Euro unimpressed by Greek confidence vote

News that the Greek government won a confidence vote has left the EUR unimpressed and gains will be limited ahead of the June 28 vote on the country’s 5-year austerity plan. The EUR was in any case rallying ahead of the vote, which the government won by 155-143 votes, and has actually lost a little ground following the vote.

EUR sentiment is likely to remain somewhat fragile given the ongoing uncertainties, but now that the first hurdle has been passed markets there is at least a better prospect of Greece receiving the next EUR 12 billion aid tranche before the July 15 “do or default” deadline. Over the near term EUR/USD upside is likely to remain capped around the 1.4451 resistance level (15 June high).

The next key event for markets is the Fed FOMC meeting outcome and press conference. This is unlikely to bode particularly well for the USD given that the Fed is set to downgrade its growth forecasts, with the comments on the economy likely to sound a little more downbeat given the loss of momentum recently as reflected in a string of disappointing data releases.

Nonetheless, monetary settings are unlikely to be changed, with the Fed committed to ending QE2 by the end of June. I remain positive on the USD’s prospects but its recovery is fragile due to the fact that US bond yields remain at ultra low levels.

Whilst only AUD/USD and USD/JPY have maintained significant correlations with bond yield differentials over the past three months, it will eventually require US bond yields to move higher in relative terms for the USD to find its legs again on a more sustainable basis.

In the meantime the approach of the end of QE2 by the end of June will on balance play positively for the USD as at least the Fed’s balance sheet will no longer be expanding even if the reinvestment of principle from its holdings of US Treasuries suggest that there will not be a quick or immediate reduction in the size of the balance sheet anytime soon.

There is little appetite to intervene to weaken the JPY at present, with the Japanese authorities blaming the strengthening in the JPY versus USD on the latter’s weakness rather than the former’s strength. Until yield differentials widen, USD/JPY will continue to languish at current levels or even lower.

GBP will garner direction from the release of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee meeting minutes. Whilst GBP has edged higher against the USD it has remained vulnerable against EUR. A likely dovish set of minutes reflecting some weak activity data, easing core inflation and soft wage growth, suggests little support for GBP over the short term.

US Ratings Under Threat

The USD succumbed to further pressure overnight as Moody’s Investor Service threatened to place the US Aaa rating on review for downgrade if there is no agreement reached on raising the US debt ceiling. Although the news prompted a rise in US Treasury yields it did little for the USD.

News that the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet expanded to a record $2.772 trillion in the week ending June 1 highlights the ongoing headwinds to the USD from Fed asset purchases. The fact that there is even talk of QE3 in the wake of weak US data suggests that the headwinds will not dissipate quickly.

Direction today will come from the US May jobs report though this is unlikely to deliver any good news for the USD. Forecasts for non-farm payrolls have likely been revised lower to sub 100k compared to the published consensus forecast of 165k following the weaker indications from the May ADP jobs report and ISM data this week. A weak payrolls outcome will only intensify worries about the depth and length of the US ‘soft patch’.

Although market expectations are also likely to have been downwardly revised, something that may cushion the blow to the USD, it will be difficult to get away from the fact that growth in Q2 is weaker than many had thought.

EUR was well supported overnight, boosted by a relatively successful Spanish bond auction yesterday and reports that officials have agreed in principle to a 3-year adjustment plan for Greece covering funding needs to 2013 although there was no confirmation of such an agreement.

As a result, EUR/USD tested 1.45 and looks supported ahead of today’s US payrolls data. EUR’s recovery in general has been impressive but gains above 1.45 are likely to prove more difficult even if an agreement on Greece is close to being achieved.

As usual Japan’s political gyrations are having little impact on the JPY as the currency is instead buffeted by risk aversion swings and yield differentials. In fact USD/JPY has been rather well behaved over recent weeks as indicated by implied options volatility.

Prime Minister Kan’s success in winning a no-confidence motion came at a cost and may provide very little political stability. Kan said will resign as soon as post-earthquake recovery efforts are completed and once he is gone there is likely to be some realignment of existing political parties.

As for the JPY it will remain unscathed by political events. Over the near term USD/JPY is likely to cling to the 81 handle but we maintain our bearish view on the JPY in the medium term under the assumption that there is a sharp widening in US – Japan bond yield differentials.

US Dollar Facing Battle On US Debt Ceiling

President Obama, the Fed’s Beige Book and a firm reading for US retail sales provided some temporary relief for the beleaguered USD but this soon gave way to renewed pressure. Obama proposed cutting around $4 trillion from the fiscal deficit over the next 12-years, similar in size to Republican plans, but structured differently. Separately the Beige Book relatively upbeat, noting “widespread” economic gains across sectors. Finally, whilst top line retail sales were slightly softer than forecast ex-autos sales were upbeat, with upward revisions to the past month.

President Obama’s deficit reduction plans sets the stage for a fractious political battle regarding the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Having averted a government shut down following a late agreement between Republicans and Democrats the USD will have a much bigger challenge to face in the weeks ahead. Obama has stated his support for raising the debt ceiling but if agreement is not reached by around mid May (or July if temporary measures are introduced), the US government may effectively default.

When will the USD lose its funding currency mantle? The approach of the end of quantitative easing (QE2) by end June 2011 (assuming the Fed sticks to the plan) will be a particularly important period for the USD. Assuming that there will be no QE3 much will depend on how proactive the Fed is in reducing the size of its balance sheet. This remains unclear and judging by the variety of comments from Fed officials over recent weeks, there is plenty of debate within the Fed FOMC about the pace of balance sheet reduction.

St Louis Fed President Bullard (non-voter) maintained his hawkish stance by highlighting his preference for reducing the Fed’s balance sheet rather than hiking interest rates as a first step towards policy normalisation. There will be further clues both in terms of Fed thinking as well as inflation pressures.

Fed speakers including Duke, Kocherlakota and Liang, Plosser, Tarullo, Lacker, Baxter and Evans will give further clues. CPI inflation data will also be in focus, with headline inflation likely to be boosted by higher energy prices but core inflation likely to remain well behaved. Despite Bullard’s comments the majority of Fed officials appear to be taking a more cautious stance, suggesting that the USD will remain under pressure for a while yet.

The EUR continues to capitalise on generally weak USD sentiment despite nervousness about the details of Portugal’s bailout program. More worryingly for the EUR is ongoing speculation about Greek debt restructuring, with S&P ratings agency noting that the risk of Greek debt restructuring was almost one in three and the Zeit newspaper reporting that investors could lose around 50-70% in a restructuring. Although plans to restructure have been denied by the Greek government this has not stopped Greek bond yields from skyrocketing.

What goes down must go up

What goes down must go up! A day that began with a stronger than forecast increase in China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) and firm Australian Q2 GDP continued with a surprise jump in the August ISM manufacturing index. The ISM rose to 56.3 from 55.5 in July an outcome that contradicted most of the regional US manufacturing surveys. It was not all positive in terms of data, yesterday however, with a weaker UK manufacturing PMI and unexpected drop in the August US ADP employment report casting a shadow over markets.

Nonetheless, for a change the market decided to act on the good news, with risk assets surging. Despite the improvement in risk appetite it still feels as though the market is grasping for direction. The jump in equities is unlikely to prove durable in an environment characterized by various uncertainties about growth and policy, especially the US.

The next hurdle for markets is the US payrolls data tomorrow. Although the ADP jobs report revealed a surprise 10k decline the employment component of the ISM manufacturing survey strengthened to 60.4, suggesting an improvement in August manufacturing payrolls. Ahead of the payrolls release the US data slate today largely consists of second tier releases including July pending home sales, August chain store sales, weekly jobless claims, and factory orders. It is worth paying particular interest to jobless claims given that the four week moving average has been edging higher, suggesting renewed job market deterioration. The consensus is for a 475k increase in claims, which will still leave the 4-week average at an elevated level.

Given that one of the biggest debates raging through markets at present is whether the Fed will embark on further quantitative easing comments by Fed officials overnight were closely scrutinized for further clues. In the event, Fed Governor Kohn highlighted that the Fed’s reinvestment of the proceeds from mortgage-backed securities will not automatically lead to further QE, suggesting some hesitancy on his part. Meanwhile, Dallas Fed President Fisher noted his reluctance to expand the Fed’s balance sheet until fiscal and regulatory uncertainties are cleared up.

Both sets of comments highlight the difficulty in gaining a consensus within the FOMC for a further increase in QE, suggesting that the hurdle for further balance sheet expansion will be set quite high. Moreover, such comments put the onus on Congress to move quickly in clearing up fiscal policy uncertainties.

As markets flip from risk on to risk off almost on a daily basis the question for today is how sustainable the rally in risk trades will prove to be against the background of so much policy and growth uncertainty. Unfortunately today’s data will provide few clues and markets will turn their attention to tomorrow’s US non-farm payrolls report for further direction. To an extent this suggests that it may be a case of treading water until then. Nonetheless, I still maintain that risk trades remain a sell on rallies over coming weeks

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