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.

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The Pain Of A Stronger Swiss Franc

Volatility and increasingly large market swings are characterizing current market conditions. A warning by Fitch on the UK’s “formidable” fiscal challenge, concerns about Bulgaria’s public finance statistics and a massive public sector strike in Spain, combined to fuel another bout of risk aversion.

Hungary’s government attempted to diffuse worries about its finances, with the country’s Prime Minister listing measures including cutting public pay and prohibiting mortgages denominated in foreign currencies, in order to hit the 3.8% of GDP budget deficit target. There was also some good news in the US, with small business confidence (NFIB) rising to its highest level since September 2008 whilst ABC consumer confidence edged higher.

The US Beige Book and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony on the US economy to Congress, mark the highlights today. The Beige Book is set to reveal further signs of economic recovery but with limited inflation pressures. Bernanke is likely to maintain a similar tone to comments he made yesterday, highlighting a “moderate” economic recovery, with unemployment likely to stay “high for a while”. His testimony will be scrutinized for the timing of rate hikes, and any elaboration on his comments about rates rising before the economy is at full employment.

Against the background of the many and varied uncertainties still afflicting markets maintain a sell on rallies view on risk trades is still the best option. EUR/USD will struggle to breach resistance around 1.2010 and remains susceptible to test support around 1.1826. GBP/USD could target fresh lows in a “negative reversal”, with potential to head back down to 1.3996.

Confidence has plummeted to extreme lows and it will be several months before appetite for risk trades returns. The AUD and NZD as well as many Asian currencies will struggle over the interim period before their appreciation trend finally resumes.

In contrast to the weakening of risk currencies, CHF strength is showing little sign of letting up. Switzerland recorded a massive 50% jump in FX reserves in May to CHF 232 billion from CHF 153 billion in April. This is not usually market moving data but the scale of the jump in reserves is huge and it is not just due to valuation changes. The Swiss National Bank (SNB’s) effective abandonment of defending a particular level in EUR/CHF turned into more a smoothing operation but this did not stop the bank from massive FX interventions. Despite the interventions EUR/CHF dropped by 0.8% over the month.

Aside from alleviating upward pressure on the CHF the interventions had an indirect effect of reducing the pain of holders of CHF mortgages. E.g. around 30% of Hungary’s bank loans and 60% of mortgages are denominated in CHF but countries across Europe have plenty of CHF denominated loans, especially Austria. Although Hungary announced steps to meet its deficit targets its woes are far from over.

The CHF has appreciated by around 3% since the beginning of May versus HUF, exacerbating the pain for CHF borrowers in the country. The fact that CHF strength shows no sign of letting up on the back of strong data and safe haven flows, the pain for these borrowers will only add to the problems for banks and borrowers alike in Europe.

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