Payrolls sour mood, Eurozone concerns intensify

The market mood has soured further and risk aversion has increased following disappointing August US jobs report in which the change in payrolls was zero and downward revisions to previous months has reinforced the negative mood on the US and global economy while raising expectations of more Federal Reserve action. Moreover, the report has put additional pressure on US President Obama to deliver fresh jobs measures in his speech on Thursday though Republican opposition may leave Obama with little actual leeway for further stimulus.

There is plenty of event risk over coming days, with a heavy slate central bank meetings including in Europe, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada and Sweden. The European Central Bank will offer no support to a EUR that is coming under growing pressure, with the Bank set to take a more neutral tone to policy compared its previously hawkish stance. In the UK, GBP could also trade cautiously given recent comments by Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee members about potential for more UK quantitative easing.

The EUR has been unable to capitalise on the bad economic news in the US as news there has been even worse. The negative news includes the weekend defeat of German Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right bloc in regional elections, which comes ahead of a vote in Germany’s constitutional court on changes to the EFSF bailout fund.

The withdrawal of the Troika (ECB, IMF and EU) from Greece has also put renewed emphasis on the country at a time when protests are escalating. If all of this is not enough there is growing concern about Italy’s apparent backtracking on austerity measures, with the Italian parliament set to discuss measures this week. Separately Germany, Holland and Finland will hold a meeting tomorrow on the Greek collateral issue. On top of all of this is the growing evidence of deteriorating growth in the euro area.

Data releases are unlikely to garner a great deal of attention amidst the events noted above, with mainly service sector purchasing managers indices on tap and at least threw will look somewhat better than their manufacturing counterparts. In the US the Beige Book and trade data will be in focus but all eyes will be on Obama’s speech later in the week. The USD has maintained a firm tone despite the jobs report but its resilience may be better explained by eurozone negativity rather than US positivity. Even so, the USD is looking less uglier than the EUR in the current environment.

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.

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

Egypt Unrest Hits Risk Trades

Recent weeks have seen a real contrast in policy and growth across various economies. A case in point was the surprise drop in UK GDP in Q4 contrasting sharply with the solid (albeit less than forecast) rise in US Q4 2010 GDP. The resilience of the US consumer was particularly evident in the data. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) hawkish slant as reflected in comments from President Trichet compared to the dovish pitch of the Fed FOMC is another clear contrast for markets to ponder.

The ECB’s hawkish tone gave the EUR a lift but expectations of an early Eurozone rate hike looks premature. Although Eurozone inflation data (Monday) will reveal a further rise in CPI above the ECB’s target, to around 2.4% in January, this will not equate to a policy rate hike anytime soon. This message is likely to be echoed at this week’s ECB meeting where policy will be characterised as “appropriate”.

Whilst monetary tightening expectations look overdone in the Eurozone the same can be said for hopes of an expansion in the EU bailout fund (EFSF). Indeed, the fact that EU Commissioner Rehn appeared to pour cold water over an expansion in the size of the fund could hit the EUR and the currency may find itself struggling to extend gains over coming weeks especially if interest rate expectations return to reality too, with a move to EUR/USD 1.4000 looking far harder to achieve than it did only a few days ago.

It’s worth noting that a renewed widening in peripheral debt spreads will also send an ominous signal for the EUR. Against this background the EU Council meeting on February 4 will be in focus but any expectation of a unified policy resolution will be disappointed.

However, markets perhaps should not solely focus on peripheral Europe as the downgrading of Japan’s credit ratings last week highlights. Warnings about US credit ratings also demonstrate that the US authorities will need to get their act together to find a solution to reversing the unsustainable path of the US fiscal deficit, something that was not particularly apparent in last week’s State of the Union Address.

Last week ended with a risk off tone filtering through markets as unrest in Egypt provoked a sell-off in risk assets whilst worries about oil supplies saw oil prices spike. Gold surged on safe haven demand too. This week, markets will focus on events in the Middle East but there will be thinner trading conditions as Chinese New Year holidays result in a shortened trading week in various countries in Asia.

The main release of the week is the US January jobs report at the end of the week. Regional job market indicators and the trend in jobless claims point to a 160k gain in January although the unemployment rate will likely edge higher. Final clues to the payrolls outcome will be deemed from the ISM manufacturing confidence survey and ADP private sector jobs report this week. Whilst the January jobs report is unlikely to alter expectations for Fed policy (given the elevated unemployment rate) the USD may continue to benefit from rising risk aversion.

Temporary Euro Relief

Eurozone peripheral country travails continue to garner most market attention. There was at least a semblance of improvement on this front as peripheral bond spreads with German bunds narrowed on Tuesday but this was largely due to European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying than any improvement in sentiment. The fact that German bund yields also rose helped to narrow bund-peripheral spreads further.

A clearer test of sentiment will be today’s debt sales by Portugal followed by actions by Spain and Italy tomorrow. ECB buying of Portuguese bonds has given some relief to other debt, with Spanish and Italian debt spreads narrowing too. Even Greece managed to sell short term debt (EUR 1.95 bn of 26 week T-bills) but at a higher cost than the previous sale.

Perhaps a stronger boost to sentiment will come from the news that European Union (EU) governments are discussing an increase in the EUR 440 billion bailout fund in recognition of the fact that the fund may prove too small to cope if the crisis spreads to Spain. However, don’t expect a decision anytime soon, with next week’s meeting of EU finance ministers unlikely to agree to such a move. Support (or lack) of from Germany may prove to be a sticking point against the background of domestic political pressure.

Other options being considered include the possibility of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) purchasing bonds in the secondary market and lowering interest rates on EFSF bailout loans. News that Japan will buy 20% of EFSF bonds this month as well as recent supportive comments from China suggest that an increase in the size of the EFSF may be easily funded by such investors. The EUR will gain some support against the background of such speculation but its upside may be restrained around its 200-day moving average at EUR/USD 1.3071.

In the US the economic news was not so positive for a change as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) small business optimism survey came in weaker than expected in December, an outcome that will come as a blow given that it suggests some stuttering in the recovery process as well as hiring.

There is only secondary data scheduled today, with most attention on the Fed’s Beige Book later tonight. The survey of Federal Reserve districts will likely reveal a broad based but moderate improvement in economic conditions with the exception of housing activity. A speech by the Fed’s Fisher on Monetary policy will also be in focus. Like the Fed’s Plosser overnight he may highlight some caution about the impact of Fed quantitative easing (QE).

The AUD is increasingly feeling the impact of the flooding in Queensland Australia as the extent of economic damage is revealed. Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board member McKibbin estimated that it could knock off at least 1% from economic growth. This may prove too negative and although the flooding will result in a significantly negative impact on growth in Q1 rebuilding and reconstruction will mean that overall growth for 2011 will not be as significantly impacted. Nonetheless, a paring back in RBA policy tightening expectations will see the AUD come under further pressure, with a move down to around AUD/USD 0.9634 on the cards over the short-term.

US Dollar Tensions

There was considerable relief, most acutely in the US administration, that the US August jobs report revealed a better than expected outcome. To recap, private sector payrolls increased by 67k vs. an upwardly revised 107k in July whilst total non farm payrolls dropped 54k. The data sets the market up for a positive start to the week in terms of risk appetite despite Friday’s drop in the August US non-manufacturing ISM index, deflating some of the market’s upbeat mood.

Once again I wonder how long positive sentiment can be sustained with so many doubts about recovery prospects and limited ammunition on the fiscal front as well as some reluctance on the monetary front, to provide further stimulus should a double dip become a reality.

Markets will be treated to several major central bank decisions including from the Bank of Japan, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Reserve Bank of Australia this week. These meetings are set to prove uneventful, with unchanged decisions across the board expected although the Bank of Canada decision is a tough call.

The main US release this week is the Fed’s Beige Book on Wednesday, a report which will help the Fed to prepare for the FOMC meeting on September 21. The evidence contained within it is unlikely to be positive reading, with consumer spending set to be relatively soft and evidence of recovery likely to remain patchy.

On Thursday the US July trade deficit is set to reveal some narrowing and as usual the deficit with China will be of interest given the renewed tensions over FX policy. FX tension seems to be intensifying once again due to the relatively slow pace of CNY appreciation since the June de-pegging as well as political posturing ahead of November US mid-term elections. A deterioration in US trade data, a factor that largely contributed to the soft Q2 GDP outcome in contrast to a strengthening in China’s trade surplus will have added fuel to the fire.

The firmer risk backdrop has put the USD on the back foot, with the USD index dropping sharply overnight. Nonetheless, speculative USD positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals further short covering up to the end of August, implying USD speculative sentiment is actually turning less negative.

Another country which has a different sort of tension regarding the USD is Japan. Improving risk appetite will likely prevent the JPY from visiting previous highs against the USD but will do little to reduce FX intervention speculation. Indeed, there was more jawboning over the weekend on the subject, with Japan’s finance minister Noda reiterating that Japan would take decisive action to stem the JPY’s appreciation but adding that coordinated FX intervention was a difficult option. Clearly Japan us unlikely to succeed with unilateral FX intervention.

Political events have added to the debate on FX policy as focus turns to the election for leader of the ruling DPJ party next week, with a battle looming between current Prime Minister Kan and challenger Ozawa. Although Ozawa is unpopular with the electorate he yields plenty of political power, and appea rs to be more inclined towards FX intervention. Having failed to sustain a move above 85.00 the pull back in USD/JPY suggests little appetite to extend gains, likely leaving USD/JPY in a relatively tight range, with strong support around 83.55 and resistance around 85.23.

Week Ahead

The market mood can be characterised as uncertain and somewhat downbeat, as reflected by the downdraft in US equity markets which posted their second weekly loss last week. Conversely, there has been a bullish run in government bonds, with the notable exception of peripheral debt. Over the last week markets had to contend with more data disappointment, in the wake of soft Japanese Q2 GDP, and a plunge in the August Philly Fed into negative territory, its first contraction since July 2009. Additionally a jump in jobless claims, which hit 500k highlighted the slow improvement in US job market conditions currently underway.

Despite all of this, the USD proved resilient and instead of the usual sell-off in the wake of soft data it benefited instead from increased risk aversion. The USD is set to retain some of this resilience though range-trading is likely to dominate over much of the weak. Reflecting the USD’s firmer stance, speculative positioning in the form of the CFTC IMM data revealed a reduction in aggregate USD short positioning in the latest week and although positioning is well below the three-month average, the improvement over the latest week and current magnitude of short positioning, highlights the potential and scope for further short-covering.

Negative data surprises have forced many to downgrade their forecasts for growth and policy implications, especially in the US. Markets will look for further clarity on the economic outlook this week but it is not clear that anything conclusive will be delivered. At the end of the week Q2 GDP will be revised sharply lower and whilst the data is backward looking it will reveal the weaker momentum of growth going into the second half of the year.

US Housing data will be mixed, with existing home sales set to drop in July as the impact of the expiration of home buyers tax credits continues to sink in whilst new home sales will likely increase but only marginally and will remain well below the April levels. Overall the picture of housing market activity remains bleak and this week’s data will do little to shake this off. On a more positive note July durable goods orders and August Michigan confidence will rise, the latter only marginally though. There will be plenty of attention on Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speech at the Jackson Hole Fed conference at the end of the week, especially given speculation of more quantitative easing in the pipeline.

The European data slate kicks off today with the release of manufacturing and service sector PMIs. Both are likely to register small declines, albeit from high levels. Nonetheless, taken together with a likely drop in the August German IFO survey on Wednesday and weaker June industrial orders tomorrow, the data will highlight that the momentum of growth in the region is coming off the boil, with the robust GDP outcome registered in Q2 2010 highly unlikely to be repeated. Against this background EUR/USD will find it difficult to make any headway. Technically further donwnside is likely over the short-term, with a test of 1.2605 support on the cards

Japan releases its slate of month end releases including jobs data, household spending and CPI. A slight improvement in job market conditions and increased spending will be insufficient to allay growth and deflation concerns, especially with CPI remaining firmly in negative territory. The onus will remain on the authorities to try to engineer a weaker JPY, which remains stubbornly around the 85.00 level versus USD. Talk of a BoJ / MoF meeting today has been dismissed, suggesting the prospect of imminent action is small. Meanwhile, speculative JPY positioning has dropped slightly in the last week but remain close to historical highs.

Aside from various data releases this week markets will digest the outcome of Australia’s federal elections. From the point of view of markets the outcome was the worst possible, with no clear winner as both the incumbent Prime Minister of the ruling Labour Party and opposition Liberal-National Party leader Tony Abbot failed to gain an outright majority. The outcome of a hung parliament will likely keep the AUD on the back foot, with trading in the currency likely be somewhat volatile until a clear outcome is established as both candidates try to garner the support of a handful of independents. However, it is notable that apart from an initial drop the AUD has managed to hold its ground. Nonetheless, the given the fluidity of the political situation there will be few investors wanted to take long positions at current levels around 0.8900 versus USD.

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