Japanese yen spikes higher

Events in Japan continue to dominate market action in this respect the situation is highly fluid. Markets will continue to gyrate on various pieces of news concerning the nuclear situation in Japan. As a result, risk aversion remains highly elevated and safe haven assets including US Treasuries, German bunds and the CHF are the main beneficiaries. In contrast, risk assets including global equity markets and risk currencies have come under growing pressure.

Prior to Japan’s earthquake risk aversion was already elevated amidst renewed eurozone peripheral bond tensions but the aftermath of the earthquake has seen our risk barometer rise to its highest level since the end of August last year. Any decline in risk aversion will depend on the nuclear situation coming under some form of control but until then the general “risk off” market tone will continue. Similarly currency and equity volatility will also remain relatively high.

Risk had been losing its influence on currencies over recent months but the spike in risk aversion over recent weeks has seen short-term correlations increase. The most highly impacted (highest correlations over the past month) currencies from higher risk aversion USD/JPY, USD/CHF, NZD/USD, NOK/SEK, EUR/CHF, EUR/HUF, EUR/PLN, USD/KRW. Over a three-month period all of the correlations are much lower and insignificant for the most part. JPY and CHF will likely remain the key beneficiaries in the current environment.

USD/JPY hit a low of 76.25 amidst volatile trading conditions but Japanese authorities noted that rumours of Japanese life and non life insurance companies repatriating funds back to Japan are “groundless”. USD/JPY bounced from its lows but there appears to be no sign of intervention although there may have been Bank of Japan rate checking, which helped to provoke some fears about imminent intervention. There is a high risk of FX intervention as long as USD/JPY remains below the 80.00 level.

Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

The Pain Of A Stronger Swiss Franc

Volatility and increasingly large market swings are characterizing current market conditions. A warning by Fitch on the UK’s “formidable” fiscal challenge, concerns about Bulgaria’s public finance statistics and a massive public sector strike in Spain, combined to fuel another bout of risk aversion.

Hungary’s government attempted to diffuse worries about its finances, with the country’s Prime Minister listing measures including cutting public pay and prohibiting mortgages denominated in foreign currencies, in order to hit the 3.8% of GDP budget deficit target. There was also some good news in the US, with small business confidence (NFIB) rising to its highest level since September 2008 whilst ABC consumer confidence edged higher.

The US Beige Book and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony on the US economy to Congress, mark the highlights today. The Beige Book is set to reveal further signs of economic recovery but with limited inflation pressures. Bernanke is likely to maintain a similar tone to comments he made yesterday, highlighting a “moderate” economic recovery, with unemployment likely to stay “high for a while”. His testimony will be scrutinized for the timing of rate hikes, and any elaboration on his comments about rates rising before the economy is at full employment.

Against the background of the many and varied uncertainties still afflicting markets maintain a sell on rallies view on risk trades is still the best option. EUR/USD will struggle to breach resistance around 1.2010 and remains susceptible to test support around 1.1826. GBP/USD could target fresh lows in a “negative reversal”, with potential to head back down to 1.3996.

Confidence has plummeted to extreme lows and it will be several months before appetite for risk trades returns. The AUD and NZD as well as many Asian currencies will struggle over the interim period before their appreciation trend finally resumes.

In contrast to the weakening of risk currencies, CHF strength is showing little sign of letting up. Switzerland recorded a massive 50% jump in FX reserves in May to CHF 232 billion from CHF 153 billion in April. This is not usually market moving data but the scale of the jump in reserves is huge and it is not just due to valuation changes. The Swiss National Bank (SNB’s) effective abandonment of defending a particular level in EUR/CHF turned into more a smoothing operation but this did not stop the bank from massive FX interventions. Despite the interventions EUR/CHF dropped by 0.8% over the month.

Aside from alleviating upward pressure on the CHF the interventions had an indirect effect of reducing the pain of holders of CHF mortgages. E.g. around 30% of Hungary’s bank loans and 60% of mortgages are denominated in CHF but countries across Europe have plenty of CHF denominated loans, especially Austria. Although Hungary announced steps to meet its deficit targets its woes are far from over.

The CHF has appreciated by around 3% since the beginning of May versus HUF, exacerbating the pain for CHF borrowers in the country. The fact that CHF strength shows no sign of letting up on the back of strong data and safe haven flows, the pain for these borrowers will only add to the problems for banks and borrowers alike in Europe.

Euro Has That Sinking Feeling

The reaction to the US May jobs report shows that markets are particularly susceptible to negative US news at a time when growth fragilities in Europe are becoming increasingly apparent. Coupled with worries about Hungary, risk aversion has jumped.

Unsurprisingly the EUR took the brunt of pressure. Rhetoric over the weekend may help to assuage some fears but I suspect it is too late now that the cat is out of the bag. Hungary’s government maintained that it will meet this year’s budget deficit target of 3.8% of GDP. European Union officials also attempted to calm market concerns, downplaying any comparison of Hungary to Greece.

The overall EUR/USD downtrend remains intact. Renewed doubts about German participation in the EU/IMF rescue package, with the German constitutional court potentially blocking its contribution, will add to pressure as well as a UK press report titled EUR ‘will be dead in five years’ . The January 1999 EUR/USD introduction level around 1.1830 has now moved squarely into sight.

It is unlikely that data and events this week will do much to reverse the market’s bearish tone. Highlights include the ECB, BoE and RBNZ meetings in Europe, UK and New Zealand, respectively. The ECB (Thursday) is highly unlikely to shift its monetary policy stance. Given some opposition to bond purchases from within the ECB council the comments in the accompanying statement will be closely monitored. The BoE will also leave policy unchanged on the same day but the RBNZ is set to begin its hiking cycle with a 25bps move.

On the data front the US slate includes the Fed’s Beige Book, April trade data, May retail sales and June Michigan confidence. The Beige Book is likely to reveal some improvement in activity with little sign of inflation, whilst the trade deficit is set to widen further due to a higher oil import bill. Retail sales will reveal an autos led increase in the headline reading but more subdued core sales, whilst consumer confidence is set to rise for a second straight month.

There will be more attention on rhetoric from EU officials rather than eurozone data, with the Eurogroup of Finance Minister’s and Ecofin meetings garnering more interest. In Japan, politics will take centre stage, with the new cabinet line up in focus following the confirmation of Naoto Kan as Prime Minister. Comments by the new PM himself will be of interest, especially with regard to combating deflation and in particular any elaboration on his penchant for a weaker JPY.

All-in-all, the week is unlikely to see a let up in pressure on risk trades and will start much as the last week ended. Although the market’s attention is on the EUR, it should be noted that the AUD has lost even more ground so far this month although the EUR remains the biggest loser in terms of major currencies so far this year (vs USD). In the case of the AUD the move reflects a massive unwinding of long positioning (as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM data which shows that speculative AUD positioning has dropped to its lowest since March 2009).

In contrast in the case of the EUR where positioning is already very negative, the move simply reflects deteriorating fundamentals. The fact that European officials are showing little concern about the decline in the EUR (why should they given that the currency is now trading around fair value) and in some cases encouraging it, suggests that there is little to stop EUR/USD from dropping much further and parity is looming a lot closer.

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