Data and earnings focus

Friday’s round of US data were generally upbeat, highlighting that consumer spending is coming back to life. Inflation pressures however, remain benign at least on the core reading highlighting the Fed’s concern that inflation is running below the level consistent with its mandate. In other words it will be a long time, probably late into 2012 before policy rates increase.

While the Fed is no hurry to raise rates despite a few hawkish rumblings within the FOMC the European Central Bank (ECB) in contrast appears to have become more eager to pull the trigger for higher rates. ECB President Trichet’s hawkish press conference last week set the cat amongst the pigeons and marked a clear shift in ECB rhetoric towards a more hawkish stance.

A very big problem for the ECB is that the eurozone economy is not performing along the lines that its hawkish rhetoric would suggest, especially in the periphery. Growth momentum in the core in contrast, as likely reflected in the January ZEW investor confidence and IFO business confidence survey data this week in Germany, remains positive. Both surveys are likely to stabilize at healthy levels but how long can the likes of Germany drag along the eurozone periphery?

There will be relatively more attention on the meeting of Eurogroup/Ecofin officials, with focus on issues such as enlarging the size of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund and development of a “comprehensive plan” to contain the eurozone crisis. Don’t look for any conclusive agreements as this may have to wait until the European Union (EU) Council meeting on 4 February assuming (optimistically given ongoing German resistance) some agreement can even be reached.

Following the success (albeit at relatively high yields) of the eurozone debt auctions last week, sentiment for peripheral debt will face further tests this week in the form of debt sales in Spain, Belgium and Portugal.

The US Martin Luther King Jr. holiday will result in a quiet start to the week for markets but there will be plenty to chew on. This week’s key earnings reports include several banks scheduled to release Q4 earnings. Financials are a leading sector in the rally in equities at present and these earnings will be critical to determine whether the rally has legs.

The US data slate includes January manufacturing surveys in the form of the Empire and Philly Fed, both of which are likely to post healthy gains whilst existing home sales are also likely to rise. This will not change the generally weak picture of the US housing market, with high inventories and elevated foreclosures characterizing conditions. As if to prove this, housing starts are set to drop in December. On the rates front, the Bank of Canada is likely to keep its policy rates on hold this week.

After coming under pressure last week much for the USD will depend on the eurozone’s travails to determine further direction. Concrete evidence of progress at the Ecofin may bolster the EUR further, with resistance seen around 1.3500 but don’t bank on it. The ability of eurozone officials to let down often lofty expectations should not be ignored. In any case following sharp gains last week progress over coming days for the EUR will be harder to achieve.

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