Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

EUR to drift lower, AUD supported, JPY flatlines

EUR/USD has failed to retake the 1.2400 handle and as noted yesterday looks set to gradually make its way lower again. News that the German government lent its support to the European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying plan helped to limit losses overnight, but there is likely to be little news on the policy front over coming weeks as Europe moves into full blown summer holiday mode.

No news is perhaps good news, but market patience continues to run thin and the EUR will eventually be punished should policy makers fail to deliver which has been so often the case. With only German factory orders in terms of data releases of note today, EUR/USD is set to settle into a range, but with a downside bias.

The RBA meeting today is likely to prove relatively uneventful. Almost all analysts polled expect a no change outcome from the Reserve Bank. As this is the largely priced in, the main influence on AUD will be the accompanying statement. The market is overly aggressive in pricing in 75 basis points of policy rate cuts over the coming months and in this respect it will require a particularly dovish statement to validate these expectations.

More likely, the RBA will sound neutral reflecting on relatively firm data (except the June jobs report) releases since the last meeting and a better global environment. Combined with strong attraction to ‘carry’ trades and a firmer tone to risk appetite, AUD looks well supported, with technical support seen around 1.0437.

USD/JPY continues to flat line just above the 78.00 level ahead of this week’s Bank of Japan meeting. There is unlikely to be much excitement from the BoJ meeting but the pressure to take more aggressive steps to reach their 1% inflation goal as well as to weaken the JPY remains strong. The 78.00 level appears to be an uncomfortable equilibrium for markets and Japanese policymakers.

Although low implied FX volatility suggests that there is little expectation of a move in either direction Japanese officials continue to remain concerned about the strength of the JPY. Similarly, the US Treasury bond versus Japanese JGB yield differential (2 year) remains relatively steady, suggesting little directional impetus in the short term. Given hopes / expectations of more Fed quantitative easing it seems unlikely that USD/JPY will make much traction on the upside over coming weeks.

What would a Greek exit mean for the euro?

Excuse the lack of posts over recent days. I’m just finishing up a trip to London and am back in HK at the end of the week. I thought in the meantime it would be worth discussing the impact on the euro of a potential Greek exit.

The fact that European officials are openly talking about the prospects of a Greek exit from the Eurozone highlights just how drastic the situation has become. Much will depend on the outcome of new government in Greece in mid June following inconclusive elections recently. Even fresh elections in mid June does not mean that it will be any easier to form a government, leaving the option of a euro exit firmly on the table.

If Greece was to leave the Eurozone there would be a significant amount of confusion in FX markets. It is not obvious that the EUR would strengthen. It could be argued that the departure of Greece would eliminate the weakest link in the chain thus allowing the EUR some relief. Should Greece default on its debt and leave the Eurozone it would not have a marked direct impact on the Eurozone economy but the biggest risk is the financial contagion to other Eurozone countries.

A Greek exit would imply a new currency (Drachma) for the country, a separate monetary policy etc. However, any competitive gain from a weaker currency would be lost in a huge increase in inflation while the local corporate sector would be forced to default en mass on any EUR debt that they hold. Confidence in the new currency would be weaker leading to an exodus of capital further strengthening the EUR.

Admittedly the Eurozone would be stronger without Greece but it would not be long before market attention turned to Portugal and Ireland and even Spain as the next candidates for exit. Indeed, a Greek exit would set a precedent that did not exist previously. It would imply a significant increase in volatility for the EUR given the uncertainty it would create for other Eurozone members. Any rally in the EUR that would be experienced following a Greek exit would therefore be very short lived.

Ultimately for the EUR to experience a sustained strengthening it would require some sign that policy makers are addressing growth concerns as well as progress on austerity and deficit reduction. The formation of a common Eurobond, increased spending on investment projects to enhance productivity, reform of labour markets and a bolstering of the firewall around other peripheral countries would help confidence.

However, this is a long way off and the EUR is likely to suffer for some months to come as growth worries and peripheral country tensions persist. The downside risks to the EUR are clearly opening. The fact that the market is very short EUR already may limit the pace of decline but not stem it. There may be some stabilisaiton of the EUR towards year end assuming Eurozone officials get their act together.

However, in the interim the situation could become far more dire. If Greece were to exit, the prospects of further financial contagion would result in more and not less pressure on the EUR, leading to a potential drop to around the mid 2010 lows just below 1.20. Even if Eurozone political and debt tensions subside I still believe the EUR will decline based on an unfavourable growth and yield differential trajectory but it is clear that the downside risks are much greater even with short market positioning, should the situation deteriorate. In this event, even the strong bids from official investors (namely Asian central banks and sovereign wealth funds) will pull back and the EUR could plunge sharply.

Dollar still in a stupor

The increase in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) funding by $430 adds another layer of firepower to provide help to the Eurozone periphery should it be required. Nonetheless, many other worries continue to afflict markets suggesting that any positive boost will be short lived. There are plenty of data and events this week including central banks in the US, Japan and New Zealand. Additionally US corporate earnings will remain in focus while bond auctions in the Eurozone will also provide direction. I continue to see risk aversion creeping higher against this background.

It is unlikely that the FOMC meeting tomorrow and Wednesday will provoke any change in the currently low FX volatility environment given that policy settings will remain unchanged, with the majority of FOMC members likely to look for the first tightening at the earliest in 2014. The Fed is therefore unlikely to wake the USD out of its stupor and if anything a softening in durable goods orders, little change in new home sales and a pull back in consumer confidence will play in favour of USD bears over coming days. Even a relatively firm reading for Q1 GDP will be seen as backward looking given the slowing expected in Q2.

The EUR will have to contend with political events as it digests the aftermath of the first round of the French presidential elections. The fact that the political process will continue to a second round on 6 May could act as a constraint on the EUR. Various ‘flash’ purchasing managers indices (PMI) readings and economic sentiment gauges will offer some fundamental direction for the EUR but largely stable to softer readings suggest little excitement. Consequently EUR/USD will largely remain within its recent range although developments in Spain and Italy and their debt markets will have the potential to invoke larger moves in EUR.

The JPY is usually quite insensitive to Japanese data releases and this is unlikely to change this week. Key releases include March jobs data, CPI inflation, industrial production and retail trade. Although inflation has moved into barely positive territory the BoJ is still set to increase the size of its asset purchase programme. This will act as a negative factor for the JPY but unless US Treasury yield differentials renew their widening trend against Japanese JGB yields and drop in the JPY will be limited.

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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