EUR/USD edging towards 1.20

There hasn’t been much of a respite before Eurozone concerns have resurfaced. Spain and Greece are once again in the spotlight, with the formal approval of a bank bailout for the former providing little solace as speculation of a full scale sovereign bailout grows. The fact that two Spanish regions have asked for government help, with more likely in the pipeline, has only acted to reinforce such concerns.

As for Greece, the halting of a bailout tranche due to failure to meet targets, the European Central Bank (ECB) decision not to accept Greek debt as collateral and the visit of the Troika (EC, ECB. IMF) will keep markets nervous as default fears intensify. Unsurprisingly Eurozone peripheral bond yield have come under renewed pressure while core Eurozone yields have turned negative in some cases.

Spanish yields have moved above the critical 7% threshold while the EUR has tanked versus USD and on the crosses as it increasingly takes on a funding currency role and makes its way towards the 1.20 level versus USD that I expect it to test soon.

Hopes of further monetary stimulus, especially in the US and China have provided some support to markets recently but the provision of drugs will not cure the patient this time around. Even relatively decent US corporate earnings, with around 2/3 of S&P earnings released beating admittedly lowered expectations so far, have failed to stop the rout.

Big cap defensive and high dividend companies have fared well, giving a degree of resilience to US equities which are up over 8% (S&P 500) this year, but with around 171 companies set to deliver results this week it is not clear that this will continue.

Weakening US data, with a deceleration in US Q2 GDP set to be revealed this week will provide more evidence that US economic momentum is slowing. Nonetheless, as long as US Fed quantitative easing is not an imminent prospect the USD will likely find plenty of support as risk aversion creeps back into the market psyche.

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Calm start to the week

There will be some relief reverberating through markets at the news this weekend that Greek opinion polls show growing support for pro-bailout parties. While the Greek election is still some weeks off suggesting that uncertainty will not ease quickly this news will allay fears of a quick ‘Grexit”. The week will begin quietly, with holidays in the US, keeping market trading largely thin and within ranges.

However, there are plenty of data releases and events which will result in increased nervousness as the week goes on. Data this week will reveal further contrasts between the US and Eurozone, with sentiment gauges in the latter set to deteriorate further while consumer confidence in the former will improve. In turn, Eurozone asset underperformance including EUR weakness will remain in place.

The contrast in the outlook for the US and Eurozone has been reflected in a significant shift in speculative positioning. CFTC IMM data reveals an all time high in speculative US positioning but in contrast an all time low in EUR positioning. The USD is winning by being a less ugly currency than the EUR and for now the markets are content to ignore US problems. This is set to continue over coming weeks.

Key data and events this week include the Irish referendum on the fiscal pact on Thursday and the US May jobs report on Friday. Ahead of these there is some periphery supply, with Italy coming to the primary market today. Polls point to a ‘yes’ vote in the Irish referendum, perhaps unsurprising given the risks of losing access to funding if voters vote ‘no’.

In the US markets look for a 150k increase in payrolls though its worth noting that there are less clues this month given the early release date. This slow but steady improvement in jobs will not be particularly exciting but at the same time it will no do the USD much damage either.

Europe’s crunch time

It’s crunch time for EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB under the helm of Mario Draghi is steadfastly refusing to provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery either directly via lower interest rates or securities market purchases or indirectly via another Long term refinancing operation (LTRO) . Any prospect of debt monetization as carried out already by other central banks including the Fed and Bank Of England is a definite non-starter. The reason for this intransigence is that the ECB does not want to let Eurozone governments off the hook, worrying that any further assistance would allow governments to slow or even renege upon promised reforms.

Whether this is true or not it’s a dangerous game to play. The fact that the previously unthinkable could happen ie a country could exit the Eurozone should have by now prompted some major action by European officials. Instead the ECB is unwilling to give ground while Germany continues to stand in the way of any move towards debt mutualisation in the form of a common Eurobond and/or other measures such as awarding a banking license to the EFSF bailout fund which would effectively allow it to help recapitalize banks and purchase peripheral debt. Germany does not want to allow peripheral countries to be let off the hook either arguing that they would benefit from Germany’s strong credit standing and lower yields without paying the costs.

To be frank, it’s too late for such brinkmanship. The situation in The Eurozone is rapidly spiraling out of control. While both the ECB and Germany may have valid arguments the bottom line is that the situation could get far worse if officials fail to act. As noted above there are various measures that could be enacted. Admittedly many of these will only buy time rather than fix the many and varied structural problems afflicting a group of countries tied together by a single currency and monetary policy and separate fiscal policies but at the moment time is what is needed the most.

It’s good to see that European officials are finally talking about boosting growth and realising that austerity is killing the patient. However, measures such as increasing trade, investment etc are all long term in nature. Europe needs action now before it’s too late. After years of keeping the Eurozone together by sheer force of political will rather than strong fundamental reasons lets hope that politicians in Europe begin to realize this before it’s too late. The lack of traction at this week’s EU summit was disappointing but with their backs to the wall ahead of Greek elections in mid June Germany and the ECB may be forced to give ground. In the meantime the beleaguered EUR looks destIned to remain under pressure.

Greek deal reached but euro rally to fade

The EUR rallied on the news of a breakthrough in talks to reach a deal to provide Greece with a second bailout of up to EUR 130 billion until 2014 and PSI (private sector involvement) in a debt swap with a nominal haircut of 53.5%. The question is whether the EUR has room to rally further. I suspect that a deal has been increasingly priced in and the room for further appreciation is set to be limited in the short term.

A stronger EUR shows some confidence in the ability of officials to move forward but will prove counter productive given the negative impact on the Eurozone economy at a time when growth is already sliding into recession. Moreover, the relative rise in US bond yields compared to bund yields will create headwinds to any further EUR appreciation. Overall, we are cautious of buying into the EUR rally at current levels.

Effectively the deal buys time for Greece to implement its stated reforms allowing the debt / GDP ratio to drop to 120.5% by 2020. The private sector debt swap procedure will be launched tomorrow. However, the deal was reached shortly after a report that suggested that Greece may need a further bailout on top of the EUR 130 billion announced.

The report which highlighted the risks of an especially deep recession in Greece and consequent risks to reducing the county’s debt / GDP ratio explains the reluctance of countries including Germany, Netherlands and Finland to agree on the proposals.

The bottom line is that the positive impact on markets may fade soon. There was already a great deal of expectation built into the rally in risk currencies over recent weeks and it is doubtful whether the final announcement of a Greek deal will be sufficient for the rally to continue.

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.

The Italian Job

Italy looks too big to rescue yet is too big to fail. The country has around EUR 1.9 trillion in public debt (around 5 times that of Greece) and is the third largest country in the eurozone. Therefore it cannot be as easily dealt with as Greece.

Italy needs to raise around EUR 18 billion per month to cover its budget deficit and bond redemptions and with a continued increase in yields (hitting close to 7.5% for 10 year bonds) borrowing costs are rising sharply and fast becoming unsustainable. Higher collateral haircuts on Italian debt are adding to the pressure.

Although Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has said he will step down in the wake of reform measures to be voted on by the Italian parliament the vote on the measures may not take place for weeks. Moreover, Berlusconi may attempt to seek re-election after stepping down, which could bring the situation back to square one.

In the meantime speculation that Italy may be the next country to need to a bailout will intensify. However, with only around EUR 270 billion remaining in the EFSF bailout fund and details of how the fund will be leveraged to a planned EUR 1 trillion still lacking, doubts about whether it will have sufficient resources will grow. Press reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone due to fears that Italy will be too big to rescue will only add to the malaise.

Focus over the short term will turn to today’s 12 month auction of EUR 5 billion in Italy. Last month’s 12 month auction saw an average yield of 3.57% but this time around yields could rise above 6%. Worryingly it appears that even with the European Central Bank (ECB) buying Italian debt it has been insufficient to prevent yield rising.

In any case, given the ECB’s reluctance to become lender of the last resort to European peripherals, any support from this direction will be limited. Against this background the EUR remains highly vulnerable to a further drop. Indeed, the EUR’s recent resilience looks all the more misplaced. A test of the 4 October low around EUR/USD 1.3146 is on the cards over coming days.

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