So much in the price

The weaker than expected US August non farm payrolls data at the end of last week punished the USD and reinforced expectations that the Federal Reserve will announce a fresh round of quantitative easing at this week’s FOMC policy meeting. The shift in expectations for QE has been rapid over recent weeks and the jobs data acted as the icing on the cake. In part USD weakness reflects both QE expectations and the positive reaction to the European Central Bank’s bond buying plan announced last week. In this respect a lot is already priced in to currency markets and EUR/USD will struggle to sustain a move above 1.28 in the short term.

From a risk / reward perspective there are potentially plenty of stumbling blocks this week aside from the FOMC meeting that could skew market direction towards risk rather than reward. These include the German constitutional court decision on the ESM permanent bailout fund and Dutch elections both of which take place on Wednesday. The German court decision is the last needed before the ESM comes into force. Legal experts expect the court to approve the ESM but with tough conditionality. Should the ESM not be approved it would leave any more bailout funds to come only from the cash left in the temporary and dwindling EFSF. Separately the Dutch elections look set to end in weeks if not months of coalition building. These events occur gainst the backdrop of talks between the Greek government and its creditors following failure to agree on spending cuts between Greece’s coalition partners.

Ahead of these events the European Commission will reveal details of plans towards a single banking supervision mechanism. The G20 meeting in Mexico and Ecofin meeting at the end of the week will also garner attention, with any discussion on a European banking union of interest. Meanwhile, following the ECB’s announcement last week the ball is in the court of Spain and Italy to formally request An EU bailout and in turn accept various conditions and targets necessary to receive a bailout. Only then will the ECB commence its ‘unlimited’ bond buying. No date or deadline has been set for such requests for a bailout but given the sharp drop in peripheral Eurozone bond yields over recent weeks in anticipation of ECB bond purchases there is certainly scope for disappointment, with market patience likely to run thin.

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Europe’s crunch time

It’s crunch time for EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB under the helm of Mario Draghi is steadfastly refusing to provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery either directly via lower interest rates or securities market purchases or indirectly via another Long term refinancing operation (LTRO) . Any prospect of debt monetization as carried out already by other central banks including the Fed and Bank Of England is a definite non-starter. The reason for this intransigence is that the ECB does not want to let Eurozone governments off the hook, worrying that any further assistance would allow governments to slow or even renege upon promised reforms.

Whether this is true or not it’s a dangerous game to play. The fact that the previously unthinkable could happen ie a country could exit the Eurozone should have by now prompted some major action by European officials. Instead the ECB is unwilling to give ground while Germany continues to stand in the way of any move towards debt mutualisation in the form of a common Eurobond and/or other measures such as awarding a banking license to the EFSF bailout fund which would effectively allow it to help recapitalize banks and purchase peripheral debt. Germany does not want to allow peripheral countries to be let off the hook either arguing that they would benefit from Germany’s strong credit standing and lower yields without paying the costs.

To be frank, it’s too late for such brinkmanship. The situation in The Eurozone is rapidly spiraling out of control. While both the ECB and Germany may have valid arguments the bottom line is that the situation could get far worse if officials fail to act. As noted above there are various measures that could be enacted. Admittedly many of these will only buy time rather than fix the many and varied structural problems afflicting a group of countries tied together by a single currency and monetary policy and separate fiscal policies but at the moment time is what is needed the most.

It’s good to see that European officials are finally talking about boosting growth and realising that austerity is killing the patient. However, measures such as increasing trade, investment etc are all long term in nature. Europe needs action now before it’s too late. After years of keeping the Eurozone together by sheer force of political will rather than strong fundamental reasons lets hope that politicians in Europe begin to realize this before it’s too late. The lack of traction at this week’s EU summit was disappointing but with their backs to the wall ahead of Greek elections in mid June Germany and the ECB may be forced to give ground. In the meantime the beleaguered EUR looks destIned to remain under pressure.

USD pressured by drop in yield

Risk sentiment starts the week in positive mode. Weekend reports that Germany will not stand in the way of allowing the (European Financial Stability Facility) EFSF and its successor the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) bailout funds to be combined to boost the ‘firewall’ against contagion in the Eurozone has helped to boost sentiment.

Market direction may be obscured by month end and quarter end window dressing this week and despite the likely positive start to the week there are still plenty of factors to dent risk appetite over coming days, not least of which is the gyrations in oil prices.

The USD has slipped over recent days in line with a pull back in US Treasury bond yields. Notably there has also been a pull back in speculative USD sentiment as recorded in the CFTC IMM data. The ‘risk on’ tone to market that appears to be developing today will likely result in renewed downside risks to the currency.

US economic data continues to outshine economic releases elsewhere although US housing data last week was notably mixed. It will be the turn of March consumer confidence and February durable goods orders to capture the market’s attention over coming days.

A slight decline in the former and a healthy increase in the latter are expected. However, it seems unlikely that either release will be particularly supportive for yields and in turn the USD, so it will require a further increase in risk aversion to push the USD higher over coming days.

EUR/USD appears to be settling into the middle of a 1.30-1.35 range. Direction has increasingly been led by economic factors rather than debt issues recently but the news on the former has not been particularly good.

The March German IFO today and EU Finance Ministers meeting will be the key events of the week while there will also be interest on Spain’s budget as well as Spanish and Italian debt auctions. The IFO will likely prove to be more positive for the EUR than the manufacturing surveys last week, with an uptrend in the data continuing.

Moreover, hopes that Finance Ministers will bolster the ‘firewall’ to prevent other peripheral countries from repeating Greece’s debacle, will also likely keep the EUR supported. Overall, this implies EUR/USD will likely continue to creep higher over the week, with a test of technical resistance around 1.3356 eyed.

Ratings agencies spoil the party

Just as I thought that attention may finally switch to the US along comes the ratings agencies to spoil the party once again. Moody’s and Fitch Ratings criticised last week’s European Union Summit outcome for falling short of a comprehensive solution to Eurozone ills. Consequently the risk of further sovereign credit downgrades across Europe remains high over coming weeks especially as economic growth weakens. Moody’s also put 8 Spanish banks and two bank holding companies on review for a possible downgrade.

The EUR and Eurozone bonds came under pressure as a result, with EUR/USD verging on its strong support level around 1.3146. Further pressure is likely into year end although the fact that the speculative market is still very short EUR may limit its downside potential in the short term. Disappointment that the ECB has not stepped up to the plate to support the Eurozone bond market more aggressively is also having a damaging effect on confidence. A test of sentiment will come from today’s EFSF and Spanish bill auctions while on the data front we look for a below consensus outcome for the German December ZEW survey, which will deteriorate further.

The comments from the ratings agencies resulted in risk assets coming under pressure once again, leaving the market open to further selling today given the lack of positives. US data and events will at least garner some attention, with the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting and November retail sales on tap. We do not look for any big surprise from either of these, but at least the Fed may sound a little more positive in light of firmer data over recent weeks. Even so, speculation of more Fed QE early next year will remain in place. In the current environment demand for US Treasuries remains strong with a Treasury auction yesterday receiving the highest bid/cover ratio since 1993.

S&P Spoils The Party

Although stock markets registered gains the rally in risk assets stumbled, with sentiment knocked by news that S&P ratings has placed 15 Eurozone countries on negative watch for a possible downgrade due to “systemic stresses”. Among the 15 were Germany and France. Weaker economic news in the form of service sector purchasing managers indices in China and the US also dented market sentiment.

The Eurozone countries including all six triple A rated governments have a one in two chance of a downgrade within 90 days. Although there has been speculation of a French downgrade the major surprise was the inclusion of Germany in the list. A downgrade of Eurozone countries would hit the ability of the EFSF bailout fund to finance rescue packages for countries give that it is supported by sovereign guarantees from the six AAA rated countries.

Ironically the S&P announcement followed news that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy have agreed on treaty changes revealing some progress ahead of the Eurozone summit on 8/9th December. Among the details of the agreement private sector bond holders will not be asked to bear any losses on any future debt restructuring, automatic sanctions for countries that breach the 3% deficit / GDP rule, a “golden rule” on balanced budgets, and an earlier data for the launch of the European Stability Mechanism to 2012.

The “fiscal compact” will be welcomed by the European Central Bank (ECB), with hints by President Draghi that it could be followed by stronger action from the central bank. Although S&P spoiled the party somewhat overnight, markets will go into the EU Summit with high expectations, suggesting that risk assets will find some degree of support. EUR slipped on the S&P news but further losses will be limited ahead of the EU Summit, with markets looking for further concrete actions from Eurozone leaders. EUR/USD will be supported around 1.3260 in the short term.

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