EU Deal Boosts Euro But Momentum To Fade

The European Union deal for Greece was clearly on the positive side of expectations and from that perspective helped to buoy sentiment for European assets. The fact that EU leaders managed to work over differences and emerge with a solid deal will help remove some of the uncertainty about Greece’s future and lower the risks of contagion.

To recap EU leaders announced a EUR 109 billion second aid package for Greece. Private bondholders will contribute a target of a further EUR 37 billion via bond swaps or rolling over existing debt for new bonds maturing in 30 years. Investors will have the option to exchange existing debt into four instruments. The aim is to obtain 90% participation from Greek bondholders.

Moreover, it appears that governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral until the country can return to the market. Effectively this means that even if ratings agencies declare a default rating on Greek debt, Greek banks may still be able to obtain funding from the European Central Bank (ECB) as the debt is guaranteed by national governments.

Greece, Portugal and Ireland will benefit from lower interest rates on loans and longer maturities. Moreover, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund will have a wider scope for bond buying directly from investors. This lets the ECB off the hook to avoid further use of its own bond purchase programme and removes any further impairing of its balance sheet. The idea of a tax on banks was removed, as criticism of the workability of such a plan increased.

The downside of the deal includes the fact that:
1) European tax payers are on the line for a potentially unlimited amount to guarantee defaulted Greek debt,
2) The bondholder programme is only limited to Greece, so there is no contingency should something similar be needed in other countries
3) The participation rate for private bondholders is yet to be known (but will most likely be high).
3) The deal will lead to a default on Greek debt given the programme amounts to a 21% drop in value but a credit event is unlikely to be triggered.
4) Greece still has a highly ambitious privatisation and austerity plan to implement which even some Greek officials have admitted is overly optimistic and at worst could turn into a fire sale of Greek assets.
5) EFSF bond purchases will need the “mutual agreement” of member states which is by no means guaranteed.
6) The fund size is not large enough should Italy and Spain need similar bailouts especially as leaders have stressed that the Greek package will not be replicated for other countries.

The EUR rallied on the outcome of the European talks. However, the EUR has plenty of other worries to deal with including divergence in growth across the eurozone, overly long EUR market positioning, EUR overvaluation, likely growth underperformance versus the US and a likely rebound in general for the USD over coming months especially if the Fed does not embark on QE3 and agrees a deal to raise the debt ceiling. EUR/USD is likely to remain supported in the near term, with near term resistance around 1.4467. I still suspect that the momentum will not last, with EUR/USD looking particularly rich at current levels.

Risk Aversion to remain elevated

It remains a tumultuous time for markets, gripped by a cacophony of concerns ranging from the lack of resolution to the Eurozone debt crisis to the failure to reach agreement on raising the US debt ceiling and associated deficit reduction plans. Mingled among these is the growing evidence that economic growth is turning out weaker than expected. Meanwhile Europe’s crisis appears to be shifting from bad to worse, as reflected in a shift in attention towards the hitherto untouched Italy although Italian concerns have eased lately.

The release of the EU bank stress test results at the end of last week have not helped, with plenty of criticism about their severity and rigour following the failure of only 8 banks out of the 90 tested. Expectations centred on several more banks failing, with much more capital required than the EUR 2.5 billion shortfall revealed in the tests. Answering to this criticism officials note that there has already been a significant amount of capital raised over recent months by banks, but this will be insufficient to stem the growing disbelief over the results.

Attention is still very much focussed on Greece and reaching agreement on a second bailout for the country, with further discussions at the special EU summit on July 21. The contentious issue remains the extent of private sector participation in any debt restructuring. The decision to enhance the flexibility of the EFSF bailout fund to embark on debt buybacks has not helped. Consequently contagion risks to other countries in the Eurozone periphery are at a heightened state. Despite all of this the EUR has shown a degree of resilience, having failed to sustain its recent drop below 1.40 versus USD.

One explanation for the EUR’s ability to avoid a steeper decline is that the situation on the other side of the pond does not look much better. Hints of QE3 in the US and the impasse between Republicans and Democrats on budget deficit cutting measures tied to any increase in the debt ceiling are limiting the USD’s ability to benefit from Europe’s woes. Moreover, more weak data including a drop in the Empire manufacturing survey and a drop in the Michigan consumer sentiment index to a two-year low, have added to the worries about US recovery prospects.

Against this background risk aversion will remain elevated, supporting the likes of the CHF and JPY while the EUR and USD will continue to fight it out for the winner of the ugliest currency contest. Assuming that a deal will eventually be cobbled together to raise the US debt ceiling (albeit with less ambitious deficit cutting measures than initially hoped for) and that the Fed does not embark on QE3, the EUR will emerge as the most ugly currency, but there will be plenty of volatility in the meantime.

Data and events this week include more US Q2 earnings, June housing starts and existing home sales. While housing data are set to increase, the overall shape of the housing market remains very weak. In Europe, July business and investor surveys will be in focus, with a sharp fall in the German ZEW investor confidence survey likely and a further softening in July purchasing managers indices across the eurozone. The German IFO business confidence survey is also likely to decline in July but will still point to healthy growth in the country. In the UK Bank of England MPC minutes will confirm no bias for policy rate changes with a 7-2 vote likely, while June retail sales are likely to bounce back.

Euro’s Teflon Coating Wearing Thin

EUR has suffered a setback in the wake some disappointment from the European Union summit at the end of last week and the major defeat of German Chancellor Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in yesterday’s election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The EUR had been fairly resistant to negative news over recent weeks but its Teflon like coating may be starting to wear thin.

The setbacks noted above + others (see previous post) follow credit rating downgrades for Portugal by both S&P and Fitch ratings and growing speculation that the country is an imminent candidate for an EU bailout following the failure of the Portuguese government to pass its austerity measures last week and subsequent resignation of Portugal’s Prime Minister Socrates.

For its part Portugal has stated that it does not need a bailout but looming bond redemptions of around EUR 9 billion on April 15 and June 15 against the background of record high funding costs mean that the pressure for a rescue is intense. Complicating matters is the fact that fresh elections cannot be held earlier than 55 days after being announced, meaning that policy will effectively be in limbo until then. A June vote now appears likely.

After what was perceived to be a positive result of the informal EU leaders summit a couple of weeks ago, the outcome of the final summit last week failed to deliver much anticipated further details whilst more negatively the EU bailout fund’s paid-in capital was scaled back to EUR 16 billion (versus EUR 40 billion agreed on March 21) due to concerns expressed by Germany.

Ireland is also in focus ahead of European bank stress tests results on March 31. Ireland is pushing for increased sharing of bank losses with senior bondholders as part of a “final solution” for financial sector. Meanwhile the new government remains unwilling to increase the country’s relatively low corporation tax in exchange for a renegotiation of terms for the country’s bailout. This point of friction also threatens to undermine the EUR.

The bottom line is that the bad news is building up and the ability of the EUR to shake it off is lessening. Considering the fact that the market long EUR, with positioning well above the three-month average the EUR is vulnerable to position adjustment. After slipping over recent days EUR/USD looks supported above 1.3980 but its upside is looking increasingly restricted against the background of various pieces of bad news.

Euro resilient but for how long?

The resilience of the EUR to bad news has been impressive but is unlikely to persist. The recent negatives include 1) the rejection of the Portuguese government’s austerity plan and the increased likelihood of a bailout, 2) a likely delay in the decision on increasing the size and scope of the EFSF EU bailout fund, 3) a drop in Eurozone purchasing managers indices in March, 4) downgrades to Portugal’ sovereign credit ratings by Fitch last night and S&P and 5) Moodys downgrades of 30 Spanish banks. Despite all of this, and after hitting a low of around EUR/USD 1.4054, EUR has bounced back close to the 1.4200 level.

Further direction will come from the outcome of the EU leaders’ summit today and the March German IFO business confidence survey. For the former there is unlikely to be a decisive result, with the optimism following the informal March 11 leaders’ summit likely to give way to delay due to wrangling over details. For the latter, a slight moderation in the IFO is expected following February’s upside surprise. However, there is a bigger risk of a downside surprise following the softer than forecast March German manufacturing PMI released. Against this background, EUR/USD is likely to struggle to break resistance around 1.249.

In general FX markets look somewhat more stable and even the pressure on the USD appears to have abated slightly despite a much weaker than expected outcome for US February durable goods orders yesterday, which revealed a drop in both headline and ex-transportation orders. My composite FX volatility measure has dropped sharply over recent days, led by short term implied JPY volatility which has dropped close to pre-crisis levels. Lower volatility has also likely reduced the prospects of further FX intervention although USD/JPY 80 will continue to be well defended.

Lower volatility as also reflected in the sharp drop in the VIX index has corresponded with a general easing in risk aversion as both Middle East and Japan tensions have eased slightly. US data today are unlikely to offer much direction, with a slight upward revision to US Q4 GDP and an unchanged outcome for the final reading of Michigan consumer confidence expected.

EUR boosted, USD under pressure

Market attention remains fully focussed on events in Japan especially related to the country’s nuclear facilities. Risk aversion has spiked higher as a result, with ongoing Middle East tensions adding to the risk off tone. CHF is a key beneficiary of safe haven demand but the picture for JPY is obscured by repatriation expectations on one hand and FX intervention risks/Bank of Japan liquidity injections on the other, keeping USD/JPY clsoe to the 82.00 level. In contrast the AUD is vulnerable to a drop below parity with the USD on Japan worries, especially as Australia is a key destination for Japanese investment and therefore potential for reversal of such flows if Japanese institutions repatriate funds.

The EUR recovered over recent days as worries about the eurozone periphery ease and peripheral bonds spreads narrow. It is only a matter of time before overly long market positioning catches up with the EUR especially as the prospects of further interest rate support to the currency looked limited; markets have already priced in 75bps of policy rate hikes in the eurozone this year, which looks appropriate. It is difficult to see markets pricing in any more tightening than this over coming weeks. Despite its bounce back EUR/USD will struggle to break resistance around 1.4036.

Markets will digest the fallout from the informal EU leaders meeting last Friday which prepared the groundwork for the official meeting on 24/25 March. The initial reaction of the EUR appears to be positive but there is a significant risk of disappointment if the outcome of the meeting on 24/25 March does not live up to expectations. Indeed although Friday’s meeting resulted in an agreement in principle of a new “pact for the Euro” much will depend on the eventual details later this month.

Leaders also agreed on lowering interest rates to Greece by 100bps, and in principle enlarging the scope of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund to EUR 440 billion. The main positive surprise was opening the door for the fund to purchase eurozone debt. Data releases will offer little support to the EUR this week, with limited gains in the March German ZEW investor confidence survey today likely to leave markets unperturbed.

The USD’s gains last week proved short-lived and the currency will be tested by another relatively dovish Fed FOMC statement today and a benign reading for core CPI inflation in February. The Fed FOMC meeting is unlikely to deliver any changes to the Fed’s stance and whilst there has recently been some speculation that the Fed will soon remove its “extended period” comment, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The statement will remind markets that the Fed is in no rush to alter its policy settings, an outcome that may limit the ability of the USD to strengthen this week even if data releases continue to remain on the positive side, including manufacturing survey and industrial production over coming days.

Eurozone peripheral tensions

The USD index remains under pressure but will likely continue to consolidate. The USD continues to be undermined by adverse interest rate differentials and is gaining little support from rising risk aversion. One factor that will help dictate USD direction over coming months is the prospects for further quantitative easing once QE2 ends.

Fed officials offered varied views on the subject. Dallas Fed President Fisher hinted he would support cutting short asset purchases before the end of June, whilst Atlanta Fed President Lockhart noted he was “very cautious” about further asset purchases. Meanwhile Chicago Fed President Evans noted that he believes the hurdle for altering the asset purchase plan is “pretty high”.

Although there is a lack of first tier data releases in the eurozone this week there is certainly plenty for markets to chew on in terms of peripheral country issues, which may just prevent the EUR from extending its gains. Eurozone peripheral debt spreads have undergone a renewed widening over recent weeks as debt fears have increased and worries that Portugal may follow Ireland and Greece in needing a bailout have risen.

Meanwhile news that Ireland’s incoming government will introduce legislation allowing the restructuring of some senior bank bonds, will add to tensions. Meanwhile, the downgrading of Greece’s government bond ratings to B1 from Ba1 dealt another blow sentiment following hot on the heels of Fitch’s downgrade of Spain’s outlook to negative although the EUR proved resilient to the news. EUR/USD continues to look as though it will consolidate around the 1.4000 level, but worsening sentiment towards the periphery may open up downside as the EUR’s resilience fades.

Upward revisions to eurozone growth and inflation forecasts and of course a hawkish shift in eurozone interest rate expectations may have justified the EUR move higher over recent weeks. However, there does not seem to be much that will provide the stimulus for further gains from current levels.

The market has already priced in an interest hike as early as next month’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and further tightening thereafter. The risk now appears asymmetric skewed to the downside especially if tensions between the eurozone core and peripheral countries deepen. How long the EUR can ignore such tensions?

It’s not only the eurozone periphery that should worry about ratings. Japan’s ratings agency R&I has warned that it may be forced to cut Japan’s sovereign ratings before April’s local elections due to current political problems. R&I’s concern revolve around the potential for political problems to delay fiscal reforms. As usual the JPY remains unmoved by political issues and is moving to the stronger side of its recent range against the background of elevated risk aversion.

Although the JPY has not been particularly sensitive to risk over recent months shorter-term correlations shows that its sensitivity has increased. Given that Middle-East tensions do not appear to be easing the JPY will remain well supported. Indeed, speculative positioning data reveals the highest JPY net long position since November 2010. As risk appetite improves JPY positioning will be pared back but this is unlikely to be imminent, with USD/JPY set to remain close to support around 81.10.

Losing Your Addiction

An interesting thing happened to me last week. On a business trip to Europe my blackberry broke and failed to work for the rest of the week. I felt like an addict coming off an addiction. The first couple of days were very tough; my usual instinct to constantly check for messages resulted in constant fidgeting and major withdrawal symptoms.

Once this had worn off I must admit I felt liberated. My addiction gone, it felt great to be weaned off my crackberry. The message here is that life goes on without access to mail. It’s an experience I would recommend to all users of such devices.

Back to reality and my view from Hong Kong this week is as follows. The risk-off tone as reflected in related to the turmoil in Libya and the increase in oil prices (as supply concerns intensify), may help to limit the pressure on the USD this week, but the overall tone is set to remain weak.

Much will depend on this week’s key US data releases and a testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate, to determine whether the USD will find a more stable footing. Clearly the more hawkish tone of the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) in contrast to the lack of inclination by the Fed towards a tighter monetary policy stance could undermine the USD.

In this respect, it is doubtful that Bernanke will change his stance of the Fed failing to meet its dual mandate due to too low inflation. The main event is the February US jobs report at the tail end of the week. The consensus expectation of a 190k increase in payrolls will be finalised after gaining more clues from the US February ISM surveys and ADP jobs report earlier in the week. The week’s releases will likely reveal further improvements in US economic data, but given that this will do little to budge the Fed’s stance, the USD may be left somewhat underwhelmed.

The intensification in risk aversion over recent days has also been felt in the Eurozone periphery where bond market pressures have resumed. Nonetheless, the fallout on the EUR has been limited by hawkish ECB jawboning. Thursday’s ECB meeting will surely maintain this stance, and following the release of data on Tuesday likely to show a further increase in inflation in February, upside inflation risks are likely to be highlighted by ECB President Trichet in the press conference.

A likely pre-emptive strike from the ECB cannot be ruled out. Two rate hikes in H2 2011 are now likely even as the Bank maintains liquidity support for weaker peripherals. No change in policy but a hawkish press statement on Thursday will on the face of it play for a firmer EUR but i) the fact that the market has already discounted the possibility of early rate hikes and ii) the proximity of the US payrolls data on Friday and iii) uncertainty over the impact of the Irish election outcome in which the Fine Gael party won a clear victory, suggest that EUR risks are asymmetric. The net long positioning overhang also points to some downside risks to EUR.

There are plenty of other events and data on the calendar this week including Japan’s slate of month end releases, interest rate decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada, UK PMI manufacturing survey data and Swedish Q4 GDP data.

The bottom line is that currencies will be driven by the conflicting influences of improving economic data on the one hand and elevated risk aversion on the other. The main beneficiaries of higher risk aversion will be the CHF and JPY though both have risen far whilst the USD will be restrained by a dovish Fed.

In contrast the EUR and GBP may yet extend gains but in both cases, markets have already shifted policy tightening expectations sharply over recent weeks and we suspect EUR/USD will be capped at resistance around 1.3860, whilst GBP/USD will similarly struggle to break its year high around 1.6279.

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