in a narrow 77-78 range. While a base appears to have been formed around the 77.00 level the upside momentum for the currency pair is weak. I stand by my view of USD/JPY ending the quarter around current levels given the loss of influence of its usual drivers but still look for an eventual move higher.

AUD and NZD have performed extremely well over recent weeks recording the biggest gains among major currencies so far this year. Both currencies have been boosted by improving risk appetite and receding growth worries in China. AUD in particular looks attractive in the wake of the dovish Fed and relative high AUD yield. I continue to believe markets are too dovish on Australian policy rate expectations, with markets pricing in more rate cuts this year beginning in February. Any reversal in easing expectations will support AUD.

AUD is also benefiting from diversification flows, with Russia’s central bank noting that it may begin to buy AUD in February. Nonetheless, AUD/USD gains look overly aggressive in a short space of time, with positioning turning increasingly long. AUD/USD will face strong resistance around 1.0753 over coming days.

Fed weighs on the dollar

The USD was already losing ground over the last couple of weeks against the background of firming risk appetite but the currency was dealt another blow from the Fed when it announced in the FOMC statement new guidance for monetary policy, stating that interest rates would remain “exceptionally low until at least late 2014” while keeping the door open to further quantitative easing. The statement helped to counter the pressure on the EUR from rising Portuguese bond yields, with EUR/USD breaking above 1.3100.

The prospect of prolonged low US interest rates means that the USD could remain a funding a currency for longer than anticipated. My forecasts of only a gradual appreciation of the USD over coming months take this into account to a large extent. I remain positive on the prospects for the USD against the EUR, JPY and CHF but predict further weakness against high beta commodity currencies and emerging market currencies over coming months. However, should US bond yields continue to remain suppressed even expectations of USD gains against the EUR, JPY and CHF may be dashed.

Although the Fed downgraded its growth expectations over coming quarters US data releases are looking more encouraging and in this respect the US is beginning to outperform other major economies. In contrast Europe’s growth outlook looks even gloomier while there is a long way to go before the problems in the region are resolved. Portugal has moved increasingly into the spotlight as markets increasingly anticipate some form of debt restructuring while in Greece debt talks have so far failed to reach any agreement on the extent of debt writedowns.

As the end of the week approaches risk is definitely on the front foot and the EUR has confounded many expectations by strengthening against all odds. I have highlighted the fact that the market was extremely short EUR over recent weeks as well as the EUR’s increasing resilience to bad news. I also noted that the Eurozone external position is still very healthy providing underling support for the currency. While I still look for the EUR to weaken over coming months expectations of a one way will not be fulfilled. EUR/USD will face strong resistance around 1.3201 (the 21 December high and 61.8% retracement from its 1.3553 high).

Equity flows to Asia surge

Equity flows to Asia have begun the year in solid form. Although not quite as strong as in 2010 the pace of recent acceleration in flows has been more rapid, suggesting that it will soon overtake the year to date inflows seen over 2010. In total Asia has registered around $4.955 billion in foreign equity inflows. Korea has received the biggest inflows at $2.4 billion followed by India $1.04bn and Taiwan $1.03 billion.

The Indian rupee (INR) has been a clear beneficiary of such flows while the Korean won (KRW) has also strengthened. I suspect that official resistance may have limited Taiwan dollar (TWD) gains but clearly the risk on start to the year has resulted in strengthening inflows and in turn stronger Asian currencies.

Unless there is a disaster in Greece or elsewhere in Europe next week there is little to stop the short term trend but I remain wary over coming weeks and am cautious about extrapolating this trend forward. Like in 2010 and 2011 equity flows began the year strongly only to drop over following weeks and currencies were not slow to follow.

Euro edging towards year highs, GBP lagging

Contrary to most expectations at the beginning of this week EUR has managed to claw back its losses and more, with the currency edging towards its year-to-date highs around 1.3069. The resilience of the currency to bad news in Europe has been impressive and its gains have reflected a speculative market that has been extremely short. The end of the week sees no key data of note so markets will have to contend with digesting the outcome of the relatively positive Spanish and French debt auctions while keeping one eye on Greek debt talks with private investors.

Unless there is yet another breakdown of talks in Greece the EUR will end the week on a positive note. I suspect it won’t last further out especially given the pitfalls ahead but at a time when investors have become increasingly bearish on the EUR it may just extend its bounce over the short term. One country to watch is Portugal whose bonds have underperformed recently as markets speculate that it could be the next contender for any debt writedown.

Retail sales data in the UK will capture local market attention today. Sales are set to have bounced back in December but the improvement is likely to be short-lived, suggesting any support to GBP will be fleeting. GBP has underperformed even against the firmer EUR recently but this is providing better levels for investors to take long positions versus EUR. In part this reflects the move in relative European/US interest rate differentials, which has been correlated with the move in EUR/GBP.

I expect GBP to outperform EUR over coming months to around 0.80, with the former continuing to benefit from the simple fact that it is not in the Eurozone and has therefore acquired a quasi safe haven status. Nonetheless, as reflected in the drop in Nationwide consumer confidence in December, this year will be particularly difficult for the UK economy. GBP will be restrained by the prospects of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England as inflation eases further

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