Plenty of event risk

This week is heavy with event risk, with a lot expected from EU leaders. So far the risk on tone to markets has held up, with for example the VIX fear gauge resting below the key 30.0. The G20 meeting over the weekend set the deadline for action for concrete solutions to the eurozone debt crisis for the October 23 EU Summit.

However, there will be little detail on issues such as banking sector recapitalisation, private sector involvement in any debt restructuring or ‘leveraging’ the EFSF bailout fund until the report on Wednesday night by the Troika on Greece. The reward to EU leaders would be the potential for more aid from the IMF but even now it seems that a German government official has poured cold water of a plan being announced at the EU Summit which will disappoint markets.

There are also plenty of data releases for markets to digest over coming days including inflation releases, manufacturing surveys and industrial production data in the US while in Europe the German IFO and ZEW surveys are scheduled for release. The data will follow on from the better than expected September US retail sales releases at the end of last week continuing to dampen expectations that the global economy is falling in recession though there will be a marked deceleration in European data.

Meanwhile the US Q3 earnings season rolls. The risk on tone will likely continue to weigh on the USD and weigh on bonds but unlike a few weeks ago when a lot of bad news was priced in, the scope for disappointment is becoming increasingly high.

Many currencies remain highly correlated with gyrations in risk and in this respect the improvement in risk appetite is good news for high beta / commodity. AUD, NZD, CAD and JPY are amongst the most sensitive currencies and therefore prone to a bigger reaction as risk improves, with the former three strengthening and the JPY weakening. Asian currencies poised to benefit from firmer risk appetite include INR and KRW, both with relatively high correlations with risk.

EUR/USD has made a solid recovery over recent days from its lows around 1.3146 spurred by hopes of action by European officials. Such hopes may yet be dashed but the EUR looks supported over coming days ahead of the EU summit Speculative positioning also reflects a slight improvement in EUR sentiment as IMM short positions have declined in the last week but its worth noting that this week’s European data are unlikely to be supportive for the EUR.

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Fed does the Twist, markets do the Shake

Although it was widely expected the Federal Reserve’s decision to implement a fresh version of Operation Twist together with a downbeat assessment of the economy came as a disappointment to equities and risk assets in general. The only surprise was the larger size of the operation at $400 billion.

Moody’s downgrade of three US banks added to the malaise as US equities dropped sharply, commodities slid, longer term Treasuries rallied whilst shorter term bonds dropped. The USD registered broad gains both on the back of the fact that no more quantitative easing was announced and due to a shift away from risk assets. At least there was no more negative news out of the eurozone as talks between the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) and Greek officials continue on the next tranche of the bailout.

Markets will continue to digest the Fed’s outcome today and the negative tone will likely filter through markets today. There is little on the data front to result in a shift in this tone. In the US data includes weekly jobless claims while in Europe attention will be on manufacturing and service sector confidence measures.

While the potential for a positive outcome to talks in Greece may provide a short term boost to sentiment the overwhelming tone is likely to remain negative especially as Operation Twist is unlikely to change the dynamic of a weak growth trajectory for the US and developed economies over the coming months. Against this background, selling risk assets on rallies remains the preferred option.

The USD will continue to look firmest against high beta emerging market currencies in the current environment. Currencies in this group are those that have the highest correlations with risk (as m measured by my in house risk barometer) over the past 3 months including CAD, ZAR, TRY, INR, MXN, ARS & RUB. In contrast currencies that also have high correlations but actually strengthen as risk aversion increases are CNY and JPY.

Pressure, panic and carnage

Pressure, panic and carnage doesn’t even begin to describe the volatility and movements in markets last week. If worries about global economic growth and the eurozone debt crisis were not enough to roil markets the downgrade of the US sovereign credit rating after the market close on Friday sets the background for a very shaky coming few days. All of this at a time when many top policy makers are on holiday and market liquidity has thinned over the summer holiday period.

The downgrade of US credit ratings from the top AAA rating should not be entirely surprising. After all, S&P have warned of a possible downgrade for months and the smaller than hoped for $2.1 trillion planned cuts in the US fiscal deficit effectively opened the door for a ratings downgrade. Some solace will come from the fact that the other two main ratings agencies Moody’s and Fitch have so far maintained the top tier rating for the US although Fitch will make it’s decision by the end of the month.

Comparisons to 2008 are being made but there is a clear difference time this time around. While in 2008 policy makers were able to switch on the monetary and fiscal taps the ammunition has all but finished. The room for more government spending in western economies has now been totally used up while interest rates are already at rock bottom. Admittedly the US Federal Reserve could embark on another round of asset purchases but the efficacy of more quantitative easing is arguably very limited.

Confidence is shattered so what can be done to turn things around? European policy makers had hoped that their agreement to provide a second bailout for Greece and beef up the EFSF bailout fund would have stemmed the bleeding but given the failure to prevent the spreading of contagion to Italy and Spain it is difficult to see what else they can do to stem the crisis.

Current attempts can be likened to sticking a plaster on a grevious wound. Although I still do not believe that the eurozone will fall apart (more for political rather than economic reasons) eventually there may have to be sizeable fiscal transfers from the richer countries to the more highly indebted eurozone countries otherwise the whole of the region will be dragged even further down.

Where does this leave FX markets? The USD will probably take a hit on the US credit ratings downgrade but I suspect that risk aversion will play a strong counter-balancing role, limiting any USD fallout. I also don’t believe that there will be a major impact on US Treasury yields which if anything may drop further given growth worries and elevated risk aversion. It is difficult for EUR to take advantage of the USDs woes given that it has its own problems to deal with.

Despite last week’s actions by the Swiss and Japanese authorities to weaken their respective currencies, CHF and JPY will remain in strong demand. Any attempt to weaken these currencies is doomed to failure at a time when risk aversion remains highly elevated, a factor that is highly supportive for such safe haven currencies. From a medium term perspective both currencies are a sell but I wouldn’t initiate short positions just yet.

Euro unimpressed by Greek confidence vote

News that the Greek government won a confidence vote has left the EUR unimpressed and gains will be limited ahead of the June 28 vote on the country’s 5-year austerity plan. The EUR was in any case rallying ahead of the vote, which the government won by 155-143 votes, and has actually lost a little ground following the vote.

EUR sentiment is likely to remain somewhat fragile given the ongoing uncertainties, but now that the first hurdle has been passed markets there is at least a better prospect of Greece receiving the next EUR 12 billion aid tranche before the July 15 “do or default” deadline. Over the near term EUR/USD upside is likely to remain capped around the 1.4451 resistance level (15 June high).

The next key event for markets is the Fed FOMC meeting outcome and press conference. This is unlikely to bode particularly well for the USD given that the Fed is set to downgrade its growth forecasts, with the comments on the economy likely to sound a little more downbeat given the loss of momentum recently as reflected in a string of disappointing data releases.

Nonetheless, monetary settings are unlikely to be changed, with the Fed committed to ending QE2 by the end of June. I remain positive on the USD’s prospects but its recovery is fragile due to the fact that US bond yields remain at ultra low levels.

Whilst only AUD/USD and USD/JPY have maintained significant correlations with bond yield differentials over the past three months, it will eventually require US bond yields to move higher in relative terms for the USD to find its legs again on a more sustainable basis.

In the meantime the approach of the end of QE2 by the end of June will on balance play positively for the USD as at least the Fed’s balance sheet will no longer be expanding even if the reinvestment of principle from its holdings of US Treasuries suggest that there will not be a quick or immediate reduction in the size of the balance sheet anytime soon.

There is little appetite to intervene to weaken the JPY at present, with the Japanese authorities blaming the strengthening in the JPY versus USD on the latter’s weakness rather than the former’s strength. Until yield differentials widen, USD/JPY will continue to languish at current levels or even lower.

GBP will garner direction from the release of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee meeting minutes. Whilst GBP has edged higher against the USD it has remained vulnerable against EUR. A likely dovish set of minutes reflecting some weak activity data, easing core inflation and soft wage growth, suggests little support for GBP over the short term.

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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