The Week Ahead

Housing and durable goods orders data will form the highlights of the US calendar this week. Speeches from several Fed speakers will also give some further guidance to the appetite for completing the Fed’s $600 billion in asset purchases. Overall it will be a slow start for FX markets with liquidity thinned by the Presidents Day holiday and as a result currencies are likely to remain in relatively tight ranges. The heavy tone of the USD seen last week is likely to persist over coming days given the absence of driving factors. Even the unrest in the Middle East has been unable to derail the improving trend in risk appetite, another factor dampening USD sentiment.

The EUR held up well last week recouping its early week losses to end on a firm note. The ability of the EUR to shake off various bits of bad news was impressive but whether it can continue to do so is debatable. Data releases are unlikely to provide much of a boost. Whilst eurozone business surveys set to remain at high levels, consistent with a rebound in Q1 GDP growth, further improvements are unlikely. The week kicks off with the February German IFO business confidence survey but at best this will reveal stable reading. The EUR may find some support from signs of higher and in Germany and an above consensus reading for M3 money supply growth though this is not usually a market mover. The data will likely feed nervousness about European Central Bank (ECB) tightening. Ireland could rock the boat however, with general elections likely to keep markets nervous about potential renegotiations of Ireland’s bailout terms.

Although deflationary pressures are easing in Japan there is a long way before the spectre of inflation will emerge. Nonetheless, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) revised up its growth outlook last week, suggesting that the likelihood of more aggressive measures to combat deflation is narrowing. A reminder of ongoing deflation will come with the release of January CPI data this week whilst trade data will be watched to determine what impact the strength of the JPY is having on exports. Both EUR/JPY and USD/JPY are close to the top of their recent ranges and the data are unlikely to provoke a break higher. USD/JPY will likely remain capped around 84.51 whilst EUR/JPY will find tough resistance around 114.02.

GBP performed even better than the EUR last week helped by an even more hawkish sounding than usual BoE Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Sentance and a letter from the BoE governor hinting at rate hikes. Even a relatively more slightly dovish Quarterly Inflation Report failed to halt GBP’s ascent. Further direction will come from the February MPC minutes in which we expect to see two dissenters, namely Sentence and Weale who likely voted for a rate hike. However, there is a risk that they may have been joined by at least one other, with speculation that MPC member Bean may have joined the dissenters. Such speculation alongside the jump in January UK retail sales at the end of last week will likely add to more upside potential for GBP, setting it up for another gain this week. Its upward momentum may however, be hampered by the large net long GBP positioning overhang.

Money Printing

It was a day of surprises on Tuesday as the Bank of Japan (BoJ) not only created a JPY 5 trillion fund to buy domestic assets including JGBs but also cut interest rates to zero. Expect more measures to come in the fight against a stronger JPY and deflation. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also surprised markets by leaving its policy rate unchanged at 4.5% delaying another rate hike yet again despite expectations by many including ourselves of a 25bps rate hike.

The easier policy stance from the BoJ and RBA taken together with firmer service sector purchasing managers indices – including the September US ISM non-manufacturing survey, which came in at 53.2 from 51.5 – gave risk appetite a solid lift. Even the AUD which dropped sharply following the RBA decision, managed to recoup all of its losses and more overnight.

Japan’s decision could have set the ball rolling for a fresh round of quantitative easing (QE) from central banks as they combat sluggish growth prospects ahead and ongoing deflation risks. The US Fed as has been much speculated on and the Bank of England (BoE) are likely candidates for more QE. Whilst the European Central Bank (ECB) is unlikely to adopt such measures there are reports that board members are split over the timing of exit policy. The BoE decision on Thursday may provoke more interest than usual against this background although the Bank is unlikely to act so quickly. The Fed on the other hand appears to be gearing up for a November move.

Growing prospects of fresh QE looks likely to provide further impetus for risk trades. Notably commodity prices jumped higher, with the CRB commodities index at its highest level since the beginning of the year. Although there is plenty of attention on the gold price which yet a fresh record high above $1340 per troy ounce as well as tin which also hit new highs, the real stars were soft commodities including the likes of sugar, coffee and orange juice up sharply.

The main loser once again is the US dollar and this beleaguered currency appears to be finding no solace, with any rally continuing to be sold into, a pattern that is set to continue. Although arguably a lot is in the price in terms of QE expectations, clearly the fact that the USD continues to drop (alongside US bond yields) highlights that a lot does not mean that all is in the price.

The USD is set to remain under pressure against most currencies ahead of anticipated Fed QE. The fact that the USD has already dropped sharply suggests a less pronounced negative USD reaction once the Fed starts buying assets but the currency is still set to retain a weaker trajectory once the Fed USD printing press kicks into life again as a simple case of growing global USD supply will push the currency weaker.

USD weakness will only spur many central banks including across Asia to intervene more aggressively to prevent their respective currencies from strengthening. A “currency war” looms, a fact that could provoke some strong comments at this weekend’s IMF and World Bank meetings. In the meantime intervention by central banks will imply more reserves recycling, something that will continue to benefit currencies such as EUR and AUD.

Week Ahead

The market mood can be characterised as uncertain and somewhat downbeat, as reflected by the downdraft in US equity markets which posted their second weekly loss last week. Conversely, there has been a bullish run in government bonds, with the notable exception of peripheral debt. Over the last week markets had to contend with more data disappointment, in the wake of soft Japanese Q2 GDP, and a plunge in the August Philly Fed into negative territory, its first contraction since July 2009. Additionally a jump in jobless claims, which hit 500k highlighted the slow improvement in US job market conditions currently underway.

Despite all of this, the USD proved resilient and instead of the usual sell-off in the wake of soft data it benefited instead from increased risk aversion. The USD is set to retain some of this resilience though range-trading is likely to dominate over much of the weak. Reflecting the USD’s firmer stance, speculative positioning in the form of the CFTC IMM data revealed a reduction in aggregate USD short positioning in the latest week and although positioning is well below the three-month average, the improvement over the latest week and current magnitude of short positioning, highlights the potential and scope for further short-covering.

Negative data surprises have forced many to downgrade their forecasts for growth and policy implications, especially in the US. Markets will look for further clarity on the economic outlook this week but it is not clear that anything conclusive will be delivered. At the end of the week Q2 GDP will be revised sharply lower and whilst the data is backward looking it will reveal the weaker momentum of growth going into the second half of the year.

US Housing data will be mixed, with existing home sales set to drop in July as the impact of the expiration of home buyers tax credits continues to sink in whilst new home sales will likely increase but only marginally and will remain well below the April levels. Overall the picture of housing market activity remains bleak and this week’s data will do little to shake this off. On a more positive note July durable goods orders and August Michigan confidence will rise, the latter only marginally though. There will be plenty of attention on Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speech at the Jackson Hole Fed conference at the end of the week, especially given speculation of more quantitative easing in the pipeline.

The European data slate kicks off today with the release of manufacturing and service sector PMIs. Both are likely to register small declines, albeit from high levels. Nonetheless, taken together with a likely drop in the August German IFO survey on Wednesday and weaker June industrial orders tomorrow, the data will highlight that the momentum of growth in the region is coming off the boil, with the robust GDP outcome registered in Q2 2010 highly unlikely to be repeated. Against this background EUR/USD will find it difficult to make any headway. Technically further donwnside is likely over the short-term, with a test of 1.2605 support on the cards

Japan releases its slate of month end releases including jobs data, household spending and CPI. A slight improvement in job market conditions and increased spending will be insufficient to allay growth and deflation concerns, especially with CPI remaining firmly in negative territory. The onus will remain on the authorities to try to engineer a weaker JPY, which remains stubbornly around the 85.00 level versus USD. Talk of a BoJ / MoF meeting today has been dismissed, suggesting the prospect of imminent action is small. Meanwhile, speculative JPY positioning has dropped slightly in the last week but remain close to historical highs.

Aside from various data releases this week markets will digest the outcome of Australia’s federal elections. From the point of view of markets the outcome was the worst possible, with no clear winner as both the incumbent Prime Minister of the ruling Labour Party and opposition Liberal-National Party leader Tony Abbot failed to gain an outright majority. The outcome of a hung parliament will likely keep the AUD on the back foot, with trading in the currency likely be somewhat volatile until a clear outcome is established as both candidates try to garner the support of a handful of independents. However, it is notable that apart from an initial drop the AUD has managed to hold its ground. Nonetheless, the given the fluidity of the political situation there will be few investors wanted to take long positions at current levels around 0.8900 versus USD.

No “green shoots” in the jobs market

 

Over recent weeks various officials have highlighted signs of stabilisation in economic conditions.  Indeed, economic data have been coming in less bad than feared. Nonetheless, one indicator is likely to take a considerably longer time than others to turnaround.  The jobs market is set to continue to deteriorate globally for many months after other economic indicators stabilise.  In the US the pace of lay offs has been dramatic, with 5.1 million jobs lost since December 2007 and 2/3 of these registered in the last five months alone.
 

The US unemployment rate currently at 8.5% is set to move to potentially as high as 10%, with the change in the rate from its cycle low already greater than any time since WW2.  The contraction in the economy points to much further job losses in the months ahead.  The good news is that a smaller pace of economic contraction ought to result in smaller declines in payrolls over the coming quarters and this implies a decline from the Q1 monthly average of 685,000 job losses.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean there will be a quick improvement either. 

 

There are several other implications of rising unemployment.  If the unemployment rate does reach 10% it would match the worst case scenario visualized in the Fed’s stress tests for US banks.  Rising unemployment would imply not only less consumer spending, but more loan defaults, more writedowns and more pressure on bank balance sheets.  Just look at the massive provisions that some US banks have built into their forecasts for the months ahead.  The likely slower pace of economic recovery compared to past recessions suggests that any improvement in the labour market will also be more gradual. 

 

Another dimension to the deterioration in the jobs market underway at present is the growing number of temporary and/or contract workers that are being layed off.  A broad US government definition estimates that such workers account for around 31% of the labour market.   If the losses in these jobs are accounted for the unemployment rate could be as high as 15.6% according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.   This suggests that the economic impact of rising job losses may be much more severe than predicted.

 

And finally the effect of rising unemployment on wage pressures should not be ignored.   Many employers are not only shedding staff but also cutting wages.  Moreover, a looser labour market in general plays negatively for wages as the demand for labour decreases.   Easing wage pressures is good for dampening inflation pressures but in the current environment it could fuel further fears about deflation, which in turn could be extremely negative for the economy. In the worst case scenario it could even end up as a 1990s Japanese scenario of a downward deflationary spiral which ultimately crippled the economy for a whole decade.   Let’s hope not.

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