Tough Times for the US Dollar

The US dollar had an awful July, with the USD index dropping by around 5% over the month, its worst monthly performance in 10 years. A range of factors can be cited for USD weakness including an asset allocation shift to assets outside of the US, worsening news on US Covid cases over recent weeks, improved risk appetite, US election concerns, lower real yields and fiscal cliff worries, among other factors.  Gold has been a particularly strong beneficiary of the malaise in the USD and declining real yield yields.  The Fed’s pledge to keep on aggressively supporting the economy and likely strengthening of forward guidance in the months ahead suggest that any increase in US interest rates could be years off.

It is still difficult to see the recent weakness in the USD resulting in a deterioration in its dominant reserve currency status though the longer the factors noted above remain in place, the bigger the danger to longer term confidence in the USD. As a reminder of such risks Fitch ratings downgraded US AAA credit rating to a negative outlook.  I do not expect markets and the USD to be impacted by the move, but it does highlight a worsening in US fundamentals.  While other currencies are still a long away from displacing the USD dominance in FX reserves, financial flows, FX trading and trade, the longer term risks to the USD are clear.

That said, the USD caught a bid at the end of last week resulting in a sharp retreat in the euro (EUR) from heavily overbought technical levels.  It is unlikely to be a coincide that this occurred as US Covid cases showed signs of peaking while cases in many parts of Europe began to accelerate, resulting in delays to opening up or renewed tightening of social distancing measures there.  US stocks have also continued to perform well, despite much discussion of a rotation to value stocks.  Solid earnings from US tech heavyweights solidified their position as leaders of the pack.  It is too early to say that this is the beginning of a USD turnaround, but the currency is heavily oversold in terms of positioning and technicals, which point to room for some respite.

Turning to the week ahead attention will be on July global Purchasing Managers Indices (PMI) data beginning with China’s private sector Caixin PMI (consensus 51.1), and the US ISM survey (consensus 53.6) tomorrow.  Central bank decisions include the Reserve Bank of Australia (Tue), Bank of England (Thu), Reserve Bank of India (Thu) and Bank of Thailand (Wed).  No change is likely from the RBA, BoE and BoT, but expect a 25bp cut from RBI.  At the end of the week two pieces of data will take precedence; US July jobs data and China July trade data.  US-China tensions will come under further scrutiny after President Trump vowed to ban TikTok in the US while pouring cold water on a sale to a third party.

 

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.

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.

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