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.

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Euro still looks uglier than the dollar

Currency markets continue to vacillate between US debt ceiling concerns and eurozone peripheral debt worries. Despite a lack of agreement to raise the debt ceiling, with House Republicans failing to back a proposal by House speak Boehner, the USD actually strengthened towards the end of the week as eurozone peripheral issues shifted back into focus.

The resilience of the USD to the lack of progress in raising the debt ceiling is impressive and reveals that the EUR looks even uglier than the USD, in many investors’ eyes.

Much in terms of direction for the week ahead will depend on the magnitude of any increase in the debt ceiling and accompanying budget deficit reduction measures. Assuming that a deal is reached ahead of the August 2 deadline it is not obvious that the USD and risk currencies will enjoy a rally unless the debt ceiling deal is a solid and significant one.

Given the limited market follow through following the recent deal to provide Greece with a second bailout, the EUR remains wholly unable to capitalise on the USD’s woes.

A reminder that all is not rosy was the fact that Moody’s ratings agency placed Spain’s credit ratings on review for possible downgrade while reports that the Spanish parliament will be dissolved on September 26 for early elections on November 20 will hardly help sentiment for the EUR. Compounding the Spanish news doubts that the EFSF bailout fund will be ready to lend to Greece by the next tranche deadline in mid-September and whether Spain and Italy will participate, have grown.

Some key data releases and events will also likely to garner FX market attention, with attention likely to revert to central bank decisions including the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Reserve Bank of Australia and US July jobs report. None of the central banks are likely to shift policy rates, however.

The risk for the USD this week is not only that there is disappointing result to the debt ceiling discussions, but also that there is a weak outcome to the US July jobs report. An increase of around 100k in payrolls, with the unemployment rate remaining at 9.2%, will fixate market attention on weak growth and if this increases expectations for a fresh round of Fed asset purchases the USD could be left rather vulnerable.

The RBA is highly unlikely to raise interest rates but the tone of the accompanying statement is unlikely to be dovish. The RBA noted the strong emphasis on the Q2 CPI inflation data and in the event it came in higher than expected, a fact that supports my expectation that the Bank will hike policy rates at least once more by the end of this year.

Markets have largely priced out expectations of a rate cut but there is still scope for a more hawkish shift in Australian interest rate markets, which will give the AUD a boost. However, AUD remains vulnerable to developments in the US and Europe as well as overall risk aversion, and a preferable way to play a positive AUD view in the current environment is via the NZD.

Position Unwinding Boosts USD

The USD’s multi-month fall has come to an abrupt halt, with the currency registering gains in reaction to what appears to be a major position unwinding across asset markets, led by a drop in commodity prices.

Will it continue? Whilst I am amongst the more bullish forecasters on the USD over the medium term, the current rally could prove to be short-lived in the absence of a shift in Federal Reserve rhetoric or end to quantitative easing (QE2). Nonetheless, the market had got itself very short USDs (as reflected in the CFTC IMM data as of early last week which showed an increase in net short positions) and the rally in the USD last week was likely spurred by major short-covering which could extend further into this week.

The move in the USD gained momentum as European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet proved to be less hawkish than many expected in the press conference following last Thursday’s ECB meeting. Moreover, renewed worries about Greece at the end of last week, with a report in the German Der Spiegel, later denied by Greek officials, that the country was planning to leave the Eurozone dented the EUR,

Taken together with the improving trend in US April non-farm payrolls (April registered +244k increase, with private payrolls 268k), these factors colluded to provide further positive stimulus to the USD and negative fallout on the EUR. The room for EUR downside is evident in the net long EUR speculative position, which rose to its highest since December 2007 as of 3rd May.

This week’s batch of US releases including March trade data, April retail sales and CPI, are unlikely to result in a reversal in last week’s trend though a trend like reading for core CPI, with the annual rate below the Fed’s comfort zone will reinforce expectations of dovish Fed policy being maintained, which could inject a dose of caution into the USD’s rally.

Against the background of a likely widening in the US trade deficit in March there will plenty of attention on the annual strategic and economic dialogue beginning today, with markets interested in discussions on Chinese worries about the gaping US fiscal deficit and US concerns about China’s exchange rate policy.

Greece’s denial of plans to leave the eurozone and discussions over a further adjustment to Greece’s bail out package, may help limit any drop in the EUR this week though it will by no means mark the end of such speculation about the periphery especially with this weeks’ Q1 GDP data releases across the eurozone likely to further highlight the divergence between the core and the periphery even if the headline eurozone reading rebounds strongly as we expect.

In the UK the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report will be the main influence on GBP. Downward growth revisions will play into the view that inflation will eventually moderate, capping expectation of higher interest rates over the coming months. However, the likely upward revision to near term inflation forecasts will help limit any damage to GBP.

GBP has lost ground to the USD but it should be noted that it has outperformed the EUR over recent days, reversing some of the recent run up in EUR/GBP. Given that EUR sentiment is likely to remain fragile this week, GBP may continue to capitalise, with a test of EUR/GBP 0.8672 on the cards.

Egypt Unrest Hits Risk Trades

Recent weeks have seen a real contrast in policy and growth across various economies. A case in point was the surprise drop in UK GDP in Q4 contrasting sharply with the solid (albeit less than forecast) rise in US Q4 2010 GDP. The resilience of the US consumer was particularly evident in the data. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) hawkish slant as reflected in comments from President Trichet compared to the dovish pitch of the Fed FOMC is another clear contrast for markets to ponder.

The ECB’s hawkish tone gave the EUR a lift but expectations of an early Eurozone rate hike looks premature. Although Eurozone inflation data (Monday) will reveal a further rise in CPI above the ECB’s target, to around 2.4% in January, this will not equate to a policy rate hike anytime soon. This message is likely to be echoed at this week’s ECB meeting where policy will be characterised as “appropriate”.

Whilst monetary tightening expectations look overdone in the Eurozone the same can be said for hopes of an expansion in the EU bailout fund (EFSF). Indeed, the fact that EU Commissioner Rehn appeared to pour cold water over an expansion in the size of the fund could hit the EUR and the currency may find itself struggling to extend gains over coming weeks especially if interest rate expectations return to reality too, with a move to EUR/USD 1.4000 looking far harder to achieve than it did only a few days ago.

It’s worth noting that a renewed widening in peripheral debt spreads will also send an ominous signal for the EUR. Against this background the EU Council meeting on February 4 will be in focus but any expectation of a unified policy resolution will be disappointed.

However, markets perhaps should not solely focus on peripheral Europe as the downgrading of Japan’s credit ratings last week highlights. Warnings about US credit ratings also demonstrate that the US authorities will need to get their act together to find a solution to reversing the unsustainable path of the US fiscal deficit, something that was not particularly apparent in last week’s State of the Union Address.

Last week ended with a risk off tone filtering through markets as unrest in Egypt provoked a sell-off in risk assets whilst worries about oil supplies saw oil prices spike. Gold surged on safe haven demand too. This week, markets will focus on events in the Middle East but there will be thinner trading conditions as Chinese New Year holidays result in a shortened trading week in various countries in Asia.

The main release of the week is the US January jobs report at the end of the week. Regional job market indicators and the trend in jobless claims point to a 160k gain in January although the unemployment rate will likely edge higher. Final clues to the payrolls outcome will be deemed from the ISM manufacturing confidence survey and ADP private sector jobs report this week. Whilst the January jobs report is unlikely to alter expectations for Fed policy (given the elevated unemployment rate) the USD may continue to benefit from rising risk aversion.

Greek bailout edges closer

A semblance of calm appears to have returned into the weekend following a fit of nervousness about all things Greece.  For currency markets this means that the EUR has recovered some composure after hitting 2010 lows around 1.3115 but direction next week will largely depend on the much anticipated announcement from European officials over coming days on the size and conditionality of a loan package to the country.   In return Greece is reported to be planning a EUR 24 billion package of additional measures to cut its burgeoning fiscal deficit.

Over recent days the consensus on how much funding Greece will need has increased to EUR 120 billion from the initial EUR 45 billion announced just over a couple of weeks ago.   Presumably the jump in size of assistance will be sufficient to convince markets that Greece’s default risk will be minimal, not just in the coming year but over the next few years.   It may also help to prevent further credit ratings downgrades following the decision by S&P ratings agency to downgrade Greece to junk status.  Moody’s left Greece on review for a downgrade but may also cut its ratings to junk if the situation does not improve. 

There are still many obstacles to an improvement in confidence towards Greece, however including the willingness of Germany to contribute to any aid package ahead of regional elections on May 9th and the ability of the Greek government to push through austerity measures in the face of growing social unrest in the country.   Moreover, the task ahead for Greece which aims at cutting the budget deficit down to 2% by 2013 is enormous having never been achieved in modern history.  Given the outlook for much weaker growth in the months and years ahead as well as growing domestic resistance in Greece, it will be all the more difficult. 

The likely announcement of an aid package over coming days will keep market sentiment relatively well supported and as reflected in the narrowing in Greek debt spreads, which seem to be trading more like equities, it is already having a positive impact.  Nonetheless, the bounce to markets will be limited and whilst a EUR 100-120 billion package will help to shore up confidence, there is just too much uncertainty remaining.  This points to continued volatility in the weeks ahead and very limited upside for EUR/USD and more likely a test of technical support around 1.3091 in the short-term then down to 1.2885.

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