Markets taking their cue from China data and Bernanke

After having been on the road visiting clients across Asia over the last two weeks the overall tone to markets feels slightly better than when I left. Risk appetite is improving as central banks attempt to dampen the spike in yields, by initiating “forward guidance”. On balance, markets appear to be making the volatile transition to Fed tapering with less angst than a couple of weeks back.

Despite the confusion over China’s GDP growth target the tone at the start of the week is positive. China’s Q2 GDP slowed compared to Q1 coming in at 7.5% YoY from 7.7% previously but arguably last week’s comments by China’s Finance Minister that China was targeting growth of 7% (later revised in to 7.5%) had arguably done a good job in guiding market expectations lower. In the event the market reaction to the Q2 GDP release was limited.

Aside from China’s data, markets have taken their cue from Fed Chairman Bernanke’s dovish comments last week when he noted that policy will remain “highly accommodative” for the “foreseeable future”. Discomfort at the sharp rise in US Treasury yields will have played a part in spurring such comments, with the net impact being one of improved risk appetite.

Further clarification from Bernanke will be sought during his semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress mid week although he is unlikely to diverge from his recent comments. Nonetheless, US yields and the USD will likely creep higher over coming days helped by firmer data including the June retail sales report today.

Eurozone markets will have little on the data front to digest aside from the German July ZEW survey this week, leaving the fragile state of Portuguese politics in the spotlight. Potential for fresh elections remains a distinct possibility although discussions over forming a new government will continue this week. Overall, this would suggest some underperformance of Eurozone markets and the EUR over the coming days.

In the UK the release of CPI inflation data in June and Bank of England MPC minutes will garner most attention. Inflation is likely to have pushed through the 3% threshold, requiring new governor Carney to write a letter to the UK Chancellor Osborne explaining the reasons for the rise in inflation pressures. Meanwhile the MPC minutes will take a slightly more hawkish stance, with a 7-2 vote expected as Carney will most likely have sided with the majority unlike his predecessor. Against this background GBP is set to gain some ground, especially against the EUR.

Asian currencies made up some ground following the Bernanke inspired drop in the USD last week but given that the region continues to suffer from equity portfolio outflows gains will be difficult to hold over coming days. Nonetheless, the good news is that the haemorrhaging in capital flows to the region has diminished, with only USD 73.6 million in equity outflows from Asia registered month to date.


Euro edging towards year highs, GBP lagging

Contrary to most expectations at the beginning of this week EUR has managed to claw back its losses and more, with the currency edging towards its year-to-date highs around 1.3069. The resilience of the currency to bad news in Europe has been impressive and its gains have reflected a speculative market that has been extremely short. The end of the week sees no key data of note so markets will have to contend with digesting the outcome of the relatively positive Spanish and French debt auctions while keeping one eye on Greek debt talks with private investors.

Unless there is yet another breakdown of talks in Greece the EUR will end the week on a positive note. I suspect it won’t last further out especially given the pitfalls ahead but at a time when investors have become increasingly bearish on the EUR it may just extend its bounce over the short term. One country to watch is Portugal whose bonds have underperformed recently as markets speculate that it could be the next contender for any debt writedown.

Retail sales data in the UK will capture local market attention today. Sales are set to have bounced back in December but the improvement is likely to be short-lived, suggesting any support to GBP will be fleeting. GBP has underperformed even against the firmer EUR recently but this is providing better levels for investors to take long positions versus EUR. In part this reflects the move in relative European/US interest rate differentials, which has been correlated with the move in EUR/GBP.

I expect GBP to outperform EUR over coming months to around 0.80, with the former continuing to benefit from the simple fact that it is not in the Eurozone and has therefore acquired a quasi safe haven status. Nonetheless, as reflected in the drop in Nationwide consumer confidence in December, this year will be particularly difficult for the UK economy. GBP will be restrained by the prospects of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England as inflation eases further

Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

Payrolls sour mood, Eurozone concerns intensify

The market mood has soured further and risk aversion has increased following disappointing August US jobs report in which the change in payrolls was zero and downward revisions to previous months has reinforced the negative mood on the US and global economy while raising expectations of more Federal Reserve action. Moreover, the report has put additional pressure on US President Obama to deliver fresh jobs measures in his speech on Thursday though Republican opposition may leave Obama with little actual leeway for further stimulus.

There is plenty of event risk over coming days, with a heavy slate central bank meetings including in Europe, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada and Sweden. The European Central Bank will offer no support to a EUR that is coming under growing pressure, with the Bank set to take a more neutral tone to policy compared its previously hawkish stance. In the UK, GBP could also trade cautiously given recent comments by Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee members about potential for more UK quantitative easing.

The EUR has been unable to capitalise on the bad economic news in the US as news there has been even worse. The negative news includes the weekend defeat of German Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right bloc in regional elections, which comes ahead of a vote in Germany’s constitutional court on changes to the EFSF bailout fund.

The withdrawal of the Troika (ECB, IMF and EU) from Greece has also put renewed emphasis on the country at a time when protests are escalating. If all of this is not enough there is growing concern about Italy’s apparent backtracking on austerity measures, with the Italian parliament set to discuss measures this week. Separately Germany, Holland and Finland will hold a meeting tomorrow on the Greek collateral issue. On top of all of this is the growing evidence of deteriorating growth in the euro area.

Data releases are unlikely to garner a great deal of attention amidst the events noted above, with mainly service sector purchasing managers indices on tap and at least threw will look somewhat better than their manufacturing counterparts. In the US the Beige Book and trade data will be in focus but all eyes will be on Obama’s speech later in the week. The USD has maintained a firm tone despite the jobs report but its resilience may be better explained by eurozone negativity rather than US positivity. Even so, the USD is looking less uglier than the EUR in the current environment.

EU Deal Boosts Euro But Momentum To Fade

The European Union deal for Greece was clearly on the positive side of expectations and from that perspective helped to buoy sentiment for European assets. The fact that EU leaders managed to work over differences and emerge with a solid deal will help remove some of the uncertainty about Greece’s future and lower the risks of contagion.

To recap EU leaders announced a EUR 109 billion second aid package for Greece. Private bondholders will contribute a target of a further EUR 37 billion via bond swaps or rolling over existing debt for new bonds maturing in 30 years. Investors will have the option to exchange existing debt into four instruments. The aim is to obtain 90% participation from Greek bondholders.

Moreover, it appears that governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral until the country can return to the market. Effectively this means that even if ratings agencies declare a default rating on Greek debt, Greek banks may still be able to obtain funding from the European Central Bank (ECB) as the debt is guaranteed by national governments.

Greece, Portugal and Ireland will benefit from lower interest rates on loans and longer maturities. Moreover, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund will have a wider scope for bond buying directly from investors. This lets the ECB off the hook to avoid further use of its own bond purchase programme and removes any further impairing of its balance sheet. The idea of a tax on banks was removed, as criticism of the workability of such a plan increased.

The downside of the deal includes the fact that:
1) European tax payers are on the line for a potentially unlimited amount to guarantee defaulted Greek debt,
2) The bondholder programme is only limited to Greece, so there is no contingency should something similar be needed in other countries
3) The participation rate for private bondholders is yet to be known (but will most likely be high).
3) The deal will lead to a default on Greek debt given the programme amounts to a 21% drop in value but a credit event is unlikely to be triggered.
4) Greece still has a highly ambitious privatisation and austerity plan to implement which even some Greek officials have admitted is overly optimistic and at worst could turn into a fire sale of Greek assets.
5) EFSF bond purchases will need the “mutual agreement” of member states which is by no means guaranteed.
6) The fund size is not large enough should Italy and Spain need similar bailouts especially as leaders have stressed that the Greek package will not be replicated for other countries.

The EUR rallied on the outcome of the European talks. However, the EUR has plenty of other worries to deal with including divergence in growth across the eurozone, overly long EUR market positioning, EUR overvaluation, likely growth underperformance versus the US and a likely rebound in general for the USD over coming months especially if the Fed does not embark on QE3 and agrees a deal to raise the debt ceiling. EUR/USD is likely to remain supported in the near term, with near term resistance around 1.4467. I still suspect that the momentum will not last, with EUR/USD looking particularly rich at current levels.

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