Equities weaker, US yields lower, USD softer

The US Federal Reserve’s rejection of capital raising plans by several banks taken together with further confrontation between the US and Russia and a disappointing US durable goods orders report were sufficient to result in a sell off in equity markets, lower US yields and a weaker USD.

Gold failed to benefit in yet a further sign that its bull run has ended, with the metal honing in on its 200 day moving average at 1296.71. On the US data front headline February US durable goods orders beat expectations (2.2%) but core orders (-1.3%) were weaker than expected.

Although the lead for Asia is a weak one markets may still find some resilience due to expectations of policy stimulus from China. Similarly dovish talk from the European Central Bank will offer further support to market sentiment while undermining the EUR somewhat. On the data front today the main releases are US Q4 GDP revision (upward revision likely), and UK retail sales (rebound likely).

Chronology of a Crisis – endgame?

Please see below an extract from my forthcoming book Chronology of a Crisis (Searching Finance 2012).

The departure of Greece from the Euro is by no means a forgone conclusion but if it happens it is not clear that global policy makers have much ammunition left to shield markets from the resulting fallout.

Stimulus after stimulus has only left governments increasingly indebted. The price of such largesse is now being paid in the form of higher borrowing costs. Even central banks do not have much ammunition left. Admittedly further rounds of quantitative easing, and central bank balance sheet expansion may help to shore up confidence but the efficacy of such policy actions is questionable. Moreover, policy support may only help to buy time but if underlying structural issues are not resolved pressure could resume quickly.

Against this background Europe is under intense pressure and there is little time left before it results in something catastrophic for global markets via a disorderly break up of the Eurozone. EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB) have to act to stem the crisis. However, at the time of writing 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. Buying time will allow policymakers to enact reforms, enhance productivity, reform labour markets, increase investment funds etc. Unfortunately European policy makers do not appear to have grasped this fact. Now more than at any time during the crisis much depends on the actions of policy makers. This is where the major uncertainty lies.

If officials do not act to stem the crisis, economic and market turmoil will reach proportions exceeding that of even the Lehmans bust.

Is gold losing its lustre?

Hopes and expectations of more Fed quantitative easing in the wake of a run of weak US data, including the US May jobs report, has been attributable to the bounce in gold prices over recent weeks. However, Fed Chairman Bernanke dampened such hopes in his speech to Congress, in which he did not indicate a desire to move towards more QE. The Fed is unlikely in my view to embark on more QE any time soon.

Clearly, should the Fed implement more QE it will help to renew the attraction of gold. Once again markets will see the consequences of Fed QE as a means to debase the USD. A shift in Fed stance cannot be ruled out if US economic conditions worsen further and/or the Eurozone crisis escalates. Assuming no more QE and no more USD debasement, gold prices ought to decline over coming months.

One of the biggest factors putting downward pressure on gold prices has been the strength of the USD. While I do not expect the USD to continue to strengthen at the same pace as it has done recently, further gradual gains in the currency are likely. My FX forecasts predict a further small gain for the USD index by the end of the year but I also believe that the recent run up in the USD may have been too rapid. Assuming that the USD continues on a gradual upward trajectory I expect it to exert a negative influence on gold prices.

Gold appears to have lost its sensitivity to risk aversion. Indeed, gold’s relationship with risk has actually inverted over recent months, with a negative but significant relationship registered over the past 3 months between gold prices and my Risk Aversion Barometer. In other words as risk aversion goes up, gold prices actually drop.

The lack of reaction to higher risk aversion shows that the lustre of gold as a safe haven has faded as investors pull capital out of this as well as many other asset classes. However, gold’s drop is not unusual when compared to other commodity prices, with oil and copper prices falling too and gold maintaining a strong correlation with these commodities.

Some deterioration in sentiment towards gold prices has been reflected in the drop in speculative appetite for the commodity. Speculative demand for gold hit a cyclical high in August 2011 but since then there has been a steady reduction in appetite for gold from these investors. Indeed, CFTC IMM data reveals that speculative gold positioning dropped well below its three-month average. However, positioning is still well above its all time lows reached in February 2005, suggesting if anything, there is scope for more declines.

On top of the drop in speculative appetite for gold the technical picture has turned bearish. Since March 2009 at the height of the financial crisis the 100 day moving average price of gold had been trading above the 200 day moving average. On 27 March 2012 the 100 day moving average crossed below the 200 day moving average. Moreover, gold is now trading below both the 100 and 200 day moving average prices which sends a bearish technical message. Over the near term some key levels to look for are the 100 day moving average around 1658 on the topside and trendline support around the 1530 level on the bottom.

Another determinant of gold prices is demand from India and China. Growth in both countries is slowing, suggesting that gold demand is also weakening. While I certainly do not expect a collapse in demand from either country I have no doubt that compared to last year the strength of demand will be softer over coming months. Although I still look for a soft landing in China the Indian economic picture has clearly deteriorated while the Indian rupee has weakened. A weaker INR means that has become increasingly more expensive to import gold to India for domestic purchasers.

Overall, a weaker real demand picture taken together with reduced speculative appetite implies little support for gold prices. Moreover, a firmer USD in general will continue to weigh on prices. Perhaps a dose of inflation would help gold prices but there is little risk of this given the still sizeable amount of excess capacity in major economies.

Uncertainty about QE will help to limit any downside pressure on gold prices but elevated risk aversion will provide little assistance to gold. If however, the Eurozone and global picture deteriorates further gold will find itself with a lifeline but only if this means more currency debasement and a Fed engineered lower USD. If not, a further decline is on the cards and I forecast a drop in gold prices to around USD 1475 by the end of the year.

Central banks ready to act

Markets are in wait and see mode ahead of Greek elections with range trading likely to dominate market action, albeit with a slightly risk on bias. US data disappointed once again, with jobless claims coming in worse than expected, compounding the growing fears about deterioration in US job market conditions. Perversely the poor jobs data coming against the background of soft May CPI inflation data have fuelled expectations of Fed action at next week’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting.

It is not only the Fed that markets believe may act, with reports overnight suggesting that there may be some form of coordinated action by central banks should the Greek election outcome prove to be unfavourable. On this front, the news appears to be a little more encouraging as expectations that pro bailout parties will garner relatively more votes has grown as reflected in the 10% rally in Greek shares overnight.

If it takes weak economic data for markets to rally nowadays then there will be plenty available today, with declines expected for the May Empire manufacturing survey and June Michigan confidence, while industrial production is only likely to register a marginal gain in May. While the data may add more fuel to the fire, I suspect it will still be insufficient to result in more Fed balance sheet expansion.

European Central Bank (ECB) President Draghi is scheduled to speak today but I doubt he will suggest a move towards another LTRO or Securities Market Purchases. On the subject of central banks the Bank of Japan will announce its policy decision today but I expect no change in stance despite the fact that the 1% inflation goal remains a long way off. Currencies will remain in ranges but hopes of central bank action and a favourable outcome to the Greek elections will provide support for risk currencies and keep the USD under pressure.

Risk currencies flying high

The first month of 2012 passed rather more positively than anticipated and clearly was a good month for risky assets. Even the beleaguered EUR strengthened despite calls for an extended decline. Assets that were most heavily sold over 2011 were the biggest winners over January. Further signs of improvement in US economic data, receding fears of a China growth crash and even signs of tentative progress in the Eurozone debt crisis mean that sentiment may have finally turned a corner. This has been reinforced by the Fed’s commitment to maintain accommodative monetary policy until the end of 2014 and the ECB’s long term LTRO. I’m not entirely convinced but it wouldn’t pay to buck market optimism just yet.

Interestingly currency markets aren’t necessarily behaving as one would expect. In particular the JPY and CHF, both safe haven currencies, have not weakened despite an improvement in risk appetite. In contrast they have actually strengthened. Other currencies are behaving much as would be expected, especially high beta (risk sensitive) currencies, including AUD, NZD and many emerging market currencies, which have rebounded. Even the EUR has jumped past the 1.30 mark against the USD. Even the slow progress in agreeing on the magnitude of Greek writedowns has failed to dent confidence, with Eurozone peripheral bond yields dropping. Risk / high beta currencies are set to remain well supported over the short term.

Looking ahead the outcome of the US January jobs report at the end of the week as well as a final agreement on Greek debt will help determine whether the positive sentiment for risk assets will be maintained into next week. Meanwhile the USD looks as though it will remain under pressure especially given the continued downward pressure on US bond yields, which only continues to reinforce its role as a funding currency. This explains why both the JPY and CHF have stubbornly refused to weaken as narrowing US versus Japanese and Swiss bond yield differentials have kept these currencies under upward pressure. However, risks of FX intervention by both the Japanese and Swiss authorities suggests that upside may be limited.

Fed weighs on the dollar

The USD was already losing ground over the last couple of weeks against the background of firming risk appetite but the currency was dealt another blow from the Fed when it announced in the FOMC statement new guidance for monetary policy, stating that interest rates would remain “exceptionally low until at least late 2014” while keeping the door open to further quantitative easing. The statement helped to counter the pressure on the EUR from rising Portuguese bond yields, with EUR/USD breaking above 1.3100.

The prospect of prolonged low US interest rates means that the USD could remain a funding a currency for longer than anticipated. My forecasts of only a gradual appreciation of the USD over coming months take this into account to a large extent. I remain positive on the prospects for the USD against the EUR, JPY and CHF but predict further weakness against high beta commodity currencies and emerging market currencies over coming months. However, should US bond yields continue to remain suppressed even expectations of USD gains against the EUR, JPY and CHF may be dashed.

Although the Fed downgraded its growth expectations over coming quarters US data releases are looking more encouraging and in this respect the US is beginning to outperform other major economies. In contrast Europe’s growth outlook looks even gloomier while there is a long way to go before the problems in the region are resolved. Portugal has moved increasingly into the spotlight as markets increasingly anticipate some form of debt restructuring while in Greece debt talks have so far failed to reach any agreement on the extent of debt writedowns.

As the end of the week approaches risk is definitely on the front foot and the EUR has confounded many expectations by strengthening against all odds. I have highlighted the fact that the market was extremely short EUR over recent weeks as well as the EUR’s increasing resilience to bad news. I also noted that the Eurozone external position is still very healthy providing underling support for the currency. While I still look for the EUR to weaken over coming months expectations of a one way will not be fulfilled. EUR/USD will face strong resistance around 1.3201 (the 21 December high and 61.8% retracement from its 1.3553 high).

Super Failure By Supercommittee

The USD remains a clear beneficiary in the ‘risk off’ environment enveloping markets at present. Indeed as reflected in the latest jump in USD (IMM) speculative positioning the market is turning increasingly to the USD at a time of intense stress. Moreover, the run of better economic data over recent weeks including October existing home sales yesterday points to less need for further Fed quantitative easing, which comes as further relief to the USD.

Further information on this front will be revealed in the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes on Wednesday, with the Fed set to keep the option open. Even the lack of agreement by the US Congressional Supercommittee on a deal to cut the US budget deficit by $1.2 trillion has failed to dent the USD’s progress as the failure of deficit talks was largely expected. Further USD gains are likely but the pace of its upside move will slow.

Although sentiment towards the Eurozone has deteriorated further EUR/USD is just about clinging onto the 1.3500 level despite several forays lower. More active European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying likely helped dampen some bearishness on the currency although reports suggest that the central bank has imposed a limit of EUR 20 billion on such purchases.

The EUR is not being helped however, by ongoing rumblings of a EUR break up despite Greek Prime Minister Papademos attempting to downplay talk of a Greek EUR exit. A meeting today between Italian Prime Minister Monti and EU officials will be in focus, with markets looking to see further signs of commitment to reforms. We expect no let up in pressure on the EUR, though further declines are likely to be slower, with last week’s low around 1.3420 providing short term support.

GPB has been an underperformer, with the currency on the path for a re-test of the 6 October low around 1.5272. News this week will not be helpful for the currency, with potentially dovish Bank of England monetary policy committee (MPC) minutes likely to inflict further damage, with support from the MPC for more QE set to be revealed.

Ahead of the minutes, UK public finances data today will not make for attractive reading just over a week away from UK Chancellor Osborne’s Autumn statement, which will likely reveal a downward revision to growth forecasts and an upward revision to deficit forecasts. GBP has even lost ground against the beleaguered EUR although we continue to believe that the overall trend will continue to be lower for EUR/GBP over coming weeks.

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