Bernanke and Eurogroup awaited

Two main events will garner most attention this week. These are Fed Chairman Bernanke’s Monetary Policy Report to Congress on Wednesday and the Eurogroup meeting on Friday. Ahead of these events trading is likely to be restrained. While a solid close to US and European equity markets at the end of last week suggest at least a firm start to the week for risk assets the many and varied uncertainties afflicting markets suggest that positive momentum will be very limited. US data should generally outperform compared to Europe this week with June retail sales, July Empire manufacturing, May industrial production and June housing starts are set to post gains. In contrast, the German July ZEW survey is set to decline further.

Wide ranging uncertainties in Europe including the inability to seal the deal on the main elements of the recent EU Summit, downgrade of Italy’s sovereign ratings by Moody’s, uncertainty of Greece’s austerity programme, delay in the German Constitutional Court’s verdict on the ESM bailout fund, the hard line stance of German Chancellor Merkel towards banking supervision, disagreement within France’s majority government on how to ratify the Fiscal Pact as well as objections from the Netherlands and Finland on the use of the rescue funds, highlight just some of the difficulties remaining in turning around confidence in Europe. All of this suggests that the EUR will remain under downward pressure while Eurozone peripheral bond spreads will see limited compression.

Aside from a relatively weak EUR which we expect to push lower initially to support around 1.2151 versus USD and then towards the psychologically important 1.200 other risk / high beta currencies will remain relatively resilient. Asian currencies will likely begin the week in positive mood helped by expectation of more stimulus from China but unless risk appetite improves significantly any upward bias will be limited. Although there may be some disappointment from a lack of progress in Europe on resolving its crisis and also from Bernanke’s testimony in which he is unlikely to indicate a greater bias towards more quantitative easing, risk appetite is unlikely to sour too much, especially given thin summer trading conditions and hopes of more policy stimulus out of China.

Political pressures afflicts the euro

I’m in Dubai today presenting at a client seminar so am a little late on my blog post today. There is definitely lots going on however and all the talk is about politics. The mood is decidedly downbeat following the elections in France and Greece over the weekend. Risk assets have tanked while the USD looks firm except versus JPY. The elections over the weekend clearly dealt a blow to advocates of austerity resulting in a major increase in policy uncertainty.

Following the weaker the forecast US jobs report at the end of last week data over coming days will be less influential on the USD. In general I expect the USD to edge higher, helped by a decidedly more nervous market tone and higher risk aversion. The main interest for FX markets on the data front will be the April NFIB Small Business Optimism survey, March trade data and May Michigan confidence at the end of the week.

Although not a particular driver for the USD, the dip in the NFIB survey in March provoked concerns about the pace of US recovery and potential downturn in growth. This has been echoed in other data, which in turn has kept the door open to more Fed action restraining the USD in the meantime.

The ECB failed to rattle the EUR’s cage following its policy meeting last week although the lack of a dovish tone did help the EUR to rally briefly. We believe the market reacted prematurely and if anything the ECB may be setting the scene for a rate cut in June. Weak data has helped to undermine the EUR and I expect little or no improvement over coming days. Given that Germany has also succumbed to some weakness, the March German industrial production report will be monitored with interest on Tuesday.

The main driver for the EUR over coming days will be politics rather than the ECB or economic data however, with markets digesting the outcomes of the second round of the French Presidential election and Greek elections as well as the poor result for Chancellor Merkel in German state elections. Against this background and facing a bearish technical picture EUR/USD will struggle to recover, with 1.3060 providing a new resistance level.

Euro under growing pressure

A risk off tone has developed in the wake of disappointing economic data (Eurozone April purchasing managers indices, rise in March Eurozone and German unemployment, weaker US ADP jobs report). Additionally the second round of French Presidential elections is helping to keep Eurozone markets nervous. While hitting equities, the weaker market tone is likely to keep the USD buoyed.

The soft ADP report in particular highlights downside risks to the consensus for the April non-farm payrolls data, with analysts set to revise lower their forecasts fuelling concerns about a renewed weakening in the US jobs market. Ahead of this data, markets will contend with the outcome of the European Central Bank (ECB) policy meeting and bond auctions in France and Spain today. Several Fed speakers today will also be on tap.

The EUR will struggle to make any headway in the short term, having suffered in the wake of weak data. An unchanged policy decision from the ECB will give the EUR no assistance leaving EUR/USD vulnerable to a test of strong support around 1.3104. The ECB considers current policy settings as ‘appropriate’ but weaker growth data argue for lower rates.

The reality is that the ECB does not want to give Eurozone governments an excuse to renege on reforms. Should the ECB hint at lower rates in the near future it might actually play well for the EUR helping to alleviate growth concerns, but I suspect such a message is unlikely to emerge.

GBP has lost some ground after hitting a high just above 1.63 at the end of April but the currency looks reasonably well supported, especially against EUR. UK data remains relatively better looking as reflected in stronger readings for the PMI construction index, consumer credit and mortgage approvals.

EUR/GBP has broken its relationship with movements in EUR/USD for the time being, with independent GBP strength being seen. This is been reinforced by the shift in interest rate differentials between the UK and Eurozone, a move which has gone in favour of GBP strength. Indeed my quantitative model for EUR/GBP points to some further downside potential in this currency pair, with a test of technical support around 0.8067 on the cards.

More Bad News In Europe

Several pieces of bad news soured sentiment at the end of last week undoing much of the good news since the beginning of the year and dashing hopes of a relatively swift resolution to Eurozone’s ills. S&P ratings agency downgraded nine Eurozone countries’ credit ratings leaving 14 on negative outlook. In particular France and Austria, which lost their triple AAA status while not particularly surprising, comes as a major blow to efforts to resolve the crisis. The downgrade puts at risk the EUR 180 billion in credit guarantees underpinning the EUR 440 EFSF bailout fund.

Separately the breakdown of talks on Greek debt restructuring and criticism by the Euuropean Central Bank (ECB) on a new draft of a treaty to ensure fiscal discipline added to the malaise, with the ECB noting that proposed revisions amount to a “a substantial watering down”. Such criticism will likely be an obstacle to the ECB stepping up its peripheral debt buying potentially threatening any decline in bond yields. It is difficult to see sentiment improving this week, with risk aversion set to remain elevated as Eurozone leaders attempt to restore confidence. In contrast, US data continues to support evidence of economic recovery, albeit gradual and this week’s releases including industrial production and manufacturing surveys will likely add to this.

The EUR slid further at the end of last week reversing earlier gains, as the bad news mounted in the Eurozone. Ratings downgrades, breakdown of Greek debt talks and ECB criticism over watered down fiscal rules, combined to make a dangerous concoction of negative headlines. The news put an end to the EUR’s short covering rally, leaving the currency vulnerable too further declines this week. Speculative sentiment according to IMM data reached another all time low last week (-155k net positions), suggesting that any good news could lead to a strong bounce as short positions are covered.

However, it is difficult to see where such news will come from and even a small expected bounce in the German January ZEW investor confidence survey this week will do little to detract from the negative news on the policy front. A meeting between Merkel, Monti and Sarkozy will be eyed closely as they prepare for a meeting of European Union (EU) Finance Ministers and markets will be looking for aggressive action to turn confidence around. Debt sales in In the meantime EUR/USD will continue to languish but strong technical support is seen around 1.2588.

Beware of EUR short covering

Europe has plenty of events to focus on over the next couple of days including the European Central Bank (ECB) Council meeting, and debt auctions in Spain and Italy. While I am by no means a EUR bull the risk is skewed towards some short term recovery or at least stabilization around EUR/USD 1.28. The speculative market is extremely short EUR while policy makers, specifically German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are making the right noises. it appears to have finally dawned on Eurozone officials that its not just about austerity but also about growth and reform.

News that Fitch ratings is unlikely to downgrade France’s ratings this year has provided a boost to Eurozone confidence. Greece could yet spoil the party given the ongoing discussion with the Troika (Euuropean Commission, International Monetary Fund and ECB) to finalise the second bailout package for the country. Opposition resistance within Greece suggests that more austerity may not be easy to implement. Meanwhile there are ongoing questions about the extent of writedowns that Greek debt will undergo. Despite these issues it appears that markets are becoming somewhat more immune to events in the Eurozone. While still high bond yields for Italy and other debt still point to ongoing trouble, risk appetite has firmed.

One factor that is helping to boost sentiment is the encouraging news out of the US. Although the Q4 earnings season has not began particularly well data releases look somewhat more positive. Not only has positive impact of last week’s US December jobs report continued to filter through the market but so has other news such as a pick up in small business confidence and a rise in consumer credit. These lesser watched data highlight the gradual recovery process underway in the US and the growing divergence with the Eurozone economy and support the view of medium term USD outperformance versus EUR.

Euro sentiment dives to a new low

Equity markets in Europe began the year in positive mood, with gains led by the German DAX index following the release of firmer than expected readings for Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI). Chinese data which showed an increase in its PMI also helped to boost sentiment. The Eurozone data however, remained at a weak level, contracting for a fifth month in a row, and still consistent with Eurozone recession.

It seems unlikely that equity gains will be sustained over the rest of this week, with risk aversion set to remain elevated against the background of ongoing Eurozone debt and global growth concerns. Indeed, both French and German leaders in their new-year messages warned about the risks ahead. A meeting between Germany’s Merkel and France’s Sarkozy is scheduled for January 9th ahead of an EU Finance Ministers summit on January 23rd. It is unlikely that there will be any significant policy decisions in Europe before then.

Meanwhile, press reports noting that Germany is pushing for an even bigger write down of Greek debt than previously agreed will only add to risk aversion over the short term. The report in the Greek press highlighted the prospect of a 75% write down of Greek debt a far cry from the 20% proposed some months ago. Eurozone markets continue to be haunted by the prospects of credit downgrades by major ratings agencies at a time when many countries have to issue large amounts of debt to satisfy their funding requirements.

Against this background the EUR is set to remain under pressure, with a notable drop below EUR/JPY 100, its lowest level in over a decade registered. Reflecting the deterioration in sentiment for the currency, EUR speculative position hit an all time low at the end of last year according to the CFTC IMM data. This is unlikely to reverse quickly, with sentiment set to deteriorate further over coming weeks and months as the EUR slides further.

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.

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