Central banks in the spotlight

The market mood continues to be weighed down by a combination of worries including monetary tightening in China and Greece’s debt woes. Consequently, risk aversion has taken a turn for the worse over the last couple of weeks. Measures of currency and equity market volatility have also spiked. Meanwhile, risk currencies have remained under pressure, especially those that are most sensitive to risk aversion including AUD, NZD, CAD, and a long list of emerging market currencies.

Greece’s problems remain a major drag on the EUR, with speculative sentiment for the currency dropping close to the all time low recorded in September 2008, according to the CFTC IMM data. Further developments including news that the European Commission will officially recommend that Greece should implement more severe cuts on public sector spending are unlikely to help to reverse negative sentiment for the currency. A lack of confidence and scepticism over Greece’s ability to cut its budget deficit suggest little respite for the EUR in the weeks ahead.

Markets will have plenty of other things to focus on this week, with various manufacturing and service sector PMIs, four major central bank decisions, and the January US non-farm payrolls report, due for release. The PMIs are likely to confirm that output in both manufacturing and service industries remains expansionary but only consistent with limited growth rather than the rapid rebound in activity seen following past recessions.

The most interesting central bank decision this week is likely to be that of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Recent data has if anything given more reason for the central bank to raise interest rates, including the latest release which was the TD Securities inflation gauge, which jumped 0.8% in January, the biggest increase in 6-months. Although a hike is now largely discounted, some hawkish rhetoric from the RBA could be sufficient to give the AUD some support.

Although the UK Bank of England is unlikely to shift policy at its meeting on Thursday the statement will be scrutinized for clues as to whether quantitative easing is over. Any indication that there will be no further QE measures will play positively for GBP given that it has been restrained by speculation that the BoE will increase asset purchases. No change is also expected by the ECB but once again Greece will likely dominate the press conference. Meanwhile Norway’s Norges Bank is likely to pause in its policy of gradual tightening.

Clearly the funding currency of choice, the USD, has been one of the main beneficiaries of higher risk aversion and this has been reflected in the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders report, which shows that net short aggregate USD speculative positions have dropped sharply, with USD positioning close to flat again. Similarly, the other beneficiary, namely the JPY, has also seen a significant shift in positioning as shorts have been covered. Expect more to come.

Appetite for carry trades was not be helped by the news that the UK’s Lord Turner has signalled a regulatory crackdown on FX carry trades. The report in the UK press fuelled a sell of in JPY crosses but is unlikely to have more than a short term market impact given the practical difficulties in regulating carry trades. Nonetheless, the fact that speculative positioning is still quite long in the AUD, NZD and CAD suggest scope for more downside in such currencies in the current risk averse environment.

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