Summers’ departs Fed race, risk assets supported

Another weaker than forecast US economic release, namely August retail sales has obscured the picture ahead of the mid week Fed FOMC meeting. Moreover, the data alongside news that one of the leading candidates to take over as Fed Chairman, Lawrence Summers, has withdrawn his candidacy has helped to undermine the USD. Summers is perceived as relatively hawkish and less in favour of quantitative easing than the other leading contender Janet Yellen.

Summer’s departure from the Fed race will help to buoy risk assets and cap US bond yields. His candidacy faced increased resistance from both sides of the political spectrum, with an “acrimonious” confirmation ahead of him. Yellen is now the clear front runner in the race although she may still face competition from former vice-chairman Donald Kohn.

Ahead of the FOMC meeting there is likely to be little directional bias for markets, with the Fed expected to announce USD 10 billion in tapering in an even split between Treasuries and mortgage backed securities. Additionally the Fed is set to strengthen its forward bias in order to soothe markets and this ought to alleviate some of the impact some of the potential pressure on risk assets from the announcement of tapering.

In Europe politics will be in focus, with Senate hearings on the Berlusconi case in Italy continuing, heightening cross party tensions and maintaining the threat of a government collapse. Meanwhile in Germany Chancellor Merkel gained some momentum ahead of national elections as her ally, the CSU took an absolute majority in Bavaria.

However, the fact that her Federal government partner the Free Domocrats failed to reach the 5% threshold to enter the Bavarian parliament, means that Merkel still faces the prospect of having to enter into a grand coalition if they record a similar performance in national elections. EUR may face some restrain given the uncertainty around political events in Europe.

In Asia currencies are likely to find further support from the news that Summer’s has pulled out of the Fed race. Already over recent weeks there was strong evidence of a resumption of equity capital inflows to the region, helping to steady many Asian currencies. If the Fed attempts to counter any pressure from tapering news with reinforced forward guidance it ought to leave Asian currencies supported in the near term.

The INR has been the outperformer so far this month and will benefit further over the short term although the Reserve Bank of India policy meeting under new governor Rajan this week will give further clues on the direction of the currency.

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.

Bullish INR but other Asian currencies held back

Although the European Central Bank (ECB) left policy rates unchanged the post meeting press conference effectively opened the door to a rate cut in Q1 next year following sharp downward revisions to growth projections and well below target inflation projected over the medium term. A major casualty of the shift in ECB tone was the EUR which dropped over one big figure from a high of around 1.3089. Technical support for EUR/USD is now seen around 1.2885.

The Baltic Dry Index has continued to decline over recent days sending an ominous signal for growth ahead. Meanwhile, once again politics cast a shadow over European markets as Italy’s government overcame a confidence motion, with ex Prime Minister Berlusconi’s PDL party threatening to withdraw support and bring down the government.

Trading is likely to remain thin today as markets await the US November jobs report. The report will undoubtedly be soft (consensus is for an 85k increase in November payrolls) but as much of the weakness in jobs growth will be due to Hurricane Sandy the market impact is likely to be muted leaving a likely constructive tone to risk appetite going into next week.

Asian currencies continue to take direction from the CNY, with the lack of upside traction in this currency leaving most Asian currencies within ranges despite the fact that equity flows to Asia have been very strong over recent days, with inflows of over $2 billion registered this week alone. The implication is that central banks in the region have become increasingly active in preventing Asian currency strength.

One currency that has a limited influence from the CNY is the INR and this currency continues to outperform on reform hopes. The passage through India’s lower house of parliament allowing foreign investment into retailers was encouraging and hopes have grown that it will be followed by passage in the upper house. Further gains in the INR are seen over coming sessions, with a short term break below USD/INR 54.00 looming.

The Italian Job

Italy looks too big to rescue yet is too big to fail. The country has around EUR 1.9 trillion in public debt (around 5 times that of Greece) and is the third largest country in the eurozone. Therefore it cannot be as easily dealt with as Greece.

Italy needs to raise around EUR 18 billion per month to cover its budget deficit and bond redemptions and with a continued increase in yields (hitting close to 7.5% for 10 year bonds) borrowing costs are rising sharply and fast becoming unsustainable. Higher collateral haircuts on Italian debt are adding to the pressure.

Although Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has said he will step down in the wake of reform measures to be voted on by the Italian parliament the vote on the measures may not take place for weeks. Moreover, Berlusconi may attempt to seek re-election after stepping down, which could bring the situation back to square one.

In the meantime speculation that Italy may be the next country to need to a bailout will intensify. However, with only around EUR 270 billion remaining in the EFSF bailout fund and details of how the fund will be leveraged to a planned EUR 1 trillion still lacking, doubts about whether it will have sufficient resources will grow. Press reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone due to fears that Italy will be too big to rescue will only add to the malaise.

Focus over the short term will turn to today’s 12 month auction of EUR 5 billion in Italy. Last month’s 12 month auction saw an average yield of 3.57% but this time around yields could rise above 6%. Worryingly it appears that even with the European Central Bank (ECB) buying Italian debt it has been insufficient to prevent yield rising.

In any case, given the ECB’s reluctance to become lender of the last resort to European peripherals, any support from this direction will be limited. Against this background the EUR remains highly vulnerable to a further drop. Indeed, the EUR’s recent resilience looks all the more misplaced. A test of the 4 October low around EUR/USD 1.3146 is on the cards over coming days.

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