US dollar to consolidate gains

Markets last week were spooked by comments from Fed Chairman Yellen and the upward drift in Fed Funds projections which appeared to indicate a rate hike would take place around the spring of 2015.

This week will give the chance for Fed officials to either downplay or reinforce Yellen’s comments. There are several Fed speakers on tap over coming days including Stein, Lockhart, Plosser, Bullard, Pianalto and Evans.

Despite Yellen’s comments US equity markets ended the week higher despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea. US bonds yields also firmed over the week while the USD rebounded.

Sentiment this week will depend in part on further Fed commentary as noted above, Chinese data and also whether tensions between the West and Russia intensify. Reports that Russia has built up a “very sizeable” force on its borders with Ukraine do not bode well in this respect.

US data this week will look less weather impacted and will err on the positive side. Consumer confidence is set to be unchanged in March, while February new home sales are set to decline but durable goods orders are set to rise. Q4 GDP is likely to be revised higher and personal income and spending will reveal healthy gains in February.

Overall, the USD is expected to consolidate its recent gains will some improvements on the data front will interest rate markets will remain under pressure.

It’s all about the weather

Fed Chairman Yellen helped allay concerns that something more sinister than bad weather was impacting the US economy in her speech to the Senate Banking Committee yesterday. While highlighting that tapering will go on unabated and likely end by the fall, the comments gave hope that the poor run of US data will come to end soon, once the weather impact reverses.

Risk assets liked what they heard, with US equities closing at record highs and the VIX “fear gauge” edging lower. Reduced safe haven demand helped US Treasury yields to move lower undermining the USD in the process. Against this background markets will ignore a likely downward revision of US Q4 GDP today, which will be seen as largely backward looking.

The relief from Yellen’s comments was sufficient to outweigh the increasingly precarious situation in the Ukraine where the regional parliament in the largely Russian speaking region of Crimea was overtaken by armed gunmen hoisting the Russian flag. Subsequently Crimea has now set a referendum to decide whether to opt for sovereignty for the region.

Given the increased jawboning by Russia and military exercises along the border with Ukraine, together with warnings by Western nations for Russia not to get involved in the situation, the risk of a further escalation of tensions are high. Indeed, the scenario increasingly resembles the type of stand off taking place during the “cold war” and markets may be underestimating the potential impact.

Risk rally losing steam

The rally in risk assets is losing its momentum, with US stock markets failing to extend gains following a four day rally while US Treasury yields continued their ascent in the wake of Fed Chairman Yellen’s testimony highlighting no deviation from tapering. Her testimony to the Senate will be delayed today while US data in the form of retail sales is likely to register a soft outcome. Sentiment was boosted overnight by strong Chinese trade data in January and the approval by the US Congress allowing a suspension of the debt limit, a far cry from the major saga that took place last time the debt ceiling was about to be breached.

Additionally Eurozone markets will find some support from comments by European Central Bank board member Coeure who noted that the central banks is “very seriously” considering negative deposit rates. His view may be supported by the release of the ECB monthly bulletin today and Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF). Coeure’s comments undermined the EUR however, while in contrast sharp upward revisions to growth forecasts by the Bank of England in its Quarterly Inflation Report boosted GBP. Suffice to say, EUR/GBP dropped like a stone and looks set to remain under downward pressure.

Awaiting Yellen

There was very little activity of note overnight, with markets taking on the appearance of grounding to a halt ahead of the first semi-annual testimony to Congress by new Fed Chairman Yellen later tonight. A Japanese holiday today will act as another dampener on activity.

Weaker data and/or emerging market tensions are highly unlikely to deter Yellen and the Fed from maintaining a tapering path but of interest to markets will be any indication that the unemployment rate is to be deemphasized given its misleading fall over recent months. With little else of note on tap until the release of US retail sales and Eurozone Q4 2013 GDP later in the week Yellen’s speech will set the tone for markets over coming days.

The biggest market movers over recent days have been the VIX index, natural gas and gold prices. The VIX has fallen sharply reflecting a major turnaround in risk appetite from an elevated level, which has been corroborated by our risk barometer moving back into risk ‘neutral’ territory from risk ‘hating’.

Nonetheless, although emerging market fears have calmed down the path ahead is still likely to be a volatile one. Natural gas prices have also dropped reflecting expectations of milder weather ahead in the US. In contrast gold prices have rallied further extending gains this year to around 6%. Lower US yields and a weaker USD have helped to buoy gold prices over recent days while news of record gold demand and supply from China has also helped.

A more constructive start to the week

Following a period of heightened volatility markets ended last week on a more positive note. Despite another soft reading for US non farm payrolls in January which revealed jobs growth of 142k following a gain of 74k in the previous month, markets took some comfort from a drop in the unemployment rate to 6.6% which for a change was not related to a drop in the participation rate. The participation rate rose to 63.0% in January.

Against this backdrop Fed Chairman Yellen will be giving her first testimony to Congress this week and while there is likely to be little change to the Fed’s policy outlook there will need to be some reassessment of the Fed’s forward guidance, especially given the surprisingly quick drop in the unemployment rate. The USD index slipped last week but we expect a slightly firmer tone to ensue over coming days in line with higher US yields.

Markets will kick off the week much as they left off last week, with a calmer and more constructive tone likely. Aside from Yellen’s speeches, US data will be soft on the whole, with January retail sales likely to post a small decline, while industrial production will record a gain and Michigan sentiment will fall, with consumer confidence weighed down by weaker equity markets.

Some respite for emerging market assets

Large gains in many emerging market currencies have been registered in the wake of policy rate hikes in Turkey and to a lesser extent in India. Also some encouraging data in Asia in particular a widening in South Korea’s current account surplus helped to shore up confidence in regional currencies. Not wanting to throw cold water on the move but while everyone is lauding Turkey for its bold move the reality is that its aggressive rate hike will hit growth at a time when its economy is fragile.

The massive rate hike in Turkey (repo rate hiked from 4.5% to 10%) fuelled a bounce in risk appetite nonetheless, although most risk measures have only reversed part of the move registered over recent days. It is way too early to suggest that everything is returning back to normal and the rally in risk assets looks vulnerable to fading out over coming days.

While I am not a proponent of the nervousness in emerging markets turning into a renewed crisis, uncertainty about country specific issues such as slowing growth and deleveraging in China, fundamental and political uncertainties / elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia. Ukraine and countries in the “fragile 5” against the background of Fed tapering, suggest rocky times ahead.

Moreover, the market may have priced in another $10 billion of Fed tapering today but the reality is that the global liquidity injections provided by the Fed will be reduced over coming months. Additionally a likely renewed rise in US Treasury yields will add another layer of pressure on emerging market assets.

Although emerging market currencies have strengthened most G10 currencies remain in a tight range. G10 FX gains were led by the AUD and NZD while JPY came under renewed pressure. This pattern is likely to continue in the near term. Aside from the Fed FOMC there will be some attention on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand too. The RBNZ is expected to keep policy rates unchanged but there is a small chance of rate hike or at the least a hawkish accompanying statement which ought to keep the NZD supported.

Shaky start to the year for equities

Equity markets and risk assets in general are having a decidedly shaky start to the year. Following a 30% increase in the US S&P 500 last year markets are finally looking at whether earnings expectations and economic growth will justify further gains in equities.

Worries ahead of Q4 earnings releases and perhaps concerns about the economy in the wake of the disappointing US December jobs report weighed on US equities overnight. These concerns also fuelled a further drop in US Treasury yields and undermined the USD. In contrast gold prices were buoyed.

The sharp drop in Treasury yields over recent days highlights both the previous extent of bearishness in bonds but also some hope / expectation that the Fed may slow the pace of tapering in the wake of the jobs data. This seems unlikely however, and as indicated by the Fed’s Lockhart overnight the data is highly unlikely to alter Fed policy.

Q4 earnings releases from JP Morgan and Wells Fargo as well as speeches by Dallas Fed President Fisher and Philly Fed President Plosser will be in focus today to provide further direction to markets. On the data front US December retail sales is the main release of note for which a drop in headline sales will be more than compensated by a gain in sales ex autos.

Overall a cautious tone is likely to continue until further clarity on the earnings outlook is revealed but economic data at least should look more encouraging over coming days. Clearly lower US Treasury yields are weighing on the USD but this is likely to prove to be a correction rather than a sustained USD decline.

It is interesting that the EUR has not managed to capitalize on the weakness in the USD. Lingering expectations that the European Central Bank may need to become more aggressive in terms of policy in the wake of soft inflation could be restraining the EUR. A solid reading for November Eurozone industrial production expected to be revealed today is unlikely to help the currency.

GBP was a major loser overnight although there does not seem to be much of a fundamental reason to sell the currency aside from soft November industrial production data released at the end of last week. Perhaps some profit taking on long GBP positioning may be attributable for the drop in the currency but the CFTC IMM data shows that speculative positioning was not overly long. Inflation data today will provide further direction, with GBP likely to remain under short term pressure.

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