German election results help the euro

St Louis Fed President Bullard put a dampener on the market’s euphoria in the wake of the Fed’s postponed ‘tapering’ announcement. He noted that the Fed’s decision was “borderline”, implying that the Fed was not far from pulling the trigger to the commencement of tapering. Going forward, the timing of tapering will be highly data dependent and obviously recent weaker data releases and possibly the political complications surrounding extending the debt ceiling and agreeing on a budget, played heavily on the Fed’s conscience. However, there are now plenty of questions about the Fed’s communication strategy. There will plenty of Fed speeches over coming days to provide more clarity although Janet Yellen, front runner to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman, appears to be keeping conspicuously quiet.

A bounce in China’s September manufacturing confidence revealed this morning as well as a strong outcome in the German elections for Chancellor Merkel (see below) will nonetheless, help to settle some market nerves as the week commences. Merkel’s CDU/CSU party is set to win close to 42% of the vote, which amounts to a very strong mandate. Nonetheless, she will still fall short of an absolute majority while Merkel’s coalition partner the FDP failed to gain enough votes to pass the 5% threshold to win any parliamentary seats means that a new coalition government will need to be formed. The EUR has reacted well to the result, remaining above 1.3500 versus the USD and looks to set consolidate gains over the short term.

Aside from various Fed speakers there will be several data releases to digest over the week. In the US there will be September consumer confidence, August durable goods orders, new home sales, personal income and spending, and revised Q2 GDP data on tap. Overall US data will be reasonably good, with in particular GDP set to be revised higher. In Europe, aside from digesting the German election result there will be a host of business and manufacturing surveys including the German IFO business confidence survey. Consolidation or moderate improvement is expected to be revealed in these surveys, likely giving sufficient support for the EUR to maintain recent gains.

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Data releases in focus

For a change the markets may actually concentrate on data releases today rather than political events in the eurozone. The October US retail sales report and November Empire manufacturing survey are likely to paint a less negative economic picture of the US. The data will help to dampen expectations of more quantitative easing in the US but we will be able to hear more on the subject from the Fed’s Bullard and Williams in speeches today.

Overnight the Fed’s Fisher poured more cold water on the prospects of further QE by highlighting that the economy is “poised for growth”. While speculative data in the form of the CTFC IMM data shows a drop in USD sentiment to its lowest in several weeks we do not expect this to persist. The USD will likely benefit from the data today and we see the currency retaining a firmer tone over the short term especially as eurozone concerns creep back in.

The vote by German Chancellor Merkel’s party to approve a measure for a troubled country to leave the EUR opens up a can of worms and will hit EUR sentiment. But rather than politics there are several data releases on tap today that will provide some short term influence on the EUR, including Q3 GDP and the November German ZEW survey. FX markets will likely ignore a positive reading for GDP given that the outlook for Q4 is going to be much worse. The forward looking ZEW survey will record a further drop highlighting the risks to Europe’s biggest economy.

T-bill auctions in Spain and Greece may garner even more attention. Following on from yesterday’s Italian debt sale in which the yield on 5-year bond came in higher than the previous auction but with a stronger bid/cover ratio, markets will look for some encouragement from today’s auctions. Even if the auctions go well, on balance, relatively downbeat data releases will play negatively for the EUR.

When viewing the EUR against what is implied by interest rate differentials it is very evident that the currency is much stronger than it should be at least on this measure. Both short term (interest rate futures) and long term (2 year bond) yield differentials between the eurozone and the US reveal that EUR/USD is destined for a fall.

Europe’s yield advantage has narrowed sharply over recent months yet the EUR has not weakened. Some of this has been due to underlying demand for European portfolio assets and official buying of EUR from central banks but the reality is that the EUR is looking increasingly susceptible to a fall. EUR/USD is poised for a drop below the psychologically important level of 1.35, with support seen around 1.3484 (10 November low).

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.

No FX co-operation

Despite all the jawboning ahead of the IMF / World Bank meetings over the weekend the meeting ended with little agreement on how deal to with the prospects of a “currency war”. US officials continued to sling mud at China for not allowing its currency, the CNY, to appreciate quickly enough whilst China blamed the US for destabilizing emerging economies by flooding them with liquidity due to the Fed’s ultra loose monetary policy stance. Chinese trade data on Wednesday my throw more fuel on to the fire given another strong surplus expected, lending support to those in the US Congress who want to label China as a “currency manipulator”.

Although the IMF communiqué mentioned countries working co-operatively” on currencies there were no details on how such cooperation would take place. The scene is now set for plenty of friction and potential volatility ahead of the November G20 meeting in Seoul. Although many central banks are worrying about USD weakness when was the last time US Treasury Secretary Geithner talked about a strong USD? US officials are probably happy to see the USD falling and are unlikely to support any measure to arrest its decline unless the drop in the USD turns into a rout. In contrast, the strengthening EUR over recent weeks equates to around 50bps of monetary tightening, a fact that could put unwanted strain on Europe’s growth trajectory, especially in the periphery.

The outcome of the IMF meeting leaves things much as they left off at the end of last week. In other words there is little to stand in the way of further USD weakness apart from the fact that the market is already extremely short USDs. Indeed the latest CFTC IMM data revealed that aggregate net USD positioning came within a whisker of its all time low, with net positions at -241.2k contracts (USD -30 billion), the lowest USD positioning since November 2007. Interestingly and inconsistent with the sharp rise in the EUR, positioning in this currency remains well below its all time highs, supporting the view that rather than speculative investors it is central banks that are pushing the EUR higher.

The US jobs report at the end of last week proved disappointing, with total September payrolls dropping by 95k despite a 64k increase in private payrolls. The data will act to reinforce expectations that the Fed will begin a program of further asset purchases or quantitative easing (QE2) at its November meeting. Data and events this week will give further clues, especially the Fed FOMC minutes tomorrow and speeches from Fed Chairman Bernanke on Thursday and Friday as well as various other Fed speakers on tap.

Recent speeches by Fed officials have highlighted growing support for QE although some have tried to temper expectations. Questions about the timing and size of any new programme, as well as how it will be communicated remain unanswered. Although November seems likely for the Fed to start QE the Fed’s Bullard suggested that the Fed may wait until December. The minutes will be scrutinized for clues on these topics. The Fed is likely to embark on incremental asset purchases with the overall size being data dependent and the USD set to remain under pressure while this happens.

World Cup FX Positioning/Data Highlights

The market tone felt decidedly better over the course of the last week although it was difficult to tell if this was due to position squaring ahead of the World Cup football or a genuine improvement in sentiment. There was no particular event or data release that acted as a catalyst either, with the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) meetings passing with little fanfare.

US data ended the week mixed, with retail sales disappointing in May but in contrast June consumer confidence beating expectations. Although questions about the pace of recovery remain, other data such as the Fed’s Beige Book suggest that recovery remains on track, sentiment echoed, albeit cautiously by Fed Chairman Bernanke last week.

Attention this week will centre on inflation data. Expected benign CPI readings will support the view that the Fed will take its time to raise interest rates. Speeches by the Fed’s Bullard, Plosser and Bernanke this week will be eyed for further clues on Fed thinking.

Central banks in Brazil and New Zealand hiked rates last week but this is not likely to be echoed this week. No change is likely from both the Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank although there will be plenty of attention on the SNB’s comments on the CHF following recent data showing a surge in FX reserves due to currency intervention. The BoJ is unlikely to announce anything new but perhaps some further detail on the loan support plan could be forthcoming.

Manufacturing data will also garner some attention, with the US June Empire and Philly Fed surveys and May industrial production on tap. All three reports will confirm the improving trend in manufacturing activity in the US. Housing data will look weaker, with starts set to pull back in starts in May following the expiry of government tax incentive programmes though permits are set to rise.

In Europe, the June German ZEW (econ sentiment) investor sentiment survey will likely slip slightly due to ongoing fiscal/debt worries but this will be countered by stronger domestic data. In any case the index remains at a high level and a slight drop is unlikely to derail markets.

GBP may find some support form upgrade of UK growth forecasts by the CBI to 1.3% for 2010 and relatively hawkish comments from the BoE’s Sentance in the weekend press warning that inflation is higher than expected, indicating that the Bank may need to hike rates sooner than expected.

Further GBP/USD direction will come from CPI and retail sales data this week as well as public borrowing figures and a report by the new Office of Budget Responsibility on the UK’s fiscal position ahead of the June 22 budget. A break above GBP/USD resistance around 1.4760 is unlikely to materialise.

Despite the many data releases this week, the overall tone is likely to be one of consolidation and reduced volatility in the days ahead. This may allow EUR/USD to gain some ground due to short covering, with the CFTC commitment of traders (IMM) report revealing a further increase in net short speculative positions last week, close to the record set a few weeks back, though we suspect that there will be strong resistance around 1.2227.

The fact that the IMM data revealed that net aggregate net USD long positions reached an all time high last week, highlights the potential for profit taking this week. USD/JPY will look to take out resistance around 92.55 but this looks unlikely unless the BoJ dishes up anything particularly dovish from its meeting.

What to watch this week

The 85k drop in US non-farm payrolls in December was obviously disappointing given hopes/expectations/rumours of a positive reading over the month.  There was a small silver lining however, as November payrolls were revised to show a positive reading of +4k, the first monthly gain in jobs since December 2007.  Overall, the US labour market is still gradually improving as the trend in jobless claims and other indicators show. 

The fact that the market took the drop in US payrolls in its stride highlights the fact that recovery is becoming more entrenched despite the occasional set back.  More significantly weaker US jobs disappointment has been countered by strong Chinese trade data, which showed both strong imports and exports growth in December.  Whilst the data, especially the strength in exports, will support calls for a stronger CNY, it also highlights China’s growing influence on world trade and the important role that the country is providing for global economic recovery.

Market resilience in the wake of the drop in US payrolls and positive reaction to Chinese trade data will maintain a “risk on” tone to markets this week.  In particular, the USD is set to start the week on the back foot and despite data last week showing that Eurozone unemployment reached an 11-year high of 10% and growing evidence that the Eurozone economy is falling behind the pace of recovery seen elsewhere, EUR/USD held above technical support (200 day moving average) around 1.4257, and is setting its sights on the 16 December 2009 high of 1.4591 helped by renewed Asian sovereign interest.  

The main event in the Eurozone is the ECB meeting on Thursday no surprises are expected, with the Bank set to keep policy unchanged whilst maintaining current liquidity settings.  The bigger concern for European markets is ongoing fiscal woes in the region, with press reports warning of a ratings downgrade for Portugal and still plenty of attention on Greece and its attempts at deficit reduction.  Fiscal concerns are not going to go away quickly and will clearly act as a restraint on market sentiment for European assets. 

In a holiday shortened week in the US as markets close early on Friday ahead of the 3-day MLK holiday, there are a number of data this week that will shed further light on the shape of US recovery. The main event is the December advance retail sales report on Thursday, which is expected to record a reasonable gain, helped by firm autos sales. 

Preceding this, tomorrow there is expected to be a renewed widening in the US trade deficit in November whilst on Wednesday the Fed’s Beige Book as well as various Fed speakers this week including Bullard, Lockhart, Fisher, Plosser, Evans and Lacker, will give important clues ahead of the January 27 Fed FOMC meeting.  Bullard sounded dovish in his comments in Shanghai, as he highlighted that US interest rates will remain low for some time. 

At the end of the week there will be a heavy slate of releases including December CPI, industrial production, capacity utilization, January Empire manufacturing and Michigan confidence. The outlook for these data is generally positive, with gains expected in both manufacturing and consumer confidence, whilst hard data in the form of industrial production is likely to record a healthy increase and CPI is set to reveal another benign reading.

Contrasting the ECB with the Fed

Whether its year end book closing/profit taking and/or renewed doubts about the shape of recovery, asset markets have turned south recently.  Investor mood appears to be souring as risk aversion creeps back into the market psyche.  A string of disappointing US data releases over the last week including core retail sales, Empire manufacturing, industrial production, and housing starts, contributed to the reduced appetite for risk, resulting in a soft finish to the week for equity markets and a firmer USD.

Things are likely to take a turn for the better this week, however. Data will shed a little more light on the pace and magnitude of economic recovery and could result in some improvement in appetite for risk trades.  Despite an expected downward revision to US Q3 GDP, forward looking data on home sales, durable goods orders and personal income and spending as well as consumer confidence are likely to reveal increases.  In the Eurozone, data economic releases will paint a similar picture, including an expected increase in the closely watched barometer of business confidence, the German IFO survey. 

At the least economic data will remove some, but by no means all doubts about a relapse in the recovery process.  There is no doubting the veracity of the recovery in equity and commodity prices, despite doubts about its sustainability. Central banks may not react uniformly to this and the policy impact could vary significantly.  Already it appears that the ECB is moving more quickly towards an exit strategy compared to the Fed.  Although ECB President Trichet highlighted that the crisis is far from over at the end of last week, the Bank announced tougher standards for asset backed securities used as collateral, indicating that the need to provide emergency support to banks is much lower than it was. 

Clearly the ECB wants to avoid letting the market become over dependent on the central bank and will look to implement measures to this aim.  In contrast, the Fed is showing little sign of beginning this process and at least one member of the FOMC, namely St. Louis Fed President Bullard, was quoted over the weekend advocating that the Fed keep its MBS buying programme beyond its scheduled close in March. Evidence of the contrasting stance is also reflected in the fact that the Fed’s balance sheet is expanding once again whilst the ECB’s is contracting.  As a result of firmer data and comments by Bullard the USD is set to go into the week under renewed pressure, albeit within well defined ranges.

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