High degree of investor caution

Although risk aversion has declined from recently elevated levels there is still a high degree of caution from investors who are unwilling to take long term bets. The causes of market angst have remained unchanged over recent weeks namely Ukraine tensions, weaker growth in China and US data that has performed below expectations.

It is therefore unsurprising that in the wake of a weaker than forecast reading for Chinese manufacturing confidence yesterday and talk of more sanctions against Russia, European and US equity markets fell overnight and Asian equities have began the day on softer footing.

The Markit US manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) edged lower, but unlike the Chinese PMI, which remained below the 50 boom/bust level, the US reading was healthy at 55.5 in March. The Eurozone equivalent edged lower but continued to show that recovery was still in shape, with the March reading at 53.

The reverberations from Fed Chairman Yellen’s comments last week also inflicting some damage, with gold prices in particular succumbing to pressure and verging on a test of the 200 day moving average around 1296.83. A heavy slate of data today includes the German March IFO survey, UK CPI inflation, US March consumer confidence and February new home sales.

AUD the “Teflon” currency

Despite further concerns about Chinese growth, following the release of the much worse than expected trade data over the weekend, AUD continues to hold gains above 0.90. Additionally declines in key commodities such as iron ore have done little to dent the enthusiasm for AUD. In this respect, AUD is fast becoming the new “Teflon” currency, helped by the neutral stance of the Reserve Bank of Australia and recently positive domestic data such as building approvals, Q4 GDP and January trade data.

The next major test for AUD will be Thursday’s release of the February jobs report. Clearly there has been a worsening in jobs conditions but the worst is likely over and after a decline in employment over the last couple of months some rebound is expected (our forecast +20k, consensus +15k).

AUD is set to consolidate over the near term, with technical support seen around 0.8980.

Cautious start to the year

Happy New Year!

2013 ended with a solid performance by US equities and further pressure on US Treasuries helped by a bigger than expected increase in US December consumer confidence. The S&P 500 ended close to 30% higher over the year while 10 year Treasury yields rose above 3%, registering an overall rise of around 108 basis points over 2013. In contrast commodity prices dropped sharply, with the CRB index recording a sharp drop and ending 5% lower over the year. Meanwhile the USD index ended the year close to where it began although this performance belies some significant volatility over the year, with losses against the EUR and gains against the JPY.

The first trading day of 2014 begins on a more cautious note as a disappointing reading for the December Chinese purchasing managers’ index (51.0 versus 51.2 consensus forecast) will cast a shadow over markets today. Indeed, the data alongside weaker commodity prices will weigh on AUD. Japanese markets will be closed over the rest of the week, while many market participants will not return until next week, suggesting limited activity. Nonetheless, as far as the JPY is concerned the currency is set to remain on the back foot versus USD given the ongoing widening in real yield differentials between the US and Japan.

Meanwhile EUR/USD looks like it will struggle to make much headway over the short term, with only the final reading of the December Eurozone PMI due for release today. The data will likely confirm a relatively healthy looking reading of 52.7, its highest reading since May 2011 but will unlikely provoke much of a market reaction. Instead markets will look ahead to the European Central Bank meeting next week. Recent ECB comments suggest little chance of another rate cut anytime soon despite a very subdued inflationary backdrop. Against this background any EUR slippage in the short term is likely to be limited although further out the relatively inferior Eurozone growth outlook compared to the US, highlights plenty of scope for downside EUR pressure.

Asian currencies will also look somewhat subdued in the wake of China’s softer PMI reading. Additionally a bigger than expected decline in Singapore Q4 GDP release (-2.7% QoQ annualised) will also not bode well although the drop in GDP will be seen as temporary, with official estimates still pointing to growth around 2-4% for 2014. In contrast robust export data from South Korea will be positive for the KRW in line with our view that the currency will be one of 2014’s outperformers along with the TWD and CNH. Elsewhere the THB continues to be hamstrung by political concerns, which are showing little sign of easing ahead of planned elections February 2.

Is gold losing its lustre?

Hopes and expectations of more Fed quantitative easing in the wake of a run of weak US data, including the US May jobs report, has been attributable to the bounce in gold prices over recent weeks. However, Fed Chairman Bernanke dampened such hopes in his speech to Congress, in which he did not indicate a desire to move towards more QE. The Fed is unlikely in my view to embark on more QE any time soon.

Clearly, should the Fed implement more QE it will help to renew the attraction of gold. Once again markets will see the consequences of Fed QE as a means to debase the USD. A shift in Fed stance cannot be ruled out if US economic conditions worsen further and/or the Eurozone crisis escalates. Assuming no more QE and no more USD debasement, gold prices ought to decline over coming months.

One of the biggest factors putting downward pressure on gold prices has been the strength of the USD. While I do not expect the USD to continue to strengthen at the same pace as it has done recently, further gradual gains in the currency are likely. My FX forecasts predict a further small gain for the USD index by the end of the year but I also believe that the recent run up in the USD may have been too rapid. Assuming that the USD continues on a gradual upward trajectory I expect it to exert a negative influence on gold prices.

Gold appears to have lost its sensitivity to risk aversion. Indeed, gold’s relationship with risk has actually inverted over recent months, with a negative but significant relationship registered over the past 3 months between gold prices and my Risk Aversion Barometer. In other words as risk aversion goes up, gold prices actually drop.

The lack of reaction to higher risk aversion shows that the lustre of gold as a safe haven has faded as investors pull capital out of this as well as many other asset classes. However, gold’s drop is not unusual when compared to other commodity prices, with oil and copper prices falling too and gold maintaining a strong correlation with these commodities.

Some deterioration in sentiment towards gold prices has been reflected in the drop in speculative appetite for the commodity. Speculative demand for gold hit a cyclical high in August 2011 but since then there has been a steady reduction in appetite for gold from these investors. Indeed, CFTC IMM data reveals that speculative gold positioning dropped well below its three-month average. However, positioning is still well above its all time lows reached in February 2005, suggesting if anything, there is scope for more declines.

On top of the drop in speculative appetite for gold the technical picture has turned bearish. Since March 2009 at the height of the financial crisis the 100 day moving average price of gold had been trading above the 200 day moving average. On 27 March 2012 the 100 day moving average crossed below the 200 day moving average. Moreover, gold is now trading below both the 100 and 200 day moving average prices which sends a bearish technical message. Over the near term some key levels to look for are the 100 day moving average around 1658 on the topside and trendline support around the 1530 level on the bottom.

Another determinant of gold prices is demand from India and China. Growth in both countries is slowing, suggesting that gold demand is also weakening. While I certainly do not expect a collapse in demand from either country I have no doubt that compared to last year the strength of demand will be softer over coming months. Although I still look for a soft landing in China the Indian economic picture has clearly deteriorated while the Indian rupee has weakened. A weaker INR means that has become increasingly more expensive to import gold to India for domestic purchasers.

Overall, a weaker real demand picture taken together with reduced speculative appetite implies little support for gold prices. Moreover, a firmer USD in general will continue to weigh on prices. Perhaps a dose of inflation would help gold prices but there is little risk of this given the still sizeable amount of excess capacity in major economies.

Uncertainty about QE will help to limit any downside pressure on gold prices but elevated risk aversion will provide little assistance to gold. If however, the Eurozone and global picture deteriorates further gold will find itself with a lifeline but only if this means more currency debasement and a Fed engineered lower USD. If not, a further decline is on the cards and I forecast a drop in gold prices to around USD 1475 by the end of the year.

Sell Risk Currencies on Rallies

The Federal Reserve FOMC outcome and Greece’s travails failed to dampen the recovery in risk appetite overnight. The Fed highlighted downside risks to growth and revised lower its forecasts. However, positively for risk appetite the Fed left open further policy easing options, hinting at more quantitative easing if needed.

Meanwhile European leaders tightened the noose around Greece by cutting off EUR 8 billion in aid payments and threatening to cut of all aid if the country’s referendum now scheduled for December 4 fails to endorse the EU rescue package announced last week.

At the emergency meeting of European leaders yesterday Greece’s Prime Minister also admitted that the referendum will not only decide the fate of the rescue package but also whether Greece wants to remain in the eurozone. Greece was not only the eurozone country in focus as Italy continues to be racked by political uncertainties, with Prime Minister Berlusconi failing push through legislation on structural reforms ahead of the G20 meeting beginning today.

The risk rally is highly unlikely to last, with the EUR, commodity and high beta emerging market currencies to face further pressure. Although the immediate market focus will be on the G20 meeting beginning today the fact that leaders are now seriously beginning to consider the prospects of a Greek exit from the eurozone while taking a tougher stance on the country highlights how important the December 4 referendum will be.

Ahead of the vote markets will remain highly nervous and risk aversion will remain elevated. Consequently risk assets are set to face further pressure. Moreover, the fact that China has downplayed the prospects of further bond purchases from the EFSF bailout fund suggests there will be no help from this quarter any time soon.

Aside from the G20 meeting markets will pay attention to Draghi and Co. at the European Central Bank (ECB) today as well as bond auctions in France and Spain but we do not look for much excitement from the ECB despite the increased uncertainty within the eurozone. While an interest rate cut today cannot be ruled out given the increased market uncertainty the ECB is likely to wait until December before cutting policy rates.

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.

Fed’s status quo fuels caution

The Fed’s status quo did little to stir markets overnight although there was a decidedly negative tone to equities and commodities, perhaps spurred by the downgrading of US growth forecasts. The fact that the Fed did not indicate that it is considering further asset purchases but instead will keep its balance sheet at around $,2800 billion also acted as a drag on markets.

The major concern for markets remains the depth and length of the current ‘soft patch’. The Fed believes it will be temporary and we concur, but clearly the slide in equity markets over recent weeks, suggests that there has been a divergence between stock market expectations and reality. The USD however, may actually be finding a medium term bottom, with the fact that the Fed is not considering QE3,

The downbeat Fed stance combined with a cautious reaction to the Greek government’s passage of a confidence motion indicates that markets will remain cautious over the near term. Indeed, comments by the Greek opposition that they will not support further austerity measures dashed any hopes of unity and will add another obstacle towards an easing in Greek tensions.

As it is the continued wrangling between European officials over private sector participation in any debt rollover as well as uncertainty over how ratings agencies will react, threatens to keep sentiment under pressure. The EUR has remained surprisingly resilient but its muted reaction to the passage of the confidence motion has given way to some weakness and the currency remains a sell on rallies.

GBP was a major underperformer weighed down by the relatively dovish Bank of England MPC minutes in which some members were even discussing further asset purchases. The currency faces further risks from a the CBI reported sales data for June where a decline in sales is likely to be reported. GBP/USD looks vulnerable to a drop below its 200 day moving average around 1.6027.

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