Euro eyes ECB, Yen intervention risks rise

Following an onslaught of disappointing economic news globally the outcome of the US May ISM non-manufacturing index came as a relief, with the index rising to 53.7 from 53.5. Taken together with reports of a credit line to Spain from Europe’s bailout fund, it left markets in perkier mood overnight.

As per usual form, the emergency G7 conference call on the Eurozone turned out to be a non event while Fed speakers including Bullard and Fisher downplayed May’s soft jobs report. Much in terms of market direction today will hinge on the outcome of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and press conference, with positive sentiment likely to trickle through into trading until then.

The ECB will be under considerable pressure to cut interest rates today and a 25bps rate cut could be delivered. While the outcome is by no means clear cut and not pre-warned by the ECB a rate cut would at least help to alleviate a little of the pain in Europe. The fact that EUR/USD has a reasonably strong correlation with interest rate differentials over the past 3-months suggests that the EUR will actually come under pressure in the wake of such a move.

Even the reaction is not obvious, however. Arguably a rate cut could also be good news for the EUR as it would help to underpin growth. Moreover, a policy rate cut is largely priced in so the impact on the EUR will not be as potent as it could have been had it not been discounted. The accompanying statement will also be of interest. If the ECB indicates that it will cut rates further it will put even further more pressure on the EUR. Near term downside EUR/USD support is seen around 1.2375.

USD/JPY shows little sign of breaking its downtrend. A combination of further yield compression (2 year US bond yield advantage over Japanese yields continues to narrow) and elevated risk aversion has led to a firmer JPY much to the frustration of Japanese officials. Against this background it was perhaps unsurprising that Japanese finance minister Azumi pushed for the G7 to reaffirm its policy stance that excess volatility and disorderly FX movements are undesired. He faced no opposition in his request, paving the way for Japanese FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

The problem for Japan is that the impact of any intervention will be short lived against the factors mentioned above. Nonetheless, intervention fears will at least engineer a degree of two way risk into markets. Technical support for USD/JPY will be seen around 77.95.

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GBP rebounds, RBNZ warns about NZD strength

The Fed unsurprisingly left policy on hold while lowering projections for unemployment and raising forecasts for higher near term inflation. The economy is still expected to grow at a ‘moderate’ pace in coming quarters, with the majority of FOMC members anticipating the first tightening in 2014 or beyond. The one sop to markets was the fact that the Fed is prepared to do more in terms of policy enhancement if needed. This helped to buoy risk assets overnight leaving the USD on the back foot. Data releases are thin on the ground today leaving markets to consolidate gains in a relatively ‘risk on’ environment.

GBP came tumbling down from its highs following news that the UK economy entered a technical recession after GDP surprisingly contracted by 0.2% in Q1. However, the drop was short lived, with GBP/USD recovering from its losses, helped by a stellar reading for UK Nationwide consumer confidence in March. Notably however, Nationwide cautioned that the bounce in confidence could be short lived and we would be cautious of reading too much into the data. GBP gains against the EUR look as though they have reached its limit, and our models suggest that EUR/GBP is trading close to short term ‘fair value’.

There was no change in policy from the RBNZ as expected, with policy rates on hold at 2.5%. However, governor Bollard did attempt to talk the NZD lower while highlighting concerns about the global outlook. Concerns about kiwi strength will raise the spectre of FX intervention although it may also mean a delay in rate hikes. The statement was relatively more positive on the domestic outlook. Although rates are ‘appropriate’ according to the RBNZ we still think there is a good chance of a rate hike in Q3. The NZD ignored Bollard’s comments, firming on the back of improved risk appetite. We still see downside risks to the currency, especially as the current risk environment remains fragile.

EUR slips, Yen gains

There has been good and bad news in Europe, with leaders’ rubber stamping the permanent bailout mechanism (ESM) and 25 out of 27 EU countries agreeing on the fiscal discipline treaty. Finally, EU leaders agreed that it was not all about austerity, with growth orientated policies as yet undefined, also required.

The bad news is that there has still been no final agreement on Greek debt restructuring and in turn a second Greek aid package said to total around EUR 130 billion while Portugal is increasingly moving into focus as the next casualty. Unsurprisingly the EUR has lost steam so far this week but markets remain short and any downside looks limited at technical support around 1.3077.

A cautious tone will prevail today, with risk assets likely to remain under mild pressure. Developments in Greece and the Eurozone will continue to garner most attention although US data in the form of the January Chicago PMI manufacturing survey and consumer confidence data will also be in focus.

Both surveys will reveal further improvement in confidence as the US economy continues to show signs of gradual recovery. This was supported overnight by a relatively positive Federal Loan Officers survey which revealed an increase in demand for business loans at banks in Q4 2011. Although the USD has been somewhat restrained by a dovish Fed stance the risk off tone to markets will likely bode well for the currency over the short term.

JPY is benefiting from the risk off market tone despite comments by Japanese Finance Minister Azumi who warned about action being taken to combat JPY strength. The JPY has benefited from the Fed’s dovish tone last week which has weighed on US bond yields relative to Japan. While FX intervention risks have increased, officials will remain wary given the underlying upward pressure on the JPY. The near term risk is for USD/JPY to retest the 2011 low around 75.38.

Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

Greece throws a spanner in the works

Having already retraced around 50% of its losses from its high around 4 April to its low on 27 October the USD index is on a firm footing and looks set to extend gains. The USD is benefitting both from the EUR’s woes and receding expectations of more US quantitative easing in the wake of less negative US data releases.

Whether the USD is able to build on its gains will depend on the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting, accompanying statement and press conference today. While there have been some noises from Fed officials about the prospects of more QE, the Fed is likely to keep policy settings unchanged, leaving the USD on the front foot.

Greece has thrown a spanner in the works by calling a national referendum on the European deal. The fact that this referendum may not take place until January will bring about a prolonged period of uncertainty and further downside risks for the EUR against the USD and on the crosses. As a result of the increased uncertainty from the referendum, growing doubts about various aspects of last week’s agreement as well as hesitation from emerging market investors to buy into any European investment vehicle, peripheral bond spreads blew out further, and the EUR dropped.

The immediate focus will be on emergency talks today between European leaders in Cannes where Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has been summoned at a time when his grip on power appears to be slipping ahead of a government confidence vote on Friday. EUR/USD looks set to slip to support around 1.3525.

The Swiss National Bank’s floor under EUR/CHF has held up well since it was implemented in early September. How well it can be sustained going forward is questionable especially given that risk aversion is intensifying once again. A weaker than forecast reading for the Swiss October manufacturing PMI yesterday falling further below the 50 boom / bust reading to 46.9 highlights the growing economic risks and consequent pressure to prevent the CHF from strengthening further. However, now that Japan has shown its teeth in the form of FX intervention the CHF may find itself once again as the target of safe haven flows.

Technical indicators revealed that GBP was overbought and its correction lower was well overdue. However, GBP looks in better shape than the EUR even in the wake of some mixed UK data yesterday. On a positive note, UK Q3 GDP surprised on the upside in line with our expectations coming in at 0.5% QoQ. However, the forward looking PMI manufacturing index dropped more than expected in October, down to 47.4 suggesting that UK economic momentum is waning quickly.

EUR/GBP looks set to test its 12 September low around 0.8259 but GBP/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back against a resurgent USD. Overall, GBP’s resilience despite the implementation of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England has been impressive and I expect it to continue to benefit from its semi safe haven status

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