FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

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JPY retracement, CHF pressure

Risk assets rallied overnight, the USD weakened and US Treasury yields rose. There was little new in terms of economic news, with only NAHB March homebuilders confidence of note, which came in slightly weaker than expected. The bigger driver for markets was the news that Apple Inc. will pay around USD 45 billion in dividends and share buybacks over the next 3-years.

Today sees a crop of second tier releases including housing starts and building permits in the US and inflation data in the UK while there will also be attention on a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke. Risk assets will remain supported but I continue to see consolidation for markets in the near term.

USD/JPY has retraced lower as warned last week. My quantitative models suggest scope for even more of a correction lower, with a drop below 83.00 on the cards in the short term. While the upward move in the currency pair was built on a widening in the US yield advantage over Japan, the move looks overdone. Nonetheless, any pullback will offer better levels to initiate long USD/JPY medium term positions.

Clearly the market believes that the JPY will weaken further given the build up in JPY short positions over recent weeks, with shorts at their highest since April 2011. February trade data to be released on Thursday will provide further fuel for JPY bears given the persistence of a trade deficit and weakness in exports.

Following the bounce in EUR/CHF last week the currency pair has dropped back into its recent tight range around the 1.2050-1.2070 area. Strong warnings by the Swiss National Bank at its policy meeting did not lead to any follow through on the CHF. I expect a gradual drift higher in EUR/CHF over coming weeks in line with the incremental change in sentiment for the Eurozone as Greece slips from the radar.

Official pressure for CHF weakness will remain intense given the deterioration in economic data as likely to be revealed in today’s release of Q4 industrial production. Nonetheless, the SNB will be wary of confronting the market in terms of FX intervention to weaken the CHF despite its verbal warnings. Meanwhile USD/CHF remains highly sensitive to gyrations in the USD index given its strong correlation, suggesting some consolidation in the short term as the USD pulls back.

Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

For A Few Dollars More…

…or should I say a few EUR more.   This is what the Greek authorities must be wondering.  Once again Greek worries weighed on equities and risk appetite as a whole.  Although the saga is turning into one big yawn, markets have not had their fill with the bad news coming from this small eurozone economy.  Talks between Greek officials, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union (EU) began yesterday but are expected to go on for several days or weeks until a joint text is issued on May 15, just days ahead of a EUR 8.5 billion bond redemption by Greece. 

The talks have done nothing to prevent Greece’s bond yields moving higher, with the yield on 10-year bonds pushing well over 8% whilst the spread with Germany debt also blew out to over 500bps.  The main fear in the market is that Greece will ultimately end up restructuring its debt.  Moreover, contagion fears have dealt a blow to southern European sovereign CDS especially Portugal.  It wasn’t plain sailing for German bonds either, with yesterday’s auction of EUR 3 billion of 30-year Bunds failing to sell the full amount. 

Another casualty of ongoing Greece concerns is the EUR, with the currency under performing other majors and still on its path towards EUR/USD 1.3300 in the near term and onto 1.3150 after.   EUR also looks vulnerable on the crosses and EUR/GBP in particular is one to watch, with the 28 January low around 0.86029 likely to be targeted over the near term.  UK employment data gave some relief to GBP yesterday, with further direction coming from retail sales data today and the next televised leaders’ debate.  

At some point the market will become fatigued with consensus beating earnings and the positive impact on equities will become less marked.  This point is approaching but we’re not quite there yet.  Apple, Morgan Stanley and Boeing did not disappoint, with earnings easily beating forecasts.  Boeing’s earnings in particular helped industrials to be the best performing sector on the S&P 500 although the overall index closed marginally lower.

Earnings today include Amazon.com, American Express, Credit Suisse, Microsoft, Nokia, and PepsiCo.  It is becoming plainly obvious that market expectations for earnings are too pessimistic but as noted above the positive market impact of good earnings is likely to wane. 

On the data front, highlights include March existing home sales, jobless claims and Producer Price Index (PPI).   There will be less focus on PPI given that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the month has already been released whilst claims are likely to resume a path lower following the jump over the past couple of weeks.   Existing home sales are likely to post an impressive gain as indicated by firm pending home sales data.   

Overall, it appears that risk appetite is creeping back into the market psyche but the ongoing battle between positive earnings/data versus European/Greek woes suggests that there will be no clear direction for markets.  Improving risk appetite will ultimately win but current conditions will leave currencies trading within well worn ranges, with the exception of the underperforming EUR. In contrast the USD index is likely to remain supported, taking solace from positive data releases.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

GOOD: Positive earnings. The biggest earnings news of the day was from Goldman Sachs reporting that profits almost doubled in Q1. Apple also beat estimates and its shares surged. 82% of US earnings have beaten expectation so far. There is still a long way to go in the earnings season but the growth/earnings story is helping to maintain the positive bias to risk trades. There will be plenty of attention on earnings, including AT&T, eBay, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks, Boeing and Wells Fargo.

Data releases remain upbeat, with the April German ZEW investor confidence survey beating consensus, whilst central banks delivered hawkish messages across the board including the Reserve Bank of Australia policy meeting minutes, which pointed to another interest rate hike in May. However, the biggest impact came from the Bank of Canada which unsurprisingly left rates at 0.25%, but removed the conditional commitment to keep policy on hold until the end of Q2, leaving a rate hike on June 1 very likely.

The CAD jumped on the back of the outcome, with USD/CAD dropping below parity. I continue to like CAD alongside the AUD and NZD and believe they will be the star performers over the coming months despite lofty valuations.    Near term targets for CAD, AUD and NZD vs USD are 0.9953, 0.9407, and 0.7195, respectively. 

BAD: Talks between Greek officials and the IMF, ECB and EU on the conditions for a EUR 45 billion bailout loan will also be of interest although completion of talks could take weeks and in the meantime the situation is unlikely to improve, with Greece needing around EUR 10 billion to cover obligations by end May. Greek bond yields jumped to fresh record highs around 7.84% yesterday whilst the spread over German bunds also widened. Moreover, although Greece’s sale of EUR 1.95 billion in 13-week paper yesterday was heavily oversubscribed the, the yield was high at 3.65% which was far higher than the 1.67% yield at a similar sale in January.

In contrast to the likes of the CAD, AUD and NZD, the EUR is set to continue to suffer and as reflected in the widening in Greek bond spreads and high funding costs, Greek woes will keep plenty of pressure on the currency, with EUR/USD set to fall to support around 1.3300 in the short-term.

UGLY: UK regulator FSA will conduct a formal investigation of Goldman Sachs. The FSA will work closely with the US Securities and Exchange Commission SEC, which has accused the bank of Fraud though this has vehemently denied by Goldman Sachs. Although the negative market impact of the fraud case has been outweighed by good earnings and data the fallout is spreading. Some European politicians have even called for governments to stop working with the bank.

Shaking Off The Bad News

Markets managed to shake off the initial shock of the SEC’s fraud case against Goldman Sachs following news that the charge was not approved unanimously, but with a 3-2 vote. This was interpreted by some to imply that there was more of a political rather than economic bias behind the charge, with two Democrats voting for and two Republicans voting against and SEC Chairman Schapiro siding with the Democrats.

Stronger than forecast earnings from Citigroup and a bigger than expected 1.4% jump in US March leading indicators also helped to calm market nerves, with US equities closing higher and the VIX volatility index reversing some of its spike higher. Attention is still firmly fixed on earnings and with 121 S&P 500 companies due to release earnings this week including Apple, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson and Yahoo today.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to see sentiment improve too much against the background of ongoing worries about Greece as reflected in the renewed widening in Greek debt spreads yesterday. Moreover, the negative economic impact of the spread of volcanic ash from Iceland, and potential for more lawsuits related to CDOs from regulators as well as investors, against banks, will continue to act as a drag on market risk appetite.

Earnings have been positive so far into the season and as seen overnight, this is helping to counter market negatives, giving risk appetite some support. In turn, this will give risk currencies some relief but given the gyrations between positive and negative news it is difficult to see most currencies breaking out of recent ranges.

My overall bias is for positive earnings and data to overcome the negatives this week, leaving the likes of the AUD, NZD and CAD as well Asian currencies firmer. The EUR and GBP are likely to remain the weakest links, with both currencies set to retrace lower and EUR/USD finding plenty of sellers above 1.3500.

What To Watch This Week

Well so much for a “risk on” week. Market sentiment soured at the end of last week following The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) civil action against Goldman Sachs, in which they accused the bank of fraud. The impact reverberated across markets and risk trades were pulled back as a consequence. Bulls shouldn’t be too downhearted though as the drop in risk trades followed several days of gains and part of the pullback could be attributed to profit taking.

Speculation of similar probes in Europe by financial regulators will cast a shadow over markets early this week. Nonetheless, direction will at least in part come from earnings. So far the run of earnings looks upbeat, with around 83% of the 48 S&P 500 companies reporting, beating analysts’ estimates. Overall profits are forecast to increase by around 30% from a year ago but are on track to easily beat this estimate. Bellwether names including IBM, Apple, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Microsoft, and AT&T report this week.

The meeting between Greek officials, ECB, IMF and EU has been delayed until Wednesday. There is little likelihood of Greece seeing any loan money soon as the need for parliamentary approval in some EU countries and upcoming regional elections in Germany on 9 May will put a spanner in the works. An issue of EUR 1.5bn of 3-month Greek debt tomorrow will act another test of market confidence but the recent widening in Greek debt spreads suggests a less positive reception than the previous sale.

There are also a few central bank meetings to contend with this week including Canada, Sweden, India, Philippines and Thailand. The only Bank likely to hike interest rates out of this bunch is the RBI in India with another hike expected, following closely on the heels of the March move. Canada and Sweden are unlikely to shift policy until at last after the end of Q2 whilst protests in Bangkok, Thailand, and the knock on impact on consumer confidence, have effectively sealed the case for no rate move there.

On the data front, attention will turn to US housing market activity. Markets will be able to gauge further clues to whether recovery in the housing market has stalled. An increase in both existing (Thu) and new home sales (Fri) in March is expected, which may allay some concerns although any improvement is likely to continue to fragile against the background of tight credit and high foreclosure levels.

In Europe, aside from the ongoing Greek sage, sentiment surveys will garner most attention, with the release of the German ZEW (Tue) and IFO (Fri) surveys as well as manufacturing and service sector purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across Europe. On the whole the surveys are likely to reveal some improvement as confidence.

Risk aversion will be slightly elevated at the beginning of this week but strong earnings and improving data will help to prevent too much damage. Consequently Risk currencies will start the week under pressure but any pullback will be limited. Given that speculative positioning in risk currencies such as the AUD, NZD and CAD is well above their three-month average according to the latest Commitment of Traders’ IMM data there will be some scope for profit taking. EUR speculative sentiment has seen some improvement but EUR/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back to technical support around 1.3302 this week.

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