Market Volatility Continues To Compress

The US Independence Day holiday kept trading, market activity and volatility subdued for much of last week.  In any case equity markets and risk assets have been struggling on the topside and appear to be losing momentum.  Markets are being buffeted by conflicting forces; economic news has beaten expectations. For example, the US June jobs report was better than expected though total job gains of 7.5 million in recent months are still only around a third of total jobs lost.  In contrast, worsening news on Covid 19 infections, with the WHO reporting a one day record high in global infections, threatens to put a dampener on sentiment.  Consolidation is likely, with Summer trading conditions increasingly creeping in over the weeks ahead. As such volatility is likely to continue to be suppressed, aided by central banks’ liquidity injections.

Over recent weeks geopolitical risks have admittedly not had a major impact on markets but this doesn’t mean that this will remain the case given the plethora of growing risks.  China’s installation of new security legislation into Hong Kong’s basic law and the first arrests utilizing this law were in focus last week.  A US administration official has reportedly said that the president is considering two or three actions against China, and markets will be on the lookout for any such actions this week, which could include further sanctions against individuals are more details of what the removal of HK’s special trading status will entail.  Meanwhile the US has sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea reportedly to send a message against China’s military build up in the area, with China’s PLA conducting a five-day drill around the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.

Data releases and events this week are unlikely to lead to a change in this dynamic.  At the beginning of the week attention will focus on further discussions between the UK and EU over the post Brexit landscape while in the US the June non-manufacturing ISM survey will garner attention.  So far talks on a trade deal between the UK and EU have stalled though there were hints of progress last week, even as officials admitted that “serious divergencies remain”.  The US ISM non-manufacturing survey is likely to move back to expansion (above 50) but is increasingly being threatened by the increase in Covid infections, which could yet again dampen service sector activity. On the policy front there will be fiscal updates from the UK and Canada on Wednesday against the backdrop of ramped up spending, and monetary policy decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and BNM in Malaysia on Tuesday.  The RBA is widely expected to keep policy unchanged while BNM may cut rates by 25 basis points.

 

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.

Risk aversion spikes

Increased risk aversion overnight in the wake of escalating Middle East tensions gave the USD some support but overall the USD index is gradually drifting towards its early November low around 75.631. The antithesis of USD weakness is strength in most other major currencies.

The USD is being undermined by relatively dovish expectations for US interest rates relative to elsewhere and last night’s semi annual testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate did nothing to alter this tone, with Bernanke maintaining the emphasis on subdued inflation and elevated unemployment.

The USD index itself has a high (0.82) 3-month correlation with US interest rate futures and over recent weeks as the implied yield has dropped, the USD has lost ground. The prospects of higher US bond yields may eventually provide the USD with support, especially given the prospect of substantial short-covering but in the near term the USD is likely to remain under pressure.

The upbeat run of US data highlights another source of USD support over the medium term, given the likely outperformance of the US economy over coming months. Yesterday’s ISM manufacturing survey and vehicle sales data lend support to this view. Moreover, the rise in employment component of the ISM supports the view of at least a 195k increase in February payrolls.

The Fed’s Beige Book tonight and February ADP jobs report will not alter the USD’s trajectory. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal anything to worry the Fed in terms of inflation risks although will probably reveal further signs of improved activity. The ADP report will give important clues for Friday’s February non-farm payrolls data although it’s worth noting that last month’s report was way off the mark. In any case neither release is likely to prevent a further drop in the USD.

EUR is a clear beneficiary of expectations of tighter monetary policy by the ECB and the widening interest rate (futures implied yield) differential between the US and eurozone has given the EUR plenty of support recently as reflected in the high correlation with EUR/USD. Further support to the hawkish market stance was given by the upward revision to eurozone 2011 growth and inflation forecasts by the EU. The fact that eurozone inflation increased to 2.4% YoY in February also reinforced expectations of ECB tightening sooner than later.

The ECB press conference following the council meeting tomorrow will likely shape such expectations further, the EUR has already priced in a hawkish ECB stance, limiting the prospects of further appreciation. Notably EUR/USD has failed to break resistance at its year high around 1.3861, which will prove to be a formidable cap in the short-term.

In contrast, the RBA has poured cold water over expectations of further policy rate hikes in Australia. The policy statement following yesterday’s decision to keep the cash rate on hold pointed to an extended pause in the months ahead. Despite this and perhaps because markets have already pared back Australian interest rate expectations AUD rebounded quite smartly from its post meeting low and despite some overnight weakness due to increased risk aversion it will soon verge on a break of resistance at 1.0257.

AUD/NZD has continued to charge ahead having hit a multi-year high above 1.3600. NZD underperformance has been exacerbated by the impact of the recent earthquake, with growth expectations for this year having been sharply revised lower and growing speculation of an interest rate cut. Indeed, such speculation was given further fuel by comments by NZ Prime Minister Key who noted he would welcome a policy rate cut. Nonetheless, my quantitative AUD/NZD model suggests that the cross looks over-extended at current levels, whilst relative speculative positioning supports this view.

GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

Temporary Euro Relief

Eurozone peripheral country travails continue to garner most market attention. There was at least a semblance of improvement on this front as peripheral bond spreads with German bunds narrowed on Tuesday but this was largely due to European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying than any improvement in sentiment. The fact that German bund yields also rose helped to narrow bund-peripheral spreads further.

A clearer test of sentiment will be today’s debt sales by Portugal followed by actions by Spain and Italy tomorrow. ECB buying of Portuguese bonds has given some relief to other debt, with Spanish and Italian debt spreads narrowing too. Even Greece managed to sell short term debt (EUR 1.95 bn of 26 week T-bills) but at a higher cost than the previous sale.

Perhaps a stronger boost to sentiment will come from the news that European Union (EU) governments are discussing an increase in the EUR 440 billion bailout fund in recognition of the fact that the fund may prove too small to cope if the crisis spreads to Spain. However, don’t expect a decision anytime soon, with next week’s meeting of EU finance ministers unlikely to agree to such a move. Support (or lack) of from Germany may prove to be a sticking point against the background of domestic political pressure.

Other options being considered include the possibility of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) purchasing bonds in the secondary market and lowering interest rates on EFSF bailout loans. News that Japan will buy 20% of EFSF bonds this month as well as recent supportive comments from China suggest that an increase in the size of the EFSF may be easily funded by such investors. The EUR will gain some support against the background of such speculation but its upside may be restrained around its 200-day moving average at EUR/USD 1.3071.

In the US the economic news was not so positive for a change as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) small business optimism survey came in weaker than expected in December, an outcome that will come as a blow given that it suggests some stuttering in the recovery process as well as hiring.

There is only secondary data scheduled today, with most attention on the Fed’s Beige Book later tonight. The survey of Federal Reserve districts will likely reveal a broad based but moderate improvement in economic conditions with the exception of housing activity. A speech by the Fed’s Fisher on Monetary policy will also be in focus. Like the Fed’s Plosser overnight he may highlight some caution about the impact of Fed quantitative easing (QE).

The AUD is increasingly feeling the impact of the flooding in Queensland Australia as the extent of economic damage is revealed. Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board member McKibbin estimated that it could knock off at least 1% from economic growth. This may prove too negative and although the flooding will result in a significantly negative impact on growth in Q1 rebuilding and reconstruction will mean that overall growth for 2011 will not be as significantly impacted. Nonetheless, a paring back in RBA policy tightening expectations will see the AUD come under further pressure, with a move down to around AUD/USD 0.9634 on the cards over the short-term.

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