Eurozone contagion spreading quickly

Contagion from the eurozone debt crisis is spreading quickly, threatening to turn a regional crisis into a global crisis. As highlighted by Fitch ratings further contagion would pose a risk to US banks. Consequently risk assets continue to be sold but interestingly oil prices are climbing. Taken together with comments earlier in the day from the Bank of England that failure to resolve the crisis will lead to “significant adverse effects” on the global economy, it highlights the risks of both economic and financial contagion.

Predominately for some countries this is becoming a crisis of confidence and failure of officials to get to grips with the situation is resulting in an ever worsening spiral of negativity. Although Monti was sworn in as Italian Prime Minister and Papademos won a confidence motion in the Greek parliament the hard work begins now for both leaders in convincing markets of their reform credentials. Given that there is no agreement from eurozone officials forthcoming, sentiment is set to worsen further, with safe haven assets the main beneficiaries.

EUR/USD dropped sharply in yesterday’s session hitting a low around 1.3429. Attempts to rally were sold into, with sellers noted just below 1.3560. Even an intensification of bond purchases by the European Central Bank (ECB) failed to prevent eurozone bond yields moving higher and the EUR from falling.

Against this background and in the absence of key data releases EUR will find direction from the Spanish 10 year bond auction while a French BTAN auction will also be watched carefully given the recent increase in pressure on French bonds. Having broken below 1.3500, EUR/USD will aim for a test of the 10 October low around 1.3346 where some technical support can be expected.

US data releases have been coming in better than expected over recent weeks, acting to dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing and in turn helping to remove an impediment to USD appreciation. While the jury is still out on QE, the USD is enjoying some relief from receding expectations that the Fed will forced to purchase more assets. Further USD gains are likely, with data today including October housing starts and the November Philly Fed manufacturing confidence survey unlikely to derail the currency despite a likely drop in starts.

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Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

Shock and Awe

The Greek crisis spread further last week, not only to Portugal and Spain, but in addition to battering global equity markets, contagion spread to bank credit spreads, OIS-libor and emerging market debt. In response, European Union finance ministers have rushed to “shock and awe” the markets by formulating a “crisis mechanism” package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The package includes loan guarantees and credits worth as much as EUR 750 billion. The support package can be added to the EUR 110 billion loan package announced last week.

In addition, the US Federal Reserve (Fed) announced the authorisation of temporary currency swaps through January 2011 between the Fed, European Central Bank (ECB), Bank of Canada (BoC), Bank of England (BoE) and Swiss National Bank (SNB) in order to combat in the “the re-emergence of strains” in European markets. Separately, the ECB will conduct sterilised interventions in public and private debt markets, a measure that was hoped would be announced at the ECB meeting last week, but better late than never. The ECB did not however, announce direct measures to support the EUR.

The significance of these measures should not be underestimated and they will go a long way to reducing money market tensions and helping the EUR over the short-term. Indeed, recent history shows us that the swap mechanisms work well. The size of the package also reduced default and restructuring risks for European sovereigns. However, the risk is that it amounts to a “get out of jail free card” for European governments. A pertinent question is whether the “crisis mechanism” will keep the pressure on governments to undertake deficit cutting measures.

The Greek crisis has gone to the heart of the euro project and on its own the package will be insufficient to turn confidence around over the medium term. In order to have a lasting impact on confidence there needs to be proof of budget consolidation and increasing structural reforms. Positive signs that the former is being carried out will help but as seen by rising public opposition in Greece, it will not be without difficulties whilst structural reforms will take much longer to implement. Confidence in the eurozone project has been shattered over recent months and picking up the pieces will not be an easy process.

Some calm to markets early in the week will likely see the USD lose ground. There was a huge build up of net USD long positioning over the last week as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, suggesting plenty of scope for profit taking and/or offloading of USD long positions. In contrast, EUR positioning fell substantially to yet another record low. Some short EUR covering is likely in the wake of the new EU package, but EUR/USD 1.2996 will offer tough technical resistance followed by 1.3114.

The EU/IMF aid package will help to provide a strong backstop for EUR/USD but unless the underlying issues that led to the crisis are resolved, EUR/USD is destined to drop further. Perhaps there will be some disappointment for the EUR due to the fact that the package of support measures involves no FX intervention. This could even limit EUR upside given that there was speculation that “defending the EUR” meant physically defending the currency. In the event the move in implied FX volatility over the last week did not warrant this.

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