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.

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Contrasting US and European data

While the week is likely to commence in a positive mood as political uncertainties in Greece and Italy ease somewhat, there are still plenty of uncertainties that could derail risk appetite. In particular, there has been little progress on agreeing on further details on leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. Moreover, many are looking to the European Central Bank (ECB) to take up the role as lender of the last resort. Indeed, the difficulty of the EFSF debt issue last week to garner demand puts the onus firmly on the ECB.

While it is likely that the ECB will have to step up its bond purchases especially given the heavy bond supply this week from Italy, France and Spain, the ECB is very reluctant to take up this mantle. As a result, peripheral and increasingly core bond market sentiment will remain fragile while the EUR will be vulnerable to a drop lower, especially given how rich it looks around current levels close to 1.38 versus USD. The week will likely be one of selling risk on rallies.

Data releases this week will show some contrasts between the US and Europe. US data will further dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing, with October retail sales and industrial production set to register gains and November manufacturing surveys likely to bounce. Several Federal Reserve speeches this week will shed more light on the FOMC’s stance and likely some support for purchases of mortgage backed securities will be reiterated.

In contrast eurozone data will show further deceleration. Industrial production in September is likely to have dropped sharply while the German ZEW investor confidence survey is set to have dropped further in November. Even an expected bounce in eurozone Q3 GDP will do little to stave off recession concerns given that growth in the final quarter of the year will have been much weaker. Banking sector develeraging will only add to growth concerns as credit expansion in curtailed.

In FX markets, the risk currencies will be vulnerable to selling pressure. EUR/USD has rebounded having tested highs around 1.3815 this morning but its gains look increasingly fragile. USD/JPY continues to grind lower, with no sign of further intervention from the Japanese authorities. Elevated risk aversion and the narrow US yield advantage continues to support the JPY making the job of weakening the currency harder. GBP has done well although it has lagged the EUR against the USD over recent days. A likely dovish stance in the Bank of England (BoE) quarterly inflation report will see GBP struggle to extend gains above 1.60 against the USD.

Ecofin, ECB, US jobs report in focus

The USD index remains close to its recent highs, maintaining a positive tone amid elevated risk aversion. Data releases have tended to take a back seat to events over recent weeks, but this week the all important US September jobs report may provide the bigger focus for US markets. The consensus expectation is for a 50k increase in payrolls and the unemployment rate remaining at 9.1% an outcome that would do nothing to assuage US growth worries. As usual markets will gauge clues to the jobs data from the ADP jobs data and employment components of the ISM data but an outcome in line with consensus expectations will likely keep risk aversion elevated and the USD supported unless the data is so bad that it results in an increase in expectations for Fed QE3.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers today especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop if no progress is made at today’s meeting. While the extent of short market positioning has left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering will diminish.

While attention in Europe will predominately remain on finding a resolution to the debt crisis and the saga of Greece’s next loan tranche, the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will also be in focus this week especially given expectations that the ECB will cut interest rates. While hopes of a 50 basis points rate cut may have taken a knock from the firmer than expected reading for September flash CPI released at the end of last week the EUR could actually react positively to an easing in policy given that it may at least help to allay some of the growing growth concerns about the eurozone economy. However, any EUR will be limited unless officials in the eurozone get their act together and deliver on expectations of some form of resolution to the crisis in the region.

Strong words from Japan’s Finance Minister Azumi failed to have any lasting impact on USD/JPY. Japan will bolster funds to intervene in currency markets by JPY 15 trillion and extend the monitoring of FX positions until the end of December. Japan did not intervene during September but spent around JPY 4.5 trillion in FX intervention in August to little effect. For markets to be convinced about Japan’s conviction to weaken the JPY it will require putting intervention funds to active use, something that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming at present. A factor that may give some potential upside momentum for USD/JPY is the slight widening of US versus Japan bond yield differentials over recent days, which could finally result in a sustained move above 77.00 if it continues into this week.

USD weaker, EUR resilient, JPY supported, CHF pressure

Why has the USD come under pressure even after Fed Chairman Bernanke failed to signal more QE? The answer is that Bernanke offered hope of more stimulus and gave a shot in the arm to risk trades even if QE3 was not on the cards. Consequently the USD has looked vulnerable at the turn of this week but we suspect that a likely batch of soft US data releases over coming days including the August jobs report at the end of the week, ISM manufacturing survey on Thursday and consumer confidence today, will erase some of the market’s optimism and leave the USD in better position. The FOMC minutes today may also give some further guidance to the USD as more details emerge on the potential tools the Fed has up its sleeve.

The EUR’s ability to retain a firm tone despite the intensification of bad news in the eurozone has been impressive. Uncertainty on various fronts in Germany including but not limited to concerns about the outcome of the German Bundestag vote on the revamped EFSF on September 30, German commitment to Greece’s bailout plan and German opposition party proposals for changes to bailout terms including the possibility of exiting the eurozone, have so far gone unnoticed by EUR/USD as it easily broke above 1.4500. EUR was given some support from news of a merger between Greece’s second and third largest banks. Likely weak economic data today in the form of August eurozone sentiment surveys may bring a dose of reality back to FX markets, however.

The lack of reaction of the JPY to the news that Japan’s former Finance Minister Noda won the DPJ leadership and will become the country’s new Prime Minister came as no surprise. The JPY has become somewhat used to Japan’s many political gyrations over recent years and while Noda is seen as somewhat of a fiscal hawk his victory is unlikely to have any implications for JPY policy. Instead the JPY‘s direction against both the USD and EUR continues to be driven by relative yield and in this respect the JPY is likely to remain firmly supported. Both US and European 2-year differentials versus Japan are at historic lows, with the US yield advantage close to disappearing completely. Until this picture changes USD/JPY is set to languish around current levels below 77.00.

EUR/CHF has rebounded smartly over recent weeks, the latest bounce following speculation of a fee on CHF cash balances, with the currency pair reaching a high of 1.1972 overnight. The pressure to weaken the CHF has become all the more acute following the much bigger than anticipated drop in the August KOF Swiss leading indicator last week and its implications for weaker Swiss growth ahead. The ‘risk on’ tone to markets following Bernanke’s speech has provided a helping hand to the Swiss authorities as safe haven demand for CHF lessens but given the likely weak slate of economic releases this week his speech may be soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the momentum remains for more EUR/CHF upside in the short term, at least until risk aversion rears its head again.

Japan FX Measures Underwhelm

Currencies continue to show remarkable stability in the face of elevated risk aversion which has prompted huge volatility in other asset markets. Although FX volatility has risen over recent weeks its rise is nothing compared to the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ equity volatility measure. FX markets are in some form of limbo where there are conflicting forces at play and where there is no obvious currency to play. The lack of clarity in markets suggests that this situation will not change quickly.

The USD (index) is trading at the lower end of its recent ranges and verging on a retest of its July 27 low around 73.421, with the currency perhaps suffering from expectations that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce a desire to embark on more quantitative easing at Friday’s Jackson Hole symposium. Its losses could quickly reverse as such expectations are quickly dashed.

Indeed, while Bernanke will likely keep all options open any hint at QE3 is unlikely as the Fed maintains a high hurdle before any prospect of further quantitative easing is entertained. One option on the table is ‘sterilised’ large scale asset purchases which would not result in an increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. This would be far less negative for the USD than a fresh round of QE and may even prompt a rally in the currency as markets shift away from the idea of QE3.

The USD will benefit from high risk aversion except against safe havens such as the CHF and JPY. In this respect the USD remains a better bet than the EUR which has failed to garner much benefit from renewed ECB peripheral bond buying. Nonetheless, data yesterday failed to feed into negative EUR sentiment despite mixed manufacturing surveys and a sharp drop in the German ZEW investor confidence survey. EUR/USD remains trapped in a broad 1.42-1.45 range.

News that Moody’s ratings agency has downgraded Japan’s sovereign ratings by one notch to Aa3 is unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. Moody’s left the outlook stable while unlike the US and Europe around 95% of Japanese debt is held domestically, suggesting little FX and JGB impact. USD/JPY continues to garner some influence from yield differentials and given that the US bond yield advantage versus Japan has continued to narrow, USD/JPY continues to face downward pressure.

Japan announced measures to deal with JPY strength including the creation of a $100 billion emergency credit facility. However, the main impact on the JPY could come from increased monitoring of FX transactions with firms having to report on FX positions held by dealers. The statement made no comment on FX intervention and this is where there will be most disappointment for JPY bears. Overall, the actions are somewhat underwhelming and are unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. If anything, the JPY may actually strengthen given the lack of comment on FX intervention. USD/JPY downside could face strong technical support around 75.93, however.

Swiss franc to remain strong

Given the uncertainties enveloping both the US and Europe safe haven and various emerging market currencies have looked increasingly attractive. Currencies that remain on top in the current environment are the CHF and to a lesser extent the JPY, much to the chagrin of the Swiss and Japanese authorities. Indeed, in reaction to unwanted CHF strength the Swiss central bank, SNB unexpectedly cut interest rates and said it will increase CHF liquidity to the money markets. The CHF fell in the wake of the announcement but the impact may prove short lived.

Both the JPY and CHF have registered a strong correlation with risk aversion over the last 3-months, strengthening as risk aversion has intensified. In particular, the CHF has been the best performing major currency this year and shows no sign of turning around despite the fact that it has already strengthened by around 21% against the USD and over 12% against the EUR. The Swiss National Bank had even ceased from intervening in the currency markets given the lack of success and pain on the SNB’s balance sheet.

The Japanese authorities last intervened in the FX market in March 2011 following the devastating earthquake in the country. However, despite the fact that the JPY has strengthened after a brief period of success, the authorities have been reluctant to intervene since. The major explanation for a lack of intervention is that the Japanese authorities blame the drop in USD/JPY on USD weakness rather than inherent JPY strength. A more accurate reason is that the yield differential between the US and Japan has narrowed, leading to JPY strength versus USD while more recently rising risk aversion has pushed the JPY higher.

I am bearish on both the CHF and JPY over the medium term but clearly any drop in these currencies is taking longer than initially anticipated. Higher relative yields taken together with some normalisation in risk appetite will help but the risks at present are still skewed for further CHF and JPY strength in the short term given that risk aversion remains elevated. The fact that peripheral bond spreads in Europe have continued to widen will only raise the attraction of the CHF as a safe haven currency so despite the SNB’s new measures, it may do little to prevent further strength in the currency.

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