Progress at last in Europe

As last week progressed markets had been increasingly poised for disappointment at the EU Summit at the end of the week. Given such low expectations it was probably not so difficult to exceed them. In the event there was progress towards breaking the vicious cycle between banks and sovereigns. The immediate reaction to the announcements from the EU President was clearly positive, with risk assets rallying sharply. EUR/USD had rallied by over 2 big figures from a low just above 1.24 as a massive short squeeze helped propel it higher.

With their backs against the wall EU leaders finally agreed upon short term stabilisation measures as well as long term measures towards closer European integration. Under pressure from other leaders including French President Hollande, German leader Merkel obviously softened her stance to agree on some of these measures. The deal goes to show that leaders in Europe can act when needed or at least when desperate which is how they were after 13 hours of talks and the reality that bond yields in Spain and Portugal were at unsustainable levels.

Short term measures in particular utilising the EFSF / ESM bailout fund to recapitalize banks directly and the creation of a European banking supervisory body was a shot in the arm for Italian and Spanish bonds and the EUR. The dropping of the condition that EU governments be given preferred creditor status for loans to Spanish banks bodes well for peripheral Eurozone sovereign debt markets as it means that private investors will not be put at the back of the que in any debt restructuring.

While the measures mark an important step in the direction of providing clear resolutions to the Eurozone crisis there is a very long way to go. Admitedly the use of the bailout funds is positive but at some point markets will ponder the fact that while they could handle a bailout of Spain the funds are clearly insufficient to cope with a bailout of Italy should it be needed. If the steps announced at the EU summit lead to a sustained drop in peripheral country bond yields then the prospects of more bailouts will be limited but this is by no means guaranteed.

Whether the risk rally is sustained into next week depends in part on whether the European Central Bank responds with actions of its own by cutting interest rates or by indicating the use of other measures such as restarting its securities markets purchases program. The risk remains that the rally will likely fade as skepticism sets in again once again and more details are sought.

IMF Hopes For Italy

Following a week in which risk aversion increased further and equity markets fell sharply the start of this week looks a little steadier. Reports in the Italian press that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is readying a EUR 600 billion loan for Italy in the event of a worsening in the debt crisis may help to support markets as the week kicks off.

Moreover a report in the German press that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are preparing a fast track “Stability Pact” for euro countries similar to the Schengen agreement, that may be announced this week, will also help to steady market nerves. However, neither report has been confirmed suggesting that as usual the scope for disappointment is high. The sell on risk on rallies environment is likely to persist for a while longer despite such reports.

Liquidity is likely to thin further this week and scope for volatility is high given that there are plenty of events and data on tap. Included among these are debt auctions in Belgium and Italy today and France and Spain later in the week against the background where Germany’s failed bond auction last week has fuelled even more nervousness in bond markets. A European Finance Ministers meeting beginning tomorrow will also come under scrutiny, especially given the lack of progress so far on many issues including the issue of Eurobonds.

The key data of the week will arrive from the US, with the November jobs report, ISM manufacturing survey, Beige Book and consumer confidence reports scheduled for release. Following what appears to be strong Thanksgiving holiday weekend spending the US data will continue to show improvement although this may not be enough to stem speculation that the Fed is verging on buying of mortgage backed securities in a third round of quantitative easing.

Risk currencies have commenced the week in strong firm, with the EUR and AUD rallying. Any gain in the EUR will prove limited and unsustainable unless the weekend press reports are confirmed. EUR/USD will find upside resistance around the 1.3412 level, while the risk of a downside test of support around its October 4 low at 1.3146 remains high over coming days.

Extreme Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty enveloping global markets has reached an extreme level. Who would have thought that close to 13 years after its introduction at a time when it has become the second largest reserve currency globally (26.7% of global reserves) as well as the second most traded currency in the world, European leaders would be openly talking about allowing countries to exit the EUR? No less an issue for currency markets is the sustainability of the USD’s role as the foremost reserve currency (60.2% of global reserves). The US debt ceiling debacle and the dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet have led to many official reserve holders to question their use of the USD. Perhaps unsurprisingly the JPY has been the main beneficiary of such concerns especially as global risk aversion has increased but to the Japanese much of this attention is unwanted and unwelcome.

The immediate focus is the travails of the eurozone periphery. Against the background of severe debt tensions and political uncertainties it is perhaps surprising that the EUR has held up reasonably well. However, this resilience is related more to concerns about the long term viability of the USD rather than a positive view of the EUR, as many official investors continue to diversify away from the USD. I question whether the EUR’s resilience can be sustained given that it may be a long while before the situation in the eurozone stabilises. Moreover, given the now not insignificant risk of one or more countries leaving the eurozone the long term viability of the EUR may also come into question. I believe a break up of the eurozone remains unlikely but such speculation will not be quelled until markets are satisfied that a safety net / firewall for the eurozone periphery is safely in place.

In this environment fundamentals count for little and risk counts for all. If anything, market tensions have intensified and worries about the eurozone have increased since last month. Politics remain at the forefront of market turmoil, and arguably this has led to the worsening in the crisis as lack of agreement between eurozone leaders has led to watered down solutions. Recent changes in leadership in Italy and Greece follow on from government changes in Portugal and Ireland while Spain is widely expected to emerge with a new government following elections. Meanwhile Chancellor Merkel has had to tread a fine line given opposition from within her own coalition in Germany while in France President Sarkozy is expected to have a tough time in elections in April next year. The likelihood of persistent political tensions for months ahead suggests that the EUR and risk currencies will suffer for a while longer.

Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

Contrasting US and European data

While the week is likely to commence in a positive mood as political uncertainties in Greece and Italy ease somewhat, there are still plenty of uncertainties that could derail risk appetite. In particular, there has been little progress on agreeing on further details on leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. Moreover, many are looking to the European Central Bank (ECB) to take up the role as lender of the last resort. Indeed, the difficulty of the EFSF debt issue last week to garner demand puts the onus firmly on the ECB.

While it is likely that the ECB will have to step up its bond purchases especially given the heavy bond supply this week from Italy, France and Spain, the ECB is very reluctant to take up this mantle. As a result, peripheral and increasingly core bond market sentiment will remain fragile while the EUR will be vulnerable to a drop lower, especially given how rich it looks around current levels close to 1.38 versus USD. The week will likely be one of selling risk on rallies.

Data releases this week will show some contrasts between the US and Europe. US data will further dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing, with October retail sales and industrial production set to register gains and November manufacturing surveys likely to bounce. Several Federal Reserve speeches this week will shed more light on the FOMC’s stance and likely some support for purchases of mortgage backed securities will be reiterated.

In contrast eurozone data will show further deceleration. Industrial production in September is likely to have dropped sharply while the German ZEW investor confidence survey is set to have dropped further in November. Even an expected bounce in eurozone Q3 GDP will do little to stave off recession concerns given that growth in the final quarter of the year will have been much weaker. Banking sector develeraging will only add to growth concerns as credit expansion in curtailed.

In FX markets, the risk currencies will be vulnerable to selling pressure. EUR/USD has rebounded having tested highs around 1.3815 this morning but its gains look increasingly fragile. USD/JPY continues to grind lower, with no sign of further intervention from the Japanese authorities. Elevated risk aversion and the narrow US yield advantage continues to support the JPY making the job of weakening the currency harder. GBP has done well although it has lagged the EUR against the USD over recent days. A likely dovish stance in the Bank of England (BoE) quarterly inflation report will see GBP struggle to extend gains above 1.60 against the USD.

The Italian Job

Italy looks too big to rescue yet is too big to fail. The country has around EUR 1.9 trillion in public debt (around 5 times that of Greece) and is the third largest country in the eurozone. Therefore it cannot be as easily dealt with as Greece.

Italy needs to raise around EUR 18 billion per month to cover its budget deficit and bond redemptions and with a continued increase in yields (hitting close to 7.5% for 10 year bonds) borrowing costs are rising sharply and fast becoming unsustainable. Higher collateral haircuts on Italian debt are adding to the pressure.

Although Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has said he will step down in the wake of reform measures to be voted on by the Italian parliament the vote on the measures may not take place for weeks. Moreover, Berlusconi may attempt to seek re-election after stepping down, which could bring the situation back to square one.

In the meantime speculation that Italy may be the next country to need to a bailout will intensify. However, with only around EUR 270 billion remaining in the EFSF bailout fund and details of how the fund will be leveraged to a planned EUR 1 trillion still lacking, doubts about whether it will have sufficient resources will grow. Press reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone due to fears that Italy will be too big to rescue will only add to the malaise.

Focus over the short term will turn to today’s 12 month auction of EUR 5 billion in Italy. Last month’s 12 month auction saw an average yield of 3.57% but this time around yields could rise above 6%. Worryingly it appears that even with the European Central Bank (ECB) buying Italian debt it has been insufficient to prevent yield rising.

In any case, given the ECB’s reluctance to become lender of the last resort to European peripherals, any support from this direction will be limited. Against this background the EUR remains highly vulnerable to a further drop. Indeed, the EUR’s recent resilience looks all the more misplaced. A test of the 4 October low around EUR/USD 1.3146 is on the cards over coming days.

Greece throws a spanner in the works

Having already retraced around 50% of its losses from its high around 4 April to its low on 27 October the USD index is on a firm footing and looks set to extend gains. The USD is benefitting both from the EUR’s woes and receding expectations of more US quantitative easing in the wake of less negative US data releases.

Whether the USD is able to build on its gains will depend on the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting, accompanying statement and press conference today. While there have been some noises from Fed officials about the prospects of more QE, the Fed is likely to keep policy settings unchanged, leaving the USD on the front foot.

Greece has thrown a spanner in the works by calling a national referendum on the European deal. The fact that this referendum may not take place until January will bring about a prolonged period of uncertainty and further downside risks for the EUR against the USD and on the crosses. As a result of the increased uncertainty from the referendum, growing doubts about various aspects of last week’s agreement as well as hesitation from emerging market investors to buy into any European investment vehicle, peripheral bond spreads blew out further, and the EUR dropped.

The immediate focus will be on emergency talks today between European leaders in Cannes where Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has been summoned at a time when his grip on power appears to be slipping ahead of a government confidence vote on Friday. EUR/USD looks set to slip to support around 1.3525.

The Swiss National Bank’s floor under EUR/CHF has held up well since it was implemented in early September. How well it can be sustained going forward is questionable especially given that risk aversion is intensifying once again. A weaker than forecast reading for the Swiss October manufacturing PMI yesterday falling further below the 50 boom / bust reading to 46.9 highlights the growing economic risks and consequent pressure to prevent the CHF from strengthening further. However, now that Japan has shown its teeth in the form of FX intervention the CHF may find itself once again as the target of safe haven flows.

Technical indicators revealed that GBP was overbought and its correction lower was well overdue. However, GBP looks in better shape than the EUR even in the wake of some mixed UK data yesterday. On a positive note, UK Q3 GDP surprised on the upside in line with our expectations coming in at 0.5% QoQ. However, the forward looking PMI manufacturing index dropped more than expected in October, down to 47.4 suggesting that UK economic momentum is waning quickly.

EUR/GBP looks set to test its 12 September low around 0.8259 but GBP/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back against a resurgent USD. Overall, GBP’s resilience despite the implementation of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England has been impressive and I expect it to continue to benefit from its semi safe haven status

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