USD under pressure, AUD well supported

Despite comments by the German Finance Ministry that it sees no need to give the ESM bail out fund a banking license, market hopes of European Central Bank (ECB) action tomorrow remain in place, helping to give some support to markets and the EUR. However, the Fed is unlikely to deliver fresh stimulus measures following the conclusion of its two day meeting today.

Sentiment slipped slightly overnight although any weakness was limited by stronger than expected data releases in the US in the form of July consumer confidence and Chicago PMI. US and European equities ended lower but overall its appears to be a case of treading water until the policy decisions over coming days as well as Friday’s US jobs report.

There is perhaps less expectation of Fed action than the ECB but nonetheless, recent press reports suggest that the Fed is shifting closer to pulling the trigger for more balance sheet expansion. This in turn has put some restraint on the USD.

Although it is more likely that the Fed will want to wait to assess more economic data (the Fed will not be privy to the July jobs report before its release on Friday) there is a chance that the Fed could extend its guidance tonight. This will be less important from a USD perspective but if the Fed opens the door even wider to a third round of quantitative easing the USD will find little solace from a lack of QE today as the Fed will merely be seen to delay such a move until September.

Combined with the impact of firmer risk appetite over recent days and consequently reduced safe haven demand the USD will struggle to make any headway in the near term, with the USD index to find it difficult to break above 83.000.

AUD has been the best performing major currency in July. Yield attraction has increased and the AUD has been a key beneficiary. While my forecasts remain among the most bullish this year (1.08 by year end) I am cognisant of the risks of a pull back in the interim.

AUD has benefited to some extent from expectations of further policy stimulus in China as well as a generally more favourable tone to risk appetite. Reports that China is interested in buying Australian regional government bonds will also help buoy AUD.

While external conditions hold various risks to the AUD the domestic picture does not look too adverse and various domestic economic indicators have beaten expectations. Consequently I believe that market expectations for a bigger 75bp of Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy easing are overdone and an eventual correction in the markets’ overly dovish stance will help to support the AUD.

Meanwhile, speculative AUD positioning is well below the all time high reached in April 2011, suggesting scope for more gains. AUD/USD looks well supported around 1.0374.

EUR slips, Yen gains

There has been good and bad news in Europe, with leaders’ rubber stamping the permanent bailout mechanism (ESM) and 25 out of 27 EU countries agreeing on the fiscal discipline treaty. Finally, EU leaders agreed that it was not all about austerity, with growth orientated policies as yet undefined, also required.

The bad news is that there has still been no final agreement on Greek debt restructuring and in turn a second Greek aid package said to total around EUR 130 billion while Portugal is increasingly moving into focus as the next casualty. Unsurprisingly the EUR has lost steam so far this week but markets remain short and any downside looks limited at technical support around 1.3077.

A cautious tone will prevail today, with risk assets likely to remain under mild pressure. Developments in Greece and the Eurozone will continue to garner most attention although US data in the form of the January Chicago PMI manufacturing survey and consumer confidence data will also be in focus.

Both surveys will reveal further improvement in confidence as the US economy continues to show signs of gradual recovery. This was supported overnight by a relatively positive Federal Loan Officers survey which revealed an increase in demand for business loans at banks in Q4 2011. Although the USD has been somewhat restrained by a dovish Fed stance the risk off tone to markets will likely bode well for the currency over the short term.

JPY is benefiting from the risk off market tone despite comments by Japanese Finance Minister Azumi who warned about action being taken to combat JPY strength. The JPY has benefited from the Fed’s dovish tone last week which has weighed on US bond yields relative to Japan. While FX intervention risks have increased, officials will remain wary given the underlying upward pressure on the JPY. The near term risk is for USD/JPY to retest the 2011 low around 75.38.

Euro Resilience To Fade

There will at least be a little more liquidity in FX markets today following yesterday’s public holidays in the US and UK. Whether this means that there will be a break out of recent ranges is another matter. Clearly global growth worries as well as eurozone peripheral debt concerns are having an important impact on market dynamics but are also providing conflicting signals.

On the one hand the USD ought to garner support from Europe’s problems but on the other, safe haven demand and growth concerns is bolstering demand for US Treasuries keeping US bond yields at very low levels despite the lack of progress on increasing the US debt ceiling and agreeing on medium to long term deficit reduction.

In the wake of a run of US data disappointments including April durable goods orders, Q1 GDP and weekly jobless claims last week, fears of a loss of momentum in the US economy have intensified. Manufacturing and consumer confidence surveys in the form of the May Chicago PMI and Conference Board consumer confidence survey today will be closely scrutinised to determine whether the ‘soft patch’ in the US economy will persist.

This will have important implications for the USD as worries about growth may feed into expectations that the Fed’s ultra loose monetary policy will be sustained for longer. As it is US 2-year bond yields have dropped to their lowest level this year.

Fortunately for the USD only USD/JPY and USD/CHF have maintained a statistically strong correlation with bond yield differentials although we expect the break in relationship for other currencies to prove temporary. In the case of USD/JPY, yield differentials have narrowed between the US and Japan, a factor playing for JPY appreciation.

Perhaps the fact that unlike the US Japanese data has on balance been beating expectations notwithstanding disappointing April household spending and industrial output data has helped to narrow the yield gap with the US. One explanation is that that worst fears of post earthquake weakness have not been borne out, suggesting that economic expectations have been overly pessimistic. In any case, USD/JPY 80 is still a major line in the sand for the currency pair.

The EUR continues to show impressive resistance, with EUR/USD breaking technical resistance around 1.4345, which opens up a test of 1.4423. Reports that Greece had failed to meet any of its fiscal targets and of harsh conditions set by European officials for further aid have failed to dent the EUR. Whether the market is simply becoming fatigued or complacent will be important to determine if the EUR can gain further.

A report in the WSJ that Germany is considering dropping its push for early rescheduling of Greek debt has given some support to the EUR too. Ongoing discussions this week are unlikely to prove conclusive however, with attention turning to meetings of European officials on 20th and 24th June. I still believe EUR gains will limited, with the break above 1.4345 likely to prove shortlived.

All Eyes On US Jobs Data

Happy New Year!

2010 ended on a sour note especially for eurozone equity markets (and the Australian cricket team) where there has yet to be a resolution to ongoing growth/fiscal/debt tensions.  The EUR strengthened into year end but this looked more like position adjustment than a shift in sentiment and EUR/USD is likely to face stiff resistance around the 1.3500 level this week, with a drop back towards 1.3000 more likely.  In the US there was some disappointment in the form of a surprise drop in December consumer confidence data but pending home sales and the Chicago PMI beat expectations, with the overall tone of US data remaining positive.

There will be plenty to chew on this week in terms of data and events which will provide some much needed direction at the beginning of the year.  The main event is the December US jobs report at the end of the week.   Ahead of this there will be clues from various other job market indicators including the Challenger jobs survey, ADP employment report, and the ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys.  The data will reflect a modest improvement in job market conditions and the preliminary forecast for December payrolls is for a 135k increase, with private payrolls set to rise by 145k and the unemployment rate likely to fall slightly to 9.7%.

The minutes of the 14 December Fed FOMC meeting (Tue) will also come under scrutiny against the background of rising US bond yields.  In addition, Fed Chairman Bernanke will speak on the monetary and fiscal outlook as well as the US economy to the Senate Budget Panel.   Bernanke will once again defend the use of quantitative easing whilst keeping his options open to extend it if needed.  However, the changing composition of the FOMC with four new members added in 2011 suggests a more hawkish tinge, which will likely make it more difficult to agree on further QE.   In any case, the tax/payroll holiday package agreed by the US administration means that more QE will not be necessary. 

It’s probably not the most auspicious time for new member Estonia to be joining the eurozone especially as much of the speculation last year focussed on a potential break up.  The beginning of the year will likely see ongoing attention on the tribulations of Ireland after its bailout, with looming elections in the country.  Portugal and Spain will also remain in focus as the “two-speed” recovery in 2011 takes shape.  Data releases this week include monetary data in the form of the eurozone December CPI estimate and M3 money supply.  Inflation will tick up to 2% but this ought to be of little concern for the ECB.  Final PMI data and confidence indices will likely paint a picture of slight moderation.   

The USD ended the year on a soft note, with year lows against the CHF and multi year lows vs. AUD registered, but its weakness is unlikely to extend much further.  The key driver will remain relative bond yields and on this front given the prospects for relative US yields to move higher, the USD will likely gain support.  There maybe a soft spot for the USD in Q1 2011 but for most of the rest of the year the USD is set to strengthen especially against the EUR which will increasingly comer under pressure as peripheral tensions and growth divergence weigh on the currency.

Drastic Action Needed

There has been no let up in pressure on eurozone markets and consequently risk aversion continues to increase. The failure of Ireland’s bailout package to stem the haemorrhaging in eurozone bond markets highlights the difficulties in finding in a lasting solution and worsening liquidity conditions in several eurozone bond markets highlights the urgency to act.

Indeed, if spreads continue to widen as they have since late October, by early to mid 2011, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian Euribor spreads would be higher than the EFSF loan spread. In the (admittedly extreme) case that sovereigns could not raise money in the market, peripherals would run out of money early in 2011. Policy makers will try to not let the situation get so out of hand but what can be done to stem the damage?

The European Central Bank (ECB) may be forced to delay its exit strategy by maintaining unlimited liquidity allotments to banks into next year and/or implement further liquidity support measures. The ECB meeting will be closely scrutinized for details, with ECB President Trichet having to adjust policy accordingly. A further option could be for the ECB to step up its bond buying programme which may provide some relief to peripheral eurozone bond markets and the EUR.

Whether this offers a lasting solution however, is debatable. The risk of action by the ECB tomorrow may fuel some caution in the market towards selling the EUR further in the short term and could even prompt some short EUR covering around the meeting which could see EUR/USD regain a sustainable hold above 1.3000 again but this may be temporary, offering better levels to sell.

Meanwhile, speculation of a break up of the eurozone into a core euro and a peripheral euro has intensified given the growing divergence in growth and competitiveness across the region. Such speculation looks far fetched. The eurozone project has been politically driven from the start and over the last 60 years or so internal economic strains have been papered over by politicians. The political will is likely to remain in place even if the divergence in fundamentals across Europe has continued to widen.

Bond market sentiment was not helped by the fact that S&P put Portugal’s ratings on creditwatch negative citing downward economic pressure and concerns over the government’s credit worthiness. Importantly S&P still expects Portugal to remain at investment grade if downgraded. Note that Portugal’s central bank highlighted that the country’s banking sector faced “intolerable” risk unless the government implements planned austerity measures.

In contrast the US story is looking increasingly positive, highlighting that the USD’s strength is not merely a reaction to EUR weakness but more likely inherent and broad improvement in USD sentiment. US consumer confidence, Chicago PMI and the Milwaukee PMI beat forecasts in November, continuing the trend of consensus beating data releases over recent weeks.
Although this does not change the outlook for quantitative easing (QE) as the Fed remains focused on core CPI and the unemployment rate, the data paints an encouraging picture of the economy.

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