Risk assets pull back as caution prevails

Risk assets faltered especially in Europe in the wake of renewed political tensions in Italy and Spain. Election uncertainty in the former as former Prime Minister Berlusconi gathers growing support and government corruption allegations in the latter hit equity markets and peripheral bonds.

Consequently the EUR gave back some of its recent gains, with the currency not helped by comments by the French finance minister warning about its strength. EUR/USD downside will be limited to support around 1.3461 in the near term.

Weaker Spanish jobs data did little to help sentiment while service sector confidence indices in the Eurozone today will also provoke further concerns revealing both continued contraction for most countries and divergence in the bigger economies, namely Germany and France. Caution will prevail in the near term as markets begin to question the veracity of the rally in risk assets registered over recent weeks.

AUD has had a fairly erratic start to the year rallying to break 1.06 against the USD but failing to hold gains over recent weeks. The currency has looked a little more stable into February but is still showing little sign of rallying despite the recently firmer risk tone, weaker USD index and firmer Chinese data, all of which would have been supportive for AUD in the past.

Technically AUD/USD looks vulnerable according to the relative strength index (RSI). Moreover, speculative positioning is around the 3 month average suggesting little impetus either way.

The RBA decision today to hold the cash rate unchanged but keep open the door to further rate cuts will inflict more short term pain on AUD but given that the market had already priced in a further rate cut in the cycle any decline in AUD will be limited. A break below the 100 day moving average around 1.0415 will result in a test of support around 1.0381.

Although the AUD is faltering its drop pales into insignificance compared to the sharp decline in JPY over recent weeks. Obviously the drop in the JPY has caused some panic across other currencies, especially in Asia (KRW, TWD, MYR), but this has done little to sway JPY bears. I have some hesitancy in calling the JPY much lower especially as a lot appear to be is in the price (in terms of aggressive policy actions) but technical indicators for both USD/JPY and EUR/JPY remain bullish despite the pull back overnight.

The intensifying hunt for yield means that the JPY will remain on the back foot over coming months but in the short term JPY may find some support from a renewed rise in risk aversion as political tensions in Europe heat up as well as some caution that the risk rally looks overdone. However, speculative positioning is unlikely to get in the way of further JPY declines given that positioning is around the 3-month average and still well above the all time lows reached in June 2007.

USD under broad based pressure

There remains a great deal of angst in markets due to the lack of resolution to the US fiscal cliff, which is putting pressure on overall market sentiment as reflected in the multi day rise in the VIX fear gauge over recent days. The fact that both the US administration and senior Republicans are giving little ground in discussions suggests a deal is not in sight although the pressure for compromise will intensify as year end approaches.

The news in Europe is a little better as reflected in the narrowing in peripheral bond yields. There will be little directional influence on markets today, with trading likely to be subdued ahead of the US jobs report on Friday, with any news on the fiscal cliff also closely watched.

The USD continues to come under broad based pressure, with the USD index having lost around 2% of its value since 16 November. The lack of traction in terms of resolving the fiscal cliff and the weaker US data this week, namely the November ISM manufacturing index have weighed on the currency.

How much of the USD move is due to position adjustments as year end approaches fast or renewed confidence in the EUR is debatable but it is clear that the USD looks like it will end the year in a bad state. The ADP jobs report today may give further direction but it seems unlikely that pressure on the USD will abate ahead of the November payrolls data on Friday.

While the EUR’s gains are beginning to look overdone, the momentum for the currency continues to be to the topside as short positions continue to be covered into year end. The EUR’s appreciation is taking place hand in hand with the drop in peripheral bond yields. A positive reception for Greece’s debt buy back as well as Spain’s request for aid for its banking sector has also helped the currency.

Rumours of a German debt downgrade have done little to diminish the EUR’s appeal. An upcoming meeting of EU finance ministers next week ahead of the EU leaders’ summit to try and make some progress towards banking supervision is also hoped to deliver some good news. A test of sentiment will come from a Spanish bond auction today but this is unlikely to be much of an obstacle to the EUR. Near term EUR/USD resistance is seen around 1.3172.

USD pressured, limited gains for Asian currencies

Risk assets registered a positive performance over the past week despite the plethora of events / issues that remain unresolved. However, it’s back to business today with talks over Greek’s debt sustainability and resolution towards distribution of its next loan tranche set to resume.

Meanwhile, markets will digest the results of elections in the Spanish region of Catalonia which have fuelled greater uncertainty in the wake of the gains in seats for pro-referendum parties who won 87 of the Catalan parliament’s 135 seats. However, the results did not provide the strength of support for pro independence parties as had initially been feared, suggesting some relief for the EUR.

Together with the failure to make any progress on the EU budget it is clear that there are still many layers of uncertainty lying ahead for European markets. Nonetheless, optimism appears to be winning the day as the EUR and peripheral bonds shake off such concerns. The risk going forward is that the market is hoping for too much, with the risk / reward dynamic skewed asymmetrically in the wake of any failure to reach agreement especially regarding Greece.

News of healthy US Thanksgiving spending will be followed by data releases this week that are set to provide further signs of improvement although markets will remain focussed on any progress towards resolving the fiscal cliff. An upward revision to US Q3 GDP, gains in durable goods orders, and new home sales in October will provide encouraging news contributing to a tone of firmer risk appetite. This will be echoed by the Fed’s Beige Book.

Economic news in Europe (expected lower economic sentiment index) and in Japan (fourth consecutive decline in industrial production) will highlight the comparative outperformance of the US economy while adding pressure for more aggressive policy measures elsewhere.

The net FX impact of the market’s optimism is to sell USDs leaving it vulnerable in an environment of improving risk appetite. Nonetheless, given that the market is now pricing in a resolution to several of the issues noted above, USD weakness may prove limited from current levels. EUR/USD is set to face resistance around the 1.3023 level while USD/JPY will face strong resistance around 83.20.

Asian currencies have benefitted from the firmer tone to risk appetite (most except IDR and INR are strongly correlated to risk) but gains have been limited over the past week as central banks in the region increasingly resist further strength. The lack of upward trajectory in the CNY has been a key driver for the slower pace of appreciation of Asian currencies over recent days and I expect this trend to continue.

China may even countenance some softening in the CNY into year end suggests limited upside for Asian currencies into year end despite a firmer risk tone. The INR remains the major underperformer, with the currency continuing to suffer from domestic considerations, and benefitting the least from any improvement in risk appetite.

US dollar to edge higher

As US elections approach the USD appears to be holding up reasonably well, edging higher against major currencies including EUR and JPY helped in some part by a recent increase in risk aversion. Notably Asian currencies remain firm taking their cue from a firmer CNY rather than the slightly stronger USD. The notable break below 1100 for USD/KRW highlights the still strong impetus for Asian currencies.

Although a fixation with the outcome of the US elections may limit market movements the USD is likely to remain generally well supported ahead of the important US October jobs report. In general US data this week will look relatively positive, with consumer confidence, the October manufacturing ISM survey and likely to move higher in October. Non farm payrolls in October are also likely to be stronger than the September increase although the unemployment rate may edge higher to around 7.9%.

In contrast progress in the Eurozone on the debt front is frustratingly slow, with little sign of any request for Spanish financial assistance. At least there appears to be some traction in Greece, with agreement on spending cuts amounting to around EUR 13.5 billion to be deliberated this week opening the door to the next disbursement of loans to the country. Lack of progress in Spain taken together with superior US data (note economic sentiment gauges in Europe are set to reveal a deterioration tomorrow) will weigh on the EUR, with the currency likely to continue to drift lower, with a test of 1.2825 on the cards.

The JPY has been a relatively exciting currency over recent days, having weakened against the USD in the wake of higher US bond yields. Expectations of additional easing by Japan’s central bank at its meeting tomorrow are also helping to put pressure on the JPY. The BoJ is expected to announce an additional JPY 200 billion of purchases of Exchange Traded Funds and additional purchases of JGBs. Such action has partly been priced in and while the JPY will remain under some short term pressure a sustained break above USD/JPY 80 appears unlikely unless the central bank delivers more aggressive measures than anticipated.

USD under pressure, AUD resilient

Risk assets registered further gains in the wake of speculation that Spain is close to requesting aid and stronger than forecast US Q3 earnings and economic data. US earnings have beaten expectations at 73% of the 48 companies reporting while US industrial production rose by a bigger than expected 0.4%. Meanwhile German resistance to a full Spanish aid appears to be crumbling as the door opens wider to a formal Spanish request for a credit line.

Additionally German data was a big more encouraging as the German ZEW investor confidence survey recorded its second straight monthly gain. Aside from rallying global stock markets the Baltic Dry Index continued its ascent and even gold prices showed some stability around the $1750 level. There is little to distract from the more positive market tone today, with US earnings and the EU Council meeting in focus.

The USD has come under renewed pressure as risk appetite improves. Firmer US data has contributed to improving risk appetite which in turn would usually be expected to weigh on the USD. However, better data may also act to lessen expectations of the magnitude of Fed QE, which should play positive for the USD. This is the theory but in practice the USD relationship with risk aversion has slipped while a lot of QE expectations were already built into the currency.

I don’t see the pressure on the USD intensifying much further. Conversely the EUR remains very well supported as hopes grow of a Spanish request for bailout funds. I believe expectations of concrete action at the EU Summit beginning tomorrow are overdone, with significant decisions on Spain and Greece only likely in November. EUR/USD will struggle to break above resistance at 1.3180.

AUD bears failed to garner support yesterday as the currency easily overcame a blip lower in the wake of the RBA minutes yesterday. While sounding dovish there was little new in the minutes, with no fresh information on future policy actions. In any case markets have already priced in further easing at the 6 November RBA meeting suggesting little further risk to the AUD. Following its failure to build on any downside momentum AUD/USD looks set for a test of resistance around 1.0404, consistent with the upside signal from my quantitative model.

One impediment to AUD gains is the fact that speculative market positioning remains long. However, positioning is now much lower than its three-month average and well off its recent highs suggesting that there is less likelihood of a further bout of profit taking or position squaring. Reduced long positioning will allow the AUD to recoup some lost ground.

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