USD in a lose-lose situation, AUD caution

News that Moody’s Investor service cut the debt ratings on six European countries while revising its outlook on the UK’s and France’s AAA rating to “negative” dampened sentiment for the EUR. Markets will likely trade cautiously ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of European Union Finance Ministers especially as it appears that at least Germany and Netherlands remain sceptical of Greece’s austerity plans, which could frustrate the approval of a second EUR 130 billion bailout package.

The USD is firmer overnight but still struggling to make headway in an environment of improving risk appetite. The fact that USD speculative positioning has dropped sharply to its lowest level since September last year highlights a major shift in USD sentiment. The USD is currently in a lose-lose situation helped neither by economic data or risk appetite. For example a healthy gain in January retail sales expected today, will help to boost risk appetite which in turn will help maintain pressure on the USD.

Encouragingly for the USD, 2 year bond yields have been rising since the start of February in line with firmer economic data. However, rather than giving the USD a boost (except vs. JPY) it has been outweighed by the fact that bond yields elsewhere have risen even more aggressively. The net result is that the prospects for the USD to strengthen further look somewhat restrained over the short term.

AUD has benefited from a firmer tone to risk appetite at the start of the week but for a currency in which speculative positioning is fast approaching all time highs I would be cautious of adding to long positions at current levels. Remaining one of the most sensitive currencies to gyrations in risk appetite the AUD will continue to be mainly driven by global events especially the Greek saga.

Nonetheless, there a few data releases at home that will capture market attention, in particular the January jobs report on Thursday. After a surprisingly large 29.3k fall in December a bounce is expected in January, with around a 15k increase likely. The report will provide clues to just how long the RBA will pause in its rate cutting cycle. I suspect that even a positive outcome will have a briefly positive impact on AUD, with the currency set to struggle to break above resistance around its 2012 high at 1.0845 versus USD.

Agreement at last!

Greek politicians finally agreed on further austerity cuts totalling EUR 3.3 billion in order to secure a second bailout package. European official discussions now centre on the details of the bail out package, targeting a cut in Greece’s debt to GDP ratio to 120%.

However, the fact European Finance Ministers have withheld more funds for Greece until the austerity measures begin to be implemented suggests further uncertainty on the horizon. A Greek parliamentary vote set to begin this weekend may see some progress but markets will trade cautiously ahead of the vote.

EUR/USD rallied to a high of around 1.3322 but failed to break above its 100 day moving average at 1.3332 following the agreement. As expected the ECB offered no help to the EUR, with market attention continuing to centre on the second 3-year LTRO on 29 February.

The fact that there are still various issues to be resolved means that upside for EUR will be limited in the short term. In any case the currency was already pricing in a lot of good news. EUR/USD will face major resistance around 1.3388.

Notably risk measures are edging higher once again, implying some pressure on risk assets in the near term. Markets today will digest the status Quo from the European Central Bank and an additional but expected injection of GBP 50 billion in quantitative easing from the Bank of England. December US trade data and February Michigan confidence are the only data of note suggesting limited price action ahead of the Greek parliamentary vote.

Why is the Swiss franc so strong?

All eyes remain focussed on Greek developments today as the country vacillates towards acceptance of further austerity measures in order to gain the Troika’s (EU, IMF, ECB) approval for a second bailout for the country. The stakes are high with a potential disorderly default and Eurozone exit on the cards should no agreement be reached.

Against this background market nervousness is intensifying as reflected in the slippage in global equity markets and drop in risk assets in general overnight. The data and events slate today includes an RBA policy meeting and German industrial production, but neither of these will be significant enough to deflect attention and calm fraying nerves as markets await further Greek developments.

Contrary to many commentaries, the fall in EUR/CHF cannot be attributed to higher risk aversion (it has had a low correlation with my Risk Aversion Barometer over recent weeks). Instead, EUR/CHF is another currency pair that is highly correlated with interest rate differentials. Indeed, its high sensitivity provides a strong explanation for the drop in EUR/CHF since mid December 2011. This move has occurred despite an improvement in risk appetite over this period, a factor that would normally be associated with CHF weakness.

The implied interest rate futures yield advantage of the Eurozone over Switzerland has narrowed by around 47 basis points since mid December 2011. This is a problem for the Swiss National Bank, who will increasingly be forced to defend its 1.20 line in the sand for EUR/CHF. However, given that the drop in EUR/CHF has closely tracked yield differentials, any intervention is likely to have a limited impact unless there is renewed widening in the yield gap.

Beware of EUR short covering

Europe has plenty of events to focus on over the next couple of days including the European Central Bank (ECB) Council meeting, and debt auctions in Spain and Italy. While I am by no means a EUR bull the risk is skewed towards some short term recovery or at least stabilization around EUR/USD 1.28. The speculative market is extremely short EUR while policy makers, specifically German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are making the right noises. it appears to have finally dawned on Eurozone officials that its not just about austerity but also about growth and reform.

News that Fitch ratings is unlikely to downgrade France’s ratings this year has provided a boost to Eurozone confidence. Greece could yet spoil the party given the ongoing discussion with the Troika (Euuropean Commission, International Monetary Fund and ECB) to finalise the second bailout package for the country. Opposition resistance within Greece suggests that more austerity may not be easy to implement. Meanwhile there are ongoing questions about the extent of writedowns that Greek debt will undergo. Despite these issues it appears that markets are becoming somewhat more immune to events in the Eurozone. While still high bond yields for Italy and other debt still point to ongoing trouble, risk appetite has firmed.

One factor that is helping to boost sentiment is the encouraging news out of the US. Although the Q4 earnings season has not began particularly well data releases look somewhat more positive. Not only has positive impact of last week’s US December jobs report continued to filter through the market but so has other news such as a pick up in small business confidence and a rise in consumer credit. These lesser watched data highlight the gradual recovery process underway in the US and the growing divergence with the Eurozone economy and support the view of medium term USD outperformance versus EUR.

Euro looking rich at current levels

Markets continue to be rumour driven with little concrete news to provide direction. The news that a comprehensive deal by European officials at this Sunday’s EU Summit is now very unlikely has come as a further blow to hopes of a swift resolution to the crisis.

So it seems that Sunday’s meeting will provide a forum to thrash out ideas before a second summit next Wednesday. As a reminder the issues at hand are leveraging the EFSF, banking sector recapitalisation and the extent of private sector participation in Greek debt write downs.

The main disagreement appears to be between Germany and France on method of additional funding the EFSF bailout fund (which has EUR 280billion of firepower left), with Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB) opposed to French demands to utilise the ECB to help back the EFSF with France wanting the facility being turned in a bank. In terms of write downs for Greek bond holders there is a push for at least a 50% reduction compared to the 21% agreed in July.

Separately speculation of the amount of new capital needed for banking sector recapitalisation now revolves around a figure of EUR 80 billion. One spanner in the works is that Chancellor Merkel will have to gain approval from the German parliament before agreeing on further changes to the EFSF, which may delay the process further.

Clearly as this week has gone on the air has continued to seep out of the balloon as the market braces for disappointment. Surprisingly the EUR has held up well and while it has failed to extend gains, hitting a high earlier in the week around 1.3915 but still pricing in some scope for success, at current levels.

Helping the EUR was the fact that the market was very short, and while it could still move higher next week if European officials agree on a plan it still looks like a sell on rallies, with the scope for further gains limited from current rich levels. Good news from Europe next week could see a test of EUR/USD 1.40 but this will prove to be a good selling area further out.

At least there was some good news from Greece for a change as the Prime Minister won a vote to pass further austerity measures to help secure the next tranche (delayed from September) of the bailout despite ongoing protests in the country. The near term focus will be on a meeting of Finance Ministers today ahead of Sunday’s summit.

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