Risk on, risk off

The USD has lost some upward momentum as risk appetite improved but FX markets remain skittish as sentiment gyrates between ‘risk on’ and ‘risk off’. The fact that US Q1 GDP was left unrevised whilst jobless claims surprisingly increased together with ongoing Greece concerns suggests that a risk off mood may filter into markets despite positive US earnings. Although the USD has not particularly benefitted from any rise in risk aversion lately, worries about the next IMF tranche being withheld from Greece will likely play more positively for the USD.

Nonetheless, lurking in the background and helping to keep the USD restrained is the Fed’s ongoing asset purchases as QE2 remains in place until the end of June. Moreover US data disappointments points to risks that the Fed will only slowly embark on its exit strategy. Additionally any agreement towards extending the US debt ceiling appears to be far off, and threatens to go down to the wire all the way to August 2. US debt markets and the USD appear to be downplaying this issue at present but it remains a clear threat to US markets.

Continuing to limit any upside in the EUR is the fact that officials and markets continue to gyrate on whether Greece will or will not restructure its debt. Apparent divisions between the view of some officials and the ECB are adding to the confusion whilst fresh worries about the IMF withholding funding for Greece will likely keep EUR/USD capped.

Peripheral worries as well as growth concerns are clearly weighing on confidence and a broad based decline in economic and business confidence in various eurozone May measures is expected to be revealed in data today . Weaker data taken together with ongoing concerns about the eurozone periphery will likely see the EUR struggle, with the currency set to settle into a range versus USD over the short-term, with technical support around 1.3968 and resistance at 1.4210.

The loss of USD momentum has also been exhibited in USD/JPY which has turned lower following its recent upward move hitting a low around 81.09. The big news was the fact that April nationwide core CPI recorded its first YoY increase since December 2008. At the margin may reduce the pressure on the Bank of Japan (BoJ) to enact more aggressive policy measures, which in turn is positive for the JPY. A big factor contributing to keeping the JPY supported over recent weeks is the ongoing inflow of foreign capital into Japan’s bond and equity markets, with Japan recording six straight weeks of net inflows.

USD/JPY is one currency pair where the correlation with US – Japan 2-year bond yield differentials is holding up well over the past 3-months. The fact that the yield differential has dropped to its lowest level since November 2010 at around 30bps reveals the declining US yield advantage, and plays for a lower USD/JPY. Against this background the JPY is likely to remain supported in the short-term, but will find it tough to break through technical support around USD/JPY 80.15.

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Euro Sentiment Jumps, USD Sentiment Dives

The bounce in the EUR against a broad range of currencies as well as a shift in speculative positioning highlights a sharp improvement in eurozone sentiment. Indeed, the CFTC IMM data reveals that net speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time since mid-November. A rise in the German IFO business confidence survey last week, reasonable success in peripheral bond auctions (albeit at unsustainable yields), hawkish ECB comments and talk of more German support for eurozone peripheral countries, have helped.

A big driver for EUR at present appears to be interest rate differentials. In the wake of recent commentary from Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet following the last ECB meeting there has been a sharp move in interest rate differentials between the US and eurozone. This week’s European data releases are unlikely to reverse this move, with firm readings from the flash eurozone country purchasing managers indices (PMI) today and January eurozone economic sentiment gauges expected.

Two big events will dictate US market activity alongside more Q4 earnings reports. President Obama’s State of The Union address is likely to pay particular attention on the US budget outlook. Although the recent fiscal agreement to extend the Bush era tax cuts is positive for the path of the economy this year the lack of a medium to long term solution to an expanding budget deficit could come back to haunt the USD and US bonds.

The Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will likely keep markets treading water over the early part of the week. The Fed will maintain its commitment to its $600 billion asset purchase program. Although there is plenty of debate about the effectiveness of QE2 the program is set to be fully implemented by the end of Q2 2011. The FOMC statement will likely note some improvement in the economy whilst retaining a cautious tone. Markets will also be able to gauge the effects of the rotation of FOMC members, with new member Plosser possibly another dissenter.

These events will likely overshadow US data releases including Q4 real GDP, Jan consumer confidence, new home sales, and durable goods orders. GDP is likely to have accelerated in Q4, confidence is set to have improved, but at a low level, housing market activity will remain burdened by high inventories and durable goods orders will be boosted by transport orders. Overall, the encouraging tone of US data will likely continue but markets will also keep one eye on earnings. Unfortunately for the USD, firm US data are being overshadowed by rising inflation concerns elsewhere.

Against the background of intensifying inflation tensions several rate decisions this week will be of interest including the RBNZ in New Zealand, Norges Bank in Norway and the Bank of Japan. All three are likely to keep policy rates on hold. There will also be plenty of attention on the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes to determine their reaction to rising inflation pressures, with a slightly more hawkish voting pattern likely as MPC member Posen could have dropped his call for more quantitative easing (QE). There will also be more clues to RBA policy, with the release of Q4 inflation data tomorrow.

Both the EUR and GBP have benefitted from a widening in interest rate futures differentials. In contrast USD sentiment has clearly deteriorated over recent weeks as highlighted in the shift in IMM positioning, with net short positions increasing sharply. It is difficult to see this trend reversing over the short-term, especially as the Fed will likely maintain its dovish stance at its FOMC meeting this week. This suggests that the USD will remain on the back foot.

Ratings rampage hits Euro

Both the data flow and market liquidity will be thin over the last couple of weeks of the year. After a bashing over much of H2 2010 it looks as though the USD will end the year in strong form having risen by over 6% since its early November low. In contrast the EUR is struggling having found no support from the meeting of European Union officials at the end of last week in which they agreed to a permanent sovereign debt resolution after 2013 but failed to agree on expanding the size of the bailout fund (EFSF). Similarly there was no traction towards a common euro bond. EUR/USD is now verging on its 200-day moving average around 1.3102, a break of which could see a drop to around 1.2960.

The failure to enlarge the size of the EFSF was disappointing given worries that it is perceived to be insufficient to cope with the bailout of larger eurozone countries if needed. It also highlight that the burden on the European Central Bank (ECB) to prop up eurozone bond markets until confidence improves. The increase in the size of ECB capital from EUR 5.8 billion to EUR 10.8 billion will help in this respect. Such support was clearly needed last week following the rampage across Europe by ratings agencies culminating in Moody’s five notch downgrade of Ireland’s credit ratings, surprising because of its severity rather than the downgrade itself. Ireland’s ratings are now just two notches above junk status and the negative outlook could mean more to come.

It was not just Ireland’s ratings that came under scrutiny. Ireland’s multi notch downgrade followed Moody’s decision to place Greece and Spain on review for a possible downgrade whilst S&P revised Belgium’s outlook to negative. Unsurprisingly peripheral debt markets came under renewed pressure as a result outweighing positive news in the form of strong flash eurozone PMI readings and firm German IFO business confidence survey. EUR did not escape and sentiment for the currency remains weak, with CFTC IMM speculative positioning data revealing a fourth straight week of net EUR short positioning in the week to 14th December.

In contrast, sentiment for the US economy continues to improve. Congress’ swift passage of President Obama’s fiscal plan will help to shore up confidence in US recovery. Data this week will be broadly positive too. On Wednesday, US Q3 GDP data is likely to be upwardly revised to a 2.8% QoQ annualized rate. Durable goods orders excluding transportation are set to increase by a healthy 2.0% (Thu) whilst both existing (Wed) and new (Thu) home sales will reveal rebounds in November following a drop in the previous month.

In the UK the main highlight is the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes. Another three way split is expected but this should not cause more than a ripple in FX markets. GBP/USD has slipped over recent days but there appears to be little other than general USD strength responsible for this. The currency pair looks vulnerable to a drop below 1.5500, with 1.5405 seen as the next support level. On balance, the USD will be in good form this week although the drop in US bond yields at the end of last week may take some of the wind out of its sails.

The Week Ahead

Equity markets and risk trades have generally performed well over the last couple of weeks, with for example the S&P 500 around 7.5% higher since its late August low, whilst equity and currency volatility have been generally low, the latter despite some hefty FX intervention by the Japanese authorities which did provoke a spike in USD/JPY volatility last week.

Risk appetite took a knock at the end of last week in the wake of worries that Ireland may seek EU / IMF assistance although this was denied by Irish officials. A similar worry inflicted Portugal, and as a result peripheral bond spreads were hit. Sovereign worries in Europe have not faded quickly and bond auctions in Greece, Spain and Portugal will garner plenty of attention this week. Renewed worries ahead of the auctions suggest that the market reception could be difficult.

Attention will swiftly turn to the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting tomorrow and in particular at any shift in Fed stance towards additional quantitative easing following the decision at the August FOMC meeting to maintain the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Given the recent improvement in US economic data the Fed is set to assess incoming data before deciding if further measures are needed.

Housing data in the US will also garner plenty of attention, with several releases scheduled this week. Increases in August housing starts, building permits, existing and new home sales are also expected. Whilst this may give the impression of housing market improvement, for the most part the gains will follow sharp declines previously, with overall housing market activity remaining weak following the expiry of the government tax credit.

Weakness in house prices taken together with a drop in equity markets over the quarter contributed to a $1.5 trillion drop in US household net wealth in Q2. Wealth had been recovering after its decline from Q2 2007 but renewed weakness over the last quarter will not bode well for consumer spending. Household wealth is around $12.4 trillion lower than its peak at the end of Q2 2007.

Aside from the impact of renewed sovereign concerns, European data will not give the EUR much assistance this week either, with Eurozone September flash PMIs and the German IFO survey of business confidence set to weaken as business and manufacturing confidence comes off the boil. If the Fed maintains its policy stance whilst risk aversion increases over coming days the USD may find itself in a firmer position to recoup some of its losses both against the EUR and other currencies.

This will leave EUR/USD vulnerable to drop back down to around support in 1.2955 in the very short-term. As indicated by the CTFC IMM data there has been further short EUR position covering last week whilst sentiment for the USD deteriorated, suggesting increased room for short-USD covering in the event of higher risk aversion.

The impact of Sweden’s election outcome over the weekend is unlikely to do much damage to the SEK despite the fact that the coalition government failed to gain an outright majority. EUR/SEK has edged higher over recent days from its low around 9.1528 but SEK selling pressure is unlikely to intensify following the election, with EUR/SEK 9.3070 providing tough technical resistance.

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