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).

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Ecofin, ECB, US jobs report in focus

The USD index remains close to its recent highs, maintaining a positive tone amid elevated risk aversion. Data releases have tended to take a back seat to events over recent weeks, but this week the all important US September jobs report may provide the bigger focus for US markets. The consensus expectation is for a 50k increase in payrolls and the unemployment rate remaining at 9.1% an outcome that would do nothing to assuage US growth worries. As usual markets will gauge clues to the jobs data from the ADP jobs data and employment components of the ISM data but an outcome in line with consensus expectations will likely keep risk aversion elevated and the USD supported unless the data is so bad that it results in an increase in expectations for Fed QE3.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers today especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop if no progress is made at today’s meeting. While the extent of short market positioning has left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering will diminish.

While attention in Europe will predominately remain on finding a resolution to the debt crisis and the saga of Greece’s next loan tranche, the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will also be in focus this week especially given expectations that the ECB will cut interest rates. While hopes of a 50 basis points rate cut may have taken a knock from the firmer than expected reading for September flash CPI released at the end of last week the EUR could actually react positively to an easing in policy given that it may at least help to allay some of the growing growth concerns about the eurozone economy. However, any EUR will be limited unless officials in the eurozone get their act together and deliver on expectations of some form of resolution to the crisis in the region.

Strong words from Japan’s Finance Minister Azumi failed to have any lasting impact on USD/JPY. Japan will bolster funds to intervene in currency markets by JPY 15 trillion and extend the monitoring of FX positions until the end of December. Japan did not intervene during September but spent around JPY 4.5 trillion in FX intervention in August to little effect. For markets to be convinced about Japan’s conviction to weaken the JPY it will require putting intervention funds to active use, something that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming at present. A factor that may give some potential upside momentum for USD/JPY is the slight widening of US versus Japan bond yield differentials over recent days, which could finally result in a sustained move above 77.00 if it continues into this week.

USD weaker, EUR resilient, JPY supported, CHF pressure

Why has the USD come under pressure even after Fed Chairman Bernanke failed to signal more QE? The answer is that Bernanke offered hope of more stimulus and gave a shot in the arm to risk trades even if QE3 was not on the cards. Consequently the USD has looked vulnerable at the turn of this week but we suspect that a likely batch of soft US data releases over coming days including the August jobs report at the end of the week, ISM manufacturing survey on Thursday and consumer confidence today, will erase some of the market’s optimism and leave the USD in better position. The FOMC minutes today may also give some further guidance to the USD as more details emerge on the potential tools the Fed has up its sleeve.

The EUR’s ability to retain a firm tone despite the intensification of bad news in the eurozone has been impressive. Uncertainty on various fronts in Germany including but not limited to concerns about the outcome of the German Bundestag vote on the revamped EFSF on September 30, German commitment to Greece’s bailout plan and German opposition party proposals for changes to bailout terms including the possibility of exiting the eurozone, have so far gone unnoticed by EUR/USD as it easily broke above 1.4500. EUR was given some support from news of a merger between Greece’s second and third largest banks. Likely weak economic data today in the form of August eurozone sentiment surveys may bring a dose of reality back to FX markets, however.

The lack of reaction of the JPY to the news that Japan’s former Finance Minister Noda won the DPJ leadership and will become the country’s new Prime Minister came as no surprise. The JPY has become somewhat used to Japan’s many political gyrations over recent years and while Noda is seen as somewhat of a fiscal hawk his victory is unlikely to have any implications for JPY policy. Instead the JPY‘s direction against both the USD and EUR continues to be driven by relative yield and in this respect the JPY is likely to remain firmly supported. Both US and European 2-year differentials versus Japan are at historic lows, with the US yield advantage close to disappearing completely. Until this picture changes USD/JPY is set to languish around current levels below 77.00.

EUR/CHF has rebounded smartly over recent weeks, the latest bounce following speculation of a fee on CHF cash balances, with the currency pair reaching a high of 1.1972 overnight. The pressure to weaken the CHF has become all the more acute following the much bigger than anticipated drop in the August KOF Swiss leading indicator last week and its implications for weaker Swiss growth ahead. The ‘risk on’ tone to markets following Bernanke’s speech has provided a helping hand to the Swiss authorities as safe haven demand for CHF lessens but given the likely weak slate of economic releases this week his speech may be soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the momentum remains for more EUR/CHF upside in the short term, at least until risk aversion rears its head again.

Which is the ugliest currency?

The contest of the uglies has once again been set in motion in FX markets as last Friday’s weak US jobs report, which revealed a paltry 18k increase in June payrolls, downward revisions to past months and a rise in the unemployment rate, actually left the USD unperturbed. Europe’s problems outweighed the negative impact of more signs of a weak US economy, leaving the EUR as a bigger loser.

The USD’s resilience was even more impressive considering the drop in US bond yields in the wake of the data. However, news over the weekend that talks over the US budget deficit and debt ceiling broke down as Republicans pulled out of discussions, will leave USD bulls with a sour taste in their mouth.

Should weak jobs recovery dent enthusiasm for the USD? To the extent that it may raise expectations of the need for more Fed asset purchases, it may prove to be an obstacle for the USD. However, there is sufficient reason to look for a rebound in growth in H2 2011 while in any case the Fed has set the hurdle at a high level for more quantitative easing (QE).

Fed Chairman Bernanke’s reaction and outlook will be gleaned from his semi-annual testimony before the House (Wed) although he will likely stick to the script in terms of US recovery hopes for H2. This ought to leave the USD with little to worry about. There will be plenty of other data releases this week to chew on including trade data, retail sales, CPI and PPI inflation and consumer confidence as well as the kick off to the Q2 earnings season.

Fresh concerns in Europe, this time with contagion spreading to Italy left the EUR in bad shape and unable to capitalise on the soft US jobs report. In Italy high debt levels, weak growth, political friction and banking concerns are acting in unison. The fact that there is unlikely to be a final agreement on second Greek bailout package at today’s Eurogroup meeting will act as a further weight on the EUR.

Discussions over debt roll over plans, the role of the private sector and the stance of ratings agencies will likely drag on, suggesting that the EUR will not find any support over coming days and will more likely lose more ground as the week progresses. If these issues were not sufficiently worrisome, the release of EU wide bank stress tests on Friday will fuel more nervousness. Against this background EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a drop to technical support around 1.4102.

The Bank of Japan is the only major central bank to decide on interest rates this week but an expected unchanged policy decision tomorrow is unlikely to lead to any JPY reaction. In fact there appears to be little to move the JPY out of its current tight range at present. USD/JPY continues to be the most correlated currency pair with 2-year bond yield differentials and the fact that the US yield advantage has dropped relative to Japan has led to USD/JPY once again losing the 81.0 handle.

However, as reflected in the CFTC IMM data the speculative market is still holding a sizeable long position in JPY, which could result in a sharp drop in the currency should US yields shift relatively higher, as we expect over coming months. In the short-term USD/JPY is likely to be well supported around 80.01.

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.

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