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.

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Eurozone contagion spreading quickly

Contagion from the eurozone debt crisis is spreading quickly, threatening to turn a regional crisis into a global crisis. As highlighted by Fitch ratings further contagion would pose a risk to US banks. Consequently risk assets continue to be sold but interestingly oil prices are climbing. Taken together with comments earlier in the day from the Bank of England that failure to resolve the crisis will lead to “significant adverse effects” on the global economy, it highlights the risks of both economic and financial contagion.

Predominately for some countries this is becoming a crisis of confidence and failure of officials to get to grips with the situation is resulting in an ever worsening spiral of negativity. Although Monti was sworn in as Italian Prime Minister and Papademos won a confidence motion in the Greek parliament the hard work begins now for both leaders in convincing markets of their reform credentials. Given that there is no agreement from eurozone officials forthcoming, sentiment is set to worsen further, with safe haven assets the main beneficiaries.

EUR/USD dropped sharply in yesterday’s session hitting a low around 1.3429. Attempts to rally were sold into, with sellers noted just below 1.3560. Even an intensification of bond purchases by the European Central Bank (ECB) failed to prevent eurozone bond yields moving higher and the EUR from falling.

Against this background and in the absence of key data releases EUR will find direction from the Spanish 10 year bond auction while a French BTAN auction will also be watched carefully given the recent increase in pressure on French bonds. Having broken below 1.3500, EUR/USD will aim for a test of the 10 October low around 1.3346 where some technical support can be expected.

US data releases have been coming in better than expected over recent weeks, acting to dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing and in turn helping to remove an impediment to USD appreciation. While the jury is still out on QE, the USD is enjoying some relief from receding expectations that the Fed will forced to purchase more assets. Further USD gains are likely, with data today including October housing starts and the November Philly Fed manufacturing confidence survey unlikely to derail the currency despite a likely drop in starts.

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.

Risk off mood

A ‘risk off’ tone is quickly permeating its way through the market psyche as tensions surrounding the eurozone periphery reach fever pitch. This is reflected in the sharp jump in equity volatility as indicated by the VIX ‘fear’ gauge. Equity markets and risk trades in general look set to remain under pressure in the current climate.

Moreover, the EUR which is finally succumbing to bad news about the periphery will continue to face pressure over the short-term. Against this background economic data will likely be relegated to the background this week but it worth noting that what data there is on tap, is likely to send a weaker message, with data such as durable goods orders in the US as well as various purchasing managers indices (PMI) data in the eurozone today likely to show some slippage.

The Greek saga remains at the forefront of market attention, with restructuring speculation remaining high despite various denials over the weekend by Greek and European Central Bank (ECB) officials. News that Norway has frozen payments to Greece, whilst Fitch ratings agency’s downgrades of Greece’s ratings by 3 notches and S&P’s downgrade of Italy’s ratings outlook to negative, have all contributed to the malaise afflicting the periphery.

This weekend’s local election in Spain in which Prime Minister Zapatero and his Socialist Party suffered its worst defeat in more than 30 years leading to a transfer of power in the Spanish regions, will lead to concerns about the ability of the government to carry out much needed legislative changes.

It is difficult to see any improvement in sentiment towards the peripheral Europe and consequently the EUR over the short-term. In Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou will attempt to push through further unpopular austerity measures through parliament this week in advance of a 5th bailout tranche of EUR 12 billion scheduled for next month. This comes at a time when opinion polls show the government losing more support and 80% of those surveyed saying they would not accept more austerity measures.

The deterioration in sentiment for the EUR has been rapid as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, with net long speculative positions now at their lowest since 15 February and heading further downhill. Conversely, USD short covering has been significant though there is still a hefty USD short overhang, which points to more USD short covering as EUR sentiment sours.

Nonetheless, the USD still has plenty of risks hanging over it including the fact that it still suffers from an adverse yield differential (note that 2-year Treasury yields have fallen to the lowest since 6 December 2010). Safe haven currencies in particular CHF are the key beneficiaries and notably EUR/CHF touched a record low around 1.2354 and is showing little sign of any rebound.

Euro’s Teflon Coating Wearing Thin

EUR has suffered a setback in the wake some disappointment from the European Union summit at the end of last week and the major defeat of German Chancellor Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in yesterday’s election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The EUR had been fairly resistant to negative news over recent weeks but its Teflon like coating may be starting to wear thin.

The setbacks noted above + others (see previous post) follow credit rating downgrades for Portugal by both S&P and Fitch ratings and growing speculation that the country is an imminent candidate for an EU bailout following the failure of the Portuguese government to pass its austerity measures last week and subsequent resignation of Portugal’s Prime Minister Socrates.

For its part Portugal has stated that it does not need a bailout but looming bond redemptions of around EUR 9 billion on April 15 and June 15 against the background of record high funding costs mean that the pressure for a rescue is intense. Complicating matters is the fact that fresh elections cannot be held earlier than 55 days after being announced, meaning that policy will effectively be in limbo until then. A June vote now appears likely.

After what was perceived to be a positive result of the informal EU leaders summit a couple of weeks ago, the outcome of the final summit last week failed to deliver much anticipated further details whilst more negatively the EU bailout fund’s paid-in capital was scaled back to EUR 16 billion (versus EUR 40 billion agreed on March 21) due to concerns expressed by Germany.

Ireland is also in focus ahead of European bank stress tests results on March 31. Ireland is pushing for increased sharing of bank losses with senior bondholders as part of a “final solution” for financial sector. Meanwhile the new government remains unwilling to increase the country’s relatively low corporation tax in exchange for a renegotiation of terms for the country’s bailout. This point of friction also threatens to undermine the EUR.

The bottom line is that the bad news is building up and the ability of the EUR to shake it off is lessening. Considering the fact that the market long EUR, with positioning well above the three-month average the EUR is vulnerable to position adjustment. After slipping over recent days EUR/USD looks supported above 1.3980 but its upside is looking increasingly restricted against the background of various pieces of bad news.

Euro resilient but for how long?

The resilience of the EUR to bad news has been impressive but is unlikely to persist. The recent negatives include 1) the rejection of the Portuguese government’s austerity plan and the increased likelihood of a bailout, 2) a likely delay in the decision on increasing the size and scope of the EFSF EU bailout fund, 3) a drop in Eurozone purchasing managers indices in March, 4) downgrades to Portugal’ sovereign credit ratings by Fitch last night and S&P and 5) Moodys downgrades of 30 Spanish banks. Despite all of this, and after hitting a low of around EUR/USD 1.4054, EUR has bounced back close to the 1.4200 level.

Further direction will come from the outcome of the EU leaders’ summit today and the March German IFO business confidence survey. For the former there is unlikely to be a decisive result, with the optimism following the informal March 11 leaders’ summit likely to give way to delay due to wrangling over details. For the latter, a slight moderation in the IFO is expected following February’s upside surprise. However, there is a bigger risk of a downside surprise following the softer than forecast March German manufacturing PMI released. Against this background, EUR/USD is likely to struggle to break resistance around 1.249.

In general FX markets look somewhat more stable and even the pressure on the USD appears to have abated slightly despite a much weaker than expected outcome for US February durable goods orders yesterday, which revealed a drop in both headline and ex-transportation orders. My composite FX volatility measure has dropped sharply over recent days, led by short term implied JPY volatility which has dropped close to pre-crisis levels. Lower volatility has also likely reduced the prospects of further FX intervention although USD/JPY 80 will continue to be well defended.

Lower volatility as also reflected in the sharp drop in the VIX index has corresponded with a general easing in risk aversion as both Middle East and Japan tensions have eased slightly. US data today are unlikely to offer much direction, with a slight upward revision to US Q4 GDP and an unchanged outcome for the final reading of Michigan consumer confidence expected.

Risk on mood prevails

The end of the year looks as though it will finish in a firmly risk on mood. Equity volatility in the form of the VIX index at its lowest since July 2007. FX volatility remains relatively low. A lack of market participants and thinning volumes may explain this but perhaps after a tumultuous year, there is a certain degree of lethargy into year end.

Whether 2011 kicks off in similar mood is debatable given the many and varied worries remaining unresolved, not the least of which is the peripheral sovereign debt concerns in the eurozone. It is no surprise that the one currency still under pressure is the EUR and even talk that China offered to buy Portuguese sovereign bonds has done little to arrest its decline.

Reports of officials bids may give some support to EUR/USD just below 1.31 but the various downgrades to ratings and outlooks from ratings agencies over the past week has soured sentiment for the currency. The latest move came from Fitch ratings agency which placed Greece’s major banks on negative ratings watch following the move to place the country’s ratings on review for a possible downgrade.

The USD proved resilient to weaker than forecast data including a smaller than forecast 5.6% gain in existing home sales in November. The FHFA house price index recorded a surprise gain of 0.7% in October, which mitigated some of the damage. The revised estimate of US Q3 GDP revealed a smaller than expected revision higher to 2.6% QoQ annualized from a previous reading of 2.5%. Moreover, the core PCE was very soft at 0.5% QoQ, supporting the view that the Fed has plenty of room to keep policy very accommodative.

Despite the soft core PCE reading Philadelphia Fed President Plosser who will vote on the FOMC next year indicated that if the economy continues to strengthen he will look for the Fed to cut back on completing the $600 billion quantitative easing (QE) program. Although the tax deal passed by Congress will likely reduce the need for QE3, persistently high unemployment and soft core inflation will likely see the full $600 billion program completed. Today marks the heaviest day for US data this week, with attention turning to November durable goods orders, personal income and spending, jobless claims, final reading of Michigan confidence and November new home sales.

Overall the busy US data slate will likely maintain an encouraging pattern, with healthy gains in income and spending, a rebound in new home sales and the final reading of Michigan confidence likely to hold its gains in December. Meanwhile jobless claims are forecast to match the 420k reading last week, which should see the 4-week average around the 425k mark. This will be around the lowest since August 2008, signifying ongoing improvement in payrolls. The data should maintain the upward pressure on US bond yields, which in turn will keep the USD supported.

Please note that this will be the last post on Econometer.org this year. Seasons greatings and best wishes for the new year to all Econometer readers.

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