PIIGS fears fuelling risk aversion

Risk aversion has come back with a vengeance over the last 10 days driven by a host of concerns that continue to damage market sentiment. As has been evident over the past year the USD and JPY remain the best currency plays against the background of rising risk aversion and both currencies look well supported.

Market concerns are not going away quickly but some of the fears plaguing markets have at least receded especially on the US political front, with Obama’s State of the Union address, Geithner’s testimony on AIG and Bernanke’s reappointment all passing without too much incident, at least from a market perspective. I still believe that market fears are overblown but it is clearly evident that the market is not in the mood to concur. More pain is likely in the weeks ahead.

Euro-sovereign spreads continue to suffer from the ongoing Greek saga whilst the other major fear remains further monetary tightening in China. Rumours that China is about to imminently revalue the CNY are also running rife. The bigger than expected hike in the reserve ratio in India reflects the fact that Asia is on a faster track to tighten policy than Western economies.

As regular readers probably noticed, my articles on econometer.org have been sporadic recently. This is due to the fact that I have been on the road for the last two weeks giving client seminars across several countries in Asia. Without giving too much away it is evident that pessimism is pervasive and most investors I polled are looking for a “W” or “double dip” profile for economic growth in the G7 economies over coming months. Hardly anyone looked for a “V”.

The other casualty emanating from Greece’s woes, as well as worries that other European PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) face ratings downgrades, is the EUR. EUR/USD slipped below the psychologically important level of 1.40 this week and is showing no sign of turning around. Warnings by S&P ratings that Portugal faces challenges on the fiscal front show that these sovereign concerns will be with us for a long while yet.

After letting investors believe that the European Commission would offer no support for Greece, there appears to be a growing realization that Greece is not simply a local problem but a Euro wide problem, as noted by European Commission President Barroso. Whilst this may be good for Greek debt the path to recovery is still likely to be a massively painful one, and the EUR may gain little support from this news.

The UK has not escaped the clutches of ratings agencies and warnings by S&P that UK banks are no longer among the “most stable and low-risk” in the world highlights the headwinds faced by GBP at present. The weaker than expected out-turn for Q4 GDP (0.1%) highlights the fact that UK economic recovery is fragile, which in turn plays negatively for the banking sector. This news has put a break on GBP but there appears to be plenty of demand for GBP above 1.600 vs USD.

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