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.

Japan’s Earthquake Aftermath

The aftermath of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami in Japan will largely drive markets this week outweighing the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Having been in Tokyo as the earthquake struck I can testify to the severity and shock impact of the earthquake. Aside from the terrible human cost the economic cost will be severe at least for the next few months before reconstruction efforts boost growth. An early estimate suggests around a 1% negative impact on GDP this year.

The government is expected to announce a spending package over coming weeks to help fund relief efforts but this will likely put additional strain on Japan’s precarious debt situation at a time when worries about the country’s fiscal health were already high. Nonetheless, there is around JPY 550 billion available from the Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2011 budgets even before a supplementary budget is needed.

The initial negative JPY impact of the natural disaster gave way to strength in anticipation of expected repatriation flows by Japanese life insurance companies and other institutions as they liquidate assets abroad in order to pay for insurance payments in Japan. The bias to the JPY will likely continue to be upwards but trading will be choppy.

Many of the margin traders holding extreme long USD/JPY positions will likely reduce these positions in the weeks following the earthquake in order to fulfil JPY demand. This may be countered by some foreign selling of Japanese assets especially given that foreigners have accelerated Japanese asset purchases over recent weeks. Therefore, it’s not a straight forward bet to look for JPY strength.

If however, the JPY strengthens rapidly and threatens to drop well below the psychologically important level of 80 the spectre of FX intervention will loom large. Indeed, following the Kobe earthquake in 1995 the JPY strengthened sharply by around 18% but the USD was already in decline prior to the earthquake and USD/JPY was also being pressured lower by Barings Bank related liquidation.

Therefore, comparisons to 1995 should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, Japanese authorities will be on guard for further upward JPY pressure. The immediate market focus will be on the Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting today, with the BoJ announcing the addition of JPY 7 trillion in emergency liquidity support to help stabilise markets.

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.

Risk aversion spikes

Increased risk aversion overnight in the wake of escalating Middle East tensions gave the USD some support but overall the USD index is gradually drifting towards its early November low around 75.631. The antithesis of USD weakness is strength in most other major currencies.

The USD is being undermined by relatively dovish expectations for US interest rates relative to elsewhere and last night’s semi annual testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate did nothing to alter this tone, with Bernanke maintaining the emphasis on subdued inflation and elevated unemployment.

The USD index itself has a high (0.82) 3-month correlation with US interest rate futures and over recent weeks as the implied yield has dropped, the USD has lost ground. The prospects of higher US bond yields may eventually provide the USD with support, especially given the prospect of substantial short-covering but in the near term the USD is likely to remain under pressure.

The upbeat run of US data highlights another source of USD support over the medium term, given the likely outperformance of the US economy over coming months. Yesterday’s ISM manufacturing survey and vehicle sales data lend support to this view. Moreover, the rise in employment component of the ISM supports the view of at least a 195k increase in February payrolls.

The Fed’s Beige Book tonight and February ADP jobs report will not alter the USD’s trajectory. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal anything to worry the Fed in terms of inflation risks although will probably reveal further signs of improved activity. The ADP report will give important clues for Friday’s February non-farm payrolls data although it’s worth noting that last month’s report was way off the mark. In any case neither release is likely to prevent a further drop in the USD.

EUR is a clear beneficiary of expectations of tighter monetary policy by the ECB and the widening interest rate (futures implied yield) differential between the US and eurozone has given the EUR plenty of support recently as reflected in the high correlation with EUR/USD. Further support to the hawkish market stance was given by the upward revision to eurozone 2011 growth and inflation forecasts by the EU. The fact that eurozone inflation increased to 2.4% YoY in February also reinforced expectations of ECB tightening sooner than later.

The ECB press conference following the council meeting tomorrow will likely shape such expectations further, the EUR has already priced in a hawkish ECB stance, limiting the prospects of further appreciation. Notably EUR/USD has failed to break resistance at its year high around 1.3861, which will prove to be a formidable cap in the short-term.

In contrast, the RBA has poured cold water over expectations of further policy rate hikes in Australia. The policy statement following yesterday’s decision to keep the cash rate on hold pointed to an extended pause in the months ahead. Despite this and perhaps because markets have already pared back Australian interest rate expectations AUD rebounded quite smartly from its post meeting low and despite some overnight weakness due to increased risk aversion it will soon verge on a break of resistance at 1.0257.

AUD/NZD has continued to charge ahead having hit a multi-year high above 1.3600. NZD underperformance has been exacerbated by the impact of the recent earthquake, with growth expectations for this year having been sharply revised lower and growing speculation of an interest rate cut. Indeed, such speculation was given further fuel by comments by NZ Prime Minister Key who noted he would welcome a policy rate cut. Nonetheless, my quantitative AUD/NZD model suggests that the cross looks over-extended at current levels, whilst relative speculative positioning supports this view.

The Week Ahead

Housing and durable goods orders data will form the highlights of the US calendar this week. Speeches from several Fed speakers will also give some further guidance to the appetite for completing the Fed’s $600 billion in asset purchases. Overall it will be a slow start for FX markets with liquidity thinned by the Presidents Day holiday and as a result currencies are likely to remain in relatively tight ranges. The heavy tone of the USD seen last week is likely to persist over coming days given the absence of driving factors. Even the unrest in the Middle East has been unable to derail the improving trend in risk appetite, another factor dampening USD sentiment.

The EUR held up well last week recouping its early week losses to end on a firm note. The ability of the EUR to shake off various bits of bad news was impressive but whether it can continue to do so is debatable. Data releases are unlikely to provide much of a boost. Whilst eurozone business surveys set to remain at high levels, consistent with a rebound in Q1 GDP growth, further improvements are unlikely. The week kicks off with the February German IFO business confidence survey but at best this will reveal stable reading. The EUR may find some support from signs of higher and in Germany and an above consensus reading for M3 money supply growth though this is not usually a market mover. The data will likely feed nervousness about European Central Bank (ECB) tightening. Ireland could rock the boat however, with general elections likely to keep markets nervous about potential renegotiations of Ireland’s bailout terms.

Although deflationary pressures are easing in Japan there is a long way before the spectre of inflation will emerge. Nonetheless, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) revised up its growth outlook last week, suggesting that the likelihood of more aggressive measures to combat deflation is narrowing. A reminder of ongoing deflation will come with the release of January CPI data this week whilst trade data will be watched to determine what impact the strength of the JPY is having on exports. Both EUR/JPY and USD/JPY are close to the top of their recent ranges and the data are unlikely to provoke a break higher. USD/JPY will likely remain capped around 84.51 whilst EUR/JPY will find tough resistance around 114.02.

GBP performed even better than the EUR last week helped by an even more hawkish sounding than usual BoE Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Sentance and a letter from the BoE governor hinting at rate hikes. Even a relatively more slightly dovish Quarterly Inflation Report failed to halt GBP’s ascent. Further direction will come from the February MPC minutes in which we expect to see two dissenters, namely Sentence and Weale who likely voted for a rate hike. However, there is a risk that they may have been joined by at least one other, with speculation that MPC member Bean may have joined the dissenters. Such speculation alongside the jump in January UK retail sales at the end of last week will likely add to more upside potential for GBP, setting it up for another gain this week. Its upward momentum may however, be hampered by the large net long GBP positioning overhang.

US Dollar Upside, Euro tensions

Following the famine that was last week this week will see a feast of data releases, which hopefully will give some clearer direction to currency markets. The key eurozone data focus for FX markets will be the German February ZEW survey and it should highlight that investor confidence is bouncing back smartly. This will be accompanied by data showing a slight acceleration in GDP in the eurozone in Q4 2010. Good news, but the reality is that the EUR is being driven more by peripheral bond tensions and relative yields.

Although the EUR may get a brief lift from the news of the resignation of Egypt’s President Mubarak this will likely prove temporary. Given that tensions are beginning to creep higher EUR/USD may struggle to make any headway this week and will more likely slip below 1.3500 for a test of 1.3440 as sentiment sours. Even the usual sovereign interest may look a little more reluctant to provide support this week. The net long positioning overhang as reflected in the CFTC IMM data suggests some scope for a squaring in long positions, likely accelerating any downside pressure.

As usual data releases are failing to have a major impact on the JPY whilst interest rate / yield differentials suggest the JPY should be much weaker. One explanation for the stubbornly strong JPY is the strength of recent portfolio inflows to Japan, especially into its bond markets. This could reverse quickly and IMM positioning suggests that the potential for a shakeout of long positioning looms large, something that many Japanese margin traders are well positioned for according to TFX data. USD/JPY 84.51 will provide firm resistance to a move higher in the short-term.

GBP will be guided by the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report on Wednesday as well as the January CPI and retail sales data. The Report will reveal that inflation moderates over the medium term, even if short-term projections are shifted higher. Consequently, interest rate markets may even pare back overly hawkish expectations for UK rates, leaving GBP vulnerable. Nonetheless, markets maybe somewhat more sceptical or at least nervous in light of a likely increase in UK CPI, albeit mostly due to the increase in value added tax (VAT) at the turn of the year. Moreover, GBP may find some solace from a rebound in retail sales in January.

Overall, GBP/USD will take its cue from EUR/USD and the currency is vulnerable to a sustained drop below 1.6000 this week. The fact that GBP/USD IMM positioning is at its highest since September 2008 suggests a lot of scope for a sell-off. EUR/GBP looks like its consolidating in an even narrower range between 0.8400-0.8500.

Another positive slate of US data releases and likely more pressure on US bond markets this week suggest that the USD will find further support, with the USD index likely to take a shot at the 79.00 level. Indeed a further improvement in both the Philly Fed and Empire manufacturing surveys is expected, providing more evidence of strengthening manufacturing momentum, will be borne out in the hard data, with a healthy gain in industrial output expected. Similarly a healthy reading for US retail sales will support the evidence that the US consumer is in full recovery mode.

The positive impact on the USD may be dampened however, by benign inflation readings this week, supporting the view that US policy rates will not be raised for a long time yet. This is likely to be echoed in the Fed FOMC minutes this week. Nonetheless, speculative positioning suggests plenty of scope for short USD covering, with the latest CFTC IMM report revealing the biggest net short position since October 2010.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

Global Themes

It’s definitely been a strange start to the year, with markets taking plenty of time to get their bearings. Some general themes have developed but none have provided clear direction. As a result, the path over coming weeks and months is likely to remain highly volatile and in this respect, currencies, equities and bonds will continue to see strong gyrations.

One theme that has been evident since the start of the year is an improvement in sentiment towards the eurozone periphery as hopes of an enlargement/extension of the European Union bailout fund (EFSF) have increased. This is a key reason why the EUR has strengthened this year although nervousness on this front appears to have returned over recent days (note the recent widening in peripheral bond spreads, drop in EUR and European Central Bank purchases of Portuguese debt). It seems that a lot of good news has already been discounted in relation to the eurozone periphery and now markets are in wait and see mode for the EU Council meeting on 24/25 March. There is a strong chance that eventually market expectations will prove overly optimistic and the EUR will drop but more on that later.

The second theme is global inflation concerns, driven by higher food and energy prices. Certainly this has had an impact on interest rate expectations and in some cases resulted in a hawkish shift in central bank language, notably in the eurozone and UK. Although European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet has toned down his comments on tighter monetary policy compared to the more hawkish rhetoric following the last ECB council meeting, expectations for monetary tightening in the eurozone still look overly hawkish, with a policy rate hike currently being priced in for August/September this year, which looks way too early. The EUR has benefitted from the relative tightening in eurozone interest rate expectations compare to the US but will suffer if and when such expectations are wound down.

Elsewhere in many emerging markets the impact of higher food prices is finding its way even more quickly into higher inflation, forcing central banks to tighten policy. In Asia, the urgency for higher rates is even more significant given that real interest rates (taking into account inflation) are negative in many countries. China has accelerated the pace of its rate hikes over recent months and looks set to continue to tighten policy much further to combat inflation. In India, worries about inflation and the need for further monetary tightening have clearly weighed on equity markets, with more pain to come. Although not the sole cause by any means, in the Middle East and Africa higher food prices are feeding social tensions such as in Egypt.

Another clear theme that has developed is the improvement in US economic conditions. The run of US data over recent months has been encouraging, confirming that the economy is gaining momentum. Even the disappointing January non-farm payrolls report has not dashed hopes of recovery, with many other job market indicators pointing to strengthening job conditions such as the declining trend in weekly US jobless claims. Manufacturing, business and consumer confidence measures have strengthened whilst credit conditions are easing, albeit gradually. The US economy is set to outperform many other major economies this year, especially the eurozone, which will be beset with a diverging growth outlook between northern and southern Europe.

Although the US dollar has not yet benefitted from stronger US growth given the still dovish tone of the Fed and ongoing asset purchases in the form of quantitative easing, the rise in US bond yields relative to other countries, will likely propel the dollar higher over 2011 after a rocky start over Q1 2011. In contrast, the EUR at current levels looks too strong and as noted above, hopes of a resolution of eurozone peripheral problems look overdone. EUR/USD levels above 1.3500 provide attractive levels to short the currency. Other growth currencies that will likely continue to do well are commodity currencies such as AUD, NZD and CAD, whilst the outlook for Asian currencies remains positive even despite recent large scale capital outflows. The JPY however, will be one currency that suffers from an adverse yield differential with the US as US bond yields rise relative to Japan.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

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