What To Watch This Week

The end of last week proved to be a calmer affair than the preceding few days. There was some encouraging news on the Greek front, with Germany finally approving its share of the European Union (EU) aid package whilst Greece appeared to be on track with its budget deficit reduction as the country recorded a cash deficit of EUR 6.3billion in the first four months of the year, a 42% reduction compared to a year earlier. EU officials also agreed on tougher sanctions for countries breaching austerity rules.

There were plenty of negatives to offset the good news however, as European business surveys including the German IFO index and flash eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealed some loss of momentum in growth as well as increased divergence. European banking sector concerns intensified as the Bank of Spain was forced to take control of CajaSur, a small savings bank holding 0.6% of total Spanish banking assets, which faced difficulties due to distressed real estate exposure. Its woes highlighted the problems faced by many Spanish savings banks due to property market exposure.

US data releases this week will confirm that economic recovery gathered steam in Q2. May consumer confidence data is likely to record a small gain, due in large part to improving job market conditions, whilst the Chicago PMI is set to retrace slightly in May, albeit from a healthy level. Both new and existing home sales are set to record gains in April, the former following a sizeable gain in March although the drop in house prices likely to be revealed by the Case-Shiller index will continue to fuel doubts about the veracity of the turnaround in the US housing market.

In Europe there is not much in terms of first tier releases and highlights include sentiment data such as German Gfk and French consumer confidence indices, and the May French business confidence indicator. The data are likely to be mixed, and as indicated by last week’s surveys will reflect a relatively healthy Q2 2010, but a worsening outlook for the second half of the year.

In the absence of UK data today there will be plenty of attention on the details of plans by Chancellor Osborne to cut GBP 6 billion from the budget deficit. The measures will be small change ahead of the emergency budget package on June 22nd when much bigger cuts are expected. Nonetheless, the first step today will be a crucial test of the new government’s ability to convince ratings agencies and markets that it is serious about reducing the burgeoning fiscal deficit.

Following the massive positioning adjustments of the last week markets will look somewhat calmer over coming days but risk aversion is likely to remain elevated, suggesting little respite for most currencies against the USD. The recent moves have left net aggregate USD positioning registering an all time high according to the CFTC Commitment of Traders data, in the latest week, but after the slight retracement lower in the USD index, it is set to make further gains over coming days.

It was notable that EUR and GBP looked more composed at the tail end of the week whilst attention turned to the liquidation of long positions in CHF, AUD, NOK and SEK. These risk currencies are set to remain under pressure but there will be little respite for EUR which is set to drift lower, albeit a less aggressive pace than over recent weeks and a re-test of EUR/USD technical support around 1.2296 is likely. GBP/USD has showed some resilience over recent days but remains vulnerable to further downside pressure, with 1.4310 immediate support.

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Greece Bailed Out, Euro Unimpressed

After much debate eurozone ministers along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), finally announced an emergency loan package for Greece amounting to  EUR 110 billion. In return for the bailout Greece agreed to enhanced austerity measures. The good news is that the package covers Greece’s funding requirements until 2012, and is sufficient to avoid debt restructuring and default. The loan package has also removed uncertainty ahead of bond redemption on May 19th.

One aim of the package was to prevent contagion to other eurozone countries, especially Portugal and Spain, where there has been growing pressure on local bond and equity markets. However, the path ahead is strewn with obstacles and it is too early to believe that the package has ensured medium term stability for the EUR.

The challenges ahead are two-fold, including both the implementation of the measures in Greece in the face of strong domestic opposition and the approval of the loans by individual country parliaments within the eurozone, both of which are by no means guaranteed.

The toughest approval process is likely to be seen in Germany where the government will face a grilling in parliament and a challenge in the constitutional court ahead of official approval of the package. European Union leaders are scheduled to meet on May 7th to discuss the parliamentary approval of loans to Greece whilst German officials meet on the same day.

Implementation risk is also high. Although the Greek government appears to be sufficiently committed, opposition within Greece is growing; various strikes planned over coming days. Aside from union opposition, the scale of the budgetary task ahead is enormous, having never been undertaken on such a large scale in recent history. The sharp decline in growth associated with the austerity measures will make the task even harder.

The EUR bounce on the news has been limited, with the currency failing to hold onto gains. The announcement seems to have triggered a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction, with the size of the loan package falling within the broad estimates speculated upon over the last week. The lack of EUR bounce despite the fact that going into this week the CFTC Commitment of Traders report revealed record net short speculative positioning in EUR/USD, reveals the extent of pessimism towards the currency.

The EUR may benefit from a likely narrowing in bond spreads between Greece and Germany. Given that sovereign risk is being increasingly transferred from the periphery to the core, the net impact on bond markets may not be so positive for the EUR. Over the short-term there will be strong technical resistance on the upside around EUR/USD 1.3417 but more likely the currency pair will target support at around 1.3114.

The Herculean task ahead for the Greek government suggests that markets will not rest easy until there are credible signs of progress. Investors would be forgiven for having a high degree of scepticism given the degree of “fudging” involved in the past, whilst Greek unions will undoubtedly not make the government’s task an easy one by any means. Such scepticism will prevent a sustained EUR recovery and more likely keep the EUR under pressure.

As noted above the divergence in growth for the eurozone economy between Northern and Southern Europe will make policy very difficult. Moreover, the EUR is set to suffer from an overall weak trajectory for the eurozone economy, relative to the US and other major economies. The widening growth gap with the US will also fuel a widening in bond yield differentials, a key reason for EUR/USD to continue to decline to around or below 1.25 by the end of the year.

What To Watch This Week

Well so much for a “risk on” week. Market sentiment soured at the end of last week following The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) civil action against Goldman Sachs, in which they accused the bank of fraud. The impact reverberated across markets and risk trades were pulled back as a consequence. Bulls shouldn’t be too downhearted though as the drop in risk trades followed several days of gains and part of the pullback could be attributed to profit taking.

Speculation of similar probes in Europe by financial regulators will cast a shadow over markets early this week. Nonetheless, direction will at least in part come from earnings. So far the run of earnings looks upbeat, with around 83% of the 48 S&P 500 companies reporting, beating analysts’ estimates. Overall profits are forecast to increase by around 30% from a year ago but are on track to easily beat this estimate. Bellwether names including IBM, Apple, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Microsoft, and AT&T report this week.

The meeting between Greek officials, ECB, IMF and EU has been delayed until Wednesday. There is little likelihood of Greece seeing any loan money soon as the need for parliamentary approval in some EU countries and upcoming regional elections in Germany on 9 May will put a spanner in the works. An issue of EUR 1.5bn of 3-month Greek debt tomorrow will act another test of market confidence but the recent widening in Greek debt spreads suggests a less positive reception than the previous sale.

There are also a few central bank meetings to contend with this week including Canada, Sweden, India, Philippines and Thailand. The only Bank likely to hike interest rates out of this bunch is the RBI in India with another hike expected, following closely on the heels of the March move. Canada and Sweden are unlikely to shift policy until at last after the end of Q2 whilst protests in Bangkok, Thailand, and the knock on impact on consumer confidence, have effectively sealed the case for no rate move there.

On the data front, attention will turn to US housing market activity. Markets will be able to gauge further clues to whether recovery in the housing market has stalled. An increase in both existing (Thu) and new home sales (Fri) in March is expected, which may allay some concerns although any improvement is likely to continue to fragile against the background of tight credit and high foreclosure levels.

In Europe, aside from the ongoing Greek sage, sentiment surveys will garner most attention, with the release of the German ZEW (Tue) and IFO (Fri) surveys as well as manufacturing and service sector purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across Europe. On the whole the surveys are likely to reveal some improvement as confidence.

Risk aversion will be slightly elevated at the beginning of this week but strong earnings and improving data will help to prevent too much damage. Consequently Risk currencies will start the week under pressure but any pullback will be limited. Given that speculative positioning in risk currencies such as the AUD, NZD and CAD is well above their three-month average according to the latest Commitment of Traders’ IMM data there will be some scope for profit taking. EUR speculative sentiment has seen some improvement but EUR/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back to technical support around 1.3302 this week.

FX / Economic Preview

The European Union (EU) aid package for Greece and extension of collateral requirements by the European Central Bank (ECB) helped return a semblance of confidence to markets. Although the probability of a Greek default now looks extremely small, further austerity measures, fiscal issues in other EU countries and the negative impact on growth that all of this implies, suggest that Europe will be plagued by various problems for some time yet.

As a result of more favourable market conditions Greece is set to launch a syndicated bond issues today or tomorrow of up EUR 5 billion according to press reports. Attention will also turn to Greek debt rollovers, beginning with EUR 8.2 billion on April 20.

Improving sentiment following the Greece deal has extended to the EUR, with the currency bouncing off its lows around 1.3267. EUR/USD will now look to break through resistance around 1.3446, which would set up a test of 1.3516. There is plenty of scope for short-covering to help the EUR as reflected in the latest IMM Commitment of Traders’ report (a gauge of speculative market positioning) which revealed net EUR positions reaching yet another record low in the week to 23rd March. Whilst sovereign/official buying interest may keep EUR/USD supported this week the currency pair is best played as a sell on rallies.

A similar assessment applies for GBP. Speculative sentiment for the currency also hit a record low in the latest week but unlike the Greek deal helping the EUR, last week’s UK budget has done little to boost GBP’s prospects. Moreover, a report in the Financial Times highlighting hedge funds bets against GBP, suggests that there are still plenty of headwinds against the currency.

Volumes are set to thin out this week ahead of upcoming holidays, whilst the US March jobs report at the end of the week will likely prevent moves out of current ranges ahead of its release. The consensus forecast is for a 190k increase in non-farm payrolls though much of this is likely to reflect hiring for the 2010 US consensus and a rebound from adverse weather effects in February.

In Europe March economic confidence surveys will be watched closely to determine how much damage Greece and general fiscal woes are having on sentiment. Some improvement, in line with the Eurozone Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) and the German IFO business confidence survey, is expected, which will help to give further, albeit limited relief to the EUR.

The Japanese data slate kicked off the week in good form, with the release of February retail sales data, revealing its biggest annual increase in 12-years. It is difficult to see the recovery in sales taking much greater hold given persistent deflation pressures however, and part of the gain probably reflects the government’s shopping incentive program.

Aside from industrial production and jobs data in Japan the key release will be the results of the Q1 Tankan survey on Wednesday. The survey of manufacturers’ confidence is set to show further improvement. USD/JPY is likely to remain supported around 91.67 but will need a further widening in US/Japan 10-year bond yield spreads to push higher.

Tarnishing The Euro

I am just finishing up a client trip in Japan and waiting to take a flight back to Hong Kong. The time ahead of the flight has allowed some reflection on my meetings here. One thing that has been particularly evident is the strong interest in all events European. Some I have spoken to have wondered out loud whether this the beginning of the end of the European project.  At the least it is evident that fiscal/debt problems in Greece and elsewhere in Europe have tarnished the image of the EUR.

Markets continue to gyrate on any news about Greece and the potential for support from the Europe Union and/or IMF. The divergent views between European countries about how to deal with the problem has intensified, suggesting that reaching an agreement will not be easy. Some countries including the UK and Sweden have suggested enrolling the help of the IMF but this has been resisted by other European countries. Germany and France are trying to rally support ahead of today’s crucial meeting of European officials.

The EUR reacted positively to news that some form of support package is being considered but nothing concrete has appeared yet, leaving markets on edge. The EUR has been heavily sold over recent weeks; speculative market positioning reached a record low in the latest week’s CFTC Commitment of Traders’ IMM report. The fact that EUR positioning has become so negative suggests that the EUR could rebound sharply in the event that some support package for Greece is announced.

Any package will not come without strings attached, however, as European officials will want to avoid any moral hazard. A couple of options hinted at by German officials include fresh loans or some form of plan to purchase Greek debt. Either way, any solution to Greece’s problems will not be quick and will likely result in a sharp contraction in economic activity as the government cuts spending especially as Greece does not have the option of the old remedy of devaluing its currency. Meanwhile, strikes and social tensions in the country could escalate further. A solution for Greece will only constitutes around 2.5% of eurozone GDP will also not prevent focus from continuing to shift to Portugal, Spain and other countries with fiscal problems despite comments by Moody’s ratings agency to differentiate between the countries.

Even if the EUR rebounds on any positive news about support for Greece any relief is likely to prove temporary and will provide better levels to sell into to play for a medium term decline in the currency. Ongoing fiscal concerns, a likely slower pace of economic recovery, divergencies in views of European officials, and the fact that the EUR is still overvalued suggests that the currency will depreciate over much of 2010, with a move to around EUR/USD 1.30 or below in prospect over coming months.

Buffer for risk trades

Firmer data, most recently in the form of the stronger than expected US consumer confidence and dovish Fed comments as reiterated in the Fed FOMC minutes will provide a buffer for risk trades, supporting the USDs role as the prime funding currency over coming weeks.  Nonetheless, any improvement in sentiment will have to push against the weight of position adjustment into year-end as investors book profits on risk trades.  The net effect could be an increase in volatility especially in thinning liquidity expected in the wake of holidays in Japan and the Thanksgiving holiday in the US.

This could make it difficult for many asset markets to sustain key psychological and technical levels.  Whether the S&P 500 can hold gains above 1100 could prove significant as could EUR/USD’s ability to hold onto gains above 1.50.  The expiry of last week’s EUR/USD 1.48/1.51 option may provoke a move out of its range but there seems to be little appetite for a sustained break above the 23rd October high around 1.5061.  Even so, an upside bias is more likely given the likely softer tone to the USD. EUR/USD looks well supported around 1.4865.

Position adjustment towards the end of the year has been particularly evident in FX markets.  For instance, the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders’ data revealed that speculative investors have sharply reduced net long EUR positions into last week whilst there was a significant degree of short covering of GBP positions.  It is worth noting however, that aggregate USD net short speculative positions actually increased, largely due to a sharp jump in net JPY positioning, suggesting that overall sentiment for the USD remains very negative.

It is difficult to see a strong reversal in USD sentiment into year-end and the Fed’s commitment to maintaining interest rates at a low-level for an “extended period” taken together with hints of extending asset purchase programmes suggests little support to the USD over the short-term unless there is a more significant increase in risk aversion and or profit taking/book closing into year-end.  It seems that the impact of improved risk appetite is winning for now, giving no respite to the USD.

Respite for the dollar

Markets are increasingly discounting stronger than expected Q3 earnings.  Further gains in equities and risk appetite may be harder to achieve even if profits continue to be beat expectations, which so far around 80% of Q3 earnings have managed to do. Measures of risk such as the VIX “fear gauge” have highlighted an increasingly risk averse environment into this week.  The negative market tone could continue in the short term.

The USD has found some tentative relief, helped by the drop in equities and profit taking on risk trades.  The fact that the market had become increasingly short USDs as reflected in the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders’ (IMM) report in which aggregate short USD positions increased in the latest week (short USD positions numbered roughly twice the number of long positions), has given plenty of scope for some short covering this week.

The USD has even managed quite convincingly to shake off yet another article on the diversification of USD reserves in China.  The USD index looks set to consolidate its gains over the short term against the background of an up tick in risk aversion.  The USD index will likely remain supported ahead of the main US release this week, Q3 GDP on Thursday, but any rally in the USD is unlikely to be sustainable and will only provide better levels to short the currency.

Given the broad based nature of the reversal in risk sentiment with not only equities dropping but commodities sliding too, it suggests that high beta currencies, those with the highest sensitivity to risk will suffer in the short term.  These include in order of correlation with the VIX index over the past month, from the most to the least sensitive, MXN, AUD, MYR, SGD, NOK, EUR, CAD, INR, ZAR, BRL, TRY and NZD. The main beneficiary according to recent correlation is the USD.

EUR sentiment in particular appears to be weakening at least on the margin as reflected in the latest IMM report which revealed that net long EUR speculative positions have fallen to their lowest level in 6-weeks.  Whether this is due to profit taking as EUR/USD hit 1.50 or realisation that the currency appeared to have gone too far too quickly, the EUR stands on shakier ground this week.  EUR/USD may pull back to near term technical support around 1.4840 and then 1.4725 before long positions are re-established.

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