Market fear rising

In what was fairly subdued trading conditions in the wake of a UK holiday the most interesting market move was the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ which has been on a steady increase since 17 August. The rise in equity volatility suggests that the relative calm experienced over the summer may be ending.

Major events over coming days and weeks including the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday, IMF/EU review of Portugal today, ECB meeting on September 6, Dutch general election on 12 September, German constitutional court decision on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same day, as well as the Fed FOMC meeting on September 12-13, highlight the potential for more volatility and uncertainty.

Yesterday’s fourth consecutive drop in the German IFO index was all but ignored as attention turns to Jackson Hole. Nonetheless, the announcement of the formation of a working group between France and Germany suggests some improvement in coordination towards finding a solution to the Eurozone crisis, while the ECB’s Asmussen further heightened speculation that the upcoming ECB meeting would detail the ECB’s proposed bond buying program.

Meanwhile, although the Fed’s Evans (non voter) highlighted his preference for more Fed quantitative easing an improvement in consumer confidence in August expected to be revealed today, will add to data playing against imminent QE.

All of the above leaves FX markets in limbo. The USD remains restrained by expectations of Fed QE but relatively better economic data compared to the Eurozone, suggests that any USD decline will be limited. Moreover, the fact that aggregate speculative USD positioning turned negative for the first time since September 2011, suggests that there is now some scope for short covering.

Conversely, hopes of ECB bond buying offer the EUR some solace but as noted, the many events over coming weeks in Europe, highlight the risks to the currency and we suspect that EUR/USD has topped out around 1.2500.

USD under pressure, AUD well supported

Despite comments by the German Finance Ministry that it sees no need to give the ESM bail out fund a banking license, market hopes of European Central Bank (ECB) action tomorrow remain in place, helping to give some support to markets and the EUR. However, the Fed is unlikely to deliver fresh stimulus measures following the conclusion of its two day meeting today.

Sentiment slipped slightly overnight although any weakness was limited by stronger than expected data releases in the US in the form of July consumer confidence and Chicago PMI. US and European equities ended lower but overall its appears to be a case of treading water until the policy decisions over coming days as well as Friday’s US jobs report.

There is perhaps less expectation of Fed action than the ECB but nonetheless, recent press reports suggest that the Fed is shifting closer to pulling the trigger for more balance sheet expansion. This in turn has put some restraint on the USD.

Although it is more likely that the Fed will want to wait to assess more economic data (the Fed will not be privy to the July jobs report before its release on Friday) there is a chance that the Fed could extend its guidance tonight. This will be less important from a USD perspective but if the Fed opens the door even wider to a third round of quantitative easing the USD will find little solace from a lack of QE today as the Fed will merely be seen to delay such a move until September.

Combined with the impact of firmer risk appetite over recent days and consequently reduced safe haven demand the USD will struggle to make any headway in the near term, with the USD index to find it difficult to break above 83.000.

AUD has been the best performing major currency in July. Yield attraction has increased and the AUD has been a key beneficiary. While my forecasts remain among the most bullish this year (1.08 by year end) I am cognisant of the risks of a pull back in the interim.

AUD has benefited to some extent from expectations of further policy stimulus in China as well as a generally more favourable tone to risk appetite. Reports that China is interested in buying Australian regional government bonds will also help buoy AUD.

While external conditions hold various risks to the AUD the domestic picture does not look too adverse and various domestic economic indicators have beaten expectations. Consequently I believe that market expectations for a bigger 75bp of Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy easing are overdone and an eventual correction in the markets’ overly dovish stance will help to support the AUD.

Meanwhile, speculative AUD positioning is well below the all time high reached in April 2011, suggesting scope for more gains. AUD/USD looks well supported around 1.0374.

Hopes run high ahead of major central bank decisions

Expectations are running high that central bankers will deliver on further policy steps at the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and Bank of England meetings this week. Indeed, following strong hints by ECB President Draghi last week, which provoked a rally in global markets, there are high hopes that the ECB restarts its bond buying programme.

Opposition by Germany’s Bundesbank could result in disappointment, however. A meeting today between Draghi and Bundesbank president Weidmann will shed further light on the issue. Also on the table is the potential for the ESM bailout fund to be given a banking licence though this seems unlikely any time soon. Given the rally in risk assets at the end of last week, any lack of action by policy makers this week will provoke significant disappointment.

Similarly a run of weaker US and UK data has led to growing hopes that the Fed and BoE will also ease policy further on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. While recent press speculation suggests that the Fed is edging closer to further balance sheet expansion the Fed FOMC may want to wait for further news on the economic front before embarking on more quantitative easing.

Meanwhile, the BoE appears to be edging towards further easing too, but rather than more QE a rate cut is looking like the preferred option. I suspect that such action at this week’s monetary policy committee (MPC) meeting is unlikely, however. Adding to the drama of this week’s events is the US July jobs report at the end of this week and yet another lacklustre report is expected, with consensus forecasts for a 100k increase in jobs.

Currency markets are likely to settle into ranges ahead of the key events above. The USD lost a fair bit of ground over recent sessions but further direction will await the ECB and Fed meetings. EUR/USD looks firmly settled above support around 1.2241 but upside traction will be limited until there is further clarification from the ECB. I suspect that last week’s short squeeze has run its course, with a further drop in peripheral Eurozone bond yields required to drive the EUR higher.

Asian currencies look well supported in the near term ahead of the major policy decisions. The SGD and KRW have led gains over the past week and their high degree of sensitivity to risk suggests that they should continue to outperform. The INR has also edged higher on the back of firming risk appetite but much will depend on the outcome of the RBI meeting tomorrow. According to my quantitative models the PHP and TWD will underperform.

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